Sunday 1 October 2023

Sermon on the love of St Paul - 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13

 "But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.

So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent
Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labours might have been in vain.

But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones."

Good Morning everyone,

When it comes to preach a sermon on a passage like this, I feel there is a special challenge, ironically because it is already so straightforward. If you have a passage with some complex theological ideas, or obscure language, or complicated parable, then that is challenging in a way, but it can give you something to get into, to take apart and explain. 

I don't think that's the case here, you don't need me to start talking about the original Greek and the subtle nuances of words. Sometimes things really are as simple as they appear. But still, I will try to add something of value, since in its simplicity, this passage reflects the heart of the Gospel, the simple virtues that give life to everything else. 

Sometimes people get the impression that Paul was a cold, theological figure; well not here. More than anything this passage spills over with his warm, affectionate love and concern for the Thessalonians. He writes like a proud parent, sometimes afraid for his spiritual children out on their own in the world, in other lines bursting with pride and happiness when he finds out they are well and persevering in their faith. 

In the previous chapter, Paul describes himself as a nursing mother caring for his children, a tender, intimate, feminine picture; reflecting our Lord Jesus himself, who described himself as a mother hen, eager to gather her chicks under her wings, if only they would let her.

Paul fusses, he fusses, as every parent has done at one time or another, especially when their children are far off. In the end, he fusses so badly he has to send Timothy to check that the Thessalonians are alright, and when Timothy returns with good news, Paul cannot contain himself, and so he has to write back to them, this very letter we are working through, to tell them how pleased he is, to encourage them further, to make sure they know of his longing to be with them, to share their troubles, to give them the benefit of his experience. 

But there are too many cities, and to each of them Paul wants to bring the good news of Jesus Christ. He's like a parent with children scattered all over the country and the world: does he go to Corinth to see a son, or to Philippi to catch up with a daughter, or to Galatia to spend time with the grandchildren, spiritually speaking. At at all the time he wants to carry on his ministry, spreading the good seed of the gospel in new ground. 

Paul wants to be honest with his spiritual children, he paints no dishonestly rosy pictures, but bears straight with them about the persecution and opposition he himself suffers, and they will suffer because they have turned from their formerly pagan or Jewish beliefs to cling to Christ. Paul knows that suffering; like Jesus, and the other Apostles, Paul doesn't know how to lead except from the front. He makes himself the most obvious and noisy target, and has suffered abuse, threats, imprisonment, beatings, and he counts it a price well paid, to bring people the good news of our Lord Jesus. 

Paul continues to work for his own living as well, in between preaching, teaching, travelling and suffering these persecutions. He does this to avoid being a burden on those communities he stays with, so also nobody can accuse him of preaching the Lord Jesus because he gets a living from it, so also that he is not dependant on anyone but is free to preach as his conscience and God directs him. But in other places in his letters he makes clear that he would be within his rights to ask for his food and lodging in return for his teaching. 

I believe he does this because he doesn't want to limit the ministry only to those able to carry on another job, if people are going to consistently dedicate themselves to preaching and pastoral care, then they deserve a living the same as anyone else. But I believe he makes this clear because he doesn't want people to get the impression what he's teaching and preaching about is worthless. The Good News of our Lord Jesus is supremely valuable, worth far more than food and board; worth more than everything we own. At times it calls on our time, at times our money, at times our very lives; Paul knows this, and he doesn't want anyone to think differently.

We often think of Paul as a theological figure, rather than a pastoral one, and that is in part because we often concentrate on the jewels of theology that Paul's letters contain. Remarkable passage in letters like Romans, Corinthians, Phillipians that are foundational to two thousand years or Christian thought and philosophy that have defined the Western World in so many ways, all based on grappling with the astonishing figure of Jesus, who changed Paul's life, and has changed my life, and countless other people today and in every century since. 

But when I sat down and read Paul's letters, not in fragments, but all the way through, like you would a book, one whole letter then another, then it struck me was just how pastoral they are, all of them. The theology is woven all the way through, but it is always immediately, intimately entwined with the pastoral; the most profound theological insights are always intensely practical, driving decision and action in the here and now.

And this is something you see so consistently across the earliest Christian writings. In the Gospels, Jesus reveals to us the nature of God, and the Kingdom of God, the meaning and purpose of life and how we must live it, and all these mind-blowing things through stories about the simplest of things: the sowing of seed, a wedding feast, a shepherd with his sheep, a woman who loses a coin, a merchant who sees a pearl, the most everyday and ordinary things caught up in the holiest of heights.

And that is as it should be. Sometimes in the modern world we can divide theology from everyday life, like there's these abstract logical puzzles about the nature of God, or whatever, the realm of theologians in ivory towers at universities; and then completely separate there's the problems and troubles of ordinary life. No. No. When I think of New Testament, I think of a book of profoundly practical wisdom; when I think of Paul, I think of a man who was never afraid to get his hands dirty, whose most profound theological reflections were attempts to answer the immediate, pastoral questions of the spiritual brothers and sisters he so dearly loved. 

One of Paul's most famous passages is 1 Corinthians 13 where in beautiful, lyrical words he explains the nature of love. It ends with the famous words, "And now abides faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." But these three virtues are not just mentioned in that famous passage from Corinthians, but together in Thessalonians, at the start in chapter 1, and then again at the end in Chapter 5, and they mentioned, albeit spread around, in this passage too. 

Clearly to Paul these were the defining, important virtues. But while in 1 Corinthians 13 he defines love in poetic but abstract terms, here he shows what faith, hope and love means in his intense concern for the Thessalonians, his hope they will have remained devoted to the teaching he brought them, his faith in the face of troubles and persecution. Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 13 that these are the lifeblood of the gospel: "for God so loved the world that he sent his only son", and the Son, Jesus Christ, showed that love for us, he wept for us, he died for us, he longed to gather us in as a mother hen gathers her chicks, and now we must show that love to one another.

These virtues are simple, they are practical: we all know what faith, hope and love looks like, we live it everyday, for our children and families and friends, for our country, for our community, for ourselves. Paul is saying, let Christ inspire us and empower us to do these things even more. Let Christ's love fill us up to bursting, so we overflow with love for God and other people even more. Let the knowledge of what God has done for us, and faith in what God is doing with us, and hope for what God will do with us; let it burn away our remaining bitterness and suspicion and fear.

Let us gush with affection for one another, as Paul gushed over the Thessalonians. Let us consider every unhappiness in this church to be our own, let it niggle and annoy us to know that anyone here has a need, or a concern, or a fear, that goes unanswered. Of course, our love and concern should not be limited to people within these walls. Charity begins at home, or in this case, within our own church, but that should merely be the first step that radiates out and out until it rebuilds and recreates a better world for all. But to misquote the first letter of St John, if you cannot love your own family, or your own community who you see all the time, then how can you love the vast world beyond, who you rarely ever see? We can never do everything, but we can all do something, each time the opportunity appears.

Maybe you struggle to feel that love and concern for the people around you. After all, Paul wasn't British, he wasn't raised with the stiff-upper lip. Well, good news, because love isn't just a feeling, neither is faith, or hope. In fact, that is one of the great and important insights of Christianity. Love isn't a feeling, it's a doing. The same goes for faith and hope as well. Show love to the people around you, meditate on how much God loves them: because whoever they are and whatever they do, they're his precious children; and the feeling will eventually come, as far as the English are capable anyway. The same goes for faith. It doesn't mean believing without any doubts, it means placing our trust in Jesus, it means being faithful to Jesus, following his commands despite doubts and uncertainties that bombard us. And that is something we can all do in ways large and small. Hope too, comes in making the choice to take risks; risks in trusting in a person, in an idea, in greater communication and openness; taking a risk that things can be done, that things can be done better, that things can get better. The feelings follow eventually.

In so much of the external world and society, love is limited and conditional, available if we are useful or beautiful or charming. Well, let us reject all that. Let us love one another without borders or limits because God loves us, infinitely, eternally, without pausing or ceasing; and we trust that he sees truly and clearly where our vision in confused and dim. Let us discover what Paul discovered, that God pours out his love into us every day, the same for the greatest and the least. So let it fill us up, let it flow over onto other people, whoever they are. Let it make us soft and sentimental, but never stationary or static. Rather, like Paul, let it be the fuel powering our engine, to love with more passion, to serve with more dedication, and so to build the Kingdom of God on Earth, that alone endures beyond the changes of life and death, because it is built on God himself.



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