Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
“We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our Gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” (Paul’s words to the Christians at Thessalonika)
WOW! What a congregation Paul must have had at Thessalonika! Notice that he thanks God for them ALL, that ALL have shown their faith in action, for ALL have worked out of love and persevered through hope. His words are so upbeat and positive that you can’t help but believe that when the Lord’s Day rolled around each week ALL the members would be in attendance, plus visitors. It sounds like only the desperately sick would ever miss worship. What a thrill it must have been for the preacher and other leaders of worship.
But Paul was thrilled by more than worship attendance. In fact, that is not specifically mentioned. He talks about faithful work, hope-filled endurance and deep conviction.
Paul was no doubt thrilled to preach to a packed house of Thessalonians, but he knew those folks were Christians, not Paulians. They were chosen by God and brought to faith by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. That same Good News and Spirit were the empowering forces translating their faith into action.
We are coming up on the month of November. This is the year for local elections. Whenever local, state or national elections are over, some people are elected and others are out of office. This is also the time of year that many congregations hold elections for their officers. When those elections are over, however, no one willing to run will be out of office. The church has a one-party system: the Christ Party.
God calls everyone to serve. Even those members who don’t run for office are not “out of office.” We are all elected, chosen and called by God. What St. Paul says in the second paragraph above about the Christians in Thessalonika is true of all Christians. You cannot be a Christian except by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. There is no such thing as a self-made Christian! Now for the Forty- Thousand Dollar Question — if Paul’s second paragraph is true of all Christians, WHY ISN’T THE FIRST?
In John 15:5-8, Jesus gives the answer. He is talking to the disciples on the night of His betrayal. These words are part of His final words before the crucifixion. He uses one of His famous word-pictures. Some would call it a horticultural parable, but you don’t have to be George Washington Carver, a farmer, or even a gardener to understand it:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a severed branch, which withers; such branches are picked up, thrown in the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
Friends, the bottom line is that good intentions don’t make grapes. The Christians in Thessalonika inspired Paul’s esteem because they were hooked on the vine — rooted in Christ. As Jesus says, they “remained in” Him. How did they do that 20 years after His ascension? The same way we can 20 centuries after — Christ can be found in the Good News. Apart from the Word and Sacraments you can do nothing. The image of the vine and the branches is excellent. Remove the branch from the vine and it withers; graft it in and it grows.
The only place the image falls down is that branches don’t have minds of their own. The wind and other outside forces might break them off, but they won’t walk away imagining they will be just fine on their own. People are another story. God grafts them as tiny buds into the vine. They grow, blossom, begin to bear fruit, and promptly take all the credit for themselves. Then they wander and wither. Some don’t like the other branches so they pull away. Some say the vine is full of hypocrites and wither from pot-and-kettle-itis. Some are jealous because other branches are greener or have bigger fruit. They leave and feel very self-righteous about having left. Then there are the branches whose fruits are so big and beautiful they want to keep them for themselves. They pull away to wither and rot.
The branches in Thessalonika stayed close to the vine and discovered that only in giving off the first fruits did the fruits continue to grow and grow. In plain and simple English, the power of the Holy Spirit, which keeps us united with Christ so that our faith grows and shows, is in the Word and Sacraments. They are available in the places where His Church gathers throughout the world every Sunday and with less regularity on other days.
Those people who want to grow and bear fruit, rather than wither, must participate regularly in the Means of Grace. Good intentions don’t do it. I do not say that it is our solemn duty to attend worship and Bible Class every Sunday without fail. I do say that if we want to bear good fruit from a faith that’s growing (not going) we need to go to the Means of Grace more often than we don’t.
Here in Missouri, a host of regular, church-going, committed Christians will soon be out in the woods on Sunday morning instead of in their churches. It will be deer season and many hunters will test their skills and abilities against those of the deer. Although most of the hunters will lose this contest, they will be back out in the mud and cold next year. I understand — I haven’t been hunting for years, but that is the result of age and arthritis. What I don’t understand is people saying they can learn more about God in the woods than in church. Nature can show us the power and artistry of God, but trees don’t preach the Gospel and communing with nature is not Holy Communion.
Missionaries continue to tell the Good News about Jesus just as Paul did so many years ago. God continues to empower the Gospel. He continues to save people, to choose them for His family and his kingdom, and to change their lives. Some of them previously worshiped wood and stone. Many feared spirits and dead enemies or ancestors.
The fruit of a grape is ultimately another grape. The fruit of a Christian is another Christian. When we are united with Christ, we not only receive His Word; we plant it. Tell the Good News about Jesus in your own neighborhood and your own family. Consider His call to tell it across cultures. Support its telling in other lands and cultures with your prayers and dollars.
“We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (St. Paul’s words about you?)