For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? 1 Thessalonians 3.9-10.
Strange to think that in just under a month, I will be flying into Thessaloniki Airport in the Macedonia region of Greece, not far from where this group of Christians to whom Paul was writing used to meet almost two thousand years ago. The story of the founding of the church in Thessalonica (as modern-day Thessaloniki was then called) is recounted in Acts 17 and from there we learn that, because of the opposition of the Jews, Paul was able to stay with the new church and nurture it for no time at all. He and Timothy and Silas (Silvanus) had to move on quickly to the next city, Berea, but the Jews from Thessalonica followed them there and caused yet more trouble, so that Paul (the focus of their hatred) went on to Athens leaving Timothy and Silas to foster the converts in Berea. When those two finally joined Paul in Athens, Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how the young church was faring (1 Thessalonians 3.1). Now, in this morning’s chapter, we learn that Timothy has returned and “has brought us the good news of your faith and love” (1 Thessalonians 3.6); so Paul has been moved to write to them.
He begins with thanksgiving for them and for the joy that Timothy’s news has brought to him. Although he had been instrumental in bringing the Thessalonians to Christ, there is no sense of personal pride in the fact the church has survived and is growing in faith and love — rather he sees it as all down to the grace and power of God. The verb antapodidomi, here translated “return”, means “to render again” and carries the sense of giving back what is due. It is a reminder to me that whenever something good happens in someone’s life because of my word or my witness, the proper response is not self-congratulation that I “got it right” but thanksgiving to the God “who alone does wondrous things” (Psalm 72.18).
Next he prays “most earnestly” night and day that he might see them. The phrase “night and day” (which, on Paul’s lips, is no exaggeration) alone has the power to shame me at the paucity of my prayers for the Christian brothers that God has given me a care and concern for; but the adverb translated “most earnestly” is extraordinary and only increases my sense of shame. It is a compound of three Greek words — hyper, ek, and perissou — “above”, “beyond”, “abundantly”. It means overflowing all bounds and limitations. And I have to ask myself: when have I ever prayed for people like that?
So is that all that Paul wants — to see these Christian brothers and sisters in Thessalonica? No, he wants something much more. He wants, he says, to “supply what is lacking” in their faith. And this is the thing that strikes me most forcibly in this morning’s reading … how central “supplying what is lacking” should be to any ministry I might have. No Christian on this side of death has ever arrived at his or her full potential in Christ. There is always something “lacking”. Everyone’s faith is to some extent defective. And the job of other Christians is to “supply what is lacking” in me; and my job is to discern what is lacking in them and to help supply it to them. This is surely what it means to (in the words of Charles Wesley) “build each other up” …
All praise to our redeeming Lord,
who joins us by His grace,
and bids us each to each restored,
together seek His face.
He bids us build each other up;
and, gathered into one,
to our high calling’s glorious hope
we hand in hand go on.
Teach me, Lord, to give thanks like Paul, to love like Paul, to pray like Paul, and to build up other Christians like Paul. For your kingdom’s sake, Amen.