Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church. He has taught about the impact of the gospel in chapter 1, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ in chapter 2, and praying for each other to thrive spiritually in chapter 3. Then in chapter 4, he offered some truths that would make a difference in their lives. So now, in chapter 5, he lands the letter underlining some differences that the gospel makes for believers. In a sense, he has come full circle.
How is the church you preach to supposed to be different?
1. Not naïve, but alert & hopeful. How easily we can lose our bearings as believers. Especially as relatively comfortable believers. It is so easy to get caught up in the hype of our society and fall into the naïve trap of thinking, “there is peace and security.” After all, our country has been free and secure for generations. And the everyday stuff of life is carrying on as it has for as long as we can remember: the sports calendar, the TV series, the progression of seasons, the endless cycle of monotonous news, etc. Yes, our world is declaring certain destruction of the planet and will pat itself on the back for every effort to rescue our future from its terrible fate. Meanwhile, some of the loudest voices continue to buy their beachfront properties while proclaiming the scientific certainty of destructively rising sea levels. And so we must all play along with their panic. But despite all the shouts, most people still have a naïve confidence that nothing will actually change. The news is just noise. There is no credible threat to my safety and sense of peace.
And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 seems to expect Christians to be different. Christians are supposed to be marked by alertness, discernment, sobriety, readiness and hope. Our faith, hope and love are not typical of humanity in any age. We do not stand apart by pretending all is well or spouting nice Christian platitudes. This world is heading for sudden destruction and wrath. And amid a society that tinkers as the empire heats up, we know our salvation is in Christ, so we encourage and build one another up.
2. Not self-absorbed, but purposeful. How easily we can reflect the relational dynamics of our fallen world. When selfish materialism gripped society, it was easy for Christians to play that game with a smug sense of sanctification (God is blessing me!) What if society is now becoming enchanted by a new, but still self-serving, moral ideology? Well, it will also be easy for Christians to play that game. Many already are. We only need to learn hypersensitivity to certain moral trigger concepts and remember to celebrate brand-new self-defined and unquestionable identities. The morality of intersectional identity politics is replacing the ethics of liberal democracy. However, Christians will still simply add a Bible verse to their version of it and fit right in.
And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 seems to expect Christians to be different. Like many in the New Testament, this passage describes a community gripped by a counter-cultural perspective that shapes a more purposeful and selfless set of relational dynamics. Instead of a subtle rebellion against leadership, there is to be respect, esteem and love. Instead of interpersonal squabbling, whether the garden fence gossiping of yesteryear or the proactive and unfiltered taking of offence and wholesale interpersonal condemnation of today, Paul’s language of living at peace is radically different. And instead of using the community for my selfish goals (think classic networking in strategic gatherings or contemporary social narcissism on the media platform of your choice), the Christian community differentiates need among people so it can selflessly address each need. A loving Christian community should feel radically different.
3. Not worldly, but distinctly His. How easily we can lose our distinctness as followers of Jesus. We are like fish swimming in a spiritually fallen fish tank and still assume what we experience is normal. And since our experience defines normality, our conduct will tend to reflect it. We compete. We get our own back. We moan. We can be prayerless, thankless, and unspiritual. We can live only by what we see. We can indulge.
And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:15-28 seems to be urging us to be different. There are instructions that counter the list of normal behaviours listed above. And there is the closing benediction, where Paul prays that the God of peace will sanctify, set apart, make holy, transform, and distinguish. How much? Completely. How blameless? Every aspect of our being. And is that transformation down to us? No, God is faithful and will surely do it. The Christian church should be radically and progressively more different because we are not called to fix ourselves, but we are called by the One who can bring about the necessary change in us.