By Ray Trygstad
A Sermon for October 10, 1996
Wesley United Methodist Church, Naperville, Illinois, USA
Yesterday we went for a walk on the Riverwalk. It was a beautiful day; I
hope you all had the chance to get out. Anyway, as we walked along the river
bank, we noticed some ducks in a rough water section of the river. They couldn't
just sit there; they had to keep paddling just to stay in one spot. If they
stopped for a moment, they would be swept down river by the swiftly flowing
This is the situation that the fledgling Christian congregation in Thessolonica
found itself in. As the story unfold in the seventeenth chapter of Acts,
Paul had come to Thessolonica after he was freed from prison in Philipi by
an earthquake. He spent about three weeks in Thessolonica before persecution
of his new converts to Christianity got so bad that he had to leave the city
for his own safety. He sent Timothy back from Corinth and when Timothy returned
to tell of the trials that the Thessolonians were going through, Paul felt
moved to write them his first pastoral letter, part of what we now call the
epistles (after the Greek word for "letter") . He intended to bolster their
faith in the face of great persecution. Just like the ducks in the DuPage
River, the Thessolonians had to keep paddling just to stay in place. They
were new Christians; many of them were Greek converts, who did not have the
benefit of a strong scriptural knowledge held by many of the Jewish converts.
They were in a city filled with sin and immoral practices, and were trying
to conform their lives to their status as new men and women in Jesus Christ.
The temptations were very strong, but they were learning how to draw on their
faith to enable them to resist.
In this letter, Paul starts by telling the members of this congregation just
how he feels about them, and how he views their relationship with God. In
the last half of the letter, he gives them some very practical advice about
how to live in a society that does not share their values.
Paul starts by telling them that he was well aware of their work of faith,
labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. In fact, these three things that
mark the believers in Thessolonica are also the basis of the first three
chapters of this letter: the work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness
of hope. Even before we get to the rest of the epistle, though, these are
detailed in verses 9 and 10: we read that they "turned to God from idols"
was the work of faith, turning to God from the pagan idols they had worshipped;
"to serve a living and true God" was the labor of love, the act of making
themselves available as instruments of God's love; "to wait for His Son from
heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath
to come." was the their steadfastness of hope, waiting patiently for Christ's
This hope is the key to what sustained the Thessolonians. In an archaeological
excavation of a first-century cemetery in Thessolonica, archeologists discovered
among the pagan tombstones one that read "no hope". But there in first century
Thessolonica there were those with hope, hope of eternal salvation through
Paul tells these folks that they were "chosen of God", and that the gospel
that they had received came not in words only but in power and in the Holy
Spirit. He then praises them for being "imitators of the Lord", through their
labor of love spreading the word of God in the face of "much tribulation".
This is a vibrant and growing church, precisely because of this work of faith,
labor of love, and steadfastness of hope.
When the magistrates of Thessolonica could not locate Paul and Silas, they
dragged a member of the congregation before the authorities shouting "these
people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and
Jason has entertained them as guests". They thought this was an insult: "these
people who have turned the world upside down". But really, that's the point,
isn't it? To "turn the world upside down" is not an insult; we as Christians
are not meant to conform to the world but to make the world as uncomfortable
about their values as Jesus and Paul did.
Today no one is beating us up or stealing our property for being Christians.
On the other hand, we still encounter a great deal of the same hedonistic,
immoral society that plagued the first century Thessolonians. Sometimes it
seems as though "society" is trying to steal one of our most precious things
from us: not our land or our possessions, but our children. We are barraged
with images and ideals that seem to always run against the grain of our belief
and our children are all too often the objects of ridicule for attempts to
be "imitators of Christ". And this is hardest on this kids, just like the
Thessolonians, whose faith was new and who were just learning what it means
to follow Jesus Christ. But what can we do? Will we be ducks too, paddling
constantly just to stay in one spot?
We have to be "imitators of the Lord": not slavish imitators, in hope of
reward for our efforts at being good, but rather acting as men and women
transformed by the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It is this grace (folks
who know me know that I am "big" on grace) that allows us to act as God would
have us. And through our imitation of the Lord, we can convey to our children
a true Christian life, one of love and compassion and obedience to God's
will. How can we do this? BECAUSE....because God has provided us the same
thing he provided the Thessolonians: the Good News not in word only but in
power and the Holy Spirit. It is this power, the power of the Holy Spirit,
the power God grants us through prayer and praise and faith, that allows
us to be transformed, to be imitators of Paul and Silas, and of our Lord.
To help the Thessolonians (and us as well) with this effort, Paul offers
some very plain-spoken advice in this letter. Chapters four and five, the
practical section of this letter, are divided into four brief sections which
take up the problems that were confronting this church. The first exhortation
the apostle gives is to live cleanly in the midst of a carnal society.
These words have great importance to us who have to live in the same kind
of society today, and he begins by reminding them that he had taught them
how to live (verse 1):
Finally, brethren, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you
learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are
doing, you do so more and more.
He had not taught them, as many people think Christianity teaches, that they
ought to live a good, clean life. Buddhism teaches that. And most other faiths
teach that you ought to live a moral life. But that alone is not what
Christianity says; here, Paul teaches us how to live a good, clean life!
And Paul reminds the Thessolonians that he had taught them "how to please
Now, what is it that pleases God? What one quality of life is essential to
please God? Faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God. A life of
expectation that the God who lives in you will manifest his life through
you is the kind of life that pleases God. It isn't a life of your efforts,
struggling to live up to a standard that you've imposed upon yourself, or
someone else has imposed upon you. It is a life in which you are constantly
dependent upon the one who indwells you, to keep you able to do and to be
what you ought to be.
This kind of life results, then, in a purity that is practiced. If Christians
are practicing impurity, that is a clear revelation that they are not practicing
a life of faith. But purity practiced is the sign of the principle perceived.
For this is the will of God, [even] your sanctification: that you abstain
from immorality; [that is the will of God] that each of you know how to take
a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like
heathen who do not know God; that no man transgress, and wrong his brother
in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we
solemnly forewarned you. For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in
holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God,
who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
It is very clear, isn't it? We are told how to live cleanly.
The second problem he takes up is the matter of living honestly, in verses
9 through 12 of chapter four. They are to show love toward one another, and
the practical manifestation of that is for every man to get busy and work
with his hands and not have to depend upon somebody else for support; rather,
...to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands...so that you may
command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody.
That's practical, isn't it?
After this large section on how to live a life that pleases God, he tells
Be at peace amongst yourselves...admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted,
help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil
with evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
A pretty scathing indictment of the all-to-common practice in our society
of "getting even"; this is an attitude that is worldly thinking, clearly
outside the grace and truth and love of Jesus Christ.
Finally Paul has some parting advice for them, which serves equally well
as parting advice for us here today:
Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this
is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
And after various other admonitions, his final prayer for them is beautiful:
May the God of peace himself [dwelling in you] sanctify you wholly; and may
your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of
our Lord Jesus Christ.
Well, I'm not sure my comparison with ducks is the most apt here, but I can
tell you this...God, through the apostle Paul has thrown us an oar here,
in the form of some specific sound and sensible advice. Unlike the ducks,
we are not alone in our swim against the current, and we know that the Lord
will give us the strength and the tools to keep us from being swept down
Copyright 1996 Raymond E. Trygstad; all rights reserved. May be copied
and distributed freely in its entirety if accompanied by this statement.
Copyright 1999 Ray Trygstad, Naperville, Illinois