“The Ethics of the Kingdom of God” 1 Thess. 5:12-15 Sept. 17, 1995
v. 14 “warn” is the same word as “admonish” in v. 12
Verses 14 and 15 contain the kind of statements we tend to pass over with little thought or reflection. A series of exhortations to practice brotherly love. We have heard them before and we pass on to find something more interesting, more controversial, more thought provoking. But if we do that we have made a great mistake and fallen prey to the Devil’s scheme.
For what Paul is telling us here in these two verses, the life he is describing, is a life so rare that it is seldom found, even in Christian churches, and a life so beautiful and so compelling and such a powerful recommendation of Christianity that the Devil never works so hard as when he attempts to undermine and subvert it among Christians. And he regularly succeeds and no one helps him more than you and I when we take for granted these astonishing words and others like them in the Bible.
We allow these commandments, these rules for our living, to be reduced in our minds to something akin to “be nice to people.” And, in so doing, we unwittingly allow our faith to be lowered to the level of those who are not Christians, who, for the most part, also think that people should be nice to people. The simple fact is, brothers and sisters, that is what most people in the world think true Christianity is: being nice to people and, perhaps, following Jesus’ example in being nice to people.
But Christianity, even as a way of life, is not that at all. In some minor ways it may bear a certain resemblance to a general niceness, kindness, and benevolence. But that is not what Paul is demanding of us here. Lots of people who are given credit for being nice never come anywhere near the obedience that Paul here describes. I say it to you plainly, Christian friends, you and I, serious Christians though we be, only sometimes and only in a certain measure come near the obedience Paul describes here.
I want you to see clearly how high and how noble and how utterly unworldly and how troublesome and complicating this ethic is that Paul summons us all to practice.
I. He tells us, in v. 14, in effect to meet everyone at his point of need.
Warn the idle, encourage the timid or perhaps he means the discouraged, support, or hold on to, the weak, and be patient with everyone. Some of you know what a world of trouble and how much difficulty and pain is compressed in those so innocent sounding words.
“Warn the idle…” How well do you suppose men and women, even Christian men and women, take to warnings addressed to them by their fellow believers? I will tell you. Most of the time those warnings are resented; most of the time it will not even be admitted that the warning is appropriate or relevant. The fact that they are idle in the first place is indication enough that these people who need warning are often highly resistant to those warnings and unlikely to thank you for them.
Encourage the timid. Alright! That sounds easier. Until you have tried it and discovered that the timid are often not very easily encouraged and sometimes have a great deal to say about your particular method of encouragement. You should have said this instead of what you said. I felt judged and condemned by your encouragement. Others have encouraged me much better than you.
Help the weak. The verb Paul chose, the commentators all point out, has originally the sense of putting one’s arm around someone or holding someone up. Maybe that precise connotation had been lost to the word by Paul’s time but the general idea is the same. Once again a perfectly unobjectionable sentiment but a practice that every Christian finds a great deal more difficult than he or she thought it would be. Sometimes the weak don’t appreciate your arm about them; sometimes they resent you for trying; sometimes they want you to hold them up in a particular way and only that way. No other way will do even if that way is considerably more inconvenient to you.
I had a call Friday in my office from a woman who wanted some help from the church. She was calling from Spanaway and had no transportation and wondered if I might drop some food by. I told her that we had a food bank and could supply her some canned food and dry food, but she said what she really needed was meat. People — even Christian people — oh, let’s drop the pretense — even you and I can be like that much more than we care to admit.
Now Paul knew all of this of course. He had had his own difficulties and frustrations with the idle, the timid, and the weak in various places. His efforts to help them had sometimes been misunderstood. He had been criticised, we know, by folk in almost every church he had ever had anything to do with. So it is not as if Paul here is impractical or naive in his instruction here. He knew full well what he was asking.
And the proof of that is the way he finishes the verse. “Be patient with everyone.” You will find, he seems to be admitting, that your fellow Christians, some of them most of the time, all of them some of the time are difficult, demanding, disappointing, argumentative and rude. But it is your responsibility to maintain sweetness and gentleness and thoughtful attentiveness to their needs. You are to forgive them and keep on helping them even when they make it very difficult to do.
How is that for ethics? He’s not talking about being nice to people. People who are just nice seldom warn the idle and seldom maintain a ministry of love and help to anyone who continues to make that ministry unnecessarily difficult. But that is every Christian’s calling.
But that is not the searching ethic of these verses or of the Sermon on the Mount. That is not the true life of goodness to which all followers of Jesus Christ are summoned. No, the ethic taught us here and elsewhere in the NT is something very different. And it is something vastly more troublesome, more complicated, more difficult, and more heroic. I am my brother’s keeper; he is my responsibility and the fact that he will often make my care of him difficult and complicated and wearying is no excuse.
II. And, then, were that not enough, Paul goes on in v. 15 to lay us under the charge of the love of enemies.
This is Paul’s point here. He is speaking clearly of people who make your life difficult., of an ethic of non-retaliation, meaning, of course, that he is speaking of those toward whom it will be your natural inclination to think, say, and do unkindness and harm.
James Denny once wrote that “revenge is the most natural and instinctive of vices.” And remember, we are Christians, we take our ethics from Holy Scripture. So the revenge of which we are speaking is not only outward acts of retaliation, but thoughts and attitudes of the heart. We can return evil for evil in our hearts while a smile remains fixed on our lips.
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, damned villain!
My tables, — meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.
Well Hamlet and his mother have nothing on us, do they brothers and sisters. We know how much revenge and vengeance there can be in our hearts that no one else knows anything of.
But, here is the Christian life: that we are to love and be kindly disposed to and genuinely act on behalf of those who have been unkind and unfair and ungrateful and thoughtless and selfish toward us.
Calvin warns us that we will all so easily find our excuses for not doing this and not being this. Justice must be served, we will say; or we cannot let him get away with this for his own sake, we will say; or we have to speak the truth in love, we will say; or we must protect the honor of the church and the Lord’s name, we will say. But the Lord said and the Apostle Paul said, “No ‘ifs,’ ‘ands,’ or ‘buts,’ we are not to return evil for evil for good for evil.”
Indeed so common are these excuses, so widely employed and so respected are they among Christians, that when someone actually lives the way the Scripture commands all of us to live, we can actually take him for a fool!
Such was the lot of St. Francis of Assisi. All Francis did was to take the Lord’s teaching and Paul’s teaching and apply it with a vengeance and to take it to its logical conclusion.
And so brother Juniper, Francis’ assistant, when someone stole his hood, was told by his master to run after the man and beg him to take his robe also. And a young nobleman, about to be admitted to the Franciscan order, was told that so far from pursuing a robber to recover his shoes, he should chase him until he caught him in order to make a present of his socks as well.
We think too easily of all of this as quaint and eccentric, and, perhaps in a way, it is. But let us also have the grace to recognize that if we followed in the teaching of our Savior and his great Apostle, we too would be thought quaint and eccentric, impractical and, even, foolish.
We won’t care. With these words and with the noble example of Christians before us, Christians of whom this world was not worthy, we will go on caring for people who don’t appreciate our care and continue to warn people who resent our intrusion into their lives and, so far as it depends on us, we will live at peace with all men, especially those who have been anything but peaceable toward us.
In fact, we will consider it our privilege, the great opportunity that any day provides, when someone does something really unkind to us because then we can do something really kind to them in return and do what our Savior said we should.
And over and over again we will think to ourselves what C.S. Lewis thought and then wrote so memorably in one of his letters:
“It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been ‘had for a sucker’ by any number of impostors; but it would be a torment to know that [I] had refused even one person in need.”
Now I have been somewhat hard on us all this morning. I have implied that we all do what Paul here commands far too rarely and far too poorly. I don’t apologize for that. I did not want us to skip by these verses without appreciating what an immense challenge, what a brilliant ethic, what an other wordly life they describe. This is our life, brothers and sisters. Not being “nice to people” but living out every day the strong, tough-minded, selfless grace and mercy and goodness of Christ. Showing it to others come wind come weather.
Of course that life is high above us. Only one man in all the history of the world has ever lived it and no one else ever came close. But a great multitude have come, by the grace of God, much closer than any man, any woman ever gets by nature and by one’s own effort.
The key point is not that we do not live this way in so many ways and so much of the time. The key point is that we are to be striving to live this way, that we refuse to be content with anything less than this life, that we judge ourselves, both our thoughts and our actions by this high, this impossibly high standard and by nothing lower, ever!
As Wordsworth put it:
A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Else what is heaven for!
And the man or woman who takes Jesus and Paul with absolute seriousness when they say to care for others in this self-sacrificing way and never to return evil for evil but good for evil, will find that he or she, like Francis long ago, will seem foolish to the worldly and an absolute hero and marvel to those who have eyes to see.
Frances Ridley Havergal, the hymnwriter, said that she wanted “to crowd into her life all she could possibly do for Jesus.” Well brothers and sisters, take Paul at his word in vv. 14-15 and you will crowd for life with work for Jesus and it will be work for Jesus.
For, you see, as we come to the table of the Lord, let it be remembered by us all, that the only way anyone has come to live this way, the only way anyone ever comes to want to live this way, the only way anyone ever comes to consider it a privilege and an honor to do good to those who do evil to you, is if that person — is if you or I — have become ourselves, the recipients of even more gracious, patient, and caring treatment ourselves.
And every Christian has been and to an extent no sinner really can even begin to grasp, much as he or she may know it is true.
To bear trouble and difficulty for the sake of others. To this you were called, Peter says, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps. And, Peter might have added, and did really in many ways, and Christ also filled your heart with love for him that makes you willing and ready to do any difficult thing if only you might please the Lord in doing it.
Paul is telling us in these verses how to lay the foundation of a genuine and authentic Christian life. And you remember about laying foundations don’t you? David, when he came to lay the foundation of God’s house was offered the land and the material free, but he refused. “I will not give to the Lord that which costs me nothing.”
Brothers and sisters, let us renew our intention before God and one another, to let the world know that the life our Savior lived himself, the life he taught us to live, is no ordinary life. It is life he alone could create in us and a life so high and so noble and so beautiful for all of its sacrifice for the sake of others that, though we are only poor examples of this life, we have no other interest in life and no other hope but that by his grace we might come to live this life more and more.