1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – Encourage One Another

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (New International Version)

The believers in Thessalonica were discouraged.

Jesus said before his ascension to heaven that he would return…. Christ is still a no show.

So, the Thessalonians, not knowing exactly when Jesus would come back, were finding they needed patience and perseverance. They needed to avoid discouragement so as to not lose hope. They needed to be built up in their faith so they could live each day, even a lifetime (if that is what it took) continuing in love without giving up.

After all, it can be stressful not knowing a future time schedule. We simply do not know when Jesus is returning. Until that time happens, we are not to sit on our hands waiting, but are to be active, encouraging one another and building one another up. 

This present moment is not the time for bitterness and complaining, because it just does not help us to persevere. The church is to be a community of mutual support for one another. The world can be a tough, unfriendly, and lonely place. It’s easy to get hurt.

The word “encourage” is a beautiful word (Greek: παρακαλέω and English transliteration: parakaleo). It is actually two words smashed together (compound word) to communicate a wonderful truth. ‘Para’ means to come alongside. This word is found in many of our English words (i.e., parachute, paramedic, etc.). The other half of the word, kaleo, means ‘to call out,’ that is, to exhort or tell someone to do something. 

When we put those two words together, parakaleo means to exhort someone to do something by coming alongside them and helping them to do it. Therefore, we do the dual work of saying helpful words and backing it up with helpful actions.

The phrase “build each other up,” is, in many translations, “edify.” The word literally means to build a house. The Apostle Paul was saying to the church that, just as a builder takes great pains to carefully construct a house over a stretch of time, so we in the church are in the business of constructing souls. 

We must engage in the tedious and patient work of building up the faith of one another. Not everything goes according to plan when you actually are in the building process; there are unforeseen delays and issues and problems which cause the builder to be creative, and other times to just have to submit to the wait and not become upset or discouraged about it.

You must encourage one another each day. And you must keep on while there is still a time that can be called “today.” If you don’t, then sin may fool some of you and make you stubborn.

Hebrews 3:13, CEV

When it comes to community and faith, we are not to give up when things don’t go as we think they should, or as planned. In stressful situations, we are not to tear-down one another, nor look at people as objects to be “fixed” when they don’t perform, or do, or say, what we want them to. 

Everyone needs a continual stream of encouragement to keep going so that we do not lose heart or lose hope. If we are in the habit of only pointing out things to others we don’t like, or consistently feel the need to correct people, then we really must say at least five encouraging things for every single complaint. 

Saint John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, said to his congregation concerning encouragement: 

“Do you see how everywhere Paul puts the health of the community into the hands of each individual?  Encourage one another and build each other up. Do not then cast all of the burden on your teachers, and do not cast everything on those who have authority over you. You are able to edify one another…. If you are willing, you will have more success with one another than we (pastors) can have. You have been with one another a longer time and know more about one another’s affairs. You are not ignorant of one another’s failings and have more freedom of speech, love, and intimacy. You have more ability than we do to reprove and exhort. I am only one person. You are many. You will be able to be teachers to one another.”

St. John Chrysostom

He also exhorted his fellow clergy:

“Edify one another and in this way we will have the satisfaction of seeing the church grow in strength, and you will enjoy more abundant favor from above through the great care you show for your members. God does not wish Christians to be concerned only for themselves but also to edify others, not simply through their teaching but also through their behavior and the way they live. After all, nothing is such an attraction to the way of truth as an upright life – in other words, people pay less attention to what we say than to what we do.”

St. John Chrysostom

We encourage and edify one another with Christ who is both our example and our substitute. Jesus is our example of leaving the comfort of heaven and coming alongside us in our human condition; he lived the holy life we could not live, and so, is our substitute. 

Jesus came alongside us and taught us how to live by showing the way of love and taking care of the sin issue once for all. After rising from the dead and ascending to heaven, we now have the hope that Christ will return.  Then we will no longer have to deal with the world, the flesh, and the devil dogging us at every turn, seeking to discourage us. 

The three indispensable elements of the Christian life are faith, hope, and love. We need all three in order to be encouraged and built up. We need a close, personal, and intimate faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus.  We need a faith that is continually being tested and strengthened so that it stands the variety of challenges that this life has for us. 

We need biblical hope, a confident expectation that God will make good on all his promises to us. We will not try and hold God accountable to things never promised but will get to know the Scriptures to such a degree that our desires are in line with God’s desires. 

We need love. Love is to be the air that we breathe. Love is to be so common and routine for us that we put it on every day just as we put on our clothes. We need to love one another by encouraging each other through meeting needs. Love each other enough to say what needs to be said, and back it up with help so that they will not become discouraged but will persevere and keep going.

The Holy Spirit of God is referred to by Jesus as the Paraclete – the noun form of our word for encouragement.  The Spirit is the one who comes alongside us and teaches us all things by helping us. The Spirit’s work is to sanctify us and make us holy. 

God does not shout commands from heaven; the Lord comes alongside us by means of the Spirit to help us live the Christian life. And that is how believers are to function – pointing one another to Christ, exhorting and helping and edifying each other until the Lord Jesus comes again. 

Will you participate with the Spirit in this work of encouragement?

Lord Jesus, as the great Day of your return approaches, help us to speak your words of life and hope and healing to those who need them the most. Help us to bring your hands of mercy to bear in tangible and timely ways. Put before us names and faces who need the encouragement you alone can bring. Amen.

Galatians 6:1-10 – Fulfill the Law of Christ

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (New International Version)

Its all about grace. God’s grace. In Christ, lived by means of the Holy Spirit. Its not about hard black-and-white lists of rules or principles to live by. The Law of Christ is to help each other in our troubles, no matter what.

Overwhelming physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual burdens can become even more heavy through failing to live up to someone’s or some group’s or a church’s unwritten list of rules. “Keep a stiff upper lip.” “Everything is possible for those who love God.” “Stay positive.” “Just have faith and trust God.” Or worse, silence…. These and hundred other phrases communicate to people with crushing loads that they will have to carry them alone.

The letter to the Galatian believers spells out what is to truly characterize Christian interactions, and what it means to walk in the Spirit. Believers in Jesus are to emulate the behavior of Christ, the ultimate burden-bearer, who came to restore sinners, not condemn them.

We have a responsibility to rescue, renew, and revitalize persons who have lost their way. We are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.

Someone caught in the crosshairs of a bad decision, or ensnared by making a wrong step, who is now in over their heads, needs help. In such a case, we are to restore, not punish. The person’s wound needs spiritual cauterizing. The broken spirit needs to be set back into place to heal properly.

The tone and the attitude which we do this important work of restoring people is through gentleness (meekness). We are to have a mindset and heart stance which understands there is no moral superiority with me. I could easily be the person in need of restoration.

When we have a gentle spirit, then we discern we are not above falling into the same trouble. We, too, are ethically and morally vulnerable. So, the church has a corporate responsibility to bear one another’s burdens.

There are other people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in over their heads, too. Their health and mental health challenges, the emotional weight of hard circumstances, and their broken spirits require others to help shoulder the load so that the weighted-down person is not crushed.

Nobody in any faith community is above doing this work of burden-bearing. And it isn’t appropriate for an individual to boast about the burden-bearing work of others, as if it were theirs. You and I are to take responsibility for our own actions and attitudes without taking credit for someone else’s efforts.

A mature spiritual community of people are able to distinguish those loads which individuals must bear for themselves, and those burdens where help is sorely needed. We are accountable to carry our own backpack. And we are also accountable before Christ to share our load with others when it becomes too heavy for us.

If we choose not to allow others to assist us when we need it, then we will reap what we sow – we’ll feel the full weight and consequences of our silence. The planting and harvesting metaphor isn’t just for those who have engaged in wrongdoing. It is also for those who don’t put any seeds in the ground to begin with. They shouldn’t expect a harvest, at all.

Grace lived out in real experiences knows when to get under a load and help carry it. And grace also knows when to be kind to self and share the heavy burden with others who can help shoulder it for a bit. This is Christianity which relies on the enablement of the Spirit, made possible by Christ, who carried our crushing weight of guilt and shame for us.

Our Christian freedom in Jesus is to be stewarded wisely through carrying one another’s burdens, and so, fulfilling the Law of Christ.

God of all comfort, our help in time of need: We humbly pray to relieve and restore persons in need, people for whom are tired, sick, weary, or unable to continue as they are. Look upon them with the eyes of your mercy; comfort them with a sense of your goodness; preserve them from the temptations of the enemy; and give them patience under their affliction. In your good time, restore them to holistic health, and enable them to live their lives to your glory; and may they dwell with you in life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31 – Diversity and Unity

All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church:

first are apostles,
second are prophets,
third are teachers,
then those who do miracles,
those who have the gift of healing,
those who can help others,
those who have the gift of leadership,
those who speak in unknown languages.

Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not! So, you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts.

But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all. (New Living Translation)

“Ubuntu” is an African Zulu word for humanity. It roughly translates into English as, “I am because we are.”

In whatever way it is to be translated, the idea behind ubuntu is a belief of being connected in a universal bond of humanity. So, an authentic individual human is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental, and spiritual world.

That is precisely what today’s New Testament lesson is all about. Believers in Jesus are connected to one another, as well as having a human bond with all people, since everyone is created in the image and likeness of God.

“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”

Desmond Tutu

So, then, we are all to use whatever spiritual gifts and divinely given abilities for the common good of everyone. Just like the triune G-d who is both unity and diversity, and just as an individual human body has many parts yet one person, so also believers are diverse in every way yet thoroughly unified as one Body of Christ.

The Church at Corinth had divided into special interest groups who followed a particular person. Each was continually lobbying for what they wanted, rather than seeking to work together as one temple of G-d. And each group believed their gifts were superior.

Paul identified some spiritual gifts – neither to give an exhaustive list, nor to rank them in importance – but to clarify that all these diverse people and their G-d-given skills are to be used for the building up of the congregation. Ideally, the people’s gifts are to flow together in common worship, fellowship, encouragement, and mission:

  • Apostles. There are two kinds. Capital “A” Apostles are the original ones. They are set apart as those who saw the Lord and were his disciples. Little “a” apostles are “sent ones” or missionaries, proclaiming the gospel in word and deed to those who need to hear.
  • Prophets. These are folks possessing a function and gift of encouragement, building up the church through picturing a special future for the ministry of the community.
  • Teachers. Explaining sound doctrine through careful application of Scripture to daily life and ministry is the function of a biblical teacher.
  • Miracle workers and healers. Yes, miracles and healing happened and still occur. These are believers with an unusual gift of faith who are able to discern with spiritual eyes what others tend not to see.
  • Helpers. A necessary element of any Christian fellowship are people who serve in all kinds of capacities: giving to others’ needs; doing acts of mercy and benevolence; and attending to whatever physical needs Christians are faced with.
  • Leaders. Men and women who provide guidance and steer the church in directions they ought to go. They are skilled administrators, able to give wise counsel.
  • Speakers in tongues (languages). It must be borne in mind that this gift is not an end in itself. It is a Spirit-given ability to help include people. Christianity was never intended to be an exclusive club of Jews or devoted solely to a particular class or race. The gospel is meant for every type of person.

Reflecting on all these gifts and abilities within the Church, Paul rattled off a flurry of staccato-like rhetorical questions. The point is to lift up all the gifts as equally needed and appreciated. The ghettoized Corinthian Church needed an understanding of this. Their individual identities were too wrapped up in their abilities, rather than in Christ.

Keep in mind that today’s New Testament lesson immediately precedes the great ode to love of chapter 13. It is the primacy and permanency of love which holds everyone together. Love is the supreme end of all the speaking and serving gifts.

The most excellent way of engaging our giftedness is expressing it with the love of G-d in Christ Jesus. Anything less than this is a mere shadow of the gospel and severely truncates Christian mission and worship.

What’s more, not only does every local church need to function in unity through diverse exercise of gifts with the individual members, so every local church must cooperate and live in harmony with all other churches. Yes, if you are reading ecumenism in this, you are correct. An ecumenical spirit is a generous spirit which pays attention to other believers in our communities, countries, and throughout the world.

“Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, not absorbed.”

Mary Parker Follett

If leaders, teachers, helpers, healers, church planters and encouragers are all doing their jobs, according to the grace given them, then working together with believers everywhere simply happens. And it never seems weird to extend basic Christian mercy and care to believers everywhere – no matter whether they are in full agreement with our doctrinal statements, or not.

When Jesus prayed for all potential believers to be one as G-d is one, he wasn’t thinking of special interest groups, separated Christianized ghettos, nor some believers as being more right or special than other believers.

Diversity, unity, equity, inclusion, and most of all, love, are what characterizes the Lord. It should characterize us, too.

Methinks the Zulu were on to something with the concept of ubuntu. A person is most fully a person through other people. It seems to me it is high time to affirm the basic humanity in others through appreciating their unique difference.  

You and I are more than independent individuals. Our shared humanity is a quality we owe to each other.

I am because we are.

Lord G-d almighty, Creator of the universe, who made us different from one another in myriad ways we can see and in more ways we shall never know yet made us all in your image; fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom, that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Ephesians 4:1-16 – Unity through Spiritual Gifts

Celtic unity knot by Kristen Fox

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
    he took many captives
    and gave gifts to his people.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So, Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (New International Version)

Unity is more than a good idea or something nice to aspire to. It’s absolutely necessary.

The whole unity thing is quite important to God. It isn’t just an ancillary or side issue to the real work of the church and the Christian life; it is very much at the center of Christianity. 

Christians have been fashioned through the Holy Spirit into a single harmonious religious community of redeemed people, called to exemplify a counter-cultural presence in the world. 

There is a solid theological reason for this: God is one. Just as the triune God exists as one deity in three persons, so the church is to reflect God’s image through its unified oneness.

Although unity has been accomplished through the finished work of Jesus on the cross, the practical implications must be daily worked out. This is why we are to strive, or to put significant effort, into realizing and maintaining the unity we possess. 

Simply getting along but harboring animosity toward another is not unity. Just because two people are not at each other’s throats doesn’t mean there is peaceful unity. Unity occurs when the Body of Christ works together in its diverse gifts toward a common goal of knowing Christ and making him known.  

When Jesus ascended to heaven, ten days later the Day of Pentecost happened. The Holy Spirit came upon the small band of believers and the church became a full-fledged phenomenon, growing and expanding. 

The gracious gifts of the Spirit are given to each and every Christian so that we all may grow and be strengthened in love. Each gifting might be different from person to person, but every one of them is meant to be used in love for the benefit of the entire church.

The Body of Christ, the Church, will experience disunity, weakness, and ineffectiveness if they don’t have any bones or skeleton. It might look like a church – yet will not be able to do any good in the world. 

It is quite necessary that every individual Christian learn what their spiritual gift(s) are, then use them in love to build up the Body. This is the God ordained means of realizing a mature, unified, and functionally healthy group. 

Toward that end, it is good for us all to ask ourselves the following questions and discover the answers:

  • What is my passion and desire for Christ’s Church? 
  • What issues stir up my emotions? 
  • What group of people do I feel most attracted or compelled to reach with the love of Christ? 
  • What area of my faith community or volunteer organization do I most want to influence? 
  • Are there people I see and “get” but others seem to ignore or misunderstand? 
  • How will I step out in faith? 
  • How will I speak and serve as a faithful believer?

 May your journey be blessed, and your pilgrimage of faith be rewarded.

Blessed Holy Trinity, the God whom I serve, may your visible church on this earth be unified and one as you are One. I pray our unity of love and purpose will transform individuals, churches, organizations, systems, and the entire world to the glory of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Loving God, you have graced me with spiritual gifts for the sake of Jesus Christ. Use me for the gracious strengthening of the Church, and for positive influence in the world. Amen.