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Sunday, September 6, 2015

Two-Part Diagnosis (1 Thessalonians 3:1-13)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

          Have you ever noticed how much an issue changes when it involves a personal relationship?  This hit me quite drastically many years ago.  I felt pretty confident about my views on immigration.  Then I discovered that one of my closest friends in the world was at that time in the United States illegally.  He entered with a visa and then stayed for years after it expired.  All of a sudden this was no longer a question of undocumented workers or illegal aliens.  This was my brother, Juan[i].  When I discovered his status, did I drop him as a friend?  Was he no longer Juan? 
          More recently, this sense of perspective-shifting has come again in the debates swirling around same sex marriage.  I have good friends who are gay and in relationships.  No matter how one feels about the issue, I still love my friends.  I love Morton.[ii]  No one outside my family has been my friend longer than him.  When he decided to come out of the closet, he called me.  We lived in different states at the time, and he felt he had to tell me.  It was awkward, no doubt.  But, he shared it with me.
I love Morton.  I love Juan.  At a certain level, an important level, it is not about homosexuality or immigration.  It is about my friends.  It is about Morton and Juan, people I love.
          This is because God made us to be relational. Theologians contemplate the 3-in-1 nature of God, the trinity.  Many have come to the conclusion that God is inherently relational.  Father-Son-Holy Spirit exist in an eternal relationship of perfect love and mutuality.  This certainly defies our understanding because we read the New Testament and see each person of the Trinity to be distinct.  Yet we see each is God and not three separate gods, but each is fully God – the one and only God.  Fully understanding this is beyond the capacity of the human mind. 
But even in our limited understanding it is important to recognize that God is relational.  This is as crucial a trait of God any we could name.  We say it is crucial to say God is transcendent and all-knowing and all-powerful.  I think it is just as necessary to say God is relational.  Genesis 1 says God made human beings in God’s own image.  Thus, we are relational.  It doesn’t matter if someone is shy and appreciate solitary time or someone is social butterfly with loads of friends.  We are all made for intimate relationships. 

I am going to do something when I finish today that I have never had a physician.  We are in the middle of a series in which we talk about a prescription for living life in Christ; this prescription works for both individuals and churches.  As I conclude today, I will step out of the metaphor and do something doctors are not expected to do, but pastors are.
I know many doctors are Christians and have done this, but in my years of visiting people in hospitals and in my own doctor’s appointments, I have never had a doctor end his or her time with me by suggesting we pray together.  This morning we will see in 1st Thessalonians chapter 3 the importance of relationship.  That’s the first diagnosis.  We are made for relationship.  Then we will look as the second part of the diagnosis.  It is a caution.  We need to heed this warning.  After the two diagnoses, I’ll pray. 

Relationships: simply hear the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 3.
When I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain.
Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you.
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Paul’s deep love for the people who make up the churches he has planted is expressed in vivid color in the letters he writes.  This is especially evident in 1st Thessalonians.  Chapter 3 begin with Paul making the decision to part with Timothy.  Paul would remain, alone, in Athens.  He felt orphaned by the loneliness but he did it because he wanted Timothy to travel to Thessalonica so he could find out about how the church was doing.  When Timothy came back to Athens with a good report, Paul was thrilled. 
He says in verse 6 that Timothy delivered good news.  The word he uses is derived from the same root as the word Gospel.  Gospel means good news.  When Paul heard that the Thessalonians were doing well in the faith and were concerned about him, he felt that was Gospel truth: good news!  More than anything, the relationships were what mattered to Paul.
Church is meant to be a place of relationships.  I often to refer to us as brothers and sisters in Christ.  In some churches they actually call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’  I have never developed that habit.  It just feels weird to me to speak that way.  But even though I have not adopted the lingo, that is how I feel.  We are family – an eternal family linked by love. 
I know that in church someone will do something you don’t like.  He may do many things you don’t like.  Her personality may grate on you.  You see her walk in the room and you cringe and inch toward the door.  What I am proposing here is that in spite the imperfections and it has plenty, and in spite of the flawed people who make up the church and we are all flawed, we are each called to fully invest our hearts in the family.  I don’t see any New Testament model of someone attending church in a casual, non-committed kind of way.  There are no nominal Christians.  And Christianity is not a solitary venture. 
Paul felt the deepest of connections with the Thessalonian church.  We are called to enter this church family in the same way.  And if this is your first time among us or you have been visiting recently, I want you to know what we’re all about.  You don’t have to conform to some image or expectation to be among us.  We invite you in as you are with the hope that you will join your heart with ours.  We will worship God together.  We will confess our sins together.  We will celebrate one another’s baptisms together.  We will grieve together.  We will eat the bread and the take cup together.  The only way we know how to do church is with God as a Father and us as one another’s brothers and sisters. 
This deep feeling of connection is why Paul was nearly paralyzed with worry for the Thessalonians and with grief at being separated from them.  Simply put, he loved them.  So when he heard from Timothy that they were thriving as disciples, nothing could make him happier.  That’s how much we belong to each other.

The second part of the diagnosis this morning comes in the form of a warning.  We’ve been told that God is relational and for us to live as God intended we must see relationships as our top priority.  Our church must be built on the relationships that are fueled by self-giving, agape love.  There is a threat and Paul names it in verse 5.  “I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain.” 
In the previous chapter Paul said Satan was who prevented him from coming to the Thessalonians (2:18).  We know that it was a combination of political and religious opposition.  We could point to human causes.  But we also know from Paul’s letters, especially Ephesians 6, that underneath any human opposition to the success of the Gospel, Paul saw the workings of demons and the fallen angel, the evil who opposes God at every turn.  In 1st Thessalonians 2 he is Satan.  In chapter 3, this enemy is called the tempter.  In 2nd Thessalonians 2, he is the power that drives the “Lawless One.”
Paul fears that the Tempter would uses human forces to undermine the worship and community in the Thessalonian church to the point that the church would dissolve.  For Paul, no death would hurt any more than this.  Nothing could be worse.  Upon hearing Timothy’s good report, he says in verse 8, ‘we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.’
Seventeen years ago, I was in church that was renting space to another congregation.  That congregation was made of Roma Christians – gypsies.  There was a bit of a conflict that the Gypsies were having with other Gypsies in the area.  Threats of violence were made.  The leaders in the English congregation, the group that owned the building and thus had the power felt it would be prudent to avoid getting in the middle of this.  They wanted to avoid any trouble for themselves.  So they told the Gypsies who were worshipping in their building they had to leave.
It felt like a death.  As the pastor, I had to tell the Gypsy pastor they had to go.  I felt like the knife was in my hands and dripping red.  The look on his face – I can still see it and still feel convicted by it.  Why was it so easy for those Christians in the English-speaking church so easily shove another community of believers out the door and into the street?  They could do it because they didn’t feel any sense of relationship.  It was all about the security of the building for them.  The Gypsies were ‘that church,’ not ‘our church.’  The people were ‘them,’ not ‘us.’ 
As I reflect this event that has haunted me all these years, I think my reading of 1st Thessalonians 3 puts it in fresh light.  The English-speaking Christians, people I still deeply love, did not connect relationally with the Gypsies, people I also love.  That sense of belonging to one another so evident in Paul’s words in Thessalonians was not there. 
The tempter stepped into that relationship void.  The devil used fear – a perceived threat, not even a real one.  That fear was enough to get the Gypsies kicked out.  For their part, the Gypsies had up to that point found it very hard to find a church that would welcome them.  In their discouragement, the people of the church went their separate ways.  The devil used fear with one congregation and discouragement with another to kill one church and neuter the other.  It never could have happened if the two congregations joined with one another the heart level.  If they felt that they belonged to one another, they would have stood together in faith and faced any threat that came along. 
When Paul says he’s afraid the tempter would render his work to be done vain and would do so by killing the church, he means it.  I have witnessed first-hand this happen in real life.
So then is the moral of the story that we all need to love one another with great intensity and invest our hearts fully here at HillSong?  Yes!  That’s it.
But then, if you have been here any length of time, you know we are already doing that.  In the past 12 months, the work of the Lord in this place has expanded greatly as now on Sunday afternoons a Spanish-speaking church meets under Pastor Lucio’s leadership.  Also on Sunday afternoons, a Karen-speaking church meets in here under Pastor Kerpaw Htee’s leadership.  And we each belong to each other. 
In a sense, what I am doing in holding us up alongside the Thessalonian church and Paul’s letter to them is I am urging us to continue as we are.  Continue being a community of love and welcome that takes full family ownership of each other’s hearts.  Grow in love as an expression of the Gospel and as a guard against the enemy’s evil designs.  Keep on as you are.  And you who are new among us, find out what this community is all about.

With that in mind, I close with that prayer I mentioned earlier. 
May our God and Father himself and our Lord help us increase and abound in love for one another and for all.
May the Lord so strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

[i] Name changed. 
[ii] Name changed,

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