The Rev. Preston B. Hannibal
In about the year 51 or 52 CE the Apostle Paul was in Corinth and received word that the new and emerging Christian community in Thessalonica was concerned and anxious as to how they should go about living their lives and responding to the world around them as they awaited the second coming of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
As they understood their new faith the coming of Jesus was imminent and could happen at any moment so they wanted to make sure they were prepared.
To calm their anxieties and encourage the growth and development of this young community of faith Paul wrote them what we now call the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, the oldest book in the New Testament. This letter of instruction and encouragement to an emerging community of new believers is still relevant today as we, some 2000 years later try to understand what it means to await the coming of Christ in our time.
Yesterday in this Cathedral Church about one hundred and twenty people of varying ages, races and nationalities; our brothers and sisters in Christ stood before family, friends and the worshipping community in attendance to, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer: “Make a mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their baptism and to receive the laying on of hands by the bishop.”
This rite of affirmation and transformation, in one form or another, has been repeated in gatherings,—public and private, down through the ages.
Yesterday, at their confirmation, reception and reaffirmation they stood in solidarity with one another–our ancient forebearers, as well as all us who have dared to choose Christ and God’s church as their path for life.
For most of us to get to our confirmation day, our instruction and preparation was set in a rather orderly process that started with our Baptism.
But for our earliest forbearers the “making of a mature public affirmation of faith” often came with great risk, greater reward and an overwhelming sense of responsibility.
Paul writing to his friends and followers in Thessalonica had a special meaning to them as they daily struggled, really struggled, with what it meant to follow Jesus. They were a brand new community and had made a very good start but were constantly under attack for rejecting their former lifestyle and following Jesus. They had to deal with a secular world of Roman rule and Greek ethos that found their turning away from the normative environment of the day strangely odd and often suspicious.
Paul writes: “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
Paul commends the Thessalonian community for standing firm in their faith and supporting each other in their daily life and work, for being true to themselves and their beliefs.
At the briefing before yesterday’s confirmation service Bishop Ihloff, retired Bishop of Maryland, encouraged those he was about to confirm to live their new life in Christ, not only on Sunday but every day of the week. At home, at work, at play. To live it not only for themselves, but also for their families and friends; those they worked with and for the stranger. He went on to say, that is what the church needs; that is what the world needs; people of faith who are not afraid to live their faith 24/7. It’s not always easy and it’s not always fun. But it is what we are called to do.
The Christian watchfulness and wakefulness, the awareness that Paul advocates (and has been our theme over the last few Sundays), sounds strangely outmoded for a generation of Christians that lives nearly two thousand years removed from Paul’s letter and know full well that Christ has not yet returned!
But the watchfulness to which we are urged is not merely a matter of time. It is also a matter of importance. To actively watch for the second coming of Jesus, even two thousand years after its promise, is to confess that, as New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa has written, “God stands both at the beginning and end of human life and that humankind remains accountable to God for its behavior.”(Beverly Gaventa, et al. Texts for Preaching–Year A, WJK Press, pg. 568)
Earlier this year Sandi and I had the opportunity to travel with a group to Haiti on a mission trip. Daily we saw women and men of faith living their lives for others in the name of the Risen Christ. They were not ashamed or in the least bit reticent to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ as they worked to rebuild their homes, their church and their county.
Yet there will always be those who say that it is untenable or unrealistic to really follow the example of our biblical forebearers. This modern age simply won’t allow for such a religious focus. A superficial spirituality is all we really have time for. But they miss the point!! Our personal relationship with Jesus is the touchstone of our faith in the power of God to transform our lives. This is the energy that enables us to put our faith into action “by being mindful, watchful and attentive to God, self and each other.”
As the young community in Thessalonica waited anxiously for the return of their Lord and Savior, Paul advised them not to be passive, but to get on with their lives and be alert to what was going on, not only in their own lives but also in the lives of those around them. He said: “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sister, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night… So let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.
As we once again approach our season of Advent we are reminded that Paul’s hope for that Christian community is also the hope of our Christian community. The readings for the last few Sundays have all spoken of wakefulness, alertness, and the ability to correctly fathom the situation. Today we are called to that same alertness that Paul marks as the hallmark of the Thessalonians. Our introspection is only valid if it leads us to the confidence that enables us to turn outward and engage the world that Jesus came to save.
Though the letter is very much an effort to cheer on the ancient Thessalonians (and us, by extension), it is also meant to convey the importance of ongoing discernment, encouraging us to look at ourselves carefully so that we are always “awake” to God, self, and others. And if we aren’t “awake” to God, self, and others, we may need to understand what it is that we might do in order to bring ourselves out of the “sleep” that prevents us from being fully who God is calling and empowering us to become.”
So how we respond as members of the community of faith that follows Jesus is in many ways shaped by our understanding of who we are really are, and what God has called us to do.
We can follow the dictates and example of the world outside our doors where apathy and self-serving is elevated to cult status. Where the presence and purpose of a loving God is not in the equation. And if any notion God is present at all that notion has been reduced to an afterthought, not relevant to today’s secular culture.
Yet Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians has shown us that a faith community that builds on the example of Christ’s love for the world, and works to support each other as well as those they meet daily, exemplifies faith in action in the world given to their care.
When all is said and done we are left with this reality. Christ gives us the permission to accept who we are, as well as the authority and the power to transform our lives, so that through faith in his holy name, we may become agents of his reconciliation, and recipients of God’s peace until He comes again.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen