16 Oct 2011
“Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ …” (1 Thess. 1:1) In the name …
These words form the introduction to the oldest extant piece of Christian literature in the world. Christianity was spreading out from Jerusalem at an amazing pace 2,000 years ago, and all of it was taking place by word of mouth. There was no inclination to write anything down because those earliest Christians believed that Jesus would hurry back to them from heaven. They were expecting the end of time to come at almost any time. At our Parish Committee meeting this past week, our Recording Secretary had a problem keeping up at one point, to which someone referred to the Mayan prophecy that the world will end in 2012 and what does it really matter, therefore, if we have Minutes or not.
So if you believe that the world won’t last another few years, you don’t bother writing stuff down. You act in the moment. You don’t think about history and future generations; you only worry about now. (*) Lucky for us, though, Paul was a very successful preacher. He traveled far and wide preaching about Jesus and organizing some of the world’s first Christian communities. And because he tended to not stay in one place for too long, and because he kept moving from one city to the next talking about Jesus and organizing local churches, he had to somehow stay in touch with these various young congregations. Since there weren’t any cell phones, texting or e-mails, he had to write letters. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a letter to anyone. I’ll bet any of the kids here today have never written a letter. But for Paul it was as normal as checking in on Facebook. He wasn’t thinking about us some 2,000 years later. He wasn’t even thinking about Bible. These were letters not New Testament books. Paul needed to encourage and correct his congregations and since he couldn’t be in all of them all the time, he wrote letters, and First Thessalonians is the first and oldest of these letters from a far away pastor to one of his churches.
Paul opens his letter by addressing them as “the church of the Thessalonians.” Now before I go any further, let me switch gears and tell you a Sherlock Holmes story. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal, they lay down for the night and fell fast asleep. Some hours later, Sherlock Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend: “Watson, look up and tell me what you see.” Watson replied, “I see a fantastic panorama of countless stars.” “And what does that tell you?” Sherlock Holmes asked. Watson pondered for a moment, trying to imagine what the great detective Sherlock Holmes was trying to get him to see, and then he replied, “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. From the position of the moon I’d say it’s just after 3 o’clock in the morning. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Why? What does it tell you, Holmes?” Sherlock Holmes was silent for only a moment, then he exclaimed, “You idiot! Someone stole our tent!”
Sometimes we can overlook the obvious. “To the church of the Thessalonians.” This was an assembly of people called together, says Paul, in God and in Christ, but it is still “the church of the Thessalonians.” This is a people “loved by God” as we read today, a God who will share His grace with them, His help, His assistance, His intercession. And Paul also cares deeply about this church. He will go on to speak about his relationship with them in terms of a mother’s gentleness and a father’s guidance. But even with God above and Paul not all that far away, this is still “the church of the Thessalonians.” This is why Paul praises today their “work,” their “labour” and their “endurance.” What this says to me is that we have God to inspire and our leaders to guide, but at some point, the responsibility of church is our own, at some point the success of our church depends on us and what each of us does. That’s the obvious message that we can sometimes overlook when we talk about church. We can be like Watson in his response to Sherlock Holmes. We can look for the grand, the complex and the majestic, but the obvious truth is sometimes the one right in front of us: “You idiot! Somebody stole the tent!”
Our church can be what we are willing to make it. Our church can be what we are willing to work to make it. It’s not going to drop out of the sky from God. It’s not going to come from the bishop in Manchester or Scranton. It’s going to come from us and what we are willing to do “in God the Father and [in] the Lord Jesus Christ.” Just as Paul said this to the Thessalonians, he says it to us today. That’s the simple message behind the words “the church of the Thessalonians.” Those are the first words of the first piece of Christian literature, and it’s also the first step any church needs to take as it strives to be what it’s supposed to be, what it can be. This is why Bp. Hodur preferred to speak of regeneration rather than redemption. Redemption is what God does for us. Regeneration is what we do with God. So what are we going to do – with God? How are we going to help this church to truly be a place where people, all sorts of people, can come and meet God? What are we going to do to help Jesus work His way more completely into our lives, and back into the lives of so many of the people around us who have forgotten the blessings of faith? How are we going to make worship more engaging? How do we get ourselves to think of church more as community rather than as only a place, and our liturgy more as an oasis to recharge our spiritual batteries than as an obligation to be endured? The common thread throughout is us. What are we going to do? This is the obvious, but often overlooked message behind those words “the church of the Thessalonians.” This is our church. Let us pray that we may find the will and the way to always make her better. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo