St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 21st September 2014
Reading – 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
What is a heresy?
If you ever have the privilege of studying church history, you will soon learn that over the centuries there have been a whole variety of heresies, each with own impressive sounding name. Some of them refer to issues of a bygone age; some of them address questions which are very topical such as: Who is Jesus? Can God suffer? And although it may sound very dry and dusty work studying these heresies, by the end I find I am profoundly gratefully for those men and women who contended for the faith and passed it on intact to the next generation.
Today however I want to look a heresy which doesn’t have a fancy name or is simply a matter of historical interest. In fact it’s a heresy which I don’t think has any particular name, and which you find on the lips on the most ordinary men and women. It’s a heresy which can be summed in the well-known phrase I hear time and time again: “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian”. And if I had been given a pound for every time I had heard these words over the past twelve years, I would be considerably better off than I am at the moment.
Now like any heresy this one contains a substantial grain of truth. Today in the church calendar we remember the calling of Matthew the tax collector and it remains true even today that as soon as we hear Jesus’ call to follow Him we are saved. Once we turn to Him in repentance and faith, and give Him control over our lives, we have eternal life and become children of our Heavenly Father. And nothing I say this morning detracts from this simple truth. As we saw last week, whether you are rich or poor, young or old, if you confess Jesus as Lord, you will be saved. Full stop. End of story.
But at the same time this Jesus who says “Follow me”, also commands us to love one another as I have loved you (John 15:12) and he tells us plainly that if you love me, you will obey what I command (John 14:15). In other words, the proof that we love Jesus and want to follow Him is seen in the love we have for our fellow believers. You see, Jesus doesn’t just call us to a new relationship with God the Father through Him. He also calls us to a new relationship with each other as children of one heavenly family and members of one body. If we are not in that relationship with each other, then I would suggest there is something extremely important that’s missing from our Christian faith.
It’s striking that whenever the New Testament talks about believers (or saints), they always talk about them in the plural. The Bible knows nothing of secret Christians who worship on their own and choose to stay away from the local congregation. Indeed the proof that the Holy Spirit had come upon the first converts at Pentecost is that: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). As far as they were concerned, worship of Jesus took place alongside regular times of fellowship. You couldn’t really have one without the other.
I realise of course that for some people it is sometimes hard to commit to regular attendance to the local church. There is the pressure of work, of family, even of leisure activities. We live in a 24/7 culture which expects us to be busy the whole time and while we might want to devote ourselves to the local fellowship, there are occasions when it can be extremely difficult.
Now while I accept all that, I think it’s also important to point out that life wasn’t any easier for the first Christians way back then. They had to spend a lot of their time on hard, manual jobs which today’s technology makes easy, such as drawing water, doing the washing, cooking meals. They didn’t have access to modern healthcare and medicine, and sickness and death were far more of an everyday occurrence. And on top of that they faced regular and systematic persecution because of their allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth.
So, for example, as we begin this week to look at the letters Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, let’s hear the story of how that church came into existence:
It’s quite remarkable, isn’t it, that in such circumstances a church was born? There must have been so many pressures on the new believers to renounce their faith and it wasn’t exactly as if Paul had had much time to disciple them. No wonder he tells us in chapter 3 how anxious he was to discover what had become of this young church and how, when he could stand it no longer, he sent his trusty helper Timothy to find out.
Yet amazingly against all the odds, the church in Thessalonica had grown and flourished. You can almost hear the relief and the joy in Paul’s voice as he writes in chapter 3, verses 6-8:
6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you.
7 Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.
8 For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.
This doesn’t mean that they weren’t any problems in the church there. Otherwise why else would Paul write to them? So we can see, for example, in chapters 4 and 5 he still had much to teach them about living holy lives and holding on to the truth of Christ’s return. In his second letter it becomes clear there were some in the church who were busybodies and it is clear that not everyone got on with everyone else. We mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the church in Thessalonica was some kind of special gathering made up of particularly holy people. It was an ordinary church with its issues and tensions like any other church, indeed just like us here today.
Yet Paul’s primary emotion when he hears about the church is to give thanks. Why? Chapter 1, verses 2 and 3 tell us:
2 We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.
3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The church in Thessalonica had the three essentials of genuine Christian belief that we should all be very familiar with, namely faith, love and hope. How did Paul know this? Because their life together showed they had really grasped the gospel. Faith, hope and love for them were not a matter of theory or nice words they liked to talk about. They produced real, tangible fruit that was visible for all to see. So their faith in the Lord Jesus led to action; their love for Jesus and each other led to committed works of service, which Paul describes as labour; their hope in Jesus’ return led to patient endurance even in the face of the most severe and hostile persecution.
How, then, did the church at Thessalonica become such an example of the Christian faith? Paul tells us in verses 4-6:
First of all, the Holy Spirit worked through Paul’s words: For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.That is how the church in Thessalonica survived against all the odds. It was not brought into existence by a committee or even by the ministry of a particular leader. It was brought into existence through the power of the Holy Spirit so that when Paul spoke, men and women were convicted of their sins, owned Jesus as Lord and experienced real transformation of their whole lives.
And why did the Holy Spirit produce such dramatic results? Well, let’s read on: You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. Now while our church translation begins with a new sentence at this point, in the original Greek verses 4-6 are all one sentence. To put it simply, the Holy Spirit worked not just through Paul’s words but also through His lifestyle. When the folk at Thessalonica wanted to know what the Christian faith really was all about, all they had to do was to look at Paul and see how Jesus was at work in His life.
Paul wasn’t like one of those big time evangelists who talk a great talk but are in reality hiding some major secret in their private life. Nor, as soon as he finished preaching, did he think his work was done and hurry off back to the comfort of his own home. No, as we shall see in chapter 2, he cared deeply for the new believers like a mother caring for her little children. His genuine love and concern for them was of the Lord, and so opened hearts and minds to receive the gospel when he spoke.
Brothers and sisters, I believe there is a real challenge here, which is quite simply this: that we need to spend more time with each other, in spite of all the pressures of our busy lives, in spite of the demands of family and friends, in spite perhaps of hostility from those around us. If we are serious about being with Jesus and serving Him in the world, then we also need to be with each other. That’s the message that lies at the heart of our church mission statement, and it’s one that we need to pray seriously about how each of us puts it into practice.
You see, the Christian faith is learnt as much through relationships as through words. So if we want to see our church grow and flourish, then we need to be ready to spend time and energy on the newcomers who come through our doors. They may not remember much of what we say; they may not in the long run even remember our names. But they will remember our faith, our love, and our hope, and they will see the difference that the Lord Jesus makes in our lives.
Speaking personally, as I look back on how I came to Christ, I can’t remember anything that the youth leaders said to a rather immature, precocious teenager all those years ago, and I can’t even rightly recall who they were. But I can remember the love and the care they showed to me, in spite of myself, and it was their actions that convinced me all this talk about Jesus was real and genuine. And although God may well have worked in other ways, the chances are, if they had not invested such love and care in me then, I would not be preaching to you this morning.
And even if our lifestyle means that face to face fellowship is difficult, the difference between Paul’s time, or indeed even when I was converted, is that we have been blessed with so many wonderful new ways to communicate with other, that surely we can find other ways of spending time with each other. I don’t mean that we simply get to know each other online – although that is important – but that we use the resources of modern technology to help each other grow in our faith, deepen our knowledge of the Lord Jesus and support each other in the challenges we encounter day by day. That’s why, for example, each week Lynda so faithfully posts the sermon that’s just been preached online so you can read it or listen to it. We’d love to have comments and feedback from folk who read it. Or if you want to hear a different voice, then there are plenty of ways you can access other material online, or if you are not online, get someone to download it for you.
But to close, let’s go back, finally, to the church in Thessalonica. We have seen how the Holy Spirit worked through Paul’s words. We have seen how the Holy Spirit worked through Paul’s lifestyle. Through this work of the Holy Spirit the church in Thessalonica became a very special community of faith, hope and love. So what effect did the church in Thessalonica have on the other churches in the area? Verse 7 tells us: And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
I hope you can see there was something very special going on. Paul arrived in Thessalonica hoping to imitate the Lord by his words and actions. As he spent time with them and preached the gospel, the Thessalonians began to imitate him. As news of what was going on began to spread, other churches in turn then wanted to imitate them. They couldn’t help but notice the effect the faith, the hope and the love was making on people’s lives there.
Now the church in Thessalonica wasn’t looking for publicity. They were still in grave danger of persecution and the last thing they wanted to do was attract attention. But the quality of their relationships was such that it caused a ripple effect. When Paul says in verse 8: The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia he literally means that it echoed forth. There were shockwaves of love that spread out throughout the area, and everyone was talking about what going on in that one location.
I make no apology for the fact I want us to be more and more like the church in Thessalonica. I want to counter this modern heresy you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. I want the church to be a place where the gospel comes with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction, as lives are shared at a very real and very deep level. And I invite you this morning to share the vision for the church that Paul outlines for us here. Not for our sake, not that we gain a reputation for ourselves. But in order that just like those believers in Thessalonica men and women, rich and poor, young and old, turn from idols to serve the true and living God.