a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
celebrating the 143rd anniversary of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There’s a wonderful picture of our congregation that greets everyone who visits our church website. We took it on the front steps of the church three years ago as part of our 140th anniversary celebration, and I love it for so many reasons. First off, everyone is smiling! We had just finished a festive worship service and were preparing to make our way to a wonderful banquet on a beautiful day, so everyone was having a good time. Second, there is incredible color throughout the picture. There is a vibrancy in the colors there that brings out so well the multicolored fabric that makes us who we are as a congregation. And third, I love that picture because it is so inclusive of our congregational family. It includes several people who are no longer a part of our worshiping community due to distance, age, or death. But on top of that, it includes some special guests, like the Moderator of the Presbytery of New York City at the time, members of my family, representatives of other congregations who worship in this space, and even one of our former pastors, who all came from far and wide to be a part of celebrating the life and work of this congregation. While they may not be worshiping with us every Sunday, they are nonetheless an important part of our identity and witness as a congregation as we are connected to one another and those beyond.
Our scripture reading this morning also speaks beautifully of identity and witness, as we hear the apostle Paul giving thanks for the identity and witness of the faithful congregation of the Thessalonians. Over the course of these ten lovely verses, Paul lifts up the Thessalonians’ identity and witness as things worthy of celebration, and he uses these as the springboard for his larger message that continues throughout the rest of the letter.
Paul identifies the Thessalonians first and foremost as “a church in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” connecting them to the broader group of saints gathered in so many places who bear witness to the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ. Then he names them as brothers and sisters beloved and chosen by God, people whose identity and hope is caught up not in any action of their own but in the gracious and merciful action of God. As such, they become imitators of Paul and his colleagues and of the Lord, remaining faithful amidst trying circumstances and becoming an example for others to follow along the way.
This faithful witness of the Thessalonians is the second major theme of our text for today. Paul is deeply impressed by the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He is convinced that the actions that are emerging out of their identity are bearing real fruit, that other people are seeing the things that the Thessalonians are doing and are being inspired for their own faithfulness. These faithful actions are becoming clear not just in the nearest cities of Macedonia and Achaia but in places beyond, too. Their proclamation in word and in deed is so clear that Paul says “we have no need to speak about it,” and news of their welcoming spirit is spreading quickly among all the faithful.
Identity and witness matter for us today just as much as they did for the founders of this church in 1871 and for the Thessalonians nearly two thousand years ago. Like the Thessalonians, our identity must be caught up in the relationships that connect us to one another and the broader community, in our understanding that we are beloved children of God, and in our confidence that God has chosen us for the particular purpose of bearing witness to God’s work in the world. When we see ourselves in this way, we are challenged not to dwell on the years that are behind us but to look ahead to the new things that God is doing in us and through us in the days ahead. When we carry this confidence with us, we are reminded that the life that we share in this place is not due to our own actions or the actions of those who have come before us but rather because of God’s gracious love that inspires us to give all glory and praise and honor to God for these amazing gifts. And when we carry this identity with us, we find that we are not alone in this work and so are encouraged to join in working for the transformation of all creation alongside all who seek a new and different way together.
This identity is the root and source of the witness that we also inherit from Paul, the Thessalonians, and two millennia of sisters and brothers in the faith. Just like those who have come before us in this place over the last 143 years, who we are informs what we do, and what we do is inseparable from who we are. We are called, then, to join with the saints of every time and place in the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” All that we say and do in the coming years of ministry in this place should reflect all these things, this blend of committed work and confidence in something beyond our labor, this mix of divine intervention and human action, this hopeful attention to changing this world and preparing for the next. And we are called to act so that others can see the new and different way of life that God is bringing into being for all the world through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The identity and witness of this congregation has sustained us for 143 years in our work and worship. We gather here to learn more about how we are God’s beloved children and how we are chosen for service and salvation. We learn here how God connects us to others who share our confession and who seek to live in faith, hope, and love. We come together in this place to be strengthened for the daily living of our faith. And we work together from this community so that our witness might be magnified into the world and that others might see the faithfulness of our God who loves us and calls us to new life.
As we celebrate even this minor anniversary, it is good and right for us to pause and give thanks for the years we have shared together in this place—but it is even more important for us to ask God to guide us as we approach the years ahead in our life together. We certainly have much to celebrate, not the least our continued existence as a congregation in a day and age when keeping the doors open, the heat on, and a pastor employed is a substantial challenge. Yet the same identity and witness that have sustained the life of this congregation since that first gathering in 1871 challenge us to do something more than just exist, to open ourselves to God’s new thing emerging in our midst, to commit ourselves to being witnesses of God’s presence in our lives and in our community, and to work with one another and with our sisters and brothers so that God’s peace, justice, love, mercy, and grace can be all the more real in our broken world.
So, my friends, as we celebrate 143 years of ministry in this place today, as we remember a few of the faithful servants who have been an integral part of our life together through presence and service, may God also guide us and inspire us in the days and years ahead, so that these 143 years might be only the beginning of the faithful witness to God’s love, justice, peace, and hope emerging from this place. Thanks be to God! Amen.