1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash

Collect Prayer

Gracious Father,
by the obedience of Jesus
you brought salvation to our wayward world:
draw us into harmony with your will,
that we may find all things restored in him,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Reading

Finally, dear brothers and sisters, we urge you in the name of the Lord Jesus to live in a way that pleases God, as we have taught you. You live this way already, and we encourage you to do so even more. For you remember what we taught you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

God’s will is for you to be holy, so stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor— not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways. Never harm or cheat a fellow believer in this matter by violating his wife, for the Lord avenges all such sins, as we have solemnly warned you before. God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. Therefore, anyone who refuses to live by these rules is not disobeying human teaching but is rejecting God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

But we don’t need to write to you about the importance of loving each other, for God himself has taught you to love one another. 10 Indeed, you already show your love for all the believers throughout Macedonia. Even so, dear brothers and sisters, we urge you to love them even more.

11 Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. 12 Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others.

Homily by Rev’d Kate Massey

So this morning, we are going to talk about the thing we never talk about in church. We never talk about it despite it being a topic in many books, despite it being an indispensible part of the storyline in almost every television soap and drama and despite it being used to sell us everything from sportscars to sofas. We never talk about it despite it being quite an integral part of how we all happen to be here. We never talk about it despite significant chunks of the Bible having quite a bit to say about it. It is, of course, sex. But before you have an attack of the vapours, I promise this is not going to be an X-rated sermon. Rather, I want to challenge the idea that the Bible in general and Paul – who is one of the co-authors of this letter – in particular are negative about this aspect of our lives.

We believe in a God of love, and so all love is a gift from God, including the ways we express our love physically. Making love is a way of giving ourselves to another and enjoying one another in a way that can build intimacy. There are many passages in the Bible which celebrate the physical love of couples in a committed relationship, not least the book called Song of Songs – or Song of Solomon as it is sometimes called. This under-read little book of the Old Testament can be quite funny to our modern day sensibilities. The lover praising his beloved because she has such nice teeth, like sheep processing in pairs from the hillside – well, that won’t work as a chat-up line today. But despite being nearly 3000 years old, it captures the passion and longing of a couple much in love, as well as warning the reader not to take such love lightly – do not awaken this love until the right time it says again and again. It is a wise celebration of the wonder of romantic love in all its forms.

However, in church we tend to spend more time reading Paul than we do the more obscure books of Hebrew love poetry, and Paul has something of a reputation for being a spoilsport. Today’s reading is full of warnings against mis-using God’s gift of sex, and it can sound rather harsh. After quite a positive and encouraging letter up until this point, invoking God’s wrath against someone who fails in the area of relationships does make it seem like Paul has unresolved issues in this area. Please hear me – no sort of sin, sexual or otherwise, is a good idea. It hurts ourselves and other people, whether it is greed or gossip, exploitation or envy. Why is Paul getting quite to het up about this particular sort of sin. Is it because they are in a different sort of category from other sins – or is there something else going on?

Recently, I have been reading a book called Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden. Now Sarah Ruden isn’t a theologian or a biblical scholar. She is an expert in translating classical literature from the Greek, who happens to be a Christian. And she used to have quite a low opinion of St Paul. She thought he was a bit of a stuffy old bigot given his views on partying, sex and gender. But then she started reading Paul’s letters through the eyes of her knowledge of classical Greek and Roman texts. She stopped thinking about what his words sounded like to us now, and started to think about how they would sound then, when they were first written to a small diverse church in the first century Roman Empire. Holding Paul’s words alongside some of the other writings of the time shed a new light on them and a new, more humane Paul was revealed.

As I have said before, it is almost impossible for us, who are the products of a society which has been shaped by Christianity for over a millenium, to recognise how radical and hopeful some of Paul’s writings were. This isn’t helped by the fact many of us – myself included – don’t know much about that world. Reading Sarah Ruden’s book was an eye-opener. For example, she argues that when Paul advises his hearers against drunkenness, he is referring to a particular sort of revelry which was common in Roman culture and was frequently violent, destructive and disruptive. This isn’t about Uncle Ted having one too many sherries at Christmas and falling asleep in front of Eastenders. And when he is talking about sex, he is more concerned with justice and the rights of the weaker members of Roman society than any desire to police how consenting adults express their love.

In the culture of the day, if you were a rich Roman man, you could pretty much get away with treating anyone how you wanted. Women, younger men, slaves – all were at the mercy of the whims of these powerful men, and there were no consequences. Pretty much the only people they weren’t supposed to sleep with were other men’s wives, because in that scenario the consequences were so severe. Infidelity can be incredible destructive to families today, practically and emotionally, but in Roman society, the effect was catastrophic. The affront to the other man was irreparable, and so irrespective of blame the woman would be thrown out of her household and all her children rendered illegitimate. Julius Caesar put away one wife merely because a man had gatecrashed a party she was holding with her friends, and the merest whiff of scandal was more than his pride could countenance. Given that the household was the way dependents were supported, this disowning of women and children was frequently a one-way ticket to utter destitution. Even in the fairly immoral society of the time, to do this to another household was beyond the pale, so to Paul’s readers his strong prohibition would make perfect sense.

We have to remember, too, that one of the radical features of an early Christian house church was the diversity of people who belonged to it. Wealthy householders and slaves, women and men, Gentiles and Jews – all gathered round the good news of Jesus, broke bread together and called one another sister and brother. It was utterly unlike anything that society had ever experienced. But this meant that there would be men in the churches who were used to using the bodies of other people for their own gratification with no more consideration of this than someone today might order a takeway. And some of the people who had experienced this treatment would be the other members of the church community. No more, says Paul. No more of this behaviour. Each person must be in control of their own body – quite a radical statement for the members of the church who had felt like they had no control. Each person’s body was a matter of honour and respect. Each person was called to holy living. This exhortation operates from an assumption of profound equality, profound equality, which would be so encouraging to the letter’s recipients. And respecting one another’s bodies and boundaries was a way in which this new Christian community could model radical love for its surrounding society. This quiet and loving living was to be their most powerful witness to those around them.

So Paul wasn’t some neurotic spoilsport, but someone who longed for all members of his fledgling churches to exist in a community of loving equals, modelling a new way of being for those around them and pointing them to the transforming love of God. And this invites us to consider how we might model respect and equality for other human beings in a way that is countercultural in today’s world. How are people’s bodies exploited today and their choices limited today? There remains a despicable trade in human bodies, especially with modern day slavery and human trafficking which must be strongly resisted. Organisations like the Clewer Initiative, spearheaded by the Diocese of Derby do important work there. But there are also the bodies that are exploited in pursuit of profit, and so as Christians we should care about fair wages and ethical working practices. I am delighted to say that the PCC recently renewed our commitment to being a Fair Trade Church, which is one practical way we can do this. But there are other things we can do, like avoiding companies who treat their employees badly, and actively support ones who value their workers. We can vote for political parties who care about fair treatment of people at work. Finally we can simply ensure that we treat the people who serve us with respect and honour. Ask your checkout assistant what sort of day they are having. Tell your delivery driver to have a good day. Thank the healthcare assistant who takes your blood pressure for their work. Move the meeting from an exchange of services to an encounter of human beings. Notice the people behind the roles and treat them with honour and respect as a beloved child of God.

And so I finish by quoting – well slightly misquoting – the words of Paul in our reading: But I don’t need to write to you about the importance of loving each other, for God himself has taught you to love one another. 10 Indeed, you already show your love for all the believers in St Paul’s and beyond. Even so, dear brothers and sisters, I urge you to love them even more…

Amen.

Prayers

Scripture calls us to pray for social justice issues (Isa. 58:6-7, Matt. 25:34-40, Luke 4:18-19)
until God brings healing, restoration and transformation (Isa. 62:7).
However, social justice will not be achieved by prayer alone. 

If we pray for social justice, we will find ways of working for social justice.
That is the best “amen” to our prayer.

Etienne Piek ~

Hanto Yo

(Hanto Yo means “clear the way” in the Lakota language of the North American Plains.)

God of surprises,
you call us
from the narrowness of our traditions
to new ways of being church,
from the captivities of our culture to
creative witness for justice,
from the smallness of our horizons
to the bigness of your vision.

Clear the way in us, your people,
that we might call others to freedom
and renewed faith.

Jesus, wounded healer,
you call us
from preoccupation with our own histories and hurts
to daily tasks of peacemaking,
from privilege and protocol
to partnership and pilgrimage,
from isolation and insularity
to inclusive community.

Clear the way in us, your people,
That we might call others to
wholeness and integrity.

Holy, transforming Spirit,
you call us
from fear to faithfulness,
from clutter to clarity,
from a desire to control to deeper trust,
from the refusal to love to a readiness to risk.

Clear the way in us, your people,
that we might all know the beauty and power
and danger of the gospel.

—Gwyn Cashmore and Joan Puls, From One Race the Human Race: Racial Justice Sunday 2003, published by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland: Churches Commission for Racial Justice, London

https://www.reformedworship.org/article/june-2014/prayers-justice-reconciliation-and-peace

Closing Worship

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