This is the first of four weeks dedicated to 1 Thessalonians.
The way in which the lectionary has divided up the letter presents a challenge to the preacher: the texts for the first three weeks really belong to a single extended passage describing Paul's time with the Thessalonians, while the fourth week takes an apocalyptic turn. How to shape three distinct sermons out of the single passage and also build a link to the fourth week? Several re-readings later, I am leaning towards a sermon series constructed around the theme of God's word. In this first sermon I will focus on "receiving the word."
"Receiving the word"
When did we 'receive the word?' This question has lots of scope for good storytelling: camp experiences, quiet moments on a hillside, a time of crisis, an unexpected encounter. It also raises a question: do we receive the word once? Or over and over again? I actually don't remember when I 'received the word'. I grew up in the church so I suppose I would say that I receive it over and over again.
This isn't everyone's experience. I know people who remember clearly the day and the moment when they 'received the word'. I also know people who have been prevented from 'receiving the word' because of how it was presented to them, or even used against them. This leads me to further questions: What makes it possible for us to receive the word? What makes it difficult? What makes the difference? Or who makes the difference?
We receive the 'word' through and from others
The first ten verses of the letter tell a story of how the word was received by the Thessalonians. The simple story is that Paul came to Thessalonica (the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia) where he proclaimed the word of God among the Thessalonians, some of whom received it with joy. The simple version of the story places the emphasis on good preaching: we hear 'the word' proclaimed by a dynamic preacher and we respond. While it is true that many people have responded to 'the word' in this way, I find myself wondering if that is really all there is to it.
Wading through the verses, a more complex story emerges. I notice, for example, that this is not just a story about Paul; it involves Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. This is reflected in Paul's use of 'we' language throughout the letter. This immediately dispels the image of Paul the mega-pastor/evangelist.
When we receive the 'word' it is often as the result of encounters with many individuals. Some of these encounters may have been brief and resulted simply in the planting of a seed of an idea, while other encounters have resulted in enduring relationships. Regardless, every encounter is, in its own way, significant. Who were the people who have planted, watered, weeded, and tended the seed(s) that have led us to 'receive the word'?
We receive the word through the Holy Spirit
The Thessalonians also received the word "in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." These three are not separate, but related. In the letters of Paul, 'power' is associated almost always with God; for example, it is exhibited in God's act of creation (Romans 1:20), in God's raising of Jesus from the dead (1 Corinthians 6:14), in the performance of 'deeds of power' or miracles (1 Corinthians 12:10).
'The word' that we receive does not stand on its own; it is accompanied by the power of God which is manifested in life-giving ways -- sometimes within the pattern of creation, sometimes outside the pattern of creation. Some would also assign God's power to acts of destruction (such as hurricanes, or AIDS), but in the New Testament God's power is only ever spoken of in relation to acts which result in the (re)generation of life. Does our experience of God's life-giving power open the way for us to receive God's word? Or, when we receive God's word, do we become alert to God's life-giving power? Do we discover this for ourselves, or does someone help us to see what we perhaps did not see before?
Paul speaks more often of the 'Spirit' than the Holy Spirit. Like the breath of God which first gave life to humankind, the Holy Spirit renews our spirits, setting us apart (Romans 15:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:4), reminding us who and whose we are (1 Corinthians 12:3), and, with the confidence that that brings, giving us joy (Romans 14:17 [1 Thessalonians 1:6]). The Holy Spirit confirms in our hearts and minds that what we have received is 'the word of God'; it offers us assurance and thereby enables us to receive the 'word' with conviction, even when we encounter obstacles or doubts (1:6).
I am loath to use the word persecution. It can and does happen, but I suspect that when we claim it for ourselves it is because one door has been shut to us and we lack the creativity to seek another. How do we come to know the Holy Spirit in our lives? Is it a warm fuzzy feeling? Is it reflected back to us when we encounter it in another person? Is it a certainty that gives us stability? Or a breath of fresh air that invites us to let go?
What we receive is not ours alone
The 'receiving of the word' by the Thessalonians is made evident by their 'work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope'. Just as the Holy Spirit confirms the 'receiving of the word' in us, so we demonstrate to others that we have 'received the word' through our work of faith and labor of love (1:7). I think this public demonstration serves a double function, because it opens up to scrutiny our actions, attitudes and behaviors.
It can be tempting, when we receive the 'word', to think that we have received a special revelation, understood only by God and ourselves, and we allow this to become a justification for all we do and think. But the Holy Spirit moves in others as well as ourselves. The community of faith becomes both a source of confirmation and correction. It can point out to us the idols we have not yet left behind or the ways in which we have created new ones. Who in our community of faith has helped us to correct us? To confirm us? In what ways do we serve as a confirmation or a corrective to the community?