Grace Presbyterian Church
November 15, 2020, Pentecost 24A (recorded)
Who Do We Serve?
We read the beginning of this letter, back in October; it’s only fitting, I suppose, that we take in the end of this, possibly the first of Paul’s letters to the churches under his care, as well.
What we have here in these final verses of chapter 5 is a pretty fair summary of what would become typical for the apostle in concluding his letters to the churches. First we have what might seem a rather random “laundry list” of exhortations to the community; in some later letters these exhortations might become even more compact and broad-ranging. Here the “laundry list” extends from verse 12 all the way through verse 22, and while the initial exhortation about respecting “those who labor among you” is somewhat elaborated, by the time we get to verse 14 Paul really gets rolling.
This “laundry list” is followed by a blessing, a very typical part of Paul’s closing formula. (The blessing I usually invoke at the end of the service is taken from Paul’s blessing at the end of the second letter to Corinth: see 2 Corinthians 13:13.) The letter wraps up with a couple more instructions and a fairly typical closing statement, also applicable as a blessing. The one part of this formula that is a little unusual is the strong instruction of verse 27: “I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.” This would evolve as typical practice in the churches to which Paul wrote, and it may be that at this early stage Paul felt the need to clarify that this letter was for the whole church, not just those leaders laboring among them mentioned above.
So for all that, what’s the point of such a closing?
We can certainly acknowledge the practical aspect of such a list; it’s time to wrap up the letter (some of you remember writing letters, right?), but there are a few last things you need to say quickly before signing. Some of this is certainly at play.
We can also suspect that such reminders are tied to the things Paul instructed the Thessalonians when he was with them in person. Remember, these are still new followers of Christ. As noted in an earlier sermon, most of the Thessalonians apparently came from a Gentile background and did not have the grounding in the Jewish tradition from which Jesus (or Paul for that matter) came. Some basic review was going to be necessary for a while.
There is, though, a more significant function to all of these seemingly varied instructions, and it has to do with how the church at Thessalonica, or any church for that matter, bears witness, and by extension serves the God we claim to serve.
Small as the behaviors listed here may seem, they are visible signs of what the community is about. When the community respects those who lead it, lives at peace with one another, admonishes the “idlers” (not a great translation; probably better rendered as “disorderly” or “disruptive” ones), encourages the faint-hearted and weak, rejoices regularly, gives thanks constantly, and prays always; when the community never quenches the Spirit but always tests everything; when it keeps itself away from evil; these things are not only beneficial to the community itself, but also bear witness to those in the larger city or state or empire as to what kind of people are found here.
And perhaps even more on point, these small things bear witness to the One whom such a community ultimately serves by serving one another. These aren’t “normal” behaviors. To see them practiced with anything approaching consistency and faithfulness will inevitably catch the attention of those around. It is a form of bearing witness to live together in these ways, one that defies the logic of the empire that reigns around any church community, in which the powerful rule and the disposable are disposed of. In the body of Christ no one is disposed of, though some may choose to turn away.
Now please hear what I am not saying. These are not behaviors or “tricks” to “grow your church.” There may be some who are attracted to the fellowship by seeing such community in action, but that is not the point of such counsel as Paul gives here. Paul would likely be quite befuddled by the church growth strategists of today; even Grace Presbyterian, small as it is, is probably larger than some of the church communities Paul worked with, and he largely didn’t concern himself with how large or how small they were. Their faithfulness, their compassion and service to one another and to the Lord were paramount, and anything that interfered with those things was to be put aside.
If there is such a thing as a gift for discerning the future, God didn’t give it to me. I have no idea what Grace will look like on the other side of this pandemic. Already some of our members are discovering that their lives need to change; one has already decided to move away to live with a family member for health reasons, and others may do so as well. On the other hand, someone who came upon this church in this time of streaming and pre-recorded services may decide to give us a live look when it becomes non-hazardous to get together in worship again. We don’t know. God makes no promises about getting bigger.
God makes promises about being faithful, such as those Paul invokes in his blessing: to sanctify us, and to keep us “sound and blameless” against that day when we are, at long last, reunited with our Lord Jesus, whatever way that happens.
That’s harder than ever to feel, particularly in this time of distancing and mask-wearing. It’s so tempting to feel cut off and isolated, confined and maybe more than a little stir-crazy. Yet we are not abandoned; we are still under the care of the Lord who first called us into this life, and will not abandon us whether we live or die, as was talked about in chapter 4. We hold fast, we continue to care for one another, we admonish those who try to break up this communion, we both respect those who lead and teach and test what they say against the witness of Christ. All of these things and more are not only part of serving one another, they are part of serving our God and bearing witness to that God who loves us and saves us.
It’s not always easy, and there’s no guarantee we’ll see big obvious tangible results from it. But it is part of being the body of Christ, and yes, it is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #667, When Morning Gilds the Skies; #548, May God Support You All Your Days (Psalm 20)