On the Importance of Love for (not of) the World

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

Paul, having just admonished the believers on the need for holiness, goes on to discuss the importance of their continuing in love. It’s interesting to notice that, being so highly commanded of a thing, he seems to almost completely gloss over the topic here. “concerning love, you have no need that I should write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God.” Aren’t we taught by God all things? Didn’t the Lord write His law on our hearts? Of course He did, thus, it should be a given that Paul need not instruct in anything, otherwise you’d think he’d instruct in everything. And yet, in a great twist of irony, in not teaching about it, he teaches it to be of the utmost importance. See, so many may question morality and holiness as being doctrines to which we must cling, thereby creating the need for Paul to constantly admonish us to it. Peter tells us that many were already twisting the words of Paul’s letters, creating this lawless, “love and grace only” theology. He writes that “the patience of our Lord is salvation, as our beloved Paul has written to you…which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction…beware least you fall from your own steadfastness, being led away in the error of the wicked.” (2 Peter 3:15-17). This almost in defense of Paul’s letter to the Romans, which stated that “the goodness of God leads you to repentance.” (Romans 2:4). See, it’s this idea that the Lord is infinitely patient with us, but not that we can continue in our sin, but rather that His grace wil lead us to true repentance. Paul felt the need to detail the command for holiness, for sanctification, solely because so many were teaching that it wasn’t necessary unto salvation. There was so much false teaching that because of grace, holiness was no longer demanded, that demanding holiness would mean that grace was no longer grace, because if you demand something then grace is no longer a gift. Thus, he felt the need to explain that holiness was a demand of the Lord, that grace is the gift, and that in receiving it, we agree to live a life of holiness. Noah was told by God that he could be saved, the gift, but he had to build the ark and get on it still. He had been given the opportunity to salvation, but he had to receive that gift as well.

Paul, however, recognized that no one would question the demand to love one another. Jesus taught that “by this all will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” (John 13:35). See, the very apologetic that Jesus gave His followers was their love for one another, it was so foundational to the faith. See, in kindergarten, we learn how to count. In first grade, we learn basic addition and subtraction. By the time we get to high school, however, those lessons need no longer be taught. No algebra teacher need teach their students that 1+1=2. It’s sort of a given that those students have matured beyond the need for those elementary teachings. In the book of Hebrews, we read “leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection…” (Hebrews 6:1). Love, repentance, faith…by the time of the epistles, those things were considered to be so foundational to the faith that the apostles no longer wanted to write about them, but rather to “go on to perfection,” to become fully mature in our faith instead of rehashing the kindergarten lessons that had already been established. In glossing over those topics, it wasn’t to say that they were no longer necessary, but rather that they were just assumed to have known about them. As Paul effectively states here, “you’re mature enough to understand the need for this foundation of love, now let me explain to you how to mature in your faith beyond these basic principles.”

He goes on to exhort them to increase more and more. This is a principle that is vital to all of us in our walk. We can never grow complacent in our faith, lest we be tempted to pull away, to slide back from the faith in the world. The moment we let our guard down, the enemy will strike us. See, the very moment that you say that you are far enough along, then you will cease to grow. Complaceny is the enemy of progress. When you feel you have given enough, then greed will rear it’s head, causing you to stumble. The moment you feel that your relationships with people are good enough and that you love enough, someone will sin against you and you will stumble. The moment you feel as though you are humble enough, you’ve already given in to pride. Complacency is the weapon that your “self” uses to get you to focus on you, rather than focusing on the Lord. The moment you feel that you’ve fasted enoguh and “deserve a break,” you’ve already fallen, because you’ve already surrendered to the flesh. If the Church says fast for 40 days, after 3 you will hear a voice saying “you’ve done enough,” and that voice is the voice of your deceitful heart trying to lead you astray…trying to convince you that you’re holy enough and need not focus on growing more.

“To be quiet and mind your own business,” Paul goes on to write. To live peaceably in the world, as foreigners in a strange land. Peter admonishes us “having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works, glorify God.” (1 Peter 2:12). It’s this idea that when you live according to the gospel, you don’t cause trouble. You will be branded a “troublemaker,” when you live in accordance to the commandments of the Lord, because His ways and the ways of the world aren’t compatible. However, when we obey the Lord and are persecuted for His commands, then He is glorified; when we actually break the law and cause trouble though, He isn’t. We don’t protest funerals, or clinics, we focus instead on our own holiness and that of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Peter goes on to say that the Gentiles will speak evilly of us when we don’t join them in their decadence, and that because they don’t understand. How can we live a joyful life while constantly denying ourselves these sinful indulgences? See, when they accuse us of evil and it comes to light that our “evil” deeds are merely living by the moral compass given us in Scripture, the world will place itself on trial instead. When we participate in wickedness, though, when we give them cause for those trials, then we stand accused before the world of being like the world. When we protest and cause strife and turmoil, then we are behaving exactly like the world does. When we speak out agains tand condemn the world for behaving like the world, when we viciously attack unbelievers, then we bring no glory to the Lord, because we are chasing our own pride instead of the salvation of the world. No one was ever brought to the faith by losing an argument, but many have been turned away from the faith because of the hateful words of “believers.”

Paul ends this exhortation by telling them to make sure that they work, “that you may walk properly towards those outside and lack nothing.” See, the glory of the Lord is not displayed when we, in our slothfulness, are unable to provide for ourselves and thus rely on others for our needs. It is much more a mark of our love for our neighbors when we can give to them that need than it is when we tell them what we need. And that not necessarily in financial wealth and means, lest those who are less well off would be granted amnesty from this demand. Perhaps you don’t have the money that you can give to your neighbor, perhaps you have a lawn mower though and could cut their grass one day. More loving than sliding a twenty dollar bill under the door of your neighbor is to invite them over for a home cooked dinner, or even just preparing one and taking it over to them. There are so many acts of charity that can be performed that show love more than merely giving someone cash. Seeing a homeless person, we can give them money to aid, or we can offer them a warm place to sleep one night and a meal to accompany it. We work hard not only to provide for ourselves, but so that we can provide for others in need. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him work with his hands that he might be able to give to the one who has need.” (Ephesians 4:28). See, it’s the idea that when we repent, when we walk with the Lord, we don’t do it for our own salvation, but that we might be able to display the love of the Lord, to do His work, for others as well. The Lord tells us that He gives us the power to be free from our sins so that we might be a light to guide others to Him.

It’s very easy for us to become these great “social warriors,” attacking the world and it’s incessant immorality. To throw insults and threats, cursing the world for living like the world. But, the world is always going to stray from the law of God, simply because, it’s the world. Our goal as the Church is not the holiness of the world, it’s the holiness of the Church. We don’t glorify God through our ability to out think atheists and get the stinging last word in theological or political debate, we glorify God through our good deeds and love, even in the face of persecution. There’s a great story of a monk who was in his home and a group of thieves came in and robbed him. Once they left, he realized that they had left a little bag of money. He picked it up an ran after them, crying, “children, you forgot something.” The thieves were amazed, and not only didn’t take the bag, but returned everything they had stolen. “Truly,” they said, “this is a man of God.” See, only a man who is rich in God can be so free from attachment to possessions or money, those very things which have enslaved humanity.

In our culture, we tend to get everyhting backwards. We forgive sin in the church, after all, “we’re not perfect, just forgiven,” and then condemn the world. Paul tells us it’s supposed to be the other way around. “I wrote to you not to keep company with the sexually immoral…I didn’t mean those sexually immoral in the world, otherwise you’d have to go out of the world….I have written to you not to keep company with anyone who bears the name brother who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a drunkard, or reviler…for what have I to do with judging those outside? Do you not judge those who are inside?” (1 Corinthians 5:9-12). See, when we judge those outside the church, but allow sin inside the church, what the world sees are malicious hypocrites. However, when we keep the church pure and help the world in spite of their sin, the world sees the love of Christ displayed. We become “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4) when we are able to stretch out compassionate, loving arms to a sinful world while having “escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” The only way to truly glorify the Lord, to imitate Him, is to keep ourselves unstained from the world and yet still be willing to be charitable to it in spite of it’s sinful state, in spite of those flaws. Much the same way as the Lord accepted us regardless of how lost in sin we were. And that must be our goal as a Church. Holiness and sanctification within the Church compassionately reaching out loving arms to help a world lost in darkness. Our judgments and rebukes should serve to strengthen the purity of the Church, that the goodness and holiness of our Beloved Lord may be displayed through the lives of the brethern, His “ambassadors” and letter to the world. We must seek to show the love of Christ, remembering that the heart of a man may say to pray for the victims of a terrorist attack, but the heart of Jesus says to pray for the terrorists themselves. To love those who love us is of no reward, but to truly love our enemies is to truly display the love of Christ to the world.

May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.

 

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