A good proportion of what we call the New Testament is made up of Letters. The majority of them were written by St. Paul and they offer us, among many other things, a fascinating insight into what life in the early church was like. We can`t this morning deal with everything but one of the threads we need to be aware of is that in these letters Paul was writing to what were very new congregations as both their Pastor and Teacher. He had helped found many of them; he knew them intimately and because of the things we see Paul talking about we`re given an insight into the issues they were facing; what worried concerned them.
Now this morning we heard a further passage from Paul`s First letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) and I was saying to those who were here on Wednesday morning that I find the language which Paul uses really quite tender and caring. Again, reading between the lines we get the sense that many of these people had been bereaved and they were asking big questions about life and death. So it`s not surprising for example that Paul uses the word `encouragement` no less than five times.So in my mind`s eye I would paint a picture of a congregation which contained a good many, what we might call `sensitive souls` who were very much in need of that encouragement. Now the section of the letter which we heard this morning, although very short contains several pointers as to how Paul goes about encouraging them. And if you look carefully, he does it by using some very small and if you will, pivotal words: He says, BUT, SO and FOR. So, let`s take a look…..
Now to begin with I wonder how you might react to being called a `sensitive soul`. Some folk might regard it as a bit insulting. But one of the characteristics I find in sensitive souls is that they have a rather soft centre. And when it comes to faith it usually expresses itself in words like, “I think I`m a Christian” or “I`m not a very good Christian”. It`s much the same when you ask if someone plays Golf; and invariably they`ll say; “Yes but not very well”. There`s a sort of in-built negativity or perhaps we might say that the sensitive soul has a core of uncertainty. It`s linked to whether they feel accepted or not and although they`d struggle to express it when it comes to faith their constant concern is that lurking in the background is a rather fickle God who`s impatient with them and who might just change his mind about them….If they don`t toe the line. So to these sensitive souls Paul says, “But”. “BUT you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness”.
You see into the middle of all their uncertainty Paul offers a resounding `BUT` Paul is reminding them and us of the grace in which we stand and he nails their identity as the `Beloved` of God. THIS is who you are. Then secondly, having pressed this point home he says: “SO”. “So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night”.
Now I know I keep harping on about this but you see it`s only when you get a proper sense of who you are before God – in other words, when you begin to grasp what your Baptism was really about- then you can begin to live the Christian life. And this is what Paul is doing. Firstly, he gets them clear about who they are and then he says “SO”. “Sensitive soul you are the beloved of God… SO”. “Keep awake and be sober”. In fact he uses that word `sober` twice in this passage.
Paul evidently understood what alcohol can do to people- but of course he`s really using a metaphor isn`t he? He`s talking about something which poisons the system and clouds your thinking, your speaking and movement. And we find ourselves don`t we, in `intoxicating` times. We`re assaulted from all sides, we easily lose our bearings; we often don`t know what to think or what to do for the best.
Of course, the sensitive soul feels all of this keenly. They`re often the ones who say “One day I`ll…. Get organised; One day I`ll get the house tidy; One day get into a routine”. And you see when Paul says: “Be sober” they could easily hear Paul saying “Brace up! Get a grip!” But this just makes it worse doesn`t it? All it does is provide us with another long list of `shoulds` and `oughts` to contend with! And I don`t think that`s what Paul`s doing at all. I find it interesting that although Paul calls us to be awake, yes attentive; the sobriety he talks about here involves not doing more or getting things straight but receiving.
He says, ”let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation”. In other words this faith, hope and love are not self-generated things. (Oh, I think I`ll muster up a bit of hope today!”) No, Paul refers to them as things we `put on` as armour for the fight. They are things we`re given. You see, the sensitive soul is one that has grown up with a certain insecurity. They compare themselves unfavourably with others and they lack confidence but the Good News Paul offers here is just the invitation to receive.
Put on what God wants to give you. In an intoxicated world make it your priority to let the Lord give you his grace. This is what our prayer and worship is about; the offering of our lives that we may receive more of his life and bring blessing to others. The receiving comes first. Because as I`ve said to you endlessly this is not something we`ve started. The Christian faith does not stand or fall on our shoulders.
That’s why the next thing Paul says is significant. He simply reminds them of what God is about; and that they are caught up in His activity: He says: “FOR”. “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him”. He is the prime mover. The sensitive soul often bears the weight of the world on their shoulders. The sensitive soul says “It must be all my fault”. The sensitive soul is prone to guilt and apologising for stuff that`s none of their business. But as John Henry Newman put it, here`s the Good News “God knows what he`s about”.
So if you`re a sensitive soul take encouragement from Paul`s words. Life may be challenging- to which Paul says “But”. Remember who you are. You are “the beloved of God”. Nothing can snatch you from his hand. And because this is true; “So, then keep awake, be sober …put yourself in a place where you will receive his gifts for living”. And don`t think for a minute that it all depends on you either. It really isn`t about what WE do but what the Lord does in and through us. And the nice thing is that Paul ends this part of the letter by saying, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing”.
The sensitive soul lives with the suspicion that life`s a bit of an examination. So Paul adds those lovely words, “as indeed you are doing” because he knows that in those terms the sensitive soul is always doing far better than they think.