SERMON Notes for this coming Sunday as we continue on the Marks of Discipleship
ENCOURAGE 1 Thessalonians 3 Sunday August 9th 2015
It is much easier to tell people that I suffer from lupus than it is to admit that I also suffer from depression an anxiety. They have me on an anti-malaria drug to deal with the swelling and to protect my organs from the possibility of damage during a lupus flare up. And they have me on medications for stress because that can trigger flare ups, too. What they are actually treating is clinical depression and anxiety. Depression and lupus do this little dance together like they were made for each other. But which came first? The answer with a little research is “Yes.” Lupus can cause depression and depression can happen all by itself parallel to lupus and lupus like any auto-immune disease can lead to depression from the weight and wearing on of the symptoms. I’ll leave the arguments to the brain and body bio-chemists, because in the end, it just doesn’t matter. I would be taking the same small handful of pills every morning and evening regardless.
While I have been very willing to share with people my lupus diagnoses and what it means for me and to welcome their prayers, few people knew about the depression and anxiety. It is one thing to be open about being on “stress medication” for lupus and another thing altogether to say that it is for clinical depression. There is still a sense of stigma in the world about that; weakness, shame, that it is just an excuse and so on and so on. And with that depression hopelessness sometimes flares up; that nothing matters. That nothing one does will make a difference. And one just sinks down the rabbit hole into the darkest, deeper and deeper and deeper.
Recall how 1 Thessalonians 3 begins:
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions.
The people of the churches in Thessalonica were facing persecution. Situated in northern Greece in an area that honored Julius Caesar as “god” and that worshipped Emperor Octavian as “son of god,” the early Christians converts turned from those false gods and from the comfort of doing what was expected of them by their neighbors, friends and local government. We do not know the full extent of what these persecutions included, but the concerns brought to Paul from Timothy, who Paul had sent on his behalf to those churches, included a concern about the dead in Christ, who may very well have been those who died from these persecutions. So after receiving Timothy’s report upon his return, Paul sits down and writes a letter, perhaps the oldest of all of Paul’s letters, in which the core of his message includes this idea: Our one true and living God gives us hope in the face of death and because Jesus died and rose again, we live with him, whether we are alive or dead.
As Paul writes later in 1 Thessalonians 5: 9-11
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. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
Paul sends his co-worker Timothy to strengthen and encourage the believers in Thessalonica and then later urges those believers to encourage and build up one another. What makes that encouragement real is that it is rooted in hope. Fine, encouragement is real because it is rooted in hope – big deal. And why does hope matter? Couldn’t hope just be some word that religious people like to throw around to keep people like me from jumping off every bridge they come across? It is just a word, isn’t it?
Years later, Paul will write to another group of believers, this time in Rome: Romans 5
…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For Christians hope is not just a word, not a lie, not a figment of our imaginations, individually or collectively, not a myth, or crack for Christian’s cooked up in their self-preserving imaginations.
As Paul writes to the believers in Galatia:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
The heart of our encouragement is that hope, that one true hope, that one true hope that will never disappoint us, though at times we are blind to it, suspect of it, or even doubt it with every fiber of our being.
If you have been down the rabbit hole of depression, perhaps you, too, have attended your own private funeral for hope. Of course a loss of hope is not limited to the depressed: it may include those who have suffered debilitating illness or painful disease, had your life turned upside, lost a friend, a loved one, the life you once cherished, faced the struggle of aging, struggled to raise children or make ends meet or find your place in this world. Everything seems to want to nail our hope to a cross and declare it crucified, dead and buried. But the foolishness of the cross is that every expectation is turned on its head: hopelessness gives way to hope; life comes from death; our mourning gives way to dancing.
Paul sends his co-worker Timothy to strengthen and encourage the believers in Thessalonica and then later urges those believers to encourage and build up one another. That is what disciples do. They encourage. In “encourage” we see the word “courage” standing there front and center bold. It takes courage to encourage others with the hope of the Gospel. It takes courage to open ourselves up so that others may be encouraged from the hope that is within us, the living Good News, the hope from the cross, the hope that is Jesus. Be of good courage and lasting courage, my friends. Amen