1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, 25-28
“Milk toast.” Milk toast—that’s the way I found myself describing First Thessalonians to someone earlier this week. We’ve spent the last five weeks or so reading through this letter and hearing St. Paul’s encouraging pastoral words, and today we reach the end of the letter. And let’s be honest, although there is some interesting stuff in this letter, it’s probably safe to say that this is not the most exciting book of the Bible. If this was the only letter that we had of St. Paul’s, we might think he was sort of a milk toast kind of person, not a whole lot of character, maybe a little bland. Fortunately, the Bible contains plenty of more dramatic letters in which St. Paul gets all worked up and has to put people in their place. The letters to the Corinthians or the Galatians are more exciting documents, and we can really see Paul’s character coming through there.
And of course we like exciting, don’t we? We like to be entertained, and so most of us would rather read a ticked-off letter to the Galatians than a nice encouraging note to the Thessalonians. Most of us would also rather watch “Jersey Shore” than “The Waltons.” (And if you don’t know what either of those TV shows are, then good for you for not watching too much TV!) But the point is we like drama. Even bad drama, it’s like a train wreck or a car crash that you just can’t look away from. We like to be entertained. And First Thessalonians doesn’t have too much entertainment value…. Here at the conclusion of this letter, the whole thing can seem just a little bit too much like milk toast—which if you’re wondering, really is what it sounds like, toasted bread in warm milk—possibly comforting, even nourishing, but not terribly exciting.
But let’s take a look at the end of this letter together. Paul picks up where we left off last week, talking about the great Day of the Lord, when Jesus will return and bring to completion the work he began with his death and resurrection. And St. Paul concludes this letter to the Thessalonian church by giving some final instructions about how to live in light of this coming Day of the Lord. Pretty standard Christian teaching.
What I want to point out is how many times Paul refers to the church as a family. He uses the word “brothers” over and over again, because his understanding of the church is that we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God. Literally every other verse—seven times in the fifteen verses that we read—Paul refers to the church as “brothers,” or “sons.” Brothers, sons, siblings, children. For St. Paul the church is a family.
The church is the family of God. And as we all know, a great deal of family life is “milk toast,” isn’t it? Not every minute of family life is exciting—at least hopefully it’s not, because otherwise we’d go crazy. What defines us as the people of God is not so much the flashy events or exciting moments, but rather the daily grind of our life together. That’s when you really see who we are as a family. It may be milk toast, but consistent love and encouragement in the faith, like this letter to the Thessalonians, this is the heartbeat of our family life together. So don’t knock milk toast. It’s the “boring” stuff of everyday life that is actually most important to pay attention to. After all we don’t know when the Lord will return; chances are it will be at one of these boring, humdrum moments of everyday life.
Think of soldiers. Paul uses this imagery as well. We often romanticize the life of soldiers because we’ve seen too many movies and played too many video games. And sure it is true that from time to time there is the hellish excitement of battle. But for every dramatic, exciting minute that a soldier experiences, there are hundreds and hundreds of hours of just waiting, standing at the ready, trying to stay awake and alert. Boring, humdrum moments.
I think this is what St. Paul has in mind in verse 6, when he tells us not to fall asleep, but to be alert and self-controlled. He uses the imagery of a soldier. He wants us to keep our “armor” on at all times. He calls faith and love a “breastplate” and the hope of salvation a “helmet.” St. Paul thinks that faith and love and the Christian hope we have in Jesus are what will offer us armored protection on the Day of the Lord. Faith, love, and hope, he says. These are what we are supposed to help encourage in each other as Christians.
This is really what this letter has been all about: encouraging us to remain steadfast in the faith, placing all our hope in Jesus. Like a soldier constantly nudging his buddy to keep him awake and alert and ready, so St. Paul tells us to encourage one another and build each other up, so that we will be ready to meet our Maker, whether that is when we die and fall asleep in him, or when he comes again in glory on the great Day of the Lord. Not terribly exciting work, keeping each other “awake” in the faith, and ready for the Lord’s return, but a very important part of our family life as the people of God.
I want to close by saying a word of transition into Holy Communion. We do this thing called Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper every week, and we all have a sense that it’s important and that what’s going on here is a holy thing. But I think we can also forget sometimes what it’s all about.
This is a symbol of our family life together. Remember, although it doesn’t entirely look like it, this is a meal. It’s the Lord’s Supper. And there isn’t much more typical of everyday life than a meal. As a family, we share this meal together every Sunday, and the center of the whole thing is exactly what we’ve just been talking about: nourishing our faith in Jesus, keeping our Christian hope alive, and alert, and ready for the Lord’s return. This meal nourishes us spiritually by communicating to us the gift that our Lord gave us on the cross.
Jesus says we are supposed to do this “in remembrance” of him, to remember him, to keep our faith in him fresh and alive. We have been given this ritual as a reminder of the hope we have in him who “died for us so that we may live together with him.” So, although this is a holy and somewhat mysterious meal, it’s not magic. Jesus gave us his life on the cross, and this meal is how we receive that gift through faith. The good news about what Jesus did for us in his death and resurrection—what we receive in this bread and wine—this faith in Jesus is what makes us ready for the final Banquet we will share in heaven, when we will feast and enjoy life together with the Lord forever. Amen? Amen.
And don’t worry, I promise to keep using our normal bread for Communion; we will not be switching to milk toast.