1 Thessalonians 5:1-18
The church in Thessalonica is fixated on when Jesus will come again. So fixated it consumes their thoughts and affects their actions in the world. A chapter earlier Paul has already addressed Christ coming with them, and described in detail what he believes will happen. He believes all who have died will join Christ, and the living will be caught up in the clouds together with the Lord forever. Today’s passage falls right after this explanation. Paul is reminding this church of Thessalonians that while they should have hope for Christ’s coming, they should not forget their calling in the here and now.
To help us better understand this passage and to connect us further with the church in Thessalonica, I want to give some background to the here and now of 1st Century Thessalonica. Located near the heart of the Roman Empire, Thessalonica was a city that had a rich influence of greek and roman culture. In the days of Paul’s letter, it was a city so loyal to the Emperor that it was given its own freedom to govern itself.
The church in Thessalonica was a new church development that Paul and his friends founded years earlier, and it was a church still figuring out what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ in a place where culture and politics stood in contrast to what they believed. In our reading today, Paul is pointing out one of the biggest contrasts between that culture of the city and the beliefs of the Thessalonian church…Security.
Being a loyal city to the Emperor, the culture of the city believed that the Emperor was the only true savior and source of peace. The Emperor was the source of all security. If you thought any other way you were considered a threat to the empire, and you were either excluded, oppressed, or killed. May we not forget that history tells us that Roman peace could only be achieved by force and threat of one's life and well being.
The church in Thessalonica and other churches in the empire were soon considered a threat because they openly proclaimed that Jesus Christ, not the emperor, is the source of salvation. They professed that God’s kingdom is ruled by Jesus Christ, ruled with love not force. They believed that God, not the emperor, is the source of peace and security.
Peace and security has been something every empire and every civilization has strived for in their existence, just maybe not in that order. While every empire has sought security, every individual craves it too. In 1954 psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow finalized his view of human’s hierarchy of needs. He argued the foundation of human needs, and the first and most important is physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest), but right after it was safety needs. We all want to feel safe and secure.
For followers of Christ a big question for the here and now is what is the church’s source of peace and security? The faithful answer, the one we know in our heart is that God’s love for us through Christ is the source of our peace and security. God’s love through Christ that endures all things is what claims us and reigns over all things. As a church we strive to put our faith and trust in good news of God’s love for us.
However, today’s story and history tells us there is another answer to this question about peace and security. There are these worldly things that turn our hearts from the faithful answer. In moments of fear we may veer towards the idols that bring a false sense of peace and security. The sad part of humanity is sometimes safety and security comes at a price. In order to feel safe and secure humans might go to an extreme. Groups of people and cultures choose to exclude, isolate, and oppress fellow humans, all so they can feel safe.
It may be even Christ’s followers begin to put the empire before God, power before love, greed before justice, fear before peace. In these moments we might find ourselves polarized from our purpose and calling as followers of Christ.
Paul makes reference to this polarization of the faithful in Thessalonica. He compares it to either being awake or being asleep. In the here and now we are either awake to our purpose of being children of the light and put our faith and security in God, or we have been lulled to sleep by idols that bring a false sense of security.
We are fresh off an election where our polarized culture and nation has once again been exposed. Because of this it might seem easy to read this text and say well the other side must be in the dark and my side must be in the light. Even among Christians we are polarized within our universal church and might be quick to throw out judgment and think these Christians are in the dark and these are in the light.
20th Century Theologian Karl Barth in his book Church Dogmatics points out well what we are to take away from this passage, especially as we read this text in a polarized culture. He writes “We cannot, therefore, define Christians simply as those who are awake while the rest sleep, but more cautiously [we define Christians] as those who constantly stand in need of reawakening” from “the sleep of all kinds of errors and fantasies, and falsehoods.” A great reminder that judgement is not the point of being people of the light, after all as Paul will proclaim later to the Romans, we all have sinned and we all fall short of the glory of God. Barth goes on to point out the awakening of Christians from sin to life is connecting to the story of the cross and the empty tomb. The story of sin and death shifts to a story of forgiveness and new life, and all of this is possible because of God’s love and grace for us through Christ.
This good news is highlighted by Paul in verse 9, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” God’s purpose is not wrath, but God’s purpose is love and grace that has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ. Love and grace is what defines our purpose as being children of the light. Love and grace is what we are able to lean on as our security blanket in a broken and fearful world.
With this good news in mind, Paul proclaims to the church in Thessalonica to “encourage one another and build up each other”. As people who are continually reawakened by God’s grace and love, we are asked to step out and remind each other that there is another way to live in the here and now. This other way to live in the here and now might be counter to the social, political, and religious voices of false securities that are based on power and fear; voices and idolatries, trying to drown out our voice and purpose of love. This other way to live in the here and now lets the Good News of God’s love encourage and build up each other.
The phrase build up comes up numerous times in Paul’s letters. It is worth noting that for Paul the phrase "build up” is not just about encouragement. In his letters to the Corinthians the phrase is used many times in moments when to build up each other means to loving hold each other’s actions accountable. To build up each other means to nurture someone who is struggling. To build up each other means to offer each other compassion and empathy.
I want to go back to Dr. Abraham Maslow and his pyramid of human needs. While humans might seek the basic needs of food, water, warmth, security, and safety, Dr. Maslow would tell you that the most important thing to people after those needs are met are the needs of love and belonging. He argues that love and belonging are the basis of our psychological needs.
I am not a psychologist and I do not want to negate the key work of Abraham Maslow, but I believe for us as Christians our pyramid of human needs is laid out differently. As Christians we proclaim that love and belonging is the foundation of our human needs.
Love and belonging starts with God loving us and claiming us through Christ. Today’s good news is that God loves us through Christ in the here and now and whether we feel we are walking in the light or walking in darkness, and because of God’s grace we will always belong to God. While we need the basic needs of food, shelter, warmth, and rest, if we are loving each other and holding firm to the belief we belong to each other than we will make sure that all have food, shelter, warmth, and rest. When love and belonging are the foundation of our identity with God and identity with one another, we reclaim the narrative in our culture of what makes us safe and secure. We proclaim to the world that God’s love and grace is the source of our security. We are able to stand in the security of God’s grace and turn away and stand against any power and principality that choses the false securities of exclusion, isolation, or oppression. We are able to stand in the security of God’s grace and offer our neighbor safety through actions of love, empathy, and justice.
May this good news of love and belonging that has been established by God through Christ be the foundation for how we tend to our polarized world of 2020. As we seek to live out our calling as people whose lives are defined by love and belonging to each other, may we remember Paul’s final words of encouragement to the Thessalonians for their christian life in the midst of a polarized here and now. May we stand in God’s grace and remember our calling to be at peace among ourselves. May we encourage the fainthearted, tend to and seek justice and compassion for the weak. May we seek to serve one another, rejoice always, and pray without ceasing. Knowing the good news that God’s love and grace claims us whether we are struggling to stay awake or walking in light, may we give thanks to God in all circumstances. Alleluia Amen