The First Sunday of Advent, Year C, The Church of the Advent, Nashville

“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” (1 Thess. 3:13).

St. Paul wrote to the Church in Thessalonica because he was not physically present. As a missionary, he had passed through the city on a journey that eventually took him on to Athens and Corinth to the south. During his time in Thessalonica a church had been established there but Paul had not been able to linger long. There was opposition and Paul and his associates were forced to move on.

Yet the Gospel seed planted in Thessalonica had borne fruit. St. Paul notes in the First Letter to the Thessalonians that he was anxious after he left the city, because of the persecution that the church was encountering (1 Thess. 3:3). While he was in Athens he sent his co-worker Timothy to visit the church in Thessalonica in order to encourage and strengthen them, and Timothy brought back a report of the good things God was doing in their midst. The Good News of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the hope of his return in glory, had taken root among them (1 Thess. 1:10).

Paul himself longs to go to Thessalonica and to see them for himself: “we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face” (1 Thess. 2:17). It may be hard for us in this age of social media, with a bombardment of images and updates about the activities of others, to remember what absence was like, but perhaps not. St. Paul is, after all, not looking just for news, but for the intimacy of spiritual friendship, and that remains a precious commodity even in this age. Paul remarks that they long to see him just as he longs to see them (1 Thess. 3:6).

He also wants the chance to do a little remedial work with this newly established church. Remember, he left town quickly, pursued by his adversaries, so perhaps there were still some things left unsaid. “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess. 3:10). Or perhaps it was the case that there were not so much things left out as there was the opportunity to go deeper in their faith. In any case, he prays that God and the Lord Jesus will guide him on his way to them (1 Thess. 3:11).

The opportunity to go deeper, to supply what is lacking in our faith, as Paul says, is set before us today. As the church gathers for worship, as it sings, prays, and celebrates the sacraments, we are strengthened and encouraged and come to know the Lord Jesus Christ more completely. As we study the Holy Scriptures our faith is confirmed. We grow in relationship with God and come to know him as he knows us.

Here’s how the Apostle puts it in our reading today, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you” (1 Thess. 3:12). It’s here, in our relationships with one another, that we live out the new life that Christ has given us. We’re meant to increase in love for our fellow members of the church, and to be able to reach out in love and care for others: both those who come through the doors here at the Church of the Advent, and also those who are still “out there.”

You see, that spiritual intimacy and friendship that St. Paul talks about so much in this letter is not a static thing, but meant to (as he says) “abound” more and more. It’s meant to be shared more widely, through the ministry of the members of the Body of Christ, as they reach out to others. Paul is expecting that the love he has lavished upon the church in Thessalonica will rebound and increase as it goes.

All of this happens, in our letter today, against the backdrop of the coming of Christ. “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” (1 Thess. 3:13). Part of the teaching that the Thessalonian Church had received was this teaching of Christ’s coming again: a moment of hope in the midst of persecution.

This backdrop is a reminder of the urgency of the project that is before us. The love that is shared in the Church is just the first fruits of the love that will find its consummation at the moment of Christ’s return. Our hope is to appear blameless before our God and Father, perfected in that love and holiness that we have been practicing now. So St. Paul prayed for his friends in Thessalonica; so too may we pray for the Church of the Advent today.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee