“Spreading the Good News” Colchester Federated Church, October 18, 2020, (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10) Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Today we’re beginning a new letter from Paul in the Lectionary—the letter that he wrote with his companions in ministry, Timothy and Silvanus, to the Christian community in Thessalonica.  New Testament scholars often date this letter to 49-51 C.E. meaning that it was written just two decades after Jesus died.  It’s Paul’s earliest letter and 1 Thessalonians is the earliest book written in the entire New Testament.  Now Thessalonica was an important city, the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia (modern-day Greece) and this was a community with whom Paul was quite familiar.  In fact, Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus founded the Christian community here. 

Unlike some of Paul’s letters that he wrote because the Christian community in other places were internally fighting, listening to false teachers, or otherwise misbehaving—this letter to the Thessalonians is full of encouragement.  The main issue that Paul wants to address (which we will talk about in Sundays to come) is that people were worried about folks in their community dying before Jesus returned to bring about the salvation of all the world.  They wondered what to do as they waited for the coming of the Lord and faced hardships of their own.  The whole letter (with Paul being the primary author) is about hope, it’s about remaining faithful and allowing ourselves to have courage from our future expectations for the salvation of the world.  Hope that things are going to get better is something that we could probably all use these days.[1]

The letter begins with a greeting to the church from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy and the extension of grace and peace through God.  Praising the community in Thessalonica  begins immediately—praise for their good work which comes from faith, their effort which comes from love, and their perseverance which comes from hope in Jesus.  One of the most interesting verses in this first chapter comes near the end, “People tell us about what sort of welcome we had from you and how you turned to God from idols.  As a result, you are serving the living and true God, and you are waiting for his Son from heaven.”[2] 

This verse is specifically about how this Gentile congregation rejected pagan gods and the idols that represented those gods and instead worshiped our God.  Though this must have been difficult given their cultural context and perhaps their families of origin. Their new religious practices as followers of Jesus sometimes led to the “great suffering” that Paul and his companions reference in 1 Thessalonians.  Because worshiping only God and reorienting one’s life, turning away from the idols that would make people veer off course, that’s not simple and easy.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to drag on into this seventh month, there’s been any number of articles written about how our individual lives are changing and how our society as a whole has changed or will change.  There was an article on none other than Johns Hopkins’ website about how to keep relationships healthy during the coronavirus pandemic.  With recommendations such as maintaining self-care and a routine, being aware of substance use and abuse, using the time to make things better, asking for help when you need it (because mental health is inevitably being affected in this time of crisis), and also making a plan for a relationship in crisis.[3] 

We’ve also heard that domestic violence has worsened during the pandemic.  There’s been conversations about the divorce rate going up.  Conversations about the effects that the pandemic will have on children who are dealing with Covid anxiety on top of all the anxiety that can come with school and adolescence anyway.  Not to mention issues relating to employment—unemployment, underemployment, changing jobs during these tumultuous times.  There are all sorts of stories in various media outlets about how the pandemic is playing out not just from a medical perspective, but how this is unfolding in our personal lives and in our society as a whole.  It’s a lot.

There is a great deal of uncertainty about the future.  We just don’t know what the future holds.  The truth is that we never know exactly what the future will hold, though that feeling has been heightened in 2020.  Uncertainty and anxiety about the future are themes that we will continue to engage with in 1 Thessalonians because the earliest Christians were dealing with some of these issues as well.  Maybe their circumstances and the advice they received from Paul in particular has something to say to us. 

Though it’s worth thinking about how this pandemic may be revealing some of our own idols in our own life and society that we may leave behind in order to focus on what truly matters.  To become imitators of Christ and live lives of faithfulness as Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus wrote to the earliest Christians in Thessalonica. 

Here’s one example—sometimes folks wear being busy as a badge of honor.  The calendar is full of events, free time is hard to find.  And this overly committed “full” schedule can weigh on a person after awhile (speaking from personal experience having been there professionally a time or two.)  Perhaps the pandemic is making us realize that being busy can sometimes be a false idol of self-importance as we fall into patterns of thinking that we’re irreplaceable and no one can do what we do.  When in fact, we may be taking up a spot that another person with plenty of their own gifts could fill and find fulfillment in doing so. 

Or we may find that there are certain commitments that are changing—the commitment increasing or decreasing in time and energy demands.  Maybe there are events or groups that we miss being part of and maybe there’s some things that we aren’t missing all that much.  Just this week here at church I’ve had conversations with people about missing being in person for worship, the Holly Fair, singing in the choir, coffee hour in the Stage Room, and just being all together physically with everyone in our congregation.  Those are just some of the conversations from this week about how the pandemic has changed what we do at church.  We can pay attention to what we’re missing because that says something about what feeds our spirits and sustains us.  We can ask what helps us keep the faith, give and receive love, and persevere in the face of adversity.  Because it’s those life-giving people, organizations, events, and commitments that help us be the people God is calling us to be.  And even though so much has changed—thanks be to God for those life-giving gifts that remain part of our lives.  Amen.

[1] David G. Horrell, Introduction to The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with The Apocrypha, 4th Edition, 2074-2075.
[2] 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, Common English Bible.
[3] Chris Kraft, PhD, “How to Keep Your Relationship Healthy During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” May 1, 2020, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/keep-healthy-relationship-during-pandemic