All month my family is joining others in our congregation and denomination in reading through a version of the New Testament that has no chapter or verse markings and has been resequenced in roughly chronological order. In part, that’s to get you to notice things you’d otherwise miss. For example, I’d never noticed that Luke occasionally switches to the first person in the Book of Acts, suggesting that he was one of the eyewitness sources for his history of the apostolic church. And I’d forgotten how frustrating is that book’s ending: a text full of dramatic, often violent scenes and powerful sermons gives Paul neither a hearing before Caesar nor his martyrdom.
Then as we continued with Paul’s earliest letter, I was struck that he employed virtually every familial metaphor possible in order to explain the depth of his feeling for the early Christians of Thessalonica. In the space of just six verses, he writes that he, Silas, and Timothy are at once “like young children among you,” like a “nursing mother” to the church, their “brothers and sisters,” and like “a father [dealing] with his own children” (1 Thess 2:7-12). That they couldn’t see the Thessalonians again (“for Satan blocked our way”) made him feel “orphaned,” for these spiritual relatives were “our glory and joy” (2:17, 20).
When I think of Paul’s role as an apostle writing to churches he had founded, words like teaching, rebuking, exhorting, and chastising quickly come to mind. (Next week we’ll read his frustrated letters to the church in Corinth.) But in this epistle, it’s striking that he’s primarily writing for a very different purpose: to encourage people he loves.
“We always,” started Paul, “thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2-3). And he concluded by telling his readers, as recipients of salvation who have life in Christ, to “encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (5:11).
To encourage is literally to en-courage, to give confidence and hope to those tempted to surrender to anxiety and despair. Paul had sent Timothy to the Thessalonian Christians in order “to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials” (3:2-3), and in the midst of their own “distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith” (3:7).
So how might churches today take up a ministry of encouragement?
First, consider what we do to dis-courage each other. Are there ways in which we exacerbate fear rather than sustain hope?
It’s a tricky question. For example, I might reasonably be accused of doing just this by writing too sharply about the dangers of our current administration. Yet in the same letter, Paul says both to “[l]ive in peace with each other” and “reject every kind of evil.” And I’ve been told that my more political posts are actually encouraging to those who don’t feel they can speak so publicly, or are relieved to know that they’re not the only Christians disquieted by our new political order.
So if I’m to be more discerning about how to use my voice, I need to be more attentive to three of Paul’s most famous, most practical injunctions: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (5:16-18). It’s hard to imagine better antidotes to fear than rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving, nor a ministry of encouragement that can be sustained apart from such disciplines.
Finally, consider that a ministry of encouragement goes hand-in-hand with what Mark Pattie and I call a ministry of listening: (from the current draft of our forthcoming book)
In an age of social media, we feel always in “the company of others” and may often imagine that the best thing we have to offer, possibly the thing we have a responsibility to offer, is our voice (or tweet, blog post, or Facebook status update)….
[But in] a lonely society, to listen is to love.
…we can take up a ministry of listening in the hope that it is through such choices that God brings reconciliation and peace into the tumult of our times.
Not to say that we oughtn’t find ways to articulate words of encouragement to each other — to share our own versions of Paul’s encouraging epistle. But vague platitudes will do little to “build each other up”; we can only encourage people in the particularity of their lives, by listening closely enough to understand their joys and sorrows, their fears and hopes. Indeed, the sheer act of listening — of having the patience and humility to suspend our loud busyness and give our time and attention to the voice of another — can itself be encouraging to those worn down by feelings of isolation and abandonment.
So as you go to worship this morning, and then back to your other routines during the week, consider how you might “encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (5:14). And knowing that none of us can do such ministry in our own power, I’ll join Paul in wishing that “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (5:28).