A sermon preached at the end of Church Divinity School of the Pacific’s Student Orientation
1 Thessalonians 3:6-13
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”[1 Thess 3:9]
This time has been in the making for so long and in so many ways.
You all have been individually called out by God to lay claim to your particular gifts and to lay claim to your vocations.
The continual discernment of the mystery of your lives has led you now to this place here in Berkeley at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.
All of us have individually followed paths that have led us to this particular community of faith lived out in this community of learning.
We have all arrived here as strangers and we have learned how to grow together as a community.
And now this week, you who have come through orientation have been gathered together as people who were once strangers but now have become friends in this community of followers of the way of Jesus.
The passage we heard from I Thessalonians offers us a window into the creation of one of the earliest Christian communities we know of.
As you will learn later, First Thessalonians is the earliest letter we have from the Apostle Paul and so also the earliest written Christian document.
In this passage, we hear the joy experienced by the earliest Christians as they came together to worship the God of Israel in gratitude for the reconciling work of the risen Christ.
We hear of the mutual longing of Paul and the community in Thessalonica to see one another.
We hear of the joy that each gains in their fellowship and a desire to grow in faith that is uniquely gained by living in community.
Paul’s words teach us that a key component of living together in Christ is a mutuality and reciprocity that leads not only to love for one another but also to growth in faith.
This communal growth not only exists for the sake of the present but it is also directed to the future.
Our passage ends with this exhortation from Paul:
“And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” [I Thess 3:13]
Here Paul’s words remind us that what we do together matters.
God cares deeply about how we shape our common life together.
We hear Paul with our modern ears that God will judge us individually for what we have done.
And we recoil.
But remember this – Paul did not think like a modern person.
He thought as a Jew of the ancient Mediterranean world.
And so he thought not of individual entities but of communal realities.
How we live as community is what God will judge in the age to come.
And life in community is hard.
We hear about the difficulty of community life in the passage read from Matthew 24.
The context of this passage is Jesus preparing his disciples for the coming of God’s reign that will be signaled by the return of the Son of Man.
It is important to know that the Son of Man refers to a heavenly figure in Daniel 3 who in Second Temple Judaism was identified as the messianic agent of God’s restoration of Israel.
In Matthew, Jesus is identified as the heavenly, messianic Son of Man.
And we hear a parable by Jesus about faithful and unfaithful household slaves.
This teaching is similar to others Jesus offered in which he used the economic and social realities of his time to exhort his disciples to work carefully with what has been entrusted to them.
I don’t think this parable means that the good slaves are Christians and the bad ones are non-Christians.
I think he is asking his disciples to imagine themselves as a household devoted to serving God by following the teachings of their master Jesus.
This parable is not about us and them.
It is about us.
And it asks a hard question — Are we ready for the Son of Man coming among us at an unexpected hour?
When he comes, how will he find us?
Will he find us treating one another well and nourishing one another or will he find us beating up on each other? [Mt 24:45, 49]
It is not an abstract question about when Christ comes again.
It is about how we choose to live together now, in this community, at CDSP.
We here are part of the household of God, following the way of Jesus.
We’re an intentional community – we have chosen to live together.
And we will be held accountable for how we live together and with one another now.
This truth reminds me of something that Mark Richardson has spoken of as a desire he has for life together here at CDSP – that we learn to cultivate the habits of ethical living and the ability to engage in moral conversation that leads to deeper life in Christ.
Moments and opportunities will come for us to follow Jesus and to show we are ready for the coming of the Son of Man.
These moments will emerge as we live together in this place in community.
Our time in this community will be determined in part by how we choose to be open to living side by side as members of the household of God, brought together as followers of the reconciling Christ.
This kind of living together is what Paul writes about in First Thessalonians.
It is a community in which the workers within the household attend to and care for one another.
It is a community that gives thanks for one another.
It is one in which the love of God serves as a common bond among us, even when we disagree or disappoint one another.
So we are here together facing this new semester, gathering together again as a community.
Let us care for one another.
Let us give thanks for one another.
Let us love one another.
Living this way, together, we will be ready when the Son of Man comes among us, now and in the day to come.