"Faith and Example" 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10       October 19, 2008


Did you hear about the man traveling from New York to Atlanta on a business trip? His wife was due to join him the next day. Upon arrival, although unsure of his wife's e-mail address, he sent her a message anyway. It was a good e-mail address, but unfortunately it wasn't his wife's. Instead, it went to a pastor's wife whose husband had died only the day before. She read the message and promptly fainted.

When one of her children found her, she glanced at the e-mail. The three-part message read:

"Darling, just checked in."

"Looking forward to your arrival tomorrow."

P.S. "It sure is hot down here!" [i]

Let us pray: . . .
The opening of 1 Thessalonians, one of Paul’s earliest letters, is characterized by exuberant praise for their solid Christian faith and example. Luke, in Acts 17, offers the details of Paul, Silas (Silvanus) and Timothy’s founding of the church in this great city, which was the Roman capital of the province of Macedonia.
 
Thessalonica was home to a Jewish synagogue as well as to the popular religions honoring Dionysus and Orpheus. The latter two religions were mystery fertility cults and were known for their sexual and ecstatic indulgences. Furthermore, evidence suggests that the Emperor Cult was also thriving. The neophyte Thessalonian Christians are finding it hard to maintain their identity among the excess of religious options found in the city.

It's no wonder, then, that Paul stresses that the Thessalonian Christians are remembered for their "work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:3). Paul is praising the Thessalonians for the very attributes that are being threatened! These expressions of their conviction are what distinguish them from the followers of the other religions. Paul reminds them that their faith involves "work"; it entails "labor." In short, it is not easy to maintain the integrity of the faith.

Christianity is not a passive, sensual, feel-good religion as the mystery religions were (as far as scholars can tell). Adherence to Jesus Christ involved steadfastness -- one has to stick with it. Christian faith challenges the believer to a high calling of personal and communal discipline. Christians face opposition and suffering (2:2). This would not have been an expectation of the other religious options found throughout the empire.

Paul urges his readers to recall their own primary experience of the "message of the gospel." Paul stresses that the gospel came "not in word only," but in power and "in the Holy Spirit

 
Paul challenges them to remember their call. But Paul does not leave his readers with memory alone. He offers himself and Silvanus and Timothy as role models. The believers are to "imitate" their founders. Paul leaves no doubt that the lifestyle of those who spread the gospel is an important part of the gospel message (v.6-7).
 
Verse 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you …. The gospel has become known by your living out the gospel.  Dr. Jim Singleton, a Presbyterian historian on early evangelism, spoke at a recent Wee Kirk conference.[ii]
 
The following questions were posed and answered in one of his sessions.[iii] “Did you know that Presbyterians had a rate of professions of faith that was once higher than the Southern Baptists? Did you know that until the 50s, Presbyterians did more adult baptisms than infant baptisms each year? Were you aware that in the first decade of the 20th century Presbyterians employed revivalist evangelists who traveled throughout the denomination? Why did Presbyterians lose the fire for evangelism and can it return?”
 
The picture today reveals 90% Presbyterian Churches are declining or staying even. Church attendance is on the decline across the board, yet population is increasing.
 
Previously, 50% of new members came through revivals and 25% new members came though outpost Sunday Schools. The Sunday School movement was strictly done for unchurched kids. Churched kids were to learn at home or in the worship service. During the 50s & 60s the Presbyterian focus changed from evangelist to pastor-proclaimer to pastor maintainer. "Where are our Professions of Faith now?"[iv]
 
 
Small churches can minister beyond their boundaries by joining global efforts, especially when there are no viable outlets for ministry locally. Rev. Dr. Robert J. Weingartner, Executive Director of the Outreach Foundation of the Presbyterian Church,[v] presented. the following points as part of  "Big Mission for Small Churches."
 
1. Most of the congregations that god is suing today to turn the world upside-down, particularly in the majority world where the church is growing the fastest, are small churches.
 
2. Regardless of their size, congregations are called into being in order to be agents of God's mission in the world.
 
3. Mission is not a program of the church; it is the purpose of the church. It is not the church's mission; it is God's mission into which we all are invited.
 
4. The critical question for a congregation, therefore, is not how big a church it is. The critical question is whether or not a congregation believes that it primarily exists for the sake of others, to be an agent of God's mission.
 
5. The task of mission discernment is one of discovering how a congregation’s gifts, passion and personality intersect with what God is doing in the world. We'll take a look at that in more detail further on.
 
"Peace be with you, Jesus says. In the world, there is not peace, BUT I have overcome the world. Without me you can do nothing. Peace must be found in Christ. Each of our Wee Kirks is the agent of God's mission in the world, or should be.
 
1st Thessalonians One:
4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia
 
I picked up a flyer at the conference written in response to the 218th General Assembly, which is titled, "Where do we go from here…? Discerning and following God's path into God's future.…" The Presbyterian Church has prided itself as "Reformed and ever reforming." It might be better to say "Reformed and ever being reformed under the Word of God." . . . A Word for us, and a Word for the church (i.e. Get back to the basics).
 
Here at Bastrop First, the workshops led by Rev. Lauren Moore's for Session Visioning for the Future we learned that even though we are a small congregation, we are involved in a lot of ministry. We can build on what we are now doing, since we don't have the people or the finances to anticipate significant growth.
 
--what can we do in our desire to be more mission-minded?
--build on what we have / refine, add, adjust
--not add more (since we're limited), but improve upon
--if we add anything: prayer, intentional, scheduled, focused – on the ministries we support / adopt a Vera Lloyd house
 
Many small congregations do marvelous ministry.
 
7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.
 
We can't take more on, but we can pray more. That, too, is a ministry. The unseen heroes are the prayer warriors who never let on that they're praying for you and for me; for our country and the world; for sinners and saints.
 
Another workshop I attended was on the Book of Haggai comparing the building of the temple and the people’s discouragement to present-day small church settings.
 
“The minor prophet Haggai has a major word of encouragement for God’s people at a time of deep disappointment in their history. When the outlook on their future seemed bleak and when their ability to meet the challenges of the moment seemed weak, God gave them a word of assurance that by his presence and power their efforts would bring him glory. In the small church, or in any church that feels it lacks the resources to serve the Lord as it should, the book of Haggai reminds us that our effectiveness lies not in ourselves, but in whom God is and in God’s desire to use us.”[vi]
 
We can be encouraged as Paul was encouraged. Verse 2:
2We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
 
H. Richard Niebuhr said, "The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there."
 
Paul reminds believers to remember that they were "chosen" by God (1:4). "Chosen" is a weighty word. Believers do not choose Christianity like they might choose to join another religious community. No doubt, the cultic experiences of the followers of Dionysus and Orpheus were more immediate and sensually satisfying, and the Emperor Cult would have been more impressive. But this is not the case for Christians.
 
The followers of Jesus are "chosen" to be set apart. Paul reminds his readers that Christian faithfulness is less about personal choice and more about divine call. It is more about following God than following the crowd.
Good advice for 21st century believers living in a post-modern, post-Christian world. Let us pray . . .
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
First Presbyterian Church
Bastrop, Louisiana
 
 
 


[i] LarryDavies, "Ship of Fools or Lifeboat to Heaven?" www.sowingseedsoffaith.com/ShipofFools.htm, March 23, 1999.
[ii] Rev. Dr. Jim Singleton, Senior Pastor First Presbyterian Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
[iii] “The Presbyterian Picture Today” workshop, October 8, 2008.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Rev. Dr. Robert J. Weingartner, Franklin, Tennessee; www.theoutreachfoundation.org
[vi] Rev. Breck Castelman, First Presbyterian Church in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
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