Church Under Pressure – Grace and Integrity
Welcome and introduction
Call to Worship: Ephesians 1:3-8
Song – Amazing grace
*Message: Church under pressure (1) – grace and integrity
This first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians may well be the earliest letter we have from him, probably only twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and earlier than the gospels. *Thessalonica was important. It was a bustling seaport city, and an important communication and trade centre. It was the largest city in Macedonia and the capital of its province. As you can read in Acts chapter 17, Paul and Silas had preached there, and despite very serious opposition, a church had formed and grown there, composed of some Jews, but probably mainly Gentiles.
1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 – Rich Atete
1 Thessalonians 3:1-8 – Clement Oke
As Rich and Clement read to us, Paul had somehow been prevented from being able to return to Thessalonica, but had been desperate to know how they were getting on. He’d eventually managed to send Timothy to find out. He was joyful to learn from Timothy how well the fledgling church was faring, and it seems he sat down almost immediately to write this letter of encouragement.
*Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Paul commends this church – not because they were having it all easy, with the church growing rapidly and because they were the ‘in place’ to be, but because of the characteristics of an active faith, a hard-working love and a patient, enduring hope (v.3) in spite of severe suffering (v.6)! So his thankful remembrance of this is not only to praise and confirm the Thessalonians, but also to encourage and reinforce the importance of what he’s praising.
The familiar triad of words, faith, hope and love almost functions as a kind of shorthand summary of the essentials of Christianity. As Paul also says in a chapter all about love in 1 Corinthians 13, these are the things that endure in the long run.
Paul says this community of believers was a model for others. This was a community rooted in God’s grace and love, a community committed to Jesus Christ. The church was based on the foundation of his death and resurrection as the focus of their faith. So his life was the model by which the church lived, and his coming from heaven defined the future for which the church waited. And it was a community empowered by the Holy Spirit, a community that bore witness to the gospel, because others were talking about what the Thessalonians did.
What’s more, what they did and how they acted was consistent with, and testified to, the reality of their message. They were a people of integrity. Suffering came because they were viewed as following a new and socially suspect religion. They refused to participate in ‘normal’ social and cultic activities, because of their new allegiance to worshipping Jesus Christ.
This may have led to others feeling offended, resentful, even betrayed. For its many Gentile believers, their family members may have viewed a refusal to maintain ancestral traditions as evidence of a lack of concern for family responsibilities. After all, civic peace, agricultural success, and freedom from natural disaster were thought to lie in the hands of the traditional gods, and it was considered extremely dangerous to ignore or offend them.
This cannot have been easy for the new believers. Following and obeying Jesus is never easy at the best of times, even with the ordinary pressures of life. How do you keep going month after month for years, or even decades, when there are all kinds of obstacles and difficulties, and when the normal human encouragements evaporate and you feel forgotten?
The church at Thessalonica was a church under pressure. The kind of pressure we face as church today is different. We live in a world that’s more often indifferent to us, rather than threatening to us. But there is a lot of subtle and indirect pressure to conform to the British values agenda of the day, whether you agree with every aspect of them or not – and that pressure is growing. Speaking out any orthodox Christian beliefs in the public sphere is sometimes regarded as deeply offensive and even inciting hate. Added to this, we have had to undergo the unprecedented situation of not being able to meet together – not because of persecution – but because of a global pandemic.
But what we learn from the church at Thessalonica is endurance. Where does this endurance come from? It comes from hope. We can take heart when we feel weak and discouraged – even marginalised – by looking away from ourselves to God’s grace and power, and so rekindle our hope that we can and will endure in the path of obedience to which he has called us.
*God promises, ‘I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear so that they never turn away from me.’ (Jeremiah 32:40). *And he says, ‘I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws’ (Ezekiel 36:27). *To the Galatians, Paul writes, ‘The one who sows to please his own sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up’ (6:8-9).
So we have a message of endurance because of hope. Paul also gives thanks that the believers in Thessalonica are beloved and chosen by God. The language here is reminiscent of God’s ancient assurance to his people. *‘The Lord did not …choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples…but it was because the Lord loved you’ (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
This is God’s grace. Everything that is commendable about this church is birthed in, rooted in, and sustained by grace. *Paul starts this letter there (1:1) – and he ends it there too – *5:28.
Grace is the unmerited favour of God. Grace is the heart of God. Grace is shorthand for everything God is and everything he does for us in our tired, sinful and broken lives. Grace is pardon, it is power and it is promise.
Grace does not make everything right. It’s not a ticket to a fantasy island. It’s not a magic cure. But it is an amazing power to look earthly reality full in the face, with all its sadness, suffering and tragedy, its at times outrageous unfairness – and yet feel in our deepest being that it’s good and right to be alive on God’s earth. It’s the power to admit that everything is wrong and yet know in our deepest being that somehow it’s all right.
A religion without grace clobbers you for your sense of failure and disappointment to others, yourself and God. But grace tells you everything is all right, even though it feels all wrong. It covers both your real and false guilt. We need to allow God to persuade us that, as far as he is concerned, it’s all right with you. Our conscience may condemn, but grace contradicts its condemnation.
Grace is the power to live now as if things are going to be all right tomorrow. Even if we feel everything is hopeless and only likely to get worse, even when we can see no end to that problem that’s consuming us – and then something else comes along – when common sense says that life is frozen in a block of despair and there’s no answer, even though we’ve prayed and prayed – grace just surfaces with the reality that in spite of everything God is good and it’s going to be all right – and gives us the power and strength to keep going, keep trusting and have hope, even if it seems that nothing can change.
Back in the book of Genesis, we can read how despite God’s amazing promises, Abraham did not have the son needed to fulfil them. And he and his wife Sarah may well have been feeling desperate in their childlessness. So Sarah suggested that Abraham should sleep with Hagar as a surrogate mother.
Hagar had little say in the matter. Mistreated by Sarah and then cast aside, Hagar fled into the desert to escape this intolerable situation. But after an encounter with the angel of the Lord, Hagar gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her – *‘You are the God who sees me’ (Genesis 16:13). And she gave birth to a son named Ishmael, which means ‘God hears’.
God hears and sees. Even when others don’t notice you, God notices you. When others don’t see you, and don’t know your pain and heartache – God sees you. In those moments when it feels like no one is listening to you, God hears you and is paying attention. This is grace.
God intentionally pursued Hagar, listened to her, paid attention to her and communicated with her. Such understanding was exactly what Hagar needed in order to survive in this situation. And so she was able to return back to the household from which she came because she had been graced by God.
We are saved by grace and sustained by grace. Extending such favour and kindness to others is how we, as Christ’s followers, demonstrate this grace practically from day to day. And it’s the power of God’s grace operative in our lives that enables us to live with integrity as followers of Jesus Christ – which was what was happening at in the church at Thessalonica.
Gordon Maxwell was a Christian worker in India. People respected him because he worked hard and his Christian character was evident to everyone. One day, Maxwell asked a Hindu man to teach him one of the local tribal languages. The Hindu man said, ‘No Gordon, because if I do that, you’ll convert us all to Christianity.’ Gordon said, ‘No, you don’t understand. All I want you to do is to teach me the language, so I can make friends here.’ But the Hindu man said, ‘No, I will not, for no one can live with you and not become a Christian.’
I’m deeply disappointed when I see Christians acting or speaking in such a way that I believe discredits the gospel. But I need to be careful. Because primarily, I have responsibility for the integrity of the gospel in my own life.
A person of integrity is unashamed of doing the right thing. So, in other words, integrity doesn’t just happen by accident – it involves the hard work of discerning what is right and wrong, and living out consistently what has been discerned. So it’s not just about ethical insight – it’s about discipline and the power of the Holy Spirit working together.
In seeking to live with integrity in a world where cutting corners and compromising the truth is the prevailing culture, we confront a massive challenge. Maybe there is sometimes an unwillingness to pay the cost often associated with integrity. Maybe we struggle to find the discipline to do what we say we will do. It’s easier to talk a good game than to play one.
But remember that people find it difficult to separate the message from the messenger. People may not consider picking up a Bible and reading it, but they may well be reading your life to see if there is anything in this Jesus stuff. If they do not trust the messenger, they are unlikely to believe the message. We have been entrusted by God with the precious gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’m sure the church at Thessalonica was not a perfect church. But even though it was a church under pressure, it was a model for others, and is for us, because of these prevailing characteristics of grace and integrity. How about you and me?
Song – Your grace is enough
Prayers of Intercession – Jessica Smith
Mission Prayer – Tear Fund (videos)
News and Information – Clement
Communion next week
May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.