Mother’s Day Sermon: The Realies?! I Thessalonians 1:1-10

Preached by Terrell Carter on 5/12/13

In this technologically advanced era, a lot of time is spent making sure that people can distinguish the real from the fake.  The true from the false.  There is a good reason for this.  Criminals spend a lot of time attempting to profit from fooling people.  Criminals create everything from false identities, false companies, false systems, fake passports, and fake internet ads and websites.  They will create anything to swindle someone out of their hard earned money.  Therefore, people have to spend a lot of time trying to protect themselves from predators who peddle deceit.

Our currency is printed on special paper, with special watermarks, and special ink that is extremely hard to replicate.  Cars now come with the added security measures that allow its true owner to be identified by the use of a thumb print on a sensor on door handles.  Some cars will not start until it recognizes and verifies a verbal command from its owner.  The military, and even some high end private corporations, use voice and retinal/eye scanners to limit or allow access to and from buildings.

Just this week, there was a spot on a local news station that talked about the fact that Missouri is changing how driver’s licenses and identification cards look in order to make it harder for them to be forged.  The news anchor ended the report acknowledging that as soon as the new cards started to be produced, people were already trying to figure out a way to forge them.

People spend a lot of time making sure that you are who you say you are.  When you set up a checking or credit card account, you have to provide answers to very specific security questions.  Answers that only you know and can verify.  If a hacker attempts to access any of your accounts and cannot answer questions correctly, or give the information that authenticates their request, what happens?  Red flags go off.  They are blocked from the account.

Emails and phone calls are made to advise you that someone tried to access your information, but couldn’t be authenticated.  Has this ever happened to any of you.  It happened to me.  The problem was that I was the one trying to access my own account and had forgotten the proper information.  All of this is just one level of the checks and balances of keeping your money, your credit score, and your good reputation intact and protected.

Make no mistake, the field of authentication and verification is big business.  Through commercials, businesses work to educate consumers on how to recognize knock-off imitations.  Why do they do this?  Because fake and imitation products cut into their profit margins.  A lot of money is spent making sure that people recognize the difference between the real and the fake.

But for all of our efforts, and the efforts of other people, we still get fooled sometimes don’t we?  Sometimes, someone still gets a fast one over on us.  Or, they get over on someone else in our names.  Have you ever been told that someone has received spam email with your name on it?  For some reason, I keep getting health and fitness tips from Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Oz.  Now, I swear that I have never met either of them, but they really seem to be concerned about me losing a few pounds.

Sometimes we get fooled because we just weren’t paying attention.  Sometimes it’s because they were just that good at fooling people.  Anyone who has shopped at Schnucks in the last month knows this first hand.  Someone hacked into Schnuck’s system and stole customer information.  Last week I received a new debit card because my financial information had been compromised.

If we could be honest, we all could probably give a story about how we were fooled by someone or something, or taken for a ride.  Whether it was a well planned April Fools prank, or a fake dollar bill, or fool’s gold, we are not always successful in telling what’s real and what’s fake.  Even when we’ve tried our hardest and looked for all of the tell tale signs, we don’t realize that thing, or that person, or that opportunity isn’t what it really looks like.  That person isn’t really who they say they are.

In one of the Peanuts comic strip that was drawn by Charles Schulz throughout the 20th Century, two of the strips main characters, Lucy and Charlie Brown, are having a discussion.  Well, not so much a discussion as it is Lucy talking about what’s on her mind, as usual.  In the strip, Lucy says, “Everywhere you go you seem to run into phonies!  The people you think are sincere usually turn out not to be and the people you think aren’t sincere usually turn out to be sincere!”  Lucy then asks a poignant question.  “How do you tell the phonies from the realies?”  Charlie Brown responds with the question, “The realies?!”

Lucy’s question is relevant today.  How can we tell who is authentic in our lives?  How can we tell who is sincere?  How can we tell who isn’t authentic?  How can we tell who isn’t sincere?  How can we tell the phonies from the realies?  This question is not only important to Lucy and Charlie Brown, but it should be important to all of us.

And, this idea of being able to tell the fake from the authentic is not something that we should only be concerned about as it relates to our money and credit, or grocery store purchases.  It is something that we should be aware of when it comes to the realm of the spiritual, as well.

This idea of being able to tell the real from the fake is one of the themes that we find explored throughout the New Testament.  The question of how are we able to know what authentic loving faith looks like versus stale legalistic ritual is ever present.  Christ takes on the challenge of teaching his followers about what authentic believers and authentic community looks like.  Through his actions, he shows them how authentic believers conduct themselves.  Christ also taught parables about it.  Other later New Testament writers dealt with the subject.  Peter and James wrote letters addressing this issue.  Paul did, as well.

Today, I want to ask a simple question that may have a complex answer.  How can we verify what real church looks like?  Let me rephrase the question and ask, what does an authentic community of faith look like?  What qualities are present in an authentic community of faith?

I believe that in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church, specifically verses 1:1-10, we are given a glimpse of what an authentic community of faith looks likes.

Paul was introduced to the people who would eventually become the church at Thessalonica while he and his companions traveled in the region sharing the gospel.  Acts 17 tells us that while they were in the area, they followed their usual habit of going into the local synagogue and talked to people that were gathered there.  They talked to them about the Holy Writings of the Law and Torah and Prophets, and how all of these had been fulfilled.  They told them that the Messiah whom they had been waiting for had to die and rise again, and that the man Jesus did this exact thing, proving that He was the Christ, the Messiah.

We know that sometimes people listened to Paul and good things happened.  Other times, people listened and eventually ran them out of town.  Apparently, this time Paul’s message was successful because we read that some of the listeners believed and joined themselves to Paul and his companions.  But, as often was the case, shortly after these people believed in the message Paul preached, some of the religious leaders affiliated with the synagogue were not happy about this.

We read that they were jealous and envious, and started making trouble for Paul, his companions, and the people that supported him.  These religious leaders drummed up a band of rabble rousers and lied, saying that Paul was teaching that Jesus was a new king whom he wanted to replace Caesar.  (Do these false accusations sound familiar?)  Because of the drama that was raised, Paul and his companions had to flee the area under threat of their lives, leaving this new community of believers behind.

Paul had to leave this new body of believers, this new church plant, shortly after it was birthed.  He would have to leave their presence and trust that they would somehow be okay.  He would leave their presence, but they would not leave his heart.  He was worried about them.  He wondered how they would do without them.  How would they manage without their mentors?  How would they manage when they had questions?  What would they do when they had doubts?  Would they be able to stand when pressures from life tried to crush them?  Would they hang in there until Paul and his companions could come back to check on them?  Or would they give up and return to their old ways, which included worshipping pagan gods?

If that wasn’t enough for them to be worried about, you can add to this the fact that the persecution that caused Paul and his companions to flee from the area was likely now going to be directed towards this young congregation.  Paul was genuinely concerned about them.  Would they be able to stand in the faith that they had professed?  Or would they crumble under the pressure?

How they responded in his absence would tell Paul and the others all they needed to know about the foundation they helped to lay in their lives.  Whether they stood up to the pressure or buckled under it would be a sign of whether their faith was one that was authentic and would withstand the test of time.  Or it would be confirmation that it was counterfeit and would be discarded by the wayside.

Eventually, Paul got his answer.  After some time, Paul received word that this community in Thessalonica had not buckled under pressure.  Instead, they stood tall and firm.  Against the odds, they showed that they were an authentic community of faith.  Their faith was rock solid.

Now, what do I mean when I say authentic community of faith?  Dr. Ron Carlson identifies the following qualities for an authentic community of faith: It’s a community whose primary focus is serving outward, in mission with God, bringing Christ’s love alive in its neighborhood and beyond.

Another way of saying this is that they were a community of believers who focused on serving with God, making Christ’s love come alive in the world.

The Terrell Carter translation goes this way:  They are a group of believers who love God, love others, and do something about it.

How did the church at Thessalonica exhibit these qualities?

Paul acknowledges their relationship to the Father and Son in the beginning of the letter.  Paul could personally attest to their blossoming relationship with God because he was one of the instruments that God used to bring the Thessalonians to faith.

But he could also attest to the fact that their faith was not in word only.  It was evident through their deeds.  Verses 2-3 say, “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, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  It’s interesting that he used the phrases works of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope.  The Contemporary English Version says it this way, “Each time we pray, we tell God our Father about your faith and loving work and about your firm hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Their faith was evident in their actions.  What actions?  Paul doesn’t say what they were, but they were enough to convince him of their honest intentions.  I can imagine that they were acts of sharing and caring like those of the church in Acts 1-3.  Acts of sacrifice and love.

It is also significant that Paul prefaces the phrase Jesus Christ with the title Lord.  In essence, what Paul is saying is that he is grateful that when this group had other opportunities to serve other gods, they instead pledged their allegiance to Christ.  They willingly decided to follow Christ.  Christ became more important to them than anyone or anything else.

Why was He so important to them?  Because he had set them free.  He had liberated them.  He liberated them from the powers that had previously exercised control over their lives.  They fully trusted in Christ and turned their backs on other options of worship.  That is what motivated them to perform their works of faith, labors of love, and they were able to have a steadfastness of hope.

This love for God, this faith in Christ came about as a result of the witness of Paul and his companions.  Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, they went to Thessalonica bearing gifts for anyone who would accept them.  The gift they gave was the gift of the gospel.  The gift of God’s love for women and men.  The gift of God’s desire to be in relationship with them.  The story of God’s sacrifice which came through the Son to make clear the path for God and men to be able to experience unhindered fellowship.  The people of Thessalonica accepted this gift, eventually becoming a community of faith, loving God above all else.

Not only did they love God, they also loved others and did something about that love.  They followed the example of Paul and his companions.

After Paul and his co-laborers were run out of town on a rail, we get the impression that the Thessalonian church picked up where Paul and company had to suddenly leave off.  Paul calls them his imitators.  This idea of imitation means more than just dressing, talking, or walking like someone else.  It implies more than just having a similar outward appearance.  It entails changing on the inside first so that a transformation begins within the heart, which will in turn blossom and cause an outward change that reflects what’s happening on the inside.  The person is changed from the inside out.

As the Thessalonian church picked up where Paul left off in sharing the gospel message, it seems like the religious elite in Thessalonica picked up where they had left off and began persecuting the new church.  Paul acknowledges the persecution they experienced for their faith.  He encourages them because they did not buckle under the pressure.  Instead, they withstood with joy.

In their standing, they too became examples for others to imitate.  Paul lets them know that as he and his companions continued their journey to share the gift of the gospel in Macedonia and other areas, they found out that the Thessalonian church had beaten them to the punch.  People in those regions said, “We already know about Jesus.  Some cats from Thessalonica came over here and told us about him.  We had heard that they worshipped Ba’al, or Caesar, or some other gods, but now they only worship Jesus.  They even call Him the Christ, the Anointed One.  And they can’t wait for this thing called the Return, or the Second Coming, where Jesus comes back to earth and begins a new kingdom.”

The Thessalonian’s love for others compelled them to share the message that changed their lives.  They wanted other people to have the same type of experience of being set free.  Their faith and message range out like the sound of notes coming from a trumpet during morning revilie.  Their message was a call to attention.  Those from near and far could hear them and their message.  Wake up!  The time has come to hear the good news!

The Thessalonians were an authentic community of faith in that after they received the gospel message, they participated in God’s mission to restore the world in Christ.  They were an authentic faith community in that they didn’t take their salvation experience for granted or hide it in a closet.  Instead, they got to work sharing this life transforming experience with others, regardless of the cost.

Why do I say that the Thessalonian church was an authentic community of faith?  Because they were a community whose primary focus was serving outward, in mission with God, bringing Christ’s love alive in its neighborhood and beyond.  They were a community of believers who focused on serving with God, making Christ’s love come alive in the world.  They were a group of believers who loved God, loved others, and were doing something about it.

They took the message that they had received and shared it.  They didn’t sit on it.  They didn’t keep it in their homes, or in their city.  They took it out to other communities.  They didn’t wait for someone to come to them.  They understood that their faith experience was not just for them.  It was not even about them.  They understood that God had a much bigger idea in mind.  And they wanted to make sure that they shared this with the world.

The natural question now is, what about us?  Are we an authentic community of faith?  The way to answer that question is to ask another question.  Are we doing what the church at Thessalonica did?  Do we have the same attitude and commitment that the Thessalonians had?

An authentic faith community looks outward, not inward.  They get out and get involved in what God is doing in the world.  They don’t exist in order for the individual members to be comfortable.  They don’t sit at home or just meet in a church building.  They go out into the community and make a difference.  What they do inside the church prepares them for the work that needs to be done outside the church.  They take Christ’s example from the gospels and they go out among the people.

They recognize that Christ’s most powerful and important acts of ministry did not occur in the synagogue, which was the church of His day.  His most important, and most compassionate, acts occurred out in the world, where the blind were made to see again.  Where lepers were made clean and brought back into their families.  Where the lame learn to walk.  Where the hungry were fed.  Where sinners were forgiven and shown unconditional love.  Where the unholy were embraced and made to feel like they were part of a family.

Authentic faith communities are in relationship with the kind of people that Christ was in relationship with.  They are in relationship with people who may not have their acts together.  They are in relationship with women and men who have been married and divorced too many times.  They are in relationship with people who have embarrassing personal histories.  They are in relationship with people who are shunned by the general population.  They are in relationship with people who don’t have enough money to pay their bills, let alone give an offering at church.  They are in relationship with people who don’t have anything to bring to a relationship, but need every ounce of love that they can get.

Authentic communities of faith work for God among the people that God loves.  An authentic faith community acts in the ways that Christ acted.  We are an authentic community of faith when we are known for following His example and sharing the grace that has been shown to us.

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