1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Last Sunday after Trinity
2.10.2023 St Barbara’s
Rev Jeremy Bevan
We were away in Herefordshire for a few days this week. And while we were there, I wrote
a few postcards. As it turned out, my three cards together were about as long as that
reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica. But any similarity between his letter
and my postcards ends there. I wrote about what we’d seen and done; Paul tells us nothing
of what he’s been up to. I didn’t leave enough space to ask after the people I was writing to;
Paul can hardly stop talking about the Thessalonians who’ll be getting his letter.
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, in northern Greece, is thought to be the oldest of his
letters in our New Testament. It was probably written from Corinth (further south) between
50 and 52 AD, not long after his preaching in Thessalonica both caused a riot, and led to the
founding of a church there (all described in Acts chapter 17). But why should we bother with
a letter two thousand years old? Can it possibly still be relevant to us? Paul gives three good
reasons why it might be, and in the process, shows us what a great model the Thessalonians
are for Christians living in any age.
Firstly he looks back, and gives thanks for their faith, love and hope. And these are not
vague emotions or qualities, far from it. They have practical, tangible effects among the
people and in the city around them. Their faithful commitment to Jesus has expressed itself
in what Paul calls their labour, or hard toil. The way the early followers of the way of Jesus
lived their lives got them noticed: they shared what they had, caring especially for the poor,
the sick, and for the least: babies left to die on city rubbish tips, for example. “See how
these Christians love one another”, was how one early commentator put it. It was hard
work, no doubt; to their neighbours, perhaps puzzling or just plain odd. But amid all that,
they were rock-steady, convinced that they were building a new way, the kingdom of God,
that Jesus would rule over on his return. And this hope was so much more than a blind
optimism, or finger-crossing. It built on a conviction that the Holy Spirit of God had been at
work in Paul’s preaching as he called the Thessalonians to follow in the footsteps of Jesus,
whom God had convincingly raised from the dead.
What about us? Imagine we got a letter like Paul’s. Would we recognise ourselves described
this way? What has our faithful commitment to Jesus been producing for people around us?
How has our love for him prompted us to labour hard? And when the going gets tough, how
tough has our hope been, how unwavering our conviction that what we’re doing matters in
God’s long-term plans? Some of us here will perhaps find it hard to hear, to really hear, God
say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But that was in effect the message God gave the
Thessalonians through Paul, prompted by their faith, love and hope. If that “Wel done”
could ring out then, why not today, too?
Secondly, Paul tells his hearers in Thessalonica some fresh news about the effect their faith
is having. In a world without tourism, newspapers or the internet, they had no way of
knowing they were making a big noise all over Greece. In 1908, there was a huge meteor
explosion in remote northern Siberia. It made a noise so loud that people heard it as far
away as London, a continent away. Jesus’ Thessalonian followers have had an effect rather
like that, Paul says. But that doesn’t mean they’ve become in-your-face, shouty, impossible-
to-ignore ‘religious bores’. No. Rather, it’s because they’ve followed an example. “You
became imitators of us and of the Lord”, says Paul in the passage. In doing that, they’ve
become an example to believers – up and down Greece. That word ‘example’ in Greek at the
time described the image produced when an engraved die was stamped onto a piece of
metal. It’s as though Jesus’ Thessalonian followers have been indelibly marked with his
Again, what about us? How indelibly marked in us is the character of Jesus? Are we, in a way
of speaking, ‘on show, but not showy’? Does something of Jesus sound forth from us in such
a way that the world can’t help but hear, couldn’t help but notice?
Finally, Paul looks forward. He sets before the Thessalonians a vision to inspire them to keep
going, even under the fierce heat of persecution from fellow-citizens. In the ancient world, it
was normal to worship idols. Turning away from that would look disloyal, even treacherous,
towards gods that most people believed protected the city and prospered it. It was up to
the Thessalonian followers of Jesus to show a better way: keep on serving a true, and living,
God while devoting themselves to the welfare of the city as best they knew how. A difficult
line to walk, to be sure – but if the living God, responsive throughout history to the
circumstances of God’s people, has got your back, it’s definitely doable.
What about us? How are we waiting for the coming, resurrected Jesus? Walking the line in a
world increasingly indifferent, or hostile, to him? Not passively waiting, like waiting for a
bus, but actively awaiting? Expectant? And in the meantime, getting on with whatever faith,
love and hope prompt us to do and to be?
Paul’s opponents in Thessalonica claimed his preaching was turning the world upside down.
His letter to the Thessalonian followers of Jesus, with all it describes about their response to
the gospel, suggests the opponents may have had a point. As we follow Jesus’ example here
at the heart of Earlsdon, stamped indelibly with his mark, may our commitment to him keep
on turning our world upside down – at school, at work, in the local community. Showing that
we have real, solid grounds for hope where many have no hope. Paul was able to give
thanks for all that the Thessalonians were doing, all that they were becoming in Christ.
Whether or not we have someone like Paul to give thanks for us, may we too hear God’s
gratitude: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”