by James Nieman
1 Thessalonians 3.1-13
1Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens;
2and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ,
to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith,
3so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions.
Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for.
4In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution;
so it turned out, as you know.
5For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith;
I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you
and that our labor had been in vain.
6But Timothy has just now come to us from you,
and has brought us the good news of your faith and love.
He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us
—just as we long to see you.
7For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution
we have been encouraged about you through your faith.
8For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.
9How can we thank God enough for you
in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?
10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face
and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11Now may our God and Father and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.
12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,
just as we abound in love for you.
13And may your hearts be so strengthened in holiness
that you may be blameless before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all the saints.
1 Thessalonians 3.1-13
The dean of the chapel laments that our one little week of Advent at LSTC is just too brief. I wonder, though, if we could stand it being any longer. You all know that these darkening days are meant as a time of longing, waiting for Christ’s coming and watching for signs of his return. To live in such a way, even briefly, is not all that easy. To be honest, it also sounds a little weird and just isn’t something at which we excel. Far better are we at frenzy, the harried and hurried pace of getting stuff done, checking it off the list, moving on before we fall behind. Far better are we at desire, wishing for someone better, for something more, for our days to be different than they actually unfold. But longing? Not working to secure a personal agenda, not wishing for some magical solution, but truly waiting for another whose ways are lasting life? That’s a task to try our patience. One week, one day, even a half hour right now may be too much.
The Thessalonians we met through today’s reading knew all about longing. In fact, their lives were saturated with it. They represented what Wayne Meeks called, in as artless a phrase as ever used to describe anyone, people of “low status crystallization.” For these feeble folks, nothing was nailed down and everything was up for grabs. And when the world shuddered with uncertainty, they were most likely of all to settle near the bottom of the pile. Simple artisans and traders, they lacked even the basic protections afforded to slaves in a Roman household. Swept together from local clans and nearby towns, they perched at the bottom of the social ladder, far beneath the elite Roman colonists who ran the show. Lacking wealth or worth, they were too lowly for the imperial cult, too crude for the mystery religions, too pagan for the local synagogue. And the Thessalonians couldn’t climb out of their plight or dream of a better day. All they had was empty longing—a cry for help, or hope, or a small measure of comfort.
What they got for their longing was this ranting rabbi from across the Aegean. What they got was Paul from Tarsus, a foreigner with his two sidekicks. Along with that, though, came a word they had never heard, a promise they had never known. Amidst the indignities they daily suffered, they heard of One who shared their fate yet would not abandon them. For every lowly place that was their dreary lot, they heard of One who had been there before and now showed the way toward lasting life. This One of whom Paul spoke, this Jesus, was the very imprint of God’s ways, the hope for which they longed without ever knowing it. For us in our cynical and sated lives, this word, this promise may not sound like much. But when you are truly, deeply longing, when someone takes you seriously for who you already are, when someone assures you that you’re worth the trouble and then opens a door to the healing you’ve always craved, well that’s all you need for now…and it leaves you longing to hear more.
That’s what happened for the next few months: Paul kept talking, and the Thessalonians kept growing. But just as suddenly, in less time than since the start of this very fall semester, it was all over. For reasons no one can reconstruct, Paul was driven out of town, separated from these fledgling believers, kept apart with no way to return. Now the shoe was on the other foot, and it was Paul’s time for longing. And that’s where we catch up with today’s reading from chapter three. Paul rehearses for his readers, and also for us, his aching, empty, soulful longing for those who once were in his tender care and now are so far away. He recalls their desperate plight, their precarious condition, and worries whether the wound of apparent abandonment will fester and scar their faith.
“Therefore when we could bear it no longer…” he writes—and we’re talking only about maybe four months! Four months apart, and Paul can’t stand it anymore! (I told you longing was hard to endure.) So, “…when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens, and we sent Timothy…” Did you catch it? Paul is already apart from his beloved Thessalonians, still longing for them, perhaps himself imprisoned, and he decides to make matters even worse. On the model of Jesus, Paul empties himself of what little he has left, risks isolation, and sends his co-worker Timothy away to Thessalonica. For their sake, he abandons what is at his disposal in order to send a gift to others.
And why? That’s another surprise in this letter. Paul doesn’t express much interest in whether they were obeying his earlier teaching. He doesn’t try to direct them from afar or whip them into shape. He doesn’t even seem worried about their material circumstances or whether the congregation is growing. No, ignoring all the guidelines for effective church planting, Paul is concerned about only one thing: their faith. The Thessalonians have surely heard that he is now suffering, persecuted—the Greek word really means “crushed.” And he worries such news has left them rattled, shaken, tempted to give up. He’s longing to know: Is Jesus still yours? Nothing else matters to him, nothing else is more urgent. Is the Lord your foundation?
Timothy finally returns from Thessalonica to Athens, a trip of over three hundred miles he’s now made twice, with one more still ahead to deliver this letter. And his report is shocking. It’s better than Paul ever dreamed. The faith of the Thessalonians, their mutual love, is strong. They remember Paul tenderly and share his longing. They stand firm in Jesus. So Paul rejoices that Timothy has “brought good news”—the only time in his letters he says something quite like this. Every other time Paul uses that verb, he means the work of evangelizing, spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. So what Paul is saying here is that this report isn’t just a big relief that boosts his spirits. No, it’s gospel for him—indeed, it’s the very gospel itself. Can you imagine saying this about a fellow Christian? Not “How nice to see you!” but “You are gospel for me. You bear Christ to me. I hear God’s mercy through you. I see God’s image in you. I cannot live apart from you because with you I have lasting life. You are gospel for me.”
Of course we can’t imagine this. It’s too weird, too intimate, too over-the-top. And the real reason we can’t imagine saying this to each other is because we still cling to our elective, voluntary religious gatherings with little space for true longing. Such groups exist only by our thin tolerance for what others say or do—until, of course, they offend our opinions, we storm out in a self-righteous huff, and stay away until someone amply apologizes. It’s just another way of saying our faith rests firmly and finally on us. This is the luxury religion we uphold, as unimaginable to the Thessalonians as it should be unaffordable for us. But were we to gather as fellow recipients of a good news that transforms us all, then every meeting we have, every moment together would be an encounter with gospel. To see each other as gospel, as lasting life, as someone we cannot live without, that’s a radical posture for a longing church.
We are so desperately concerned to secure ourselves, so deeply committed to getting our way. We focus only on ourselves, our purposes, our fears. But longing, truly and deeply longing, means trusting that life comes from outside of us and its source is a merciful God. For such life we can wait and watch, leaning forward with confident hope and grounded assurance. Instead of our pointless frenzy and empty desire, we can seek the One who takes us seriously for who we already are, assures us that that we’re worth the trouble, and opens a door to the healing we crave. And that’s a longing that we can bear and embrace with whatever lies ahead: on this day, in this week, through this brief season, and for every season yet to come.
1 Thessalonians 3.1-13