Agony and Elation
Agony and Elation – Click to Listen
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Sometimes we need a cheerleader. We need someone to come along and tell us that it’s going to be okay, that we are enough, that we are competent, and should be confident – we need someone to show us that we are strong and being strengthened by Christ.
Even just a couple of months ago, in September, I had one of these conversations with a mentor of mine. He said, “Sometimes it is hard to see the light above your own head.” It was exactly what I needed to hear at the moment. It was the exact encouragement I needed to keep moving forward.
That’s where the Thessalonian Church is this morning. But their pastor is in exile in Athens. They are so angry with Paul that he couldn’t even come to visit, he couldn’t be near to them. But even as they struggle to get along, Paul is gracious and offers them encouragement. He tells a story about them. A story that has been given to him by Timothy. It goes like this: “I was worried that you needed me to be there and I wasn’t, but Timothy told me that you are strong, that nothing has separated from your faith and from your faithfulness. Thank God for you!”
Even in his hurt and disappointment, Paul gives them a message of hope and of love for them. We don’t know what their response was to their exiled pastor, but I like to think that this began the work of reconciliation. Maybe they responded in hope that he would make the trip from Athens to be with them again. Maybe they encouraged him in return. Maybe this was the spark that brought forth a revival in Thessaloniki.
As you listen to Paul’s letter, hear your own need for encouragement. What are the ways that you are desperate to hear that everything is okay? Where do you need hope in your abilities? Who do you need to make peace with?
Listen for hope. Listen for help. Listen for restoration.
1 Thessalonians 3 (NRSV)
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for. In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution; so it turned out, as you know. For this reason, 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.
But 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. For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
There are moments in life that feel like they should change everything that follows. They feel like they should happen and then our lives are totally different afterward. But, then, it isn’t true. We aren’t as different as we might have hoped.
I felt like that after graduating high school and college, both. At least, I did for a little while afterward. We even have a picture of me somewhere, dressed in my cap and gown, pretending to throw away my diploma. I had done everything I was supposed to do. This was supposed to be the culminating moment of all of my hard work, the moment I was meant to feel like adult, but I felt more confused than ever, afterward. I was just talking to a friend who felt remarkably similar when he graduated with his Ph.D. He looked at his diploma and thought to himself, “So this is what nine years looks like.”
There are so many moments that fall flat in light of the expectation that we come to them with. But there are also moments that are so meaningful that we truly will never be the same afterward. There are a few moments in life that change who you are, change your life, your goals, change you at your very core. It’s like God has begun creating within you again – maybe even recreating you by the story you tell about it. There are mountain top stories. Victory stories. “I was lost but now I’m found” stories.
A moment that was that kind of life-changing for me, that I think almost everyone understands, is becoming a parent….
The day Katherine was born is burned deeply into my memory. It feels like I will never forget a single nanosecond of that day. But especially right when the nurse handed her to me. She had the meanest little look on her face. It’s the same face she still makes now when I’m in the middle of annoying her. That moment is going to live in me until I die.
Another day for me was when the bishop laid hands on me and made me a pastor. John Farley, our District Superintendent, came up to me and said, “Turn on the camcorder behind your eyes; you don’t want to miss a thing today.” And he was right. I won’t forget anything.
The thing that these two moments have in common is that, once they were over, they left me with more responsibility than I had before. Before Katherine was born, I wasn’t a parent. Her birth changed who I was. I was now responsible for her and for her wellbeing and her growth. Likewise, when I was made a pastor by the bishop, it came with the responsibility of being your pastor. I already knew I was coming here and, though I didn’t know you yet, there was weight in the bishop’s hands that included you. He is a small man and his hands felt as heavy as concrete as he prayed over me. It was the weight of God-given responsibility.
This weight is what Paul was talking about in Thessalonians. There is sense in which some have not experienced the gospel, faith in Christ, as having much weight. They have not experienced the concrete heaviness of the experience of Christ in their lives and it feels like a bait and switch. Like, “I was told I would be different if I gave my life over to this God.”
Some have experienced Christ in this way, but they thought that when they chose Christ, it would get easier and it didn’t. It got harder, actually. They may have misunderstood the gospel as only being good news. But the truth is, sometimes good news can feel like bad news. The joy of a new baby comes with the cost of changing diapers and lost sleep. I can tell you from experience: that part feels like bad news. The joy of being a pastor comes with the cost of really hard work. And, though most days it feels like good news, there are days that it feels like bad news. Paul says, being Christian comes with the cost of responsibility. Though grace is free. Though grace brings freedom… the cost is seeing the world as it is.
As a result, some are hoping for a deeper meaning in their life in Christ and others are hoping for an easier life because of Christ, but either way, the church is struggling.
Most people in Thessaloniki were very religious. They worshipped many gods. Interesting enough, early Christians, in polytheistic spaces like Athens and like Thessaloniki, were called atheists. That is “a,” meaning without, and “theos,” meaning God. Without God. In a community that valued worshipping many gods, serving only one made you an atheist.
The Thessalonians, before they were Christian, they probably were involved in many religious festivals that all of their neighbors were still a part of.
But Paul has taught them that they cannot serve Christ and other gods. Even if it is only the fun, civic stuff. They can only serve Christ. That means that there is the responsibility, the weight, of not being able to participate in things that they used to.
The women of the church would have been a part of an annual fertility festival, worshipping the goddess Persephone’s mother, Demeter. This would have been like our Fourth of July celebrations, but only for women, and it included worship and homage to this goddess, Demeter. Paul would have probably taught the women not to go. And their absence would have stuck out in their communities. People would have noticed.
Worse, in a world that believed that communal worship of the fertility god is the only thing keeping the fields growing wheat, people would have been angry with them. They would have thought that these Christians were putting them at risk because what if this goddess took it as a slight and stopped growing food for them. They would have pressured these Christian women to continue being a part of these festivities.
Like, think for a second, if you are polytheistic, that means you believe in a lot of gods, then what is one more god to you? The Thessalonian neighbors would not have had any problem with them serving Christ. They might have even been willing to join in, but they would not have been okay giving up their idolatry. They just expected that they would also worship all of the other gods well. If they didn’t, then there might not be a harvest and they all die of famine. Or if they don’t worship the god of war, then their enemies might come and take them away as slaves. Each of these gods and their worship played an important part of how their society ran.
We think we are a persecuted people as Christians, sometimes, but our neighbors don’t think that our unwillingness to worship their gods will literally kill them. The Thessalonian neighbors did believe that. They were persecuted. By choosing Christ, they were losing their families, their friends, and their lifestyles. In choosing Christ, the Thessalonians chose persecution.
But Paul is to them that cheerleader that we all hope to have. He sees the good things that they are doing, even from afar, even when they are mad at him, even when he can’t be with them, he is their cheerleader. He lifts up the accomplishment of continuing to seek Christ even when the going is rough. Even when faith feels too superficial or too heavy. He can’t help but give thanks for them and for their inspiring him to keep on going.
He says, “ In the middle of our trouble and hard times here, just knowing how you’re doing keeps us going. Knowing that your faith is alive keeps us alive. What would be an adequate thanksgiving to offer God for all the joy we experience before him because of you?” (3:8-9, MSG). They are the best witness to God’s faithfulness for him. Their faithfulness to Christ serves as encouragement for Paul. He feels better just knowing that they are well.
We don’t know how Paul was feeling when he was writing. If we asked him, as John Wesley was known to do, “How is it with your soul?” I can’t help but think that Paul writes to his church in Thessaloniki with low spirits. He can’t feel good about his relationship with them. He may not even feel good about his relationship with God at the moment, but he can look to them and know that God is working with or without him. He can see their faith and know that God is going to work. They are a living testimony to the living God.
So, whether they feel like the weight of their faith has come up a little light, or whether their faith has caused their backs to break because of the weight, they are a testimony to God’s faithfulness. They are standing in the face of persecution and refusing to back down. They struggle and they labor, but they don’t give up. And for that Paul gives thanks for their witness to faith and to Christ’s faithfulness. Without them, Paul might not make it.
Searching for meaning and faith and Christ’s faithfulness together, we can witness to each other and be witnessed to. That’s what is so powerful about our Bible studies and theological studies. When we seek Christ together, we know that we are all in the trenches of faith together, we know that your struggles are mine, and I might have an answer for how I have coped with a sense of faith that has felt too heavy or that is lacking in depth. You might know how Christ has worked in you to bring you to the other side of those struggles. Like Paul says to the Thessalonians: we really do need each other for this journey we are on. And so look to your left and to your right and know that these are your sisters and brothers in faith, your travel companions on this faith journey.
May we go onward together, in faith in Christ Jesus, and never leave each other exiled, never leave each other behind. Amen.
Larry Hurtado, “When Christians Were Atheists,” 2016