This will be our last Sunday in 1 Thessalonians. I suppose the whole book could be summed up in the phrase found in chapter 2 verse 12: “live lives worthy of God.” The balance of Paul’s letter is about doing just that. Turn from idols to serve the living and true God; become a fellowship from which the Gospel rings out; stand firm in the Lord; be self-controlled; be holy; lead a quiet life; work; earn the respect of outsiders; live in the light; build up each other. These are the characteristics of living lives worthy of God.
But here at the close, Paul wants to give final and concrete instructions to the young church about how to live. In these first 10 verses there are 14 things to do. You could spend your whole life working on some of these and never get them done. This is not the reminder note to take out the garbage, feed the dog and wash the dishes. It is more like remodel the house on Thursday. Some lists are good. I want the pilot of the plane I am flying tomorrow to go through every single item on their pre-flight checklist. Carol always leaves a list of things to do for the house sitter when we are gone. But here in these first ten verses if they are only read as a list of things to do it will drive us crazy. But, if you think of it as a picture of what we will become in time it becomes a possibility.
It’s like playing the scales with a picture of YoYo Ma on the wall and saying, “That is what I am learning to be” This is the discipline of the particulars that are necessary to living a life worthy of God. They are not ends in themselves but they are practices which become habits which then become a way of life. If the only progress we make is getting better at playing the scales then we have lost our way.
I love history but I don’t focus on memorizing dates. The dates give me a context and a reference point but it’s the living stories of real people that make history not only interesting but instructive for life today.
Paul is describing the characteristics of a culture – not just a list of rules. Otherwise, it is like grammar. It is taking something apart and never seeing the whole or understanding the thought. Who diagrammed sentences in school? Why did we do that? So we could understand not only the structure of a sentence but also better understand the thought behind it.
Paul gives us the Preamble by saying the object is to live lives worthy of God and then the following verses are the articles. Look at the Preamble to our Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
It states the object or the “in order to” of what kind of Union we hope to be. Paul does the same throughout the book of Thessalonians and then in the last chapter he lists the articles.
Paul is a list maker – not a poet or painter – by training and disposition. That’s how his mind was shaped. He no doubt had a checklist he went through as a young Pharisee to make sure he did everything in accordance with the Law and did nothing that would break the Law. He was like Benjamin Franklin in creating his list of 13 virtues. He called it “A bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection” Franklin would take a single virtue at a time, work on it for a week and then move on to the next. Trying to fix everything that’s wrong with you all at once is overwhelming, he decided. The virtuous path needs to be broken down to give each area some concentrated time of intention and effort. Every 13 weeks, the cycle repeated itself. He accounted for his progress on a chart and shared his scheme with others. He admitted he never reached perfection but he was a happier man by working on his list.
For Paul, even his most beautiful work is in the form of lists.
1 Corinthians 13 is a list of the qualities of love.
Romans 12 is one of the lists of the gifts of the Spirit
Galatians 5 is a list of the fruit of the Spirit
Paul is not the poet Isaiah was in taking an item and expanding on it:
“You will keep in perfect peace
those whose minds are steadfast,
because they trust in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.
He humbles those who dwell on high,
he lays the lofty city low;
he levels it to the ground
and casts it down to the dust.
Feet trample it down—
the feet of the oppressed,
the footsteps of the poor.
Or Micah in making a short list of what is good:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Or even James in defining true religion in the simplest terms:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Paul could not do that. He was handling too many details of new communities. It wasn’t enough for him to say with St. Augustine, “Love God and do as you please.” Paul’s greatest hope was they would come to maturity and not be dependent on the lists but until then he made lists for them – scales for them to practice and virtues for them to master in time. He was writing a manual for living for people who had lived with no ethical rules. He could not just say, “Love one another” as Christ did to the disciples who had the benefit of thousands of years of ethical teaching.
Let’s look at a few of the things on his list:
Respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.
This passage says as much about the qualities of the leader as it does about the congregation.
The leader is not a detached visionary running out ahead of the people. They are not driving and prodding the people forward from behind them. They are as one among the people. They are known and not distant. Their lives are woven into the fabric of the congregation and not separated.
The leader is one who admonishes and that word often translates as reminding – not nagging, lecturing or tongue lashing. The leader is the one reminding the people constantly about the purpose with not only words but by their example. The leader is as intent on practicing the fruits of the Spirit as anyone else. A new book by Katelyn Beaty is coming out in August titled “Celebrities for Jesus” and the preview says she “explores the ways fame has reshaped the American church, explains how and why celebrity is woven into the fabric of the evangelical movement, and identifies many ways fame goes awry. She shows us how Christians unwittingly foster a celebrity culture and offers a vision of ordinary, unseen faithfulness, helping all of us—whether leaders or everyday believers—to keep celebrity power in its proper place.”
Finally, the word here for leader is “pro-is-temi” or one who is steadfast and firmly planted. It’s not a career but a calling. It is not a step on the ladder or a stop on the way to something bigger. This is why I love what Eugene Petersen wrote in his book for pastors titled “Working The Angles.”
One more thing: We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment, but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you.
We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world, and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing – God, kingdom, gospel – we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.
The idle are those who are not simply idle or unemployed but those who are failing to do their duty. Work is not an individual option but a shared responsibility. They are truant or absent without leave. They have left their post and are failing to live up to their responsibilities. The idle are those who have abandoned their commitment not just to work but their responsibility to the rest of the fellowship. How might we define the idle in churches today? I was on a panel once for a seminary and the topic was comparing a small town to a church. I said that unemployment in Texas is 4.4% but unemployment in the typical church is almost 80%. We have created a volunteer organization instead of one where people are expected to be employed in one way or another. What’s the word here? Warn the idle. Admonish the idle about their responsibility to do more than attend. I do like the way Paul puts it in Colossians though: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” We don’t scold or berate the unemployed. We sing them into serving.
Encourage those who have trouble trusting. These are the people who always feel they are on thin ice, something terrible is just around the corner, God is going to leave them in the lurch. Faith is difficult for them and we are not to make fun of or call them out. Instead we are to give them heart. Give them confidence. Give them a hand on the shoulder. Not everyone is gifted with faith and confidence but making those with a shaky faith feel less as believers will not do them any good.
Help the weak. The King James translates this as cleave – the same as in Genesis where it says the husband is to cleave to his wife. In Romans, Paul says we are to cleave to that which is good. It can also be translated as “grab by the arm” and hold steady. Some people need a hand on the shoulder and others need a strong and yet kind and steady hand on the arm.
Be patient with everyone. Here the word for patience is “makrothumia.” Macro does not mean large or how we often use it to mean seeing the bigger picture. Instead, it means long. Take the long view with people. I’ve often thought about how important that is with teachers. Those squirming, noisy, short-attentioned, students will one day be the scientists, poets, entrepreneurs and political leaders of the future. Without the long view, the macrothumia, teaching would be a dead end calling. It’s the same in other areas of our life. We need to take the long view and not be frustrated by the short term complications and obstacles. We need to anticipate what it will be when we have patiently worked with people, put our hand on their shoulder to strengthen their faith and our steadying hand on their arm to lift them up.
Always be kind, always be joyful, always pray, always give thanks. It even means increasingly kind, joyful, playful and thankful – not just with gritted teeth but growing in those areas of our lives. We’ve talked before about kindness.
We talk about gateway drugs as those that lead to others and, at least for me, kindness is a gateway virtue that leads to other virtues. Peter writes about the picture of a sanctified life.
“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.”
It is not a prescription of duties and chores but a description of a life that grows and deepens. There is a beginning – faith – and an end – love. But after faith what is the first step toward love? The Greek word used here, “arete,” is often translated as kindness or goodness. Kindness is where we begin and that became, for me, the first step on the journey toward maturity.
What does it mean to be kind?
I discovered the truth about 19th century Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle’s observation that while kindness is one of the traits that is the hardest to define and attain, it is precisely the grace which has the greatest influence in the world. Think about that. The influence of kindness – beginning with those closest to you and working out – may well have the most lasting effect than any other evidence of the Holy Spirit in your life.
Kind to my wife or husband. Kind at work. Kind with my friends. Kind with my family. Kindness that points people to God. Paul even goes so far as to say it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. That has been true in my life and marriage. Over and over it has been Carol’s kindness that has turned me around.
And kindness leads to godliness and affection, which makes the best introduction of all – the introduction to love.
Paul did not see them as a conquering army but as a waiting remnant. They were a community of peace, trust, patience, kindness, and commitment in a darkened world. They were not charged with changing the world but to make a place of God’s peace – an outpost of heaven as we wait for the return of Christ. What is the goal of the Christian community then? It is to be sanctified – not successful. Not to be dominant but to live lives worthy of God. To be saturated, soaked through and through with simple holiness. To be a bride – not a battalion.
“May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!”