Today’s Chocolate: Theo Orange 70% Dark Chocolate
Today’s Passage: 1 Thessalonians 2
Paul spends today’s chapter recapitulating his history and relationship with the church at Thessalonica, from its inception to the present. When Paul and his missionary crew first arrived, there was no Christian movement at Thessalonica, and when they left, there was. Paul cares for the church there like a mom cares for her kids, and he wants to visit them in person as soon as he can. They matter to him.
You know what’s weird, though? As grateful as Paul is for the Thessalonian believers, he hasn’t yet thanked them for anything. On the other hand, he’s thanked God twice for them. He tells them: “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (13). He thanks God that they received the gospel. If they accepted it as a message of divine rather than human origin, whatever role they played, at a foundational level God is the one responsible for their conversion. The word is performing its work in them; like a patient on the operating table or a drowning man getting rescued, they’re not in any substantive sense the ones doing the work.
And yes, I’m on my determinism-vs.-free-will thing again here, as if I were incapable of talking about anything else, because I think we folks who believe in free will often give ourselves too much credit. God is the one who deserves the thanks for the work of the gospel in our lives. Yeah, I think we’ve got a part to play, and we make choices, but our role is pretty minor. Jesus Christ has done the heavy lifting to make the change in our lives at all possible. You want to know what moral behavior is? Giving God credit for his overwhelming role in empowering us for moral behavior.
Another pair of verses from today’s reading hit me too. Paul writes,
Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (8-9)
Paul’s got an attitude of service. He went into Thessalonica knowing that his crew was representing Jesus Christ to the citizens there. If his message was that Jesus Christ gave his life out of love in order to save human beings from their sin, he knew that the degree to which he exhibited that kind of sacrifice would reflect the integrity of the message. The crew could come in as burdens, letting other people work to serve them, or they could do their own work and go on to serve others. They had options, and they went with the labor-and-hardship option.
Not so long ago I read David Gerrold’s War Against the Chtorr series. Fair warning, it’s hard-R-rating sci-fi. Its principal antagonists, an invading alien ecology at the top of whose food chain are omnivorous bus-sized red worms, violently devour human beings; on top of that, there are sexual scenes, disturbing material, and pervasive four-letter words. Reading a book like this doesn’t make me or you some kind of super-mature “oh, I can handle this content” guy. But for better or worse, I read it, and in spite of its grim fictional world, I did take away something from it that’s very much in line with what Paul’s saying here.
Toward the end of the third book, Gerrold has one of his characters deliver a message about survival and service, about being guests vs. hosts. Most people live their lives as guests in reality; they consume, they take, they do what’s necessary to pursue pleasure and stay alive. But on the flip side, they have the opportunity to adopt a different mentality and live their lives as hosts. They can look at the needs of the people and world around them and labor to meet those needs. They can identify and perform the work that needs to be done in order to ensure the well-being of others, even at personal expense. They’re willing to suffer in order to achieve something bigger than their own continued existence and happiness. They host.
To put it another way, most people operate in survival mode. Much like animals, they apply their resources toward ensuring their continued existence. They’ll enter into service mode as long as it benefits them, or at least doesn’t kill them; they’ll give as long as they get. They’re reticent to put their happiness on the line, and even more reticent to risk their own survivability.
But in service mode, people are prepared to give their lives for something bigger. They make sacrifices to secure a bigger good than themselves and their individual pleasure. They can subordinate the survival mode to the service mode. The paradigm to strive for, according to David Gerrold and according to Paul, is not service for the purpose of survival. It’s survival for the purpose of service.
Paul came to Thessalonica as a host. Paul put his life into service: not just the service of the Thessalonians, but the service of God and of the gospel of Jesus Christ.