The time is here! It’s Sunday morning…about 8:02 a.m. on the East Coast. I am back from my trip to Africa. Two weeks away from my family …and it was great to see them again! And now I get to be with my church family. It is really too long to be away from these folks. These are the people with whom and for whom I labor. I enjoy their fellowship, their singing, praying, encouragement, challenge, etc.
I suppose that from my earliest days I remember being involved with the local church. The actual earliest memory that I have of “church things” is sitting near the back of a building on a pew (organ side) and eating a snack of fruit loops or some kind of cereal from a plastic baggie. That is, as honestly as I can say it, my earliest memory of the church. And that was actually in the church I currently serve, Calvary Bible Church.
Now, you need to know that I wasn’t a believer yet. And, as a matter of fact, I wouldn’t become a believer for a number of years after that. But I (and my family) were always involved in the local church. I remember being there with my pap and others during building projects, loading up pews that we had purchased, Sunday School, church camp, Good Friday services. I even remember that day when I began to have spiritual interest and “said the sinners prayer”. I was 9 years old at the time. The church of our membership at that time was meeting in the lower level of the Masonic Lodge building in Wrightsville. Now you need to know that there wasn’t any fruit of that in my life and I proceeded to live a life of wicked sin after that. Nonetheless I always maintained a connection to the local church. And I have to say, for the most part, I always had fond affections for that gathering of people. I liked the dinners, the softball games, the yard sales, the walk-a-thons, the girls at camp, etc. But now, looking back on the past 20 years or so of being a believer…and 17 of those years spent in some role of leadership within the church, I can say that I no longer simply have fond affections for the local church but that I love the local church. And I must say that this love is growing.
A few months ago I was in Pueblo, CO with my best friend, John Snyder, and he asked me to speak to a gathering about why I love the local church. And so I put down a few reasons to share then but thought that I would go over them with you. I originally preached this to the people of CBC as my “thanksgiving message”. This will be the 16th Thanksgiving here at CBC. And over the past decade and a half I’ve brought a message every year in which I could share publicly my thanks before God. I’ve tried to give some time to thinking about this and here’s what I’ve come up with…with a whole lot of help from 1 Thessalonians 1!
- Because God is faithful to answering prayer.
I can only say that I believe that God has given me the heart of a shepherd–a local church pastor. When did He begin forming that? I don’t know but I do remember specifically one day as a young man in bible college that stands out above the rest. It was a pastoral ministry class and Dr. Ken Chapman was our professor. He was in his 80’s and had been a church planter all of his life. The church was his life. That’s all that there was. And he stood in front of the class on the first day and wrote these words on the board: “Love your people.” And I remember that quite a few of the guys in the class snickered because he wrote in such shaky letters and perhaps he wasn’t one of the great scholars or intellectuals. But you know, that stuck with me. “Love your people”. It was the same message that I was finding in the NT.
I’ve got to say that this is not something that would come naturally. Now, I don’t mean that I wouldn’t naturally enjoy the gathering of people. But I do mean that I wouldn’t naturally love the local church as I do now. You see, 16 years ago I began to pray, “Lord, give me a love for Your church.” I remember reading through the gospels and seeing how Christ was moved with compassion and how the Apostle Paul said that the love of Christ compelled him (2 Cor. 5:14). And I was constantly praying to have a God-centered compassion for His church. And my love for the local church today is in no small measure resulting from God’s faithfulness to answering that prayer.
Today I still pray that way. “Lord, help me to love what You love and to hate what You hate. Grant that I may love how You love and hate how You hate.” And you need to know that if you’re going to love the church…a mean really love the church, not just give lip service, it’s going to originate from God. If you set out over the coming months to seek the Lord on this, He will glorify Himself through you by forming a God-centered love for the church in your heart. It won’t be easy; it’s not a life of comfort but God will do it.
Okay, now I want you to look with me at 1 Thessalonians 1. You’ve got to know that this church was a young church. It wasn’t that long established and there was the constant barrage of false teachers who sought nothing but to erode the solid foundation of God’s truth as delivered by the apostles. And here Paul writes to them and just overflows with thanksgiving and gratitude to God for them. He is so pastoral in both of his letters to the Thessalonians. Perhaps more than in any other place his heart really shines through in these letters. As I was preparing for this I was reading through 1 Thessalonians and I began to realize that the reasons to love the local church were right there just waiting to be uncovered. And so for the rest of our time this morning I just want to walk through this chapter. We’re not going to go into a lot of detail as we make a few observations but I want you to focus on the implicit grounds of Paul’s love for the local church.
2. Because the local church is the result of the work of God from beginning to the end.
The local church matters because God matters. Notice this from the very start of this letter. 1 Thess 1:1: “The the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That really caught my attention and this is really why I love the church…because I love God and God loves the church. God is both the ground of and sphere of the local church. God loves the church (1 Thess. 1:4) and has chosen His church (1:4). The church is the result of the work of God from beginning to end. There is no explanation for the church apart from God. You cannot explain it on an earthly or human level. This is something that only God could do. It is a lot like Creation. I mean when you look at the stars at night or the storm clouds or hear the roar of thunder or hear the delicate song of a blue bird; when you see a river or a mountain or a tree or a blade of grass or another person, you cannot escape it…this is a work of God. Oh, people try to deny it as a way to excuse their ungodly behavior and thinking but it is a work of God nonetheless. That is how it is with the church. Only God could do this…that’s the only explanation, and that’s why I love the church.
Think of it: He gave His Son to die for it, His Spirit to empower it, His apostles to write to it, His gifts to serve it, His instructions to guide it. The church is the work of God from beginning to end. And when you love God you’ll love His church.
A couple of passages just pop into my mind. First is Matthew 16:13-20; Second is Rev. 1:9-20.
3. Because it is in the local church that I have seen the work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope lived out consistently and in the midst of less than ideal circumstances.
Look at verses 2 and 3 of 1 Thessalonians 1 and you’ll see why I love the church. Look specifically at the trilogy mentioned in verse 3. Activities of faith…that is the day-to-day activity of the Christian that is motivated by faith. I mean to tell you that the church is the grand stage on which God displays the glories of His grace and that is what is being lived out every day by the church. It is the life that is inspired by and motivated by their faith in Christ. But notice second, “labor of love”. This word is more intense. It refers to toil or labor. In Rev. 14:13 the distinction is drawn between the toil of from which the saints rest in heaven and the works which follow them into heaven. Christians labor for the sake of love…they subject themselves to inconveniences and hardships for the sake of the body. And then finally, “steadfastness of hope”. That is the endurance of the saints…the stick-to-itiveness of the body of Christ that is motivated by the coming of Christ. It is within the church that these things are displayed, observed, and enjoyed.
<TO BE CONTINUED>