We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thessalonians 1.2-3.
There are three things – three qualities or characteristics – that distinguish any Christian from the non-Christians around him or her. In Greek they are pistis, elpis and agapē; in English they are faith, hope and love. Paul talks about them in 1 Corinthians 13.13: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” And here, right at the start of his first letter to the young church in Thessalonica, he ascribes all three virtues to the Christians there – though he amplifies them in a very striking way. He qualifies them in a way that shows how the reality of each can be tested. In fact, his three descriptions provide each one of us with a reality check that is very challenging indeed.
I know your faith is real, Paul says to the Christians at Thessalonica, because I have heard of your work of faith (tou ergou tēs pisteōs).
As something of an introvert who is always happy to be in his study, lost among his books, I find my faith is always fearsomely open to challenge on these grounds. Personality-type is no excuse. Paul knows that if my faith is authentic it will find an outward expression of some kind however cloistered my life may be. It must. For, as James so forcefully points out: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2.14-17).
OK – but what is a “work” – an ergon? Does it have to be feeding the hungry? Can it not be writing a blog … preaching a sermon? It depends. An ergon is simply a deed – something done; but in a Christian context it is more than that. It is something done as an expression of our confidence in Jesus and in his kingdom. It is something done that would not have been done unless we really believe the stuff we say we believe. Viewed from the outside, it will be whatever “do-gooding” my faith translates itself into in the real world of real and needy people in which I live from day to day.
Paul says he knows that the love that the Thessalonian Christians have is real because he has heard of their labour of love (tou kopou tēs agapēs).
Goodness me, how we misuse that phrase – “labour of love” …
“Wow,” we say to our next-door neighbour: “Just look at the shine you’ve managed to get on your car. You must have been polishing it all morning.”
“Yes, I have,” our neighbour replies, “but I don’t mind a bit – it’s a labour of love, isn’t it.”
Well, no it’s not – or not in the sense Paul is using the expression. Our neighbour is saying that the work doesn’t bother him – he doesn’t even count it as work – because he loves his car so much. But that is not actually what a labour of love is all about. What kopos is stressing is the costliness of work that springs from love. Kopos is toil to the point of exhaustion and utter weariness; and Paul is saying that work springing from agapē love is that kind of toil. Real love – agapē love – is stop-at-nothing love. As Paul says elsewhere: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13.7). But because of that – because agapē love puts up with so much and just keeps on going – it is exhausting love. It drains you. It takes everything you have to give and, as Jesus discovered on the cross, it bleeds you dry. But when people see love expressing itself in that kind of toil, they know that the love is real.
Paul says he knows that the hope of the Thessalonian Christians is genuine because he has heard of their steadfastness of hope (tēs hupomonēs tēs elpidos). The Greek word for steadfastness (or “patience” as the KJV has it) is hupomonē and it is derived from two Greek words, one meaning “to remain or to stay put” (menō) and the other meaning “under” (hupo). It is that quality which enables someone to “hang in there” however tough the going might get. And that is what Paul is identifying here as the thing which authenticates hope. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes hope as “the anchor of the soul” – as that which, in other words, if it is real, keeps us immovable however strong the gale or fierce the waves.
But what is hope (elpis)? Someone has said that hope is “always eschatalogical” – that is to say, it always relates to the second coming of Jesus. It is the expectation, rooted in the resurrection of Jesus himself, that (as Dame Julian of Norwich put it) “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well” when Jesus returns … that then our salvation will be complete in every respect.
So … A faith that daily spills out in good works, a love that toils to the point of weariness for others, a hope that keeps one standing firm in all circumstances. The Thessalonians possessed such virtues in abundance. Paul says so. But, dear God, do I? Do I?
O Lord, have mercy.