The following sermon, based on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, was preached by the Rev. Amanda Currie at Calvin-Goforth Presbyterian Church, Saskatoon, on Sunday, October 19th. Worship at St. Andrew’s was led by the Stewardship Committee using resources for Presbyterians Sharing Sunday.
Written in about the year 50 CE, some 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and 20 years before the Gospel of Mark was written, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest piece of Christian literature that we have. Early on during his second missionary journey, Paul, accompanied by Silas (sometimes called Silvanus) visited Thessalonica, the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. They preached in the Jewish synagogue, with the result that some Jews and a larger number of pious Gentiles became Christians. In the book of Acts it is suggested that Paul spent only a short time in Thessalonica before difficulties occurred and he and his companions left the city.
The letter shows that in the relatively short time he was with them, Paul developed a deep familial affection for the Thessalonians. He cared so much for them and he was so concerned for these newly evangelized Christians that he had an intense desire to return to Thessalonica, but was unable to do so. Instead, he sent his faithful companion Timothy to encourage and support the members of the community in their Christian life. Timothy then returned with a generally positive report of their situation, albeit with some hints at some deficiencies in the Thessalonians’ life of faith. It was Timothy’s report that prompted Paul to write this letter.
I’m reminded of a letter that I received last week that’s kind of similar to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Well, it was actually an e-card that I got from a congregation member. (I don’t get many actual snail mail letters anymore.) But the e-card I got last week was much like Paul’s letter. It brought tears to my eyes when I read it off the computer screen — not because it made me sad, but because I felt so supported and encouraged by it.
It said the same kinds of things that Paul was saying to his friends in Thessalonica… “I thank God for you. I am praying for you. I want you to know that you’re doing important ministry, and your ministry is making a difference in the world.” How can you read something like that and not feel encouraged, and blessed, and loved?
But I think I reacted to that encouraging email even more strongly because it came at a time when I was feeling stressed and tired, and maybe even a little discouraged. I’m sure that you can relate to that. If you get a heart-felt “thank you” from someone when you’re having a great day already, you appreciate it for a moment, and then you get on with the rest of your great day. But when you’re feeling low, when you’re struggling to keep on going, when you’re wondering whether your work is making a difference, and then you get that letter or email or phone call that says, “Thanks be to God for you and all that you’re doing,” that’s when it really lifts you up. That’s when you find yourself saying, “I really needed to hear that today. Thank you.”
The Thessalonian Christians likely felt like that when they got Paul’s letter. Sure, they were probably disappointed that it was just a letter they were getting, and not Paul in person. But even in the first few paragraphs, Paul’s words would have blessed, encouraged, and strengthened the church members to keep at the work of ministry that their leaders had already equipped them to do.
Thessalonica was a relatively large and bustling city within the vast Roman Empire. It was both a commercial and a cultic centre. With a major road going through it towards the eastern colonies, it became a trading centre for the region with all kinds of travelers coming through. And the people of the city participated in a variety of cultic practices, honouring various gods and giving first place to the Roman Emperor.
The letters presuppose conflict between those in the church and other Thessalonians. It is likely that the Christians’ glorification of Christ led to conflict with neighbours who were in favour of the Roman government. Some Thessalonians would not have liked Paul’s idea that Jesus (not Augustus) was the benefactor and inaugurator of a new age. In the eyes of these Thessalonians, support for Jesus weakened support for the Romans, who had brought tangible benefits to the city.
It’s not exactly that the Christians at Thessalonica were being persecuted for their faith. Later Christians were persecuted, of course… they were tortured, martyred, thrown to the lions, and more. Some really terrible things happened to Christians at certain times in history. But I think it’s probably easier for us to relate to the experience of the Christians at Thessalonica in the middle of the first century… living in the world with a different purpose and meaning than the consumer society in which we live… struggling to live out our faith, side by side with neighbours and friends of many religions or no religion at all… figuring out how to share our faith in Christ with people who have put their trust in so many other human institutions.
I wouldn’t say that as Christians or Presbyterians in Saskatoon today, that we are persecuted. But like the early church at Thessalonica, we need to hear some words of encouragement, advice, and often challenge once in a while too in order to engage the communities in which we live — in order to reach out to the people around us.
I want you to imagine for a moment today that a letter is being written to your congregation here at Calvin-Goforth. Perhaps it’s from one of your past ministers whom you know still loves and cares for this community and for each one of you. You might think of a letter coming from Ariane Wasilow, your most recent minister. Undoubtedly, Ariane still cares for you and prays for all of you, but for a variety of reasons could not stay on to continue this journey with you. You might think of another well-loved and well-respected past minister of this church. Maybe you will think of the ministers who were with you at the beginning of Calvin and Goforth churches. Maybe you will think of a minister who made a difference in your particular faith journey.
As you think about who the letter to Calvin-Goforth might be from, think of the many ministers who have loved and cared for, served and led this church over the years. Like Paul, each of them had to move on at some point — perhaps because they were called elsewhere, perhaps for other reasons — But like the early church leaders, the writer of the letter to Calvin-Goforth continues to love you, to pray for you, and to encourage you.
What might that letter say? — that letter to Calvin-Goforth Presbyterian Church?
“To the Presbyterian Church in Nutana, Saskatoon, the people of God the Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that God will be kind to you and will bless you with peace! We thank God for you and always mention you in our prayers. Each time we pray, we tell God our Father about your faith and loving work and about your firm hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Would the letter say something about your faithfulness in gathering in this place for worship? Would it mention your generous offerings for this ministry and for missions in Saskatoon and further afield? Would the letter take note of the way you care for each other when times are tough — when some are sick or in hospital, when others are grieving or alone, when some need either encouragement or practical help?
What would that letter say about Calvin-Goforth Church today? What would your past ministers lift up to God in thanks for your loving work and your firm hope in Christ? Whatever works might be mentioned, I’m sure that the letter would continue, as Paul’s did, with the encouragement that everything does not depend on our works.
“My dear friends,” your ministers would write, “God loves you, and we know that God has chosen you to be his people. When we told you the good news, it was with the power and assurance that come from the Holy Spirit, and not simply with words. You knew what kind of people we were and how we helped you. So, when you accepted the message, you followed our example and the example of the Lord. You suffered, but the Holy Spirit made you glad.”
Over the years, you’ve heard many sermons in this place — lots of words from lots of ministers and lay leaders. But it hasn’t been the words alone, or the skill of the ministers that has really made the difference in your lives. The Holy Spirit has been at work among you to transform your hearts and minds and lives — to help you to follow the way of the Lord — sometimes through struggles, but with the joy of the Lord as your strength.
The letter that Paul wrote to his friends in the Thessalonian church went on to rejoice in the amazing impact that their Christian community was making in the wider world. Paul wrote, “You became an example for all the Lord’s followers in Macedonia and Achaia. And because of you, the Lord’s message has spread everywhere in those regions. Now the news of your faith in God is known all over the world, and we don’t have to say a thing about it. Everyone is talking about how you welcomed us and how you turned away from idols to serve the true and living God.”
Wow! Wouldn’t you like your past ministers to hear reports about your ministry like that? “The news of your faith is known all over the world, and we don’t have to say a thing about it!” Perhaps we’re not quite there yet. Perhaps it seems quite impossible that our faith and our lives could make such a difference… that the people of Calvin-Goforth could make such a difference in the world… that the people of Calvin-Goforth could become an example for all the Lord’s followers in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan. But perhaps you could.
At the Synod meeting that took place over the last two days in Moosomin and Whitewood, we had the blessing of having the Rev. Dr. Stephen Farris preaching for our worship, and leading us in a workshop on preaching as well. Stephen is the Dean of St. Andrew’s Hall at the Vancouver School of Theology, and he is the professor of homiletics as well. One of the many wise things that we heard from Dr. Farris was the encouragement that all we need to do as Christian communities is to do the little things and do them well.
He encouraged us as ministers and preachers to spend time in the scriptures, to study, to reflect, to pray, and to prepare thoughtful and relevant sermons. And he encouraged the elders, other leaders, and members of the churches to carry their faith out into the community into all of your relationships. He didn’t say that we should get you all out going door-to-door with Christian tracts, or that we should get you trained up to argue with your neighbours and convince them of the rightness of Christianity.
Instead, he called us all to live out our faith in kindness and in love towards everyone who is a part of our lives. Paul encourages the Christians at Thessalonica to imitate him and to imitate the Lord Jesus — to follow his example and the example of the Lord. When we do this, we become “living messages” of God’s good news and love in the world.
Stephen encouraged us to lean over the back fence and invite our neighbours to come to church. And he said, they just might take you up on that invitation… not because of the great minister at your church… not because of your elaborate church programs, your expensive advertising, or your convincing, compelling, or enticing slogans or catch-phrases. Your neighbour may just decide to come and see for themselves because of who you are… because of your kindness towards them, because of your care and concern for them, because they have already heard a “living message” of good news and love through their relationship with you.
Today, as one minister who has some history of relationship with Calvin-Goforth Church, and as your current interim moderator, I pray that God will be kind to you and bless you with peace. And as we look together for the direction that God is calling you as a congregation, may you grow more and more into living messages of good news and love in Jesus Christ, that the Lord’s message may spread out all over Nutana and Saskatoon, and that you may become an example for all the Lord’s followers in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan. Amen.