1 From Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.
To the Thessalonians’ church that is in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Grace and peace to all of you.
2 We always thank God for all of you when we mention you constantly in our prayers. 3 This is because we remember your work that comes from faith, your effort that comes from love, and your perseverance that comes from hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father. 4 Brothers and sisters, you are loved by God, and we know that he has chosen you. 5 We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know as well as we do what kind of people we were when we were with you, which was for your sake.
We often use the word “church” for a building or a religious organization. But the apostle Paul called his converts “the church.” “The word ekklēsia appears 114 times in the NT, sixty-two times in Paul… the first use occurs at 1 Thessalonians 1:1 (cf. 2 Thess 1:1) in the greeting to the Christians at Thessalonica…. it is clear that Paul has in mind an actual gathering of the Thessalonian Christians. So he requests that his letter ‘be read to all the brothers and sisters’ and that they ‘greet them all with a holy kiss’ (1 Thess 5:26–27).”* For Paul, “church” was people.
Lord Jesus, as John Wesley’s covenant prayer put it, “thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.” Make that a living reality in my life today. Amen.
* Peter T. O’Brien, article “Church” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993, p. 125.
** William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians (Revised Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, p. 186.
“We don’t go to church; we are the church.” I’m sure most of us who have been attending church services for a while have heard this. I don’t know how many sermons I’ve heard on this that involve people coming not to a building, but to a community of people that they know will help them connect to God. These stories are amazing, and I think it’s important to remember them, but there’s another side to that coin as well.
I’m one of those people who grew up in the church, and over my years here, I’ve been saddened to see some of my friends lose their faith and walk away from the church. Most of these people were absolutely devastated to do so—none made that decision lightly. The very phrase “walked away from the church” implies that these people turn their backs on God and walk away, but in talking to some of my friends about it, it’s usually because the people of the church had turned their backs on these individuals for years. Echoing Paul’s sentiment in today’s passage, people who leave the church don’t walk away from buildings; they walk away from people.
I grew up in a traditional Evangelical church, and a number of friends left the church because it told them that their being gay would never be compatible with God. I also saw friends express very realistic doubt and get torn apart by the people they had broken bread with. I’ve even seen one friend who was married to an abuser and, when she took the issue to her pastor, her pastor told her that this was her cross to bear and she was to stay married to her abusive husband no matter what.
To be fair, I think most of my religious friends would be appalled to witness that behavior in their church homes. Most of the pastors I know would be absolutely heartbroken, as I was, to hear these stories. But, as Hindu spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” In most of these stories, my friends didn’t turn their backs on God; they walked away from people.
I don’t say this to cast condemnation or put myself forward as a morally superior person, because I’m sure I’ve also been one to turn my back on others at times. The reason I say all of this is to show the weight of our embodiment of the church. In some cases, people walk away from people and end up walking away from God too; but in other cases, people walk toward people and end up walking toward God. The point isn’t that we should think really hard about being the church; the point is that we’re the church even when we’re not thinking about it. If people are walking away from us, they may end up walking away from God as well, but our goal should be to draw people to walk toward us through our compassion, our acceptance, our love of social justice, and our commitment to love. That is what it means to be the church.
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