2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
On that crowded bus from the gate to the place, you have to stand firm and hold tight. Crowded onto that tube train rush hour, you have to stand firm and hold tight. On that narrow mountain path when it gets a bit windy, you have to stand firm and hold tight. When something dangerous is going on, you might very well find yourself having to stand firm and hold tight, grabbing whatever you can, bracing yourself for the shock. On the short and sheltered crossing from Mull to Iona, on a good sized boat considering how short the ten minute crossing is, the storm one Easter Monday was so rough I felt I’d never hung on like that before. On the flight from the Isles of Scilly to St Just, on a little eight seater aircraft flying into a headwind, bobbing about all over the place and taking twice as long as planned, with the waves crashing on the rocks visible beneath us, I hung on like I hadn’t hung on for a long time.
Stand firm and hold tight is precisely what Paul is recommending that the young church in Thessalonica do. There are troubled times on the way, and like a small boat crossing a turbulent waterway, the little ship of the church is going to be tossed to and fro. When that’s happening, they need to know how to stand upright and what to hold on to. Here Paul is quite clear: the safety-rope consists of ‘the traditions you were taught’ that is, the foundational Christian teachings which Paul gave them when he was with them, and then by letter. We know from his various writings what these were. He frequently refers back to them, as for instance in 1 Corinthians chapter 11 (about Communion) and 15 (the good news of resurrection). Often Paul says ‘you will remember’ or ‘you know, don’t you’, reminding his hearers of teaching they have already received. These teachings are about three things in particular: the good news itself; the worshipping heart of the church; and the principles of how Christians should behave. Hold on tight to these, he says, and you won’t go far wrong.
This is as true today as it was in the first century. The young church in Thessalonica had to make an enormous moral and mental effort to keep its footing and retain its grasp, but it was surrounded on all sides by the grace and mercy of God. This applies to us in just the same way: God will support you, therefore you need to stand firm and hold tight. It’s all too easy for us to think that either God won’t act, isn’t there, or the opposite extreme so kind of puppet master, whereas God supports us precisely through the love, the comfort, and the teaching of the gospel, which don’t work automatically, without our conscious involvement. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that he worked harder than all the rest, yet it wasn’t him, but God’s grace that was with him.
What does this really mean? In verses 13 and 14 of tonight’s reading Paul sets out a very full picture of God’s grace. God in his love has chosen them to be the ‘first fruits’, the pioneer project as it were, of his work of salvation. Because of this Christ has called them through the gospel, with the result that they have been ‘sanctified by the spirit’, which means set apart for God like priests in the Temple, only now with love for God as the inner principle of their lives, not a matter of outward rituals; and, again through the gospel, they have come to faith – not just any religious faith, but to ‘belief in the truth’. The end result of all this is that they will come to share the glory of Christ himself.
Everything that Christians do, from belief to baptism to hope, is held within this framework of God’s powerful love and grace. That’s why Paul can thank God for them. All that has been accomplished in every life is God’s gift, and all that will be accomplished will be to God’s glory. That, too, is why Paul can finish this chapter of the letter with a confident prayer and blessing.
God has given us, as a free gift in Christ, his love, his eternal comfort, and his ‘good hope’ – ‘good’ both in the sense that we hope for all the good things that are ours in Christ, and in the sense that this hope can be utterly relied on. These blessings, which will be ours to come, come forward to meet us in the present, in the form of comfort for our hearts and strength for our actions and our speech.
Considering these really are just a few verses, they offer a remarkably full summary of what belief in God means, and what trying to follow Christ means. This letter isn’t the top of everyone’s reading list all the time, but if it was the only piece of Paul that we had, we would still have quite a substantial picture of his ministry, his prayer, his thinking, and his passion. Above all, we would still have his picture of God: the God of justice and grace, who in Jesus Christ has put the World to rights, and is now at work to implement that action through the spirit-filled church.
Part of Mother Teresa’s work was the so-called “House of Dying,” where sick children were cared for in their last days, and the dispensary, where the poor lined up by the hundreds to receive medical attention. Watching Mother Teresa minister to these people, feeding and nursing those left by others to die, a visitor asked, “how can you bear the load without being crushed by it?” Mother Teresa replied, “I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful.”
May we, as individuals, as a church family, stand firm, hold on tight, and celebrate the greatness of God, as God does in and through us.