Read 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24.

Always seek to do good…pray without ceasing…give thanks in all circumstances…hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:[here and there])

As if it were that easy.

“Always seek to do good.” Check. “Pray without ceasing.” OK, I’ve been working on that one for decades, and I’m still not there. “Give thanks in every circumstance.” Really? Even when loved ones suffer and the nation is torn apart? Let’s just say it’s not so easy. “Abstain from every form of evil.” Shoot! Why didn’t I think of that before!

What’s going on here? It’s not Paul giving us some new information. It’s not about the intellect. Paul is exhorting. He is urging. Inciting. Admonishing. Encouraging. He’s lighting a fire under our hearts. He’s addressing the will.

Over the years, I believe I’ve heard too many sermons addressing the intellect and too few addressing the will. Yes, it’s good to learn to take a theological view of the world, but we should be out there lighting fires.

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But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-14)

The lectionary skips right over this part of the chapter and heads into the concluding exhortation, but it’s a key passage about how the Christian life works in community. You are to highly esteem those who admonish you, and you are in turn to admonish and encourage others.

It’s a hierarchy. Or a network. We are always receiving grace from some and passing it along to others. And this grace apparently takes the form of urging, encouraging, and admonishing. These impulses of goodwill keep the network humming, the grace flowing.

It’s an internet, with many different kinds of traffic flowing in many different directions. Some are teachers, some are evangelists, or healers, or deacons, or carpenters, or wait staff. We all have the opportunity and the calling to serve each other. The traffic on the internet doesn’t belong to any one node; rather, it’s the job of each node to pass it along.

Think of your conversation. Is it always targeted at keeping the grace flowing, at lighting a fire?

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God seems to prefer to work through people. In Christ, God worked through a person, through his servanthood and suffering and death, and now we are his body on earth. Now God works through us.

Why should this be the case? Can’t God do his work directly and immediately? If he can be in all places get down every chimney, does he really need little helper elves? The key is that if Jesus saves and restores, and if we are to become like Jesus, then we must also save and restore. God is internally and essentially communal, and so must we be, and so are we. We must willingly receive grace and pass it along to others.

On this topic of helping each other, of mediation, Pseudo-Dionysius has this to say:

The prayers of the saints in this life are extremely valuable for the one who has a longing for the sacred gifts, who has made a holy preparation to receive them, and who, knowing his own weakness, has sought out some holy man to beg him to be his helper and to join him in his prayers. Such help can only be of the greatest possible assistance to him, since it will gain for him the most divine gifts which he desires. The divine goodness will accept him because of his well-shaped disposition, because of the respect he shows for the saints, because of the praiseworthy eagerness with which he begs for those longed-for gifts, and because of the life he lives in harmony with this and in conformity to God. For one of the divine judgments has laid down that the gifts of God should be duly given those worthy to receive them, through the mediation of those who are worthy to impart them. Someone could perhaps show lack of respect for this divine arrangement and, out of wretched self-regard, could imagine himself capable of disdaining the mediation of the saints and of entering into direct relationship with the divinity.†

Have you sought out that person to be your helper, to pray with you? Are you serving others in this capacity?

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See also: The Works of Pseudo-Dionysius

Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Paulist Press, 1987, pp. 254-5.


Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.