Summary: The Church that receives the Gospel has a responsibility to pass it on. The Church that passes on the gospel must first embody it. It’s no use speaking the words if the actions that go with the words don’t agree.
Today we start a new series, on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. This is probably the first letter Paul wrote, although the date of Galatians could be either a few years before or after the date of this letter. In any event, it seems to have been written while Paul was in Corinth. You’ll remember from last week that Silas and Timothy arrived with encouraging news from the Macedonian churches along with financial support that they’d sent. And it seems that this letter is written in response to what they report to him. That means that we can date the letter fairly accurately to around 51-52AD since that’s the period when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia.
You’ll also remember that Thessalonica was one of the places where Paul had to leave town because of the opposition of the Jewish synagogue. So it was a place where it would have been difficult to be a Christian. So Paul spends some time in this and his subsequent letter to them, encouraging the Christians there to persevere, to hold on to their faith as they await the return of Jesus Christ.
But this isn’t just a historical survey of the situation in the early church. It’s also an opportunity for us to think about the relationship between the gospel and a growing church. It’s an opportunity for us to see how we as a Church can be shaped by the gospel and how we can spread the gospel as we seek to live a life that’s worthy of the gospel.
So today, let’s see how Paul addresses this young church, what he has to say about them and the way the gospel first came to them and their response to it.
He begins with the customary formula for letters of the time. First he names the sender, then the person to whom they’re writing, then he greets them, then gives thanks for them. In this case the letter comes from Paul, Silvanus, or Silas, and Timothy. This is a letter of encouragement from the whole mission team. Paul doesn’t differentiate himself from the other 2 by calling himself an apostle, as he does in 1 Corinthians and in Galatians for example. His authority isn’t at issue here. Rather it’s the encouragement of the whole team that matters. It may even be that Silas and Timothy have helped to compose the letter.
What does matter though is the way he addresses the Thessalonians, because here we discover some important things about the Church of God.
1 The Church is a community that lives in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
He addresses the letter: "To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
It isn’t "to the church of God in Thessalonica", notice. Rather it’s to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. So what does that mean? What does it mean to be ’in God’ or ’in Jesus Christ’? Well clearly it’s not a spatial reference is it? We’re not to be found ’inside’ God. But it does have something to do with where we find our life, our sustenance, our being. Jesus used this idea in John 15 when he talked about his followers being part of a vine. Jesus is the vine; we are the branches. So while we remain in the vine we’ll live. If we abandon the vine we’ll shrivel up and die. Paul used a similar metaphor when he talked about the church being Christ’s body and each of us individually parts of that body: limbs and fingers and ears and noses. In that picture we see that we’re the means by which Jesus reaches out to the world
So why does he stress this idea from the start of his letter? Well it could be that he knows the difficulties they face, the opposition they’ll encounter from the enemies of the gospel. So he wants to emphasise the source of their life. He wants to remind them that they need to remain firm in God and Jesus Christ, rooted firmly in the one who gives and sustains their life. As soon as we lose that firm foundation, that strong connection to God and to his son Jesus Christ we lose the source of our strength: that is, the only thing that will give us the power to stand against the opposition of the evil one.
But we also need to be reminded that our being in God makes us responsible for the way we live. In particular it makes us responsible for the way we demonstrate the life of God to those around us.
In any case their being in God leads to the next part of the greeting: "Grace and Peace." The grace that comes as the free gift of God and that leads to true peace, the ’Shalom’ that means far more than just the absence of conflict.