The Work of Faith

I Thessalonians 1
David A. Davis
October 22, 2017

            “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Apostle Paul and his thanksgivings. “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” (Romans 1:8) “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind.” (I Cor 1:4). Paul and the thanksgivings of his letters; consistent with the genre and the structure of an ancient letter. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” (Eph 1:15) “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with you in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Phil. 1:3)  Paul and his consistent thanksgiving. Except, you may remember in Galatians where Paul skips the thanks and gets right to “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” (Gal. 1:6) So Galatians, not so much on the thanks. But Colossians; “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” (Col. 1:3). And here in Thessalonians, Paul begins the letter with thanksgiving for the congregation’s work of faith, labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul thanks them for their faith, their love, and their hope.

“Your work of faith”. It is a striking turn of phrase coming from Paul. It sounds more like James; “Faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead……Show me your faith apart from your works and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:17-18) “Your work of faith.” That’s Paul, not James. It’s a unique expression from Paul, from the one who argued that you are saved by grace through faith and it’s not your own doing it is the gift of God, not the result of works. (Eph 2) “Your work of faith”. It’s only here in I Thessalonians and again, once in II Thessalonians. Some translations apparently can’t abide with Paul and an expression like “work of faith”. And so “we remember your work that comes from faith” is how one translation puts it. And other says “we remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith.” And still another reads “Each time we pray, we tell God our father about your faith and loving work”.  You just can’t have Paul referring to faith as work. But the Greek is pretty clear; “your work of faith.”

            On Wednesday night I was in Cleveland preaching at an historic African American congregation for a revival. The congregation was celebrating the 7th anniversary of their pastor. Courtney is a Princeton Seminary graduate. She is a former student of mine. The theme of the night was from Hebrews. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely , and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:1-2). During that forty minute sermon, I told the congregation about Vergene Weiman; a member here at Nassau who died in August just shy of her 90 birthday. At the memorial service, Vergene’s son described how is mother died surrounded by all of her children, while the student chaplain was praying, and how she suffered the stroke earlier that week after being here for Sunday worship and then having lunch with some church friends. “She died well” he said. Or as I said to the folks in Cleveland, “She finished well. She finished the race well. But as Vergene herself knew, and as she lived, finishing well isn’t the hardest part of the race.” Sometimes this race, this faith journey, sometimes all of this, is hard, really hard. Sometimes, most times, you really have to work at it.

“Your work of faith.” Maybe it isn’t all that complicated. Maybe we don’t have to get all theologically contorted about it. Maybe we don’t have to have all those Protestant Reformation “saved by grace through faith alone” warning bells going off. Maybe its really pretty simple coming from Paul to the Thessalonians to us. Faith is a gift. Your faith is a gift. But you’re still going to have to work at it. You really ought to work at it. You really have to work at it. Working on your faith. Working at your faith. Your work of faith.

Your work of faith and labor of love”.  Labor of love. Well there’s an expression so easy to take and run completely into the ground. “Jimmy has been restoring that old car in the garage for 8 years. It is such a labor of love….Aunt Mame knits those hats for babies in the NICU at the hospital. It is her labor of love….Coach has been there as an assistant with the high school baseball team for so long and he doesn’t even get paid. It’s just a labor of love for the game and for the kids.” Labor of love: “a task done for pleasure not reward…productive work done voluntary for no compensation….work done for the sake of one’s own enjoyment.” Labor of love, all of which must have absolutely nothing to do with Paul’s word of thanks to the church at Thessalonica. Paul and the diligent effort at loving one another in the church of Jesus Christ. Paul and the essential call to be loving in life. Paul on the labor of love.

Not long ago I was on a New Jersey Transit train coming home from a meeting in New York City. It was mid-afternoon, before the rush. I took a seat in the quiet car. Have you ever notice how the self-appointed overseers of the quiet car are always louder than those who forget or didn’t know they were in the quiet car? In the seat across the aisle and one row up from me was man reading his bible. Actually he was mostly sleeping with his bible open; or maybe resting his eyes. Some clearly inexperienced commuter’s cell phone rang. The man bellowed immediately from this slumber: “It’s the quiet car. No phones”.  The person answered the phone a few rows up, after struggling to get the flip phone out of the bag. The person was rattled, surprised, sort of like that phone never really rings. “Please, please, the sign is right above your head. Can’t you read? No phone calls.” With his tone, his impatience, his nastiness, he chased the person off the car. And I spent from Metro Park to New Brunswick thinking of all the things I would have liked to have said. “You know you’re ten times louder than that phone call. Are you reading about the fruit of the Spirit? Kindness and gentleness? Or you know when it comes to being nice, and kind, and loving, you’re going to have to work a lot harder.”

Love is patient, Paul said. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or rude. Paul on the labor of love. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Paul called it the more excellent way. But he never wrote that it would be easy. The followers of Jesus have to labor at it. Labor at love.

Your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Persistent hope. “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom 8:24-25) Constant hope. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”(Rom 15:13). Always hope. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all”. (Eph 4:4-6) One hope. Steadfast hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Not just your hope. His hope. Your work of faith in Christ. Your labor of love in Christ. Your steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three”  Paul wrote to the Corinthians. And to the Thessalonians he gave thanks and remembered before God their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

            I served on one of the agency board’s of the Presbyterian Church USA for several years. I learned so much from one of the ruling elders from Denver who was the board chair for a season. At every meeting, every board call, every committee gathering, he would take time right at the outset after the opening prayer and right at the end before the closing prayer to thank the board members and staff for their time, their efforts, for the good work of a board meeting, for stepping away from work and congregational life to serve the church, for the gifts each and every one offered. His leadership style was one of gratitude. It’s easy to run by right the Apostle’s Paul thanksgiving in his epistles. They’re just part of the structure of the ancient letter form. They’re rather formulary in their style. No one uses their highlighters on the thanksgivings. Students of Paul only pay attention when the thanksgiving isn’t there; like in Galatians. But preachers and pastors and church leaders ought not to be too quick to pass by and maybe Paul deserves a bit more credit for his expressions of gratitude and thanksgiving to God for the Church of Jesus Christ. Besides, don’t you get tired sometimes of hearing the preacher tell you what you ought to do, what you need to do, wagging a finger all the time and telling you that here in this old mainline protestant church gig we just have to do this better, and get better at that, and do more, do better. YADA YADA YADA.

Well, Nassau Presbyterian Church family and friends, we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God your work of faith, your diligence in discipleship, your desire to share in prayer and to grow in understanding, the robust spirit when you gather in this place for worship, your expectations about gospel proclamation and relevance to your life and relating to the world, your collective present here each and every Lord’s Day, your yearning to pass forward what has been entrusted to you when it comes to fellowship and education and service and outreach and advocacy, for how you as a congregation make the effort to work on your faith.  For your labor of love; for your decades long effort to welcome refugees, for your advocacy for Dreamers and your embrace of the LGBTQ community in our midst, and for how you have tried to get better at hospitality on Sundays, for your inclusion of children in worship, for working on loving one another when you may not always agree, for singing a song you may not like, knowing that someone else in the room does, for the always diligent care and compassion of the board of deacons, for your unending support of your pastors and staff and for the history you celebrate and live into, a history of advocating for the hungry, and serving and supporting efforts in Trenton, for caring for those in prison…for your hard work of love.

And for hope. For over and over and over again, coming into this room to witness to the hope of the resurrection in the face of death. For constantly fanning the flames of a kingdom imagination, daring to see the world that God intends and praying for it and working for it and yearning for it. For your witness amid storms and tumult, after turmoil and suffering, your witness to one another, and to this community and to the world, your witness in word and deed that Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed. For your constant and robust affirmation to a world that long ago declared the end of the mainline church, for your bold and courageous commitment of time and talent and money to an institution and a practice and faith that many of your friends and family long ago thought was worn out and done with and no longer relevant, for your hope-filled witness in just being here and speaking up with your lives, proclaiming to the world, that here at Nassau Presbyterian Church, we’re not dead yet. Because Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed.

The Body of Christ, today at Nassau Presbyterian Church. For your work of faith, your labor of love, your steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…..thanks be to God!

© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church

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