It was just after Easter when I said that we were going to spend some time taking a look at the oldest part of our New Testament: Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica. We have spent two months walking through this little note that was penned in the middle of the first century, and we have seen some great spiritual truths:
– our faith in the risen Savior enables us to stand firm in times of trouble or persecution
– God’s call to us is rooted in unconditional, reconciling love
– It is vitally important for each of us to have true friends to invest in as we share this journey of life
– Every one of us exists in the community of body, mind, and spirit, and we are called to live this life centered in gratitude
– Jesus has promised to come back, and because we know that, we can know that the world has a purpose and history is moving towards a goal.
Today, we consider the “so what” part of the letter. If all of these great things are true, what does that matter to us? What should we do? Here at the end of the letter, Paul makes his “ask” – he gets to the part of the message where he says, “OK, look. Here’s how to live out what I’m telling you…” And he begins with something intensely practical:
12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.
Paul has spoken glowingly about the call of the community to live in fellowship with each other – about how the presence and call of Jesus brings us into new relationships with each other as brother and sister. Recognizing that, he says, there is something important about valuing and appreciating the role that good leadership plays in the body of Christ. It is important to recognize that at the time of this writing, there were no such things as official church officers – just men and women who were striving to be faithful to God by sharing the gifts they’d been given. Here, Paul invites the larger community to simply appreciate the sacrifices that are made daily and quietly.
And we can do that, can’t we? We can thank the people who serve this community by counting the money and writing the checks, who practice the music and who plan the activities that make us better able to function as a congregation.
Next, Paul brings out one more time his concern that the church pay attention to the people who are on the edges of this newly-forming community:
14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
Don’t you love that? Look at the people that Paul includes amongst the marginalized: the cranky, the faint-hearted, and the weak. He knows that there are people in the community who have been lazy and complaining – it’s the church, after all! We know that we can all be like that at times! And the Apostle says, “do your best to help them see where they’ve fallen short and help them re-engage in ways that are positive.”
There’s a word that I’d like to highlight here. It’s translated as “everyone”. After imploring his friends to be especially diligent about caring for the people on the margins, Paul says to be patient with everyone…to do good, not just to each other, but to everyone. The word for everyone, παντας, is a common word that reminds us that the intentions of God extend to all that we meet, not merely those whom we like. These verses remind us of the portion of Matthew that contain what we call “the Golden Rule” – to treat others the way that we’d like to be treated. This kind of instruction points us towards the world with a posture of humility and grace.
“But Paul”, we might say, “How does that look? What does it mean to say ‘be patient’ or ‘do good’?”
Now, if my mother was writing this letter to the church in Thessalonica, she might be tempted to tell them that this looks like “minding your p’s and q’s.” I say that because among the mystifying comments I heard growing up was an exhortation, usually with a finger wagging, to “Listen here, young man, and listen well: you had better mind your p’s and q’s.”
What does that even mean? And why would anyone say it to a seven year old? Later in life, I learned that some folks say that expression came from 18th-century London, where bartenders wanted to make sure that they charged people the appropriate amount for the pints or quarts of beer they consumed. Others suggest that it has more to do with 17th-century print-setters, who sometimes reversed the p’s and the q’s when they were setting up a line of type. All I know is that my mother might as well have been speaking Greek to my elementary-school self by telling me to “mind my P’s and Q’s.”
But I thought of that when I looked at this passage from Thessalonians, because verses 16-22 contain a string of imperatives. Just like the word for “all” or “everyone”, παντας, each of these commands contain, and usually start with, the “P” sound. Listen:
16 Rejoice always (παντοτε),
17 pray continually (προσευχεσθε),
18 give thanks in all (παντι) circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
19 Do not quench the Spirit (πνευμα).
20 Do not treat prophecies (προφητειας) with contempt
21 but test them all (παντα); hold on to what is good,
22 reject every kind (παντος) of evil.
I think that Paul is trying to help his community of friends remember and hold onto the fact that our lofty ideas about faith and resurrection and hope and joy are more than simply ideas – that when they are taken seriously they lead to a deep appreciation for and commitment to specific behavior that will promote the health and healing of the entire Body. These are simple practices in which we can engage that will lead us to health: rejoice! Pray! Give thanks! Look for the Spirit! Pay attention! Turn from evil!
The point is that there are behaviors that faith drives us towards: our beliefs have to have “legs” to them: either they make us more Christ-like, more humble, more Spirit-filled every day, no matter who we’re with OR they are meaningless. If are not able to point to ways that we treat others better because our theology teaches us to do so, then our theology isn’t worth much.
The “so what” of 1 Thessalonians is that we are called to follow Jesus not just in mind or in heart, but in action. Here in his first letter, Paul is very concerned that we have the proper theology. Great. But he wants to make equally sure that our lives reflect that truth on a very mundane level. Life in Thessalonica ought to be better, Paul says, because there is a church there. It ought to be better not only for the church, but for everyone else, too.
Paul then closes his letter with what will become his traditional style: he offers a prayer for the recipients, encourages them to greet each other and to reflect on his comments together, and gives them a blessing.
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
25 Brothers and sisters, pray for us. 26 Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss. 27 I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.
28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
I want to underscore what is said in verse 27, wherein he charges the church to make sure that his letter is read in public. We live in a time and place where each one of us has the opportunity to think that communication is a private and personal affair. If I want to say something, I have the option to “tweet” it to my mass of followers, or post it online; I also have the option to send you a private message or a text. To be sure, there are times when conversations need to be personal and privileged; however, when it comes to important matters of faith and practice, we need to work these things out together. As we talk with each other about the things that matter, the best ways to practice the faith in this particular context and this particular time will emerge. Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, “Don’t simply tell people that I wrote…tell them what I said. Let them sort things out. Let them seek God’s wisdom for their lives.”
That’s the “so what” to the Thessalonians. What’s the “so what” to Crafton Heights? What would it mean if we were to mind our own P’s and Q’s?
Well, we’ve had a start: we’ve read this stuff out loud, and at least one of us has had something to say about it.
There’s a prayer page in your bulletin. It’s got the names of some cranky, some faint-hearted, and some weak on it. How will we relate to them in the days to come?
What about the people with whom we are tempted to disagree? Will we treat them with kindness, respect, and patience?
How will we treat the children or the elderly amongst us? As we seek to “treat others the way that we would wish to be treated”, can we take a look around at who is not here this morning? Can we regard our neighbors as worthy of our care?
If we can spend some time centered in these questions, beloved, then we can say that we have not only heard, but listened to the Word of the Lord. And that, my friends, would not only make Paul proud, it should make our fellowship healthier and our neighborhood better. Thanks be to God. Amen.