1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9 For the people of those regions* report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
In March of 2008, on a remote island near the Arctic Ocean and not far from the North Pole, the Norwegian government opened a vast underground crypt, more than 425-feet deep inside a frozen mountain, declaring it ready to receive shipments of seeds from around the world. This is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a deep-cold storage cavern with room to hold some 4.5 million seed samples.
This seed collection will be the ultimate backup in case we humans do something stupid—like have a nuclear war, cause massive climate change that wipes out vegetation or just fail to manage agriculture carefully. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is also a hedge against natural catastrophes such as an asteroid strike. Dubbed the “Doomsday Vault,” this seed bank will eventually be the repository of seeds for almost every variety of food crop known to humankind. The low temperatures in the vault, caused by the natural permafrost and supplemented by a refrigeration system, can preserve the seeds and keep them viable for thousands of years, even if global warming raises the outside temperature.
The vault project grew out of a trust founded by the United Nations in 2004 to support long-term conservation of crop diversity. As it happens, this facility, while the first for crop seeds, is not the first of its kind. In Sussex, England, a vault called the Millennium Seed Bank stores the seeds of wild plants. The idea there is that in the future, humankind may need to use something we don’t yet know about from the array of plant diversity, so that too needs to be maintained.
We hope, of course, that we never need the seeds stored in both of these vaults, that no worldwide cataclysm ever occurs, but it seems like a smart move to be prepared in case it does.
All of which leads us to wonder whether we need some other kinds of doomsday vaults as well, places where such precious things as faith, hope, and love are harbored and tended; for what kind of life would we have on this earth if those things were lost? And where better to cultivate such virtues than in the church?
Today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is a case in point. Paul, accompanied by Silas, visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey. According to the account of that visit in Acts 17, Paul preached in the synagogue there and won several converts to Christ, both among the Jews and among the Greeks. He and Silas apparently stayed only a few weeks, but from the tone of this letter to the church, we gather that the time they were there was enough to give Paul and Silas a deep appreciation for the church that grew from those converts.
So now, writing to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul addresses them as brothers and sisters and commends them for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He even comments that they have “become an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia,” a reference to the larger area of which Thessalonica was a part.
The church at Thessalonica was not just a doomsday vault where faith, hope and love were banked away for retrieval after a calamity; it was a place from which the message of faith, the testimony of hope and the power of love went forth to work in the world every day, but at the same time, it was also a place where people lacking faith or feeling hopeless and unlovable could find those blessings. In that sense, the church at Thessalonica was a doomsday vault. People who were down on their luck in every sense of that phrase, people who had been whacked by the world, could come to the church to be recharged and transformed.
Every church, including ours, should be a storehouse where people in need can have their needs supplied. Jesus himself even hinted that churches should have this role. It was on the day when Jesus asked his disciples who people were saying that he was. After the disciples responded with the rumors they had heard, Jesus asked them who they thought he was. Peter spoke up, declaring Jesus the Son of the living God. At that point, Jesus said that confession of faith was the rock upon which he was going to build the church, and, Jesus added, that not even the gates of hades (or if you prefer the KJV, the gates of hell) would be able to prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). That expression, “the gates of hades,” was a figurative way of speaking about death (as in Isaiah 38:10), and so Jesus was saying that not even death, which no human being can overcome, would be able to break the church. The church is a stronghold against the powers of darkness and catastrophe, a doomsday vault. So that no matter what happens to you, you can come into the church and find restoration and rejuvenation.
One of the earliest symbols that Christians used to represent the church was Noah’s ark, the vessel on which representatives of all living creatures found refuge during the catastrophe of the great flood. From the ark, those surviving people and animals went forth to repopulate the earth. In similar fashion, early Christians considered the church as the place from which God’s message went forth to save the world. You will occasionally see that symbolized today in the stained-glass windows of some churches, where either Noah’s ark or the dove with an olive branch in its beak is pictured.
The “Doomsday Church” is a repository of vital seeds. Let’s consider in a bit more detail the vital seeds that the church holds.
The first seed is faith. The church is the place of faith. Sometimes people get confused about this. We are not here to do science. We may find the latest scientific discoveries interesting, but that is not what church is about. We are not here to reason through some philosophy. Nothing wrong with philosophy, but that is not our purpose. We come together as a people of faith to dig deeper into the mountain of faith. We come to support each other and help each other to grow in faith.
The old saying is that Christianity is always only one generation away from extinction. Without the passing of the gospel, from parents to children, from elders to youth, from those convinced of the faith to those who have not yet been persuaded, without that, Christianity will cease to be in a generation.
Now that is true about many things in life. All our knowledge, all our technology, all our skills, can vanish in a generation--if we fail to pass the torch--but with Christianity, what is passed on is not only knowledge, but also zeal and passion. We pass on a vision of the meaning of life. We pass on a conviction that eternal life can be found through Jesus Christ. This is vitally important to the world. The world needs that conviction, that vision.
Faith is not only handed out from the church, but also handed down through the church. Several years ago, Christian educator John Westerhoff wrote a book titled, Will Our Children Have Faith? More recently, Bob McCarty, the director of the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry, said that the question posed by Westerhoff’s book title needs to be inverted: not “Will our children have faith?” but “Will faith have our children?” McCarty observes that young people today are interested in God, Christ, and Christianity, but they are often turned off to church. Some among the younger generation love Jesus but not the church of Jesus. That is unfortunate for them because they miss the power of the continuing testimony of faith from the church. Individual spirituality is a good thing, but it is not enough. It takes congregations of convinced people to act as an effective witness for Christ.
The second seed is hope. The church is the place where hope is nourished. Sometimes, we can find plenty of reasons to lose hope. You don’t need me to tell you that the economy is in recession. The labor department this week announced that unemployment claims in January were the highest they have ever been since they started keeping records back in the thirties. Ford Motor Company lost 6 billion dollars in the last quarter of 08, and Ford was thought to be doing the best of the big three automakers. I could recite to you a whole litany of layoffs and plant closing and industries in trouble. Several states, including SC, are apparently on the edge of bankruptcy. Certainly, we live in uncertain times, and that makes it easy to preach despair.
When I was growing up, the major issue was nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Many people felt that such a war was inevitable. They constructed this big clock and said it is 2 minutes until midnight. They said nuclear war would destroy civilization, maybe even wipe out all life on the planet. Some preachers made a living back then preaching doom and gloom. The end is upon us, and there is no hope—but that is not Christian.
The church understands that hope is not rooted in what happens in the present world. Hope is not rooted in our circumstances. Hope is derived from Jesus. That is what Paul says in v3, our hope is “in Jesus Christ.” Christ came to a world in turmoil, and he brought an optimistic view of the human condition. In one sense, the Christian hope is about the future. We look forward to the return of Christ to fulfill all the promises of the kingdom of God. But it is also for the present. Even now, Christ is with us to help us to overcome every obstacle and every difficulty.
Hope is not some sort of wishful thinking that things will somehow be all right; rather, hope is the ultimate belief that when all else fails, when every other support gives way, our lives remain in God’s hands. The writer of Deuteronomy spoke of this hope when he said, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27, RSV).
The third seed is love. The church is a place where love is exercised without limits. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and he was not only talking about emotions but about behavior. He was talking about acting in ways that support the well-being of others. Loving others means helping others, supporting others, supplying their needs even as God supplies our needs.
Most people understand that we ought to act in a beneficial way toward other people, but Christian love is more than that. Christian love is loving others as God loves us, because God loves us. God was the first to love. God proved his love when he sent Christ to us to save us from our sins. That is something the church has that people need to know: God loves you.
Because of that, because God loves us, Christian love is linked to faith and hope. Paul certainly made that linkage. In his famous chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, he said, “And now faith, hope, and love abide” (13). What he was saying is that when we think of the kind of qualities that a believer’s life should have, faith, hope and love come immediately to mind. That is what a believer is about. That is what church is about.
The Thessalonian church was a “doomsday church.” Our church should follow that same pattern. When the world around us is overwhelmed by calamity and doom, they need to hear again the ancient promises of the gospel. They need faith in Christ, hope in Christ. They need the love of Christ.
“‘Doomsday’ seed vault opens in Norway.” CNN.com, February 28, 2008. cnn.com/2008/WORLD/europe/02/26/norway.seeds/#cnnSTCText.
“Hearts and minds — youth ministries and the church’s concern with passing the faith.” Christian Century, May 31, 2003. findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_11_120/ai_102750096.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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