Paul followed up his quick ministry in Thessalonica by a visit from Timothy, and then this letter (today we read 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13). Thessalonica may have been a poor community, and certainly included converted pagans. Christian faith was a problem for them, when not only social life, but political and economic life revolved around the pagan cults and practices. So their identity, as individuals and as a Christian group becomes very important.
Paul isn’t with them, but in this (the first or second Christian document to be preserved), he uses a letter to extend his presence, and offer the encouragement and teaching he would have given in person. Apart from wanting to be with them, Paul prays that they may “increase and abound in love” (v12) Of course this is fundamentally Christian, a fruit of the spirit, a basic thing for the group to hold together and enable its members. But notice: Paul does not want them to love the people in the group and recognise the difference of people outside. Though that would build up the group cohesion, he wants their love to “overflow for each other and for everyone else”
Our identity as Christians is an issue for us (and yes, it can be difficult in a work team, school or social group where we are the odd ones). So is love – the world needs more of it. Proper love, love for the difficult and unlovely, love of the sort that God shows for us, and we reflect. There is a challenge here, and a reassurance. A Challenge, to make the comment “See how these Christians love one another” be a real mark of respect, not a cynical comment about a divided and difficult group; a Reassurance, that God could and did love a church of poor people with colourful pasts, and bring them to faith.
It would probably be popular to stop with love. Paul doesn’t, he goes on to ask “May [God] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” v13. He wants these Christians to be holy – to be separated from evil and wrong, to show the character and purpose of God in their lives. Why? not just because it would be nice, but to be ready for Jesus return. That concentrates the mind – for us too. Jesus will return, and we shall give an account of ourselves, revealed as we really are. Advent is a time to prepare for the Coming of Jesus. Do some Christmas shopping by all means, but the more important preparation is of ourselves and our lives.
Love and holiness are vital for us, as for the Thessalonians. Our identity as Christians, individually and as a group, is a strength and protection. Let us value and work on these things, as we wait for the great day.