Exegesis for the Christian Year by Henry Gustafson
Henry A. Gustafson is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minn. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. This article appeared in No Other Foundation , Summer, l998, pp. 5-10. Copyright by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
Epistle for the Third Sunday of Advent: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks to all circumstances."
Always? Without ceasing? In all circumstances? Are these admonitions realistic? Is such consistency in these responses appropriate? Can one share them with people in the river valleys of middle America, people whose homes, property, personal possessions, and even family members have been destroyed by the flood waters of 1993?
Certainly there are innumerable situations in the lives of us humans wherein such admonitions seem almost unthinkable and inappropriate. Wouldn’t it be much better to suggest the use of some lament from the Psalms, such as: "Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, 0 Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide you face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?" (Ps. 44:23f.)
The people to whom Paul addressed these admonitions had experienced persecution. He had told them that they would. It was "what we are destined for" (3:3). Yet interestingly, he never suggests a helpful and appropriate lament. He does urge people to "weep with those ,who weep." And at the end of a long list of difficulties which he had encountered, caused by both natural phenomena and human opposition, he wrote of the "daily pressure" he felt because of his "anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant" (2 Cor.11 :28f). Nevertheless, he ends not with a lament, but with the almost incredible claim that "I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10). He had learned through the cross of Christ and through his own experience in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5) that "power was made perfect in weakness."
This doesn’t make much sense to a materialistic society whose view of reality is one-dimensional, whose values are measured in terms of acquisitions and successes, and whose cravings for a low-level ephemeral "joy" tend to be addictive and insatiable.
But in the context of Paul’s thought it makes sense. For here we have another view of reality. One in which the significance of "advent" is paramount. With the coming of Christ a new age had been begun (1 Cor. 10:11). Currently, it was commingled with "the present evil age" (Gal. 1:4). But soon, with a new "advent (parousia) of our Lord, Jesus Christ" (v. 23), that which had been begun in this new age, would be fully consummated. It was this life of the new age and the potential of Christians for this life, now, in their community and world, that Paul is calling for here.
This life, characterized by an abiding joy, unceasing prayer and thanksgiving in all circumstances, is further described as "the will of God (for them) in Christ Jesus." The significance of the phrase "in Christ Jesus" is ambiguous. It may be understood to mean the will of God as it is expressed in Christ Jesus. If one interprets it this way then look to Jesus for illustrations of the meaning of these admonitions. And people of the Early Church did. They found in both his life and teaching this emphasis on joy, on prayer, and on thanksgiving.
The author of Hebrews wrote that Jesus, "for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross" (12:2); and others quote him teaching, "Blessed are you when people persecute and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad. . ." (Matt. 5:1 if.). The influence of this tradition about Jesus’ life and teaching was pervasive. The most common responses to sufferings and limitations called for by New Testament writers was joy and then hopeful endurance. (e.g., Jas. 1:2; 1 Pet. 4:13; Col. 1:24, Phil. passim).
Further, in their accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching there was also considerable emphasis upon prayer and upon the intimacy with God that he experienced and that he encouraged others to share. It appears that God was never far from his consciousness. When he considered the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the setting sun, when he saw a farmer ploughing a field, a woman patching a garment, a child rebuked by his disciples, a person ravaged by illness -- he was alive to God’s presence and will.
The Early Church found his sense of God’s involvement in all of life undergirding a responsive spirit of gratitude. He found reasons for thanksgiving both in God’s judgment upon human pride and in God’s grace toward humans in their weakness (Matt. 11:25).
The phrase "in Christ Jesus," however, points not only to the place where God’s will for his readers’ lives may be seen, it also indicates a relationship wherein this will may be realized. Through a transforming fellowship with Jesus Christ, the new life of joy, unceasing prayer and thanksgiving becomes a real possibility. This life in Christ begins with a faith participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. One dies to a selfish, loveless, self, and comes alive, open to the new life that is shaped by fellowship with him and the members of his body.
When writing of this relationship, Paul along with many other New Testament writers, tells his readers that it is given by and enabled by God’s Spirit. And persons entering into this fellowship with Christ come to share the Spirit of Christ or the Spirit of God. To the church of Rome he wrote: "Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you...his Spirit dwells in you" (Rom. 8:9-1 1). Here he urges readers not to "quench" or suppress the Spirit. For the fruit of the Spirit of Christ could be seen in the realization of those characteristics which Paul was calling for.
However, the words "do not quench" suggest the possibility that a problem was foreseen, or perhaps, had arisen. This problem developed a short time later in the Corinthian community. The Spirit endowed the community with charismatic gifts. These were sometimes misused. Some early Christians, in their enthusiasm for the new life, became more interested in ecstatic experiences than in the will of God for them. Accordingly, Paul calls them to "test everything," and the "abstain" from that which their prophets (forth-tellers, not foretellers) saw as contrary to God’s will. Paul was not opposed to their enthusiasm, and certainly not to their joy, but to anything which was incompatible with love and the other "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22).
The last two verses of our text begins with a prayer. Herein a sense of need, along with the sense of wonder, evident above in the descriptions of the new life, conspires to nurture the hope that the Christ who had come in Jesus would fulfill what through him had been begun. Paul prays that "the God of peace" (a common Pauline title) will "sanctify" his readers entirely. He is concerned lest the peacemaking activity of God, through which their new life of joy, prayer and thanksgiving was sustained, should be rejected. His readers need to be ever more fully reconciled to, or set apart entirely for, the purpose which is adumbrated in the wondrous peace that they already know.
His prayer for their ongoing sanctification or consecration looks to the future. "May your spirit, soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." He hopes that in every aspect or dimension of their lives they may be sound and blameless, anticipating the intentions of the God of peace . For God’s intentions include a future, wherein at the parousia, the advent of Christ, a judgment would be made. The God of peace, who had called them to their new life in Christ and who had set them apart for the living of the Christ-like life, would act to conserve everything of value in their lives. The advent hope was that they who through faith were learning with the help of God’s Spirit to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, would taste fully in that life where God would be "all and in all."
This hope, this "horizon of expectation," not only imposed a challenge to his readers, it was accompanied with a word of assurance. They would have help in living out this consecrated life. For the One who had called them and the One to whom they were accountable, is faithful. "He will do this." He will both sanctify them and keep them without blame in this new life in Christ.
At the beginning of these comments we raised a question about the relevance of Paul’s admonitions to people who are being seriously threatened and hurt by the vicissitudes of life. The text indicates Paul’s belief that they are relevant to persons, 1) who share a new life in fellowship with Christ, 2) who are open to and are guided by God’s Spirit, and 3) who live with an expectation that the Christ event includes a final fulfillment of God’s loving purpose. Whether we can offer these admonitions to people with whom we work today depends, I think, on whether they share in that new life and can relate to its possibilities.
The story of one person who would have found them relevant is described in Harry Emerson Fosdick’s A Faith for Tough Times. After being smitten with a painfully serious case of arthritis this person received a visit from one of her friends. The visitor lamented at length the arthritic’s condition, concluding that the illness would certainly change the color of her life . To which the friend responded: "And I propose to choose the color."
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