For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life
I Thessalonians 5:13-24
II Thessalonians 2:13-17
Let us pray:
Hide me behind your cross, Lord Jesus. Articulate the Father’s heart through my voice and let the Holy Spirit breathe new life to us, opening our ears to hear the message of God. Amen
I grew up in the church of the Nazarene. I spent my whole life hearing words like entire sanctification and holiness and salvation. I probably knew what sin was before I knew my colors and I learned scripture and I knew all the Jesus stories and the Old Testament stories better than I knew any pop culture reference.
So I was really shocked and surprised as I grew up when other people: my husband and his friends, my school mates, my work colleagues were either unfamiliar with these things or understood them in a way that was completely different.
In fact, that is often the case with ideas and concepts that we are familiar with because we know them well: we expect everyone else to understand them exactly the way we do, because we know them and understand them as a second part of us.
A married couple I know tell the story of their initial dating this way: Bob (not his real name) met Carrie (not her real name) in college. They started dating and Bob’s Christian faith – the faith he’d had since childhood – became an issue because Carrie wasn’t a Christian at all. So one day, he took his girlfriend to a place where everyone in their college “parked” and he told her with great sorrow and conviction that he was not allowed to be unequally yoked with her.
He broke up with her, using Jesus as the excuse – or at least that’s what he thought.
She left their conversation completely perplexed as to why he broke up with her over eggs!
Eventually, she became a Christian after they parted ways and they met again some years later and now they’ve been married for over 20 years, solidly Christian people with a heart for service.
The wonder of that story is that two people had a long conversation about their future together and one of them had absolutely no idea what the other was even talking about!
The reason I say all of this when I talk about these letters Paul wrote to the Thessalonians is because there are a lot of things that could be very confusing in this letter, things that we often think we understand, but which we are often thinking about eggs while we should be thinking about Jesus.
The church in Thessalonica was one Paul started after he left Philippi, where he had been beaten and thrown into prison. Paul is in Thessalonica with Silas, and here the Jews who are jealous of their success call out the non-Jews who were hosting them as housing rebellious insurrectionists. Paul and Silas and Timothy escape in the middle of the night to the next town. The Thessalonian Jews followed them to that town after some time and finally, Paul moved to Athens and left his co-workers behind, eventually heading off to Corinth. Timothy circled back to Thessalonia, and then caught up with Paul in Corinth – telling him of some of the things that the Thessalonians are doing and prompting Paul to write these letters. The first one gets sent and in pretty short order, Paul hears that the issues are continuing and that there are some Paul impersonators hanging around Thessalonia, so he writes the second letter for continued clarification.
The two main points he has are about what happens to Christ followers while they live and what happens to Christ followers after they die. Paul talks about Jesus coming back and he really wants to encourage the Thessalonians that even if they die before Jesus comes back, they are still redeemed and that Jesus has NOT returned yet, despite things they have been told to the contrary. And in all of this, Paul emphasizes what it means to be a Jesus follower, what it means to live for Jesus. He uses words that can have very complicated meanings for us today, such as sanctification and holy living. Not only do they have complex associations for us, but they weren’t exactly understood in the time of Paul – especially as the non-jews or gentiles and the jews who converted to Christianity – had learned of these things in different ways and in different terms all their lives.
Paul wants to give everyone a common language: be joyful, pray all the time, give thanks: this is God’s will for you and this will lead to holiness.
Until I began to follow Jesus, I understood holiness to be a list of rules; don’t do this and that things that would keep me from disobeying God’s law. But the reality is and Paul says it here again: holiness comes from turning our hearts away from our own circumstances, our own limits, our own understandings and turning to God’s: joyful, praying, thankfully turning our hearts and minds to God and knowing that these things along with loving our neighbor (hear Paul’s instructions in verses 12-15 of chapter 5 in the first letter) He also reminds us not to sit around waiting for Jesus to come back without being actively involved in the world around us, to work for what we need when we are able and to keep doing what is right: the things Paul instructed in the first letter. And in all of this, Paul says, God will sanctify you. God will do the work of changing you from the inside out.
A few weeks ago, before church I was talking to someone who said “I have this desire to be hurtful or to say hurtful things, but I know it is wrong, how can that be Christlike?” and it was wonderful to say, but it is Christlike because Christ told you it was wrong – whereas before in your life, you might not have known! Over time, Jesus will help you keep growing to the point where your first response is a loving one, and that again, is how you know that God is at work.
Jesus has redeemed us. Jesus has offered us a new way, a better way, and Paul tells us that the promise of this is not in the ways we control ourselves for ourselves, but in the ways we control ourselves for everyone else.
Jesus commanded us to love God and love our neighbor. This is holiness: living out that love by controlling what we do that would hurt someone else.
This is what God teaches us, this is how the Holy Spirit works through us, this is how Jesus is seen in us:
2 Thessalonians 2:16 & 17
When I was a girl the hellfire and brimstone preachers would tell us that if we weren’t saved and sanctified, our eternal destination was damnation.
But Jesus told us to live fruitful lives and love our neighbors and stop being fearful. Jesus gave us the power to do that through the Holy Spirit.
Paul reminds us that while we definitely will be with Jesus after our death, that the actual goal of Christian faith and life is to show others a life of joy and thanksgiving – to live for others so completely that our sanctification is actually predicated much more on how we demonstrate that love for neighbor and not at all on whether or not we want to avoid hell.
All of scripture reminds us over and over that our job is to love as God loves and that we cannot do it on our own. The love letter that we have read from God doesn’t just give us some special insight into God’s love for us, but the love letter is for us to put into practice loving others exactly the same way.
Salvation and sanctification and eternal life are not about selfish motives or self-centered behavior that makes me somehow better than others. Instead it is always about how what we do and say changes others. We are not transformed for our own sakes: we are transformed into the living breathing epitome of hope that Jesus has for us so that we can give that hope away, every single day by living lives that are above reproach by the power of the Holy Spirit, not so we can feel better about who we are, but so that others might be able to recognize the need for Jesus in themselves.
As we have been doing every week in this series, I will remind you of what it looks like to say that the love of God is found in every page of Scripture. Follow along on your sheets and whenever I point at you say whatever is bolded on your page:
What does it mean to say God loves?
God loved us enough to create us, to form us from the dust.
God loved us enough to let us fail, to let us choose our own way over God’s – to let us chain ourselves to sin and defeat and heartbreak and sorrow and death.
God loved us enough to provide a rescue, a way back: through wanderers, murderers, adulterers, defaulters, promise-breakers, foreigners, strangers, and lovers.
God loved us enough to show us mothers, judges, kings, and prophets who loved and spoke for God and kept reminding us of the promise of redemption
God loved us enough to show us how evil and wrong continually mess things up and how obedience to God fosters holiness and bestows blessing
God loved us enough to send us Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, to preach and live peace, grace, hope, joy, and love.
God loved us enough to see Jesus rejected, to see him die, to see him buried.
God loved us enough to raise Jesus from the dead and send the Holy Spirit to remind us of all we have in him and empower us to live like Jesus.
God loves us enough to want us to live like Jesus – an abundant life infused with all the fruit of the Spirit, redeemed, free, loved.
God loves us enough to still let us choose our own destiny.
God loves us enough to promise the hope of forever, of resurrection from the dead, and final judgement.
God loved us enough, God loves us enough, God will always love us enough.
For God so loved the world…
God loves you.
God wants you to know it. God wants you to live in it.
God wants you to be able to love others because you know you are loved.
God’s love is expressed to us every week, most tangibly, as we gather at this table: The Son who died and yet lives, gave everything so we could know the depth of God’s love.
So, Come. Drink the wine. Eat the bread. Know you ARE loved.
God loves you. Go, love the world with him.