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Faith, Hope and Love

October 16, 2011, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am & 7:30 pm
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Donald B. Wahlig
Associate Pastor for Outreach and Evangelism

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22;

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The other day I came across a website for the Royal Athena Gallery in midtown. They specialize in antiquities–ancient vases and pottery–that kind of thing.

Among the many items they carry are a variety of oil lamps from the 1st Century Roman Empire. These little terracotta lamps were the primary source of artificial light in the Roman world. They were relatively inexpensive to buy and to use. Just a little olive oil and a wick and–voila!–let there be light.

Decorating these lamps with designs and images became quite a fad. Designs originated in Rome and were then imitated by artisans in workshops across other provinces. Lamps might show pagan gods, myths and legends, as well as scenes from everyday life, like animals, hunting, gladiator combat and chariot-racing.

What got my attention was how these little lamps were made. Most were produced using molds, so they could be produced in large numbers.

If you ran one of those pottery workshops, and you saw a new lamp decoration you liked, it was a simple matter to reproduce it. You could directly copy it by pressing it into wet clay. So, an existing lamp became the archetype for producing the new mold, which could then produce more lamps.

We can easily imagine Paul, after a hard day’s work making and selling tents in the marketplace, sitting down and lighting one of these lamps, as he prepared to write his letter to the congregation in Thessalonica that he had recently planted.

This letter he wrote is what you and I know as 1 Thessalonians. It is the oldest surviving Christian document. It also may be Paul’s first attempt to communicate with a congregation in writing.

It sets out to do many things. It is a letter of friendship and consolation, a letter of instruction, and a letter of exhortation and encouragement. It’s clear from the warm language Paul uses that this community of Christians holds a very special place in his heart.

And they, in turn, have deep affection for him. Paul describes their relationship as one large, extended family. He uses family metaphors so often and in so many different ways in this letter, that there is no mistaking that Paul and the Thessalonian Christians belong to each other as a nursing infant belongs to its mother. But circumstances would not permit Paul to remain with this newly-formed Christian family for very long. Paul tells us that he and his two helpers, Silas and Timothy, were forced to leave Thessalonica, first for Athens, and then Corinth, where Paul has written this letter.

The whole time he’s been away from them, he’s itching to know how the Thessalonians have been faring. He is deeply concerned for their wellbeing. He knows that not only is their faith new, but they are facing very real persecution from outside their fledgling community of faith.

Until Paul came to them with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they were Pagans. The vast majority of their family, friends and neighbors are still pagans. They still worship idols, as well as various and sundry gods, each of which has its own cultic following. The most important cult of all is the Emperor’s cult, in which just about everyone throughout the city and the Empire worships the Emperor as the savior and Son of God–which explains why there is trouble brewing for the members of this new Christian congregation in Thessalonica. They no longer worship the old gods, nor do they worship the Emperor. They’ve forsaken these false gods in order to worship the one, true God, Yahweh, whose only son, Jesus Christ, is the Savior of all.

Their family and friends are increasingly concerned about this. If the pagan gods are displeased, they fear dire consequences for the city of Thessalonica and even the Empire itself.

No wonder the Thessalonian Christians are being persecuted! Neighbors snub them. Parents, siblings and children are angry with them. Customers no longer buy from them. Employers no longer employ them. They are paying a steep emotional and economic price for their faith.

Paul is well aware of their pain and persecution. It may be one of the reasons he was forced to leave before he wanted to, and why he was prevented from returning.

So, he sends Timothy to see how they’re doing, to encourage them and strengthen their faith and then to report back to Paul. Timothy has brought back good news: the Thessalonians are holding firm in the faith, despite all the obstacles.

This is why Paul begins his letter with a thanksgiving for their faith, hope and love. Their example has helped to spread the word of the Lord from north to south, from Macedonia to Achaia. He writes, “You became imitators of us, and of the example to all the believers.”

Instead of “example,” a better translation of the Greek word Paul uses, here, is “pattern” or “mold.” Paul is holding up the way the Thessalonians have responded to the gospel message–the way they so joyfully received and embraced it: holding onto it and continuing to make it visible, in hope and love, despite tremendous persecution. He’s telling the Thessalonians that their faithful living has shaped the faith of other believers far and wide.

It is as if they have become the mold for one of those little oil lamps sitting on the table in front of him as he writes. Except, instead of bearing the likeness of a lion or gladiator, they carry the living image of God’s love and salvation. And this image has now been stamped onto others, strengthening them and their faith.

And isn’t that true of you and me? Isn’t that how the Holy Spirit grows our faith: by example?

We, too, have been stamped with God’s design of faithful living. We, too, have been molded by the Holy Spirit, working on us through the witness of our family, our pastors and other Christians. The imprint of God’s gift of salvation is reflected and made manifest in the way we live out our faith, in our love for God and each other, and in our hope for the future.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are most certainly stamping that impression on other believers–and on those who don’t believe. We do it through our words, and even more so, through our actions–actions that make our faith visible in hope and love. That’s how we help mold each other into solid Christian vessels: making new lamps, if you will, lamps that shine God’s light into a dark world.

Friends, that is precisely what is happening in our partnership with our brothers and sisters in Christ from the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Synod of Harare in Zimbabwe.

A year ago this past spring, after several years of getting to know each other, we sat down together, here at MAPC, to talk about the specifics of this prospective partnership. With regard to our ministry and discipleship, what were our respective strengths? What areas needed to be built up? How did those two match up?

We realized pretty quickly that each of us has something that can help strengthen the other’s ministry and discipleship. To put it another way, we could each impress God’s design for faithful living and faithful ministry a little more clearly on the other.

One of the first things that those of us from MAPC saw was the way that our Zimbabwean friends in Christ wear their faith in everyday living. We were impressed by their reliance on God from moment to moment, often in the face of enormous challenges to their faith and even their very existence, not just as a church but as human beings. That was an example for us to follow.

Likewise, our friends told us that the way we get things done and the way we emphasize reaching out to our neighbors in need, both inside and outside our church, impressed them. They saw these as examples for their congregations to follow.

What was needed was to spend more time together, to help our leaders get to know one another, and to help our lay people experience the joy and inspiration of being with one another, living together, learning from each other.

We visited all 21 of your congregations. You spent time with us, visiting and getting to know our congregation. We have lived in each others’ homes. We’ve learned to overcome obstacles together–remember the night the bus got stuck in the game preserve? Remember how hard we prayed?

And so here you are! Welcome. We are grateful to God for bringing you to be with us again. In the words of Paul, “We give thanks for all of you. We mention you in our prayers constantly. We remember before our God and father your work of faith, your labor of love and your steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Faith, hope and love–are there any more fundamental attributes that define us as Christians? These are what we rely on as followers of Christ, living in a secular city where people all too often encounter their opposites: skepticism, despair and selfishness.

Your presence here with us reminds us that, in Jesus Christ, we are called to help each other be like those little oil lamps: shining faith, hope and love on each other and on this world, until our Savior comes again. May it be so.

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