Always and Without Ceasing

June 26, 2022/I Thessalonians 5:11b-25, 28

What does it mean for us to be the church?  Indeed, why do we bother to wrestle with the demands and idiosyncrasies of other folk, trying to bring different views and opinions together and mold them into a cohesive body professing one faith, one belief, one God above all?

Wouldn’t it be easier to just stay home and read our Bibles?

More than 2,000 years have passed since a man named Jesus died a gruesome death on a cross, only to be hailed three days later as the risen Savior.  Ever since then, people have gathered, waiting, and trying to make that waiting somehow mean something, be worth something.  House churches and basilicas, tiny chapels and cathedrals, bell towers pealing a call to worship and people coming or not, finding a seat in the back row or lingering on the sidewalk outside, all trying to figure out this thing, this community, called “the church.”

Only a few years after Jesus left the scene, Paul wrote the words we read this morning from I Thessalonians.  The passage we read “is full of advice, instruction, and encouragement aimed at a rag-tag group of Christians trying to live out the gospel in an indifferent if not hostile culture. … It speaks to the life that is shared by those who worship Jesus as Lord.”[1]

It is a way of life “that stands in opposition to everything that believers experience in their relationship to the world”[2] – a world centered on self-satisfaction and payback and “getting what’s mine” rather than encouraging the faint-hearted, helping the weak, and being patient with all.

In a sermon he preached in 1949, Presbyterian minister and theologian John Leith said, “It is hard to be a Christian.”  Contrast that with the approach of a group of congregations in Texas called “Cowboy Church.”  Tom Currie, retired Presbyterian pastor and former dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, ran into a former church member who told him “the mission of the ‘Cowboy Church’ was to reach the ‘unchurched.’”  He continued:

These were people who felt uncomfortable in congregations such as the one I had served.  They avoided creedal statements, hymns, even the Lord’s Prayer.  … [This man] needed a church and a gospel that would not make people feel uncomfortable.

Currie notes, “I was left wondering how one’s own sense of well-being had become such a supreme priority.” [3]

“Paul’s appeal goes against the grain of this self-centered world,”[4] focusing instead on the community that emerges from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit among people called together by God.  A people who “pray without ceasing” because they “cultivate the habit of gratitude in such a way that being grateful becomes an attitude that informs all we do.”[5]  An existence in which “the shape of Christian life is not contoured in measured apportionment – one part work to one part prayer – but in unreserved and all-consuming self-giving.”[6]

We do not do this – this endless rejoicing, praying, thanksgiving – on our own but through the awakening work of the Spirit in our life together.  In Psalm 126, we read, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.  Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”  “When the Lord restored, when the Lord did this, when God acts, only when God acts, are we caught up in that action of rejoicing, praying, and thanksgiving.”[7]  “Jesus has set us free to be grateful for gifts we do not deserve, to pray without ceasing with lives that have lost themselves in the joy of life together in Christ, refusing to quench the Spirit even when it blows in a quite undignified manner.”[8]

Such an improbable, impossible way to live.  Possible only because the one who calls us is faithful.  “It is God’s faithfulness, not the effort of the believer, that makes such life possible.”[9]

The verses we read this morning – Paul’s exhortations to the people of Thessalonica – are not the first words he has for them.  Currie writes:

Paul’s first words confess the faith by remembering in the tenderest of terms his own ministry among this flock. “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (2.7).  Such tenderness is not that of one who has discovered some likeminded people whose virtues he has come to appreciate, but rather it is the tenderness of one who has lost his heart to a company of folk who have entered with him on this particular way.  This way does not begin with a “to do” list but with a miracle; indeed, with the miracle of the One whose sharing of his very self with sinners made of them his unlikely good companions.[10]

Paul sees this Easter miracle as “the constituting center of the Thessalonian church’s life.”  Their life together is “made possible in the life of the risen Lord.”[11]

Indeed, it is only through our life together as siblings of Christ that we can accomplish anything – at least, anything of real meaning or value.  Paul saw this need for community clearly as he wrote this early letter.  He saw the way in which the Spirit could work through a people to make them of one mind.  He saw the way differences could be erased and conflicts resolved, the way Jesus Christ would work the will of God in them.

What was true for the Thessalonians is true for the church today – the Church universal, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the churches of Foothills Presbytery, and right here at Providence Presbyterian.  It won’t happen through your grit and determination, but through your faith and trust – your faith and trust in the One who is faithful.

In the mid-1930s, facing increased pressure from the National Socialists to give the church over to Adolf Hitler, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gathered with a group of students at Finkenwalde.  There, they studied and lived together until shut down by the Nazis.  Bonhoeffer’s writings from that time became the foundation for his little book, Life Together.  In it, he writes:

If we do not give thanks daily for Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.

And so, my friends, I exhort you:

Encourage one another.

Build up each other.

Respect those who labor among you; esteem them in love.

Be at peace among yourselves.

Admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all.

See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, “I Thessalonians 5:12-24,” Interpretation, October 2006, 447

[2] Dirk G. Lange, “Commentary on I Thessalonians 5:12-24,” workingpreacher.org

[3] Thomas W. Currie, “The Celestial Railroad and Other Comforts,” Foundation for Reformed Theology, June 19, 2022

[4] Lange

[5] Paul J. Griffiths, “Pray without Ceasing,” The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2009, 14

[6] William Brosend, Feasting on the Word B/1, 64

[7] Lange

[8] Currie, 448

[9] Brosend, 66

[10] Currie, 447

[11] Ibid.

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