Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.1 Thessalonians 1:1-3
I think it is striking that five of the most important words in our Christian life all show up at the very beginning of what is most likely the earliest piece of writing in the New Testament. At the very beginning of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonian, he introduces these five words: Grace, Peace, Faith, Hope, and Love. So I thought today we could look at these five words, and see how they connect to each other, and to our Christian life.
But to do this, I need to tell you a little bit about Thessalonica, the city that Paul writes this letter to. Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. It was a place, like most places in the Roman Empire, that demanded allegiance to the Roman emperor. Rome offered peace and security, but it came at a high price. Its citizens had to pledge their ultimate allegiance to this government. They could worship other gods, but they also had to worship the emperor.
Early Christians, including those in Thessalonica, refused to do this. They insisted on worshiping only the God and Father of their Lord Jesus Christ. And because of that, they were persecuted. They didn’t care. They were going to be loyal to the one that they knew was the one and only God. They would give to the emperor the things that were the emperor’s – they would pay their taxes, and be good citizens of Rome. But when Rome asked them to go against their Christian faith, they refused. They would not give to the emperor what was, and is, God’s.
Paul was proud of this community of faithful Christians in Thessalonica, and so wrote this letter to encourage them. And I believe that his words and the witness of these Christians in Thessalonica have much to teach us today, as we strive to live out our Christian faith.
Grace and Peace
Paul begins this letter with the greeting that you hear from me every Sunday morning, and the first two of those five important words in our Christan life: “Grace to you and peace.” I love these words and this greeting for many reasons. First, simply because it is uniquely Christian. Even the way we say good morning is different from the rest of the world. But I also love this greeting because it sums up so much of what our God gives to us in just two words, Grace, and Peace.
The Roman Empire also summed up what it offered in two words: “Peace and security.” Being loyal to Rome meant you would have peace and security. Two things that we all want, even today. We continue to live in an insecure world. We continue to be threatened by this virus that has so changed our world. Threatened by an economy that has been devastated by this virus, especially for people who were already struggling to make ends meet. Threatened by racial injustice, civil unrest, and a government that has disappointed many people, regardless of their political leanings. And many of us are concerned for how our country will respond to the election next month, no matter who wins. So, “peace and security” is a very appealing offer, then and now.
But what God offers is something far better, more eternal, and more reliable than any peace or security our world can offer. God offers us Grace and Peace. Grace, the priceless, free gift of our salvation in Jesus Christ, is what God offers, rather than worldly security. And the Peace of God which surpasses all understanding, as we were reminded of last week. The peace that the world cannot give, and so the world also can’t take it away.
Emperors and politicians of every era offer peace and security, but they are fleeting and of this world, if they are delivered at all. Our God offers us grace and peace, the pearls of great price. And when we experience the grace and peace of God, we don’t need the peace and security of this world. Because we have something far better. An incredible gift from our amazing God. So how can we give thanks for this gift? By the way we live our lives. And that is where these next three words come in.
Faith, Love, and Hope
Right after opening his letter with a greeting offering grace and peace, Paul praises the Thessalonians for their “work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfastness of hope.” Faith, hope and love should sound familiar. Paul also writes of them in his letter to the Corinthians, and elsewhere. One way to thank God for the gift of grace and peace, is to offer to God what is God’s: Our faith, our hope, and our love. To place our faith and trust in God. To anchor our hope in God. And to love, above all else, our loving God. These are ways to give thanks to God for the grace and peace we are given, and to live out our lives in response. Through what Paul describes here as our “work of faith, our labor of love, and our steadfastness of hope.”
Faith, love, and hope. Not, by the way, faith, hope, and love. The order is different, and I think that is intentional, and significant. Because often the last one named in a list is the most important.
To the Corinthians, Paul saves love for last. The greatest of these, Paul tells the Corinthians, is love. That was a congregation that needed to learn how to love another. A very divided congregation, with conflict raging, and people taking sides and bickering with one another. But the congregation in Thessalonica is a very different congregation. Love was not their greatest need. Their greatest need, the one that Paul saves for last, is hope.
Remember, this was a persecuted congregation, who refused to give to the emperor what was and is God’s. They “turned from idols and served a living and true God and waited for his Son from heaven,” to quote Paul. And as a result they were persecuted for their faith. They needed faith and love, to be sure. But above all, they needed hope.
Which Is Our Greatest Need?
So, what about us? What do we need most? What does our country need most right now? As we look around our country, we can see clearly that we need faith. Ours is a country that is more and more secular and less and less Christian, placing our ultimate trust in many things other than God. We need faith. But we also need love, don’t we? For ours is also a country that is more and more divided, more hurtful and hateful than I can recall. We need love. And then there is hope. We need that, too, don’t we? Our country, and our world, certainly needs hope now, as much as ever.
So, clearly our country needs all of these, faith, love, and hope. But I’m not preaching to our country today. I am preaching to you and to me. So the more pressing question for us is: What do we need most? Faith, love, or hope? What do you need most?
Suppose it is faith. Suppose that what you need more than hope or love is faith. What does Paul say about that? In this second reading, he gives praise to the Thessalonians for their “work of faith.” Faith, in other words, takes work. It takes worshiping, for example, as you are doing now. Honoring the sabbath day, by hearing God’s word, and responding in prayer. It takes, perhaps, spending a little less time focused on the news, and a little more time reading God’s Word. It takes prayer. Think of our faith like a plant. A plant needs water and sunshine. Our faith needs nurturing, too. Time spent with God’s word, in worship, in prayer. These nurture the gift of our faith. If faith is the greatest need that you see, then nurture your faith, and share it with others.
But suppose that you feel your greatest need, on the other hand, is love. What does Paul say about that? He praises the Thessalonians for their “labor of love.” Not work, but labor. When we think of labor, we might think of a woman giving birth. That’s clearly more than work, right? The word Paul uses for labor means “arduous, wearying toil.” And the word for love that Paul uses here is agape, a word that means to give oneself away for another. So the labor of love is to give oneself away for the other, again and again, and this can be arduous, even wearying. That’s what makes it love, right? If love is the greatest need that you see, then devote yourself to the hard word of loving God and loving neighbor with everything that you’ve got.
And, then, there is hope. As Christians, we are people of hope. But perhaps that is what you see as the greatest need, in your life and in this world. To have real confidence in the future again, for all of us to trust the future to God, with all of our heart. Paul describes it in this letter as the “steadfastness of hope.” Or the endurance of hope. Hope is a marathon, you might say, not a sprint. To be hopeful, we need endurance. And like faith, hope needs nurturing. Spending time with God’s word. Maybe posting hopeful scripture verses around your home, or memorizing them. Spending time with other Christians who are hope-filled. If hope is what you see as our greatest need, then nurture your hope, and share it with those around you.
Faith, love and hope. Like grace and peace, these are gifts from God. Not the emperor. And Jesus challenges us today to give to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21). We who have received grace from God, and peace, are invited to give to God our faith, our hope, and our love: To work at our faith, to labor in our love, and to remain steadfast in our hope. And to share these gifts with God, by sharing them with others. Helping those around us to have more faith, and more love, and more hope.
So, again I say to you: Grace to you and peace. And may our God bless you, in your work of faith, in your labor of love, and in your steadfastness of hope. Amen