Thessalonica was not a city known for rocking the boat. From the moment the city was founded it had an air of kissing up to the powers that be, Thessalonica was founded during the reign of Alexander the great and it just so happened that Alexander had a half-sister with that very same name. After Alexander’s death, when his empire was divided up between his generals and their descendants, Thessalonica was at different points claimed by different rulers and included in different kingdoms and never really put up much fuss. They served whoever ruled them faithfully and fully until, in 167 BC, the city’s leaders saw that the kingdoms that had followed Alexander were waning and Rome was on the rise and petitioned the Roman Senate to become the patron and protector of the people. When Julius Caesar declared himself emperor and Augustus followed after him the Thessalonians didn’t bat an eye, in fact they threw themselves into the Emperor cult, becoming one of the first Greek cities to raise a statue of Augustus in the town center and dedicate temples and festivals to the worship of Rome’s rulers. And in turn, the city prospered. When Rome built its “Via Egnatia,” the road that connected the western and eastern parts of the empire, the made sure it ran through Thessalonica so that travelers and merchants would visit the city. Thessalonica’s loyalty was so trusted that they were given the status of “free city,” a foreign city that was allowed to fully govern itself without any supervision from Rome. The Thessalonians knew what the key to a happy and successful existence was: know where your bread is buttered. They didn’t bite the hand that fed them, they knew how to go along to get along, whatever cliché’ you want to use, the people of Thessalonica had a rich history of going with the flow, not rocking the boat, and reaping the benefits that came from not bringing too much attention on yourself. That is, until that no-good rascal Paul showed up.
We’ve talked before both on Sundays and at length on Wednesday nights about the reasons the early Christians caused such problems in their Gentile cities. Rome didn’t really care what religion you practiced as long as you made room for appropriate recognition of the emperor, recognizing him as your ultimate benefactor and inaugurator of a new age. But for Christians, it was Jesus who was their benefactor and had ushered in a new age so you celebrate the emperor and be faithful to your faith in Christ. And for a city like Thessalonica, where their support for the emperor was what contributed to any success and benefits they celebrated, people starting to rock the boat was a big problem.
So Paul writes his letter to the church at Thessalonica as they people are going through a difficult time. They are facing pressure from friends and family and neighbors, similar to the folks written to in Hebrews that we looked at last week, they are being threated and sometimes attacked and mistreated, all because they have chosen to take the stand that Jesus is Lord, so Caesar can’t be. And Paul writes to encourage them, and you can hear the love and appreciation he has as he opens the letter and tells them the things that have made him so proud of this young church: their works driven by faith, their labors that have come from love, and their endurance built on hope in Jesus Christ.
“For Paul,” Dr. Wiliam Rich of Trinity Church in Boston writes, “hope has to do with the ultimate triumph of God over all that is opposed to God and God’s ways. Among the things that God will overthrow in the Last Day are: sin, and all forms of brokenness and separation; illness; death itself…To be able to hope in these things as the promised final end of everything also makes it possible for members of the Body to endure whatever is broken by sin and death in the meantime.” Hope remains for Paul because it is the thing that makes us able to look at a world that seems driven by sin and death and endure what it throws at us because we know that in the end God is going to make all things new and right and whole. And the things that should destroy us. The things that should break us. The things that seem too big to overcome are nothing compared to the hope we have in the God who overcame the grave and the promise we’re given that in Jesus Christ is life and that life is a light for all mankind.
Paul speaks of the endurance that comes from hope here but there are also echoes of another kind of hope that I want to speak to. We see Paul talk about that ultimate and final hope, but his pride in this church also comes from his hope for them in their lives. Peter Gomes argued that one Paul’s big hopes for those he brought to Christ was not for them to have “the good life,” but that they would have what Gomes called “the life that was good.”
The good life is probably what you’d expect. It’s the life that playing it safe and going along to get along will bring you. It’s the life that the neighbors of the church members in Thessalonica were trying so hard to protect. It’s the life of a little money in the bank, a new-ish car in the drive, white picket fence, 2.5 children, it’s a good life. But that’s all it is, its good. What Paul hopes for his church and what I think we can challenge ourselves to hope for is more than that, it’s a life that is good. And the goodness of that life is found in the fact that it truly provides meaning. It moves us beyond those casual, basic, things, that might be good, to the things that matter. It moves toward the things that count in the kingdom of God. It’s a life that moves us towards the things that remain.
Paul identifies three signs of the “life that is good” at work in the Thessalonian church that I want us to think about for just a minute. First, they responded to God. They could have gone on with their “good” lives, but when God spoke they listened. When God called they answered. In Revelation Jesus is recorded talking about knocking at the door, a life that is good is defined by our willingness to answer when we hear that knock.
Second, they were invested in and dedicated to their own spiritual growth. They were stable, and they encouraged and aided one another in their lives which lead to their ability to spread the gospel. Paul never led a mega-church. Paul never led a church larger than a few households. What made Paul’s churches successful wasn’t their size but on their stability as people of God. The church at Thessalonica wasn’t concerned about their numbers, about impressing other people with how many members they had so they would be taken seriously, they were focused on strengthening convictions, aiding spiritual growth, and helping each other develop the endurance needed to deal with a life under pressure. Lives that are good focus on what builds the kingdom of God, not on what impresses the world.
The last thing is that Paul acknowledges is a little distinction in the quality of the lives of believers. Paul commends for not just their work, but their work of faith. Not just their labor, but their labor of love. And not just their endurance, but their endurance that has a foundation in hope in Christ. Everything they did had been transformed, the routines of their lives were shaped by the fact that Jesus has come into the world, died on their behalf, and rose again as a sign that sin and death were not the final powers. That’s what made for a “good life” wasn’t all that mattered. That’s what Paul hoped for his churches, lives transformed by hope. Lives that endured because what mattered was still to come. As we cling to that hope in difficult moments may we also hope for lives that are good because of the way Christ has transformed them.