I remember the first time I heard the phrase, “you become like the God you worship.” I was 18 and on the other side of the world in Townsville, Queensland in northeast Australia, with Youth with a Mission . At the time, it was a mind-blowing revelation. Now it seems like common sense! If your understanding of God is all comforting and nice, then you’ll probably become the same way (though you’ll have to hide your feelings when your anger does reach the surface). If your God is angry and punitive, you will also increasingly lean that way–and then perhaps struggle with vulnerability and gentleness.

Yet, it’s also true that your behavior will be shaped by the hope you have in the God you worship. For example, if you think God is totally done with any future judgment, then you can kick back and skate your way through this life. If you believe all are saved, no matter what, evangelism and mission become irrelevant to the Christian life. If you think God is going to judge everyone with no grace and no Cross, then you will probably find yourself anxious and panicked into trying to be perfect yesterday. What we believe about God and what He will do in the future shapes how we live today. Sometimes, if we’re honest, we choose those beliefs rather than face the hard work of change. Other times, we’ve been brought up in them and so they’re as normal to us as water is to a fish!

Read 2 Thessalonians 3
Last week, Paul was pushing back against the idea that the ‘day of the Lord’ was already here. The Thessalonians had received the wrong end of the stick, possibly because of Paul’s first letter, and so had started to believe their present sufferings were part of the labour pains of the final return of Christ. This week, Paul is reiterating his message in 1 Thessalonians 4 about idleness. We don’t know the precise details on what was going on; one possibility was that self-appointed religious leaders within the community were expecting others to provide for their needs. However, there is probably a connection here between what the Thessalonians believed about the future and their problem with idleness.

Think about it. If Jesus is already on His way back, if it’s not long now until heaven comes to earth and all is redeemed, why worry about saving for retirement? Some folk in this early church hadn’t listen to Paul’s earlier instruction about stepping up to the plate and literally minding their own business. Instead, they were indulging even more in their laziness, depending on the generosity of others, because now there was no point in working. Jesus is coming back! Whether the idleness resulted because they believed Jesus’ return was imminent or whether it simply gave them an excuse to continue in it, we don’t know. Yet Paul is clear: as Christians, we should “not grow weary in doing what is right.” (v. 13) He even goes so far to say that if these folk refuse to work, they shouldn’t eat! (v. 10)

Paul then moves into the closing instructions in vv. 14-17. He reiterates the importance of following the instructions he’d given them, bringing together the preceding passage on idleness as well as the commands throughout this letter. He draws a firm line too: have nothing to do with those who will not follow them (v. 14)! Yet notice, Paul’s point is always conciliatory. It’s not that we then treat such people as enemies. Rather in drawing this boundary line, Paul’s hopes that they might be ashamed, i.e. awoken to the reality of their sin and need for the Cross. Even exclusion, for Paul, is for the purpose of ultimate inclusion.

We’ve reached the end of Paul’s correspondence to the Thessalonians. It’s been quite a journey. Not only does Paul address theological concerns and big questions about the future, but he also addresses specific ethical issues within their church community and calls them back, again and again, to the Gospel, to Jesus being Lord. He calls us to live out what the Lord has given us with faithfulness and courage. This is all in the midst of unpopularity and struggle as a small but persecuted minority in a Greco-Roman city. As a church in a very different situation compared to the one Thessalonica, we are nonetheless called to know, love and serve the very same Christ the Thessalonians followed.

Questions for reflection
  1. Re-read 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5. The ‘great’ apostle Paul is asking new believers for their prayers–a reminder that Lord is no respecter of persons, but invites our communion with him, from the greatest to the least. Paul asks for these prayers because he knows preaching the Gospel provokes a negative reaction from some, even persecution. Which Christians do you know that need your prayers right now to preach faithfully (either in word or action), even when it might be unpopular?
  2. “We become like the God we worship.” If someone looked at your life, your priorities, how you spent your money, your time and your thoughts, what would they deduce about God?
  3. Idleness comes in various forms. Sometimes it’s more obvious and in relation to work and finances. Other times it’s in relation to responsibilities that are ours but, for whatever reason, we have ‘checked out’ and disengaged, leaving others (our spouse, friend, family, church or community) with a greater burden. Where do you find it tempting to check out? What would faithfulness to Christ in those areas look like for you?
  4. Paul had clear boundaries, motivated by kindness and the ultimate desire to see repentance and reconciliation (vv. 14-15). Where and when have you seen this kind of accountability done well? When have you seen it done badly? What was the difference between the two?
  5. Look back through 1 and 2 Thessalonians. What has surprised you most about these letters? If there was one lesson you’d want to take away from them, what would it be?

A prayer for the week
Lord Jesus, help us to not grow wearing in doing what is right. Open our eyes to see you as you are and not as we wish you were, and as we grow in our knowledge of you, help us to order our lives that we might reflect your glory. Help us also to encourage one another on, as we share our common life, that we might together grow in holiness and love and prepare for the day when your return and establish your kingdom here on earth. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Suse E. McBay
Associate for Adult Christian Education and Prayer Ministries

Please send email responses to smcbay@stmartinsepiscopal.org . Thank you.