Text study on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Lectionary texts for Advent 3, December 11, 2011
I’ve never forgotten a piece of writing advice given to me by my high school composition teacher: use strong verbs. Take care not to overuse the necessary but bland linking verbs “is,” “are” and so forth.
The letter from Paul to the Thessalonians would pass my teacher’s test with flying colors, at least the way it comes to us in the English translation. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Paul’s exhortations are active, bold and to the point.
At first glance, such action-packed commands may seem Pollyannaish.
Years ago, Lutheran scholar and ELCA member Martin Marty authored “A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart.” In this gem, Marty gives credence to those who lack a sunny disposition but are, nonetheless, faithful Christians.
Using the psalms as his guide, Marty testifies to honest cries of absence, those parts of us that hear, “Rejoice always,” and immediately question how that can be so.
A friend diagnosed with cancer.
Children going hungry.
The Earth in peril.
Examining these commands more closely, I noticed an important juxtaposition. Immediately following the command to “rejoice always,” Paul commands us to “pray without ceasing.” It is as if Paul knew we would not be able to rejoice at all times. So if we cannot rejoice, we pray. Or at least make sighs too deep for words.
A pattern for life
In Advent and always, this pattern of prayer becomes the pattern for life: thanksgiving (rejoicing) paired with intercession (praying). Or in the words of Anne Lamott, “Thank you” and “help me.” Sometimes one will come more naturally than the other. Yet even in the darkest winters, the Spirit can move us to give thanks for the light testified to by John, the light no darkness can overcome.
Each Sunday the church offers thanks for what God has done in Christ and prays that it may be true now, among us. Our lives may be in a wintry period. Perhaps we cannot rejoice. We can give thanks, however, for the body of Christ that prays and rejoices on our behalf.
Paul wrote Thessalonians to a community; the “yous” are plural. Just as somewhere around the globe the sun is always shining, someone is able to rejoice and to pray. The Spirit moves among us, renewing us as we wait for God’s shalom.
- Do you identify yourself as having a “wintry” or “summery” disposition? How has this shaped your faith journey?
- In your prayer life and in the intercessory prayers of your worshiping community, do you strike a balance between rejoicing and interceding? Is there room for “cries of absence”?
Jennifer Baker-Trinity is a church musician and associate in ministry candidate in the ELCA. As a musician, she has served parishes in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. She resides with her spouse and three children in Beaver Springs, Pa.