A Return to Holiness (A Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12)

He taught at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, led two churches over 30 years, and authored 40-some-odd books.[1] Calvin Miller, in 2012, died following complications from open heart surgery. In one of my favorite books of his, Letters to a Young Pastor, he wrote: "...it is good to exercise a lot of discretion before you end up with an indiscretion."[2] It doesn't require a longitudinal study or demanding analysis to conclude that, largely, Americans have distanced themselves from this kind of thinking. Whoever we may think the sinister architect is of the shift, please rest assured, "Nothing is new under the sun."[3] But, still, it doesn't seem right that we would gloss over or downplay how out of sorts our society is. And even more than that, my heart aches for those who, though they know the Lord Jesus are lost in the same sauce of recklessness, tethered to the same muddy waters. So, for just a moment, as a community of believers, this morning we're going to talk about sex. Essentially, like it or not, we are the Christians Paul addresses of Thessalonica; albeit with more technology, Dutch heritage, and harsh winter weather, so I've been told, that soon cometh.

In Chapter 3, given protégé Timothy's encouraging report about the robust faith of those who gather in Christ's name, Paul offers affirmation. His labor as a shepherd of two-legged sheep hasn't been in vain after all, he is pleased to know. In Chapter 2 he reminisces, writing, "we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory." And in the salutatory bliss of Chapter 1, we're introduced to the positive reputation this beloved church in Thessalonica has developed, how they've "turned to God from idols" and by the Holy Spirit's witness have "become an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia." Clearly, these Christians were the real McCoy.

But the tenor of Paul's letter changes a bit in Chapter 4, with him lifting a concern--not to the level of rebuke; but spiritually, he's a parent to these people and, as maybe we've experienced, parents have a way of knowing when their children have slyly soaked in the Jacuzzi of sin. It's with keen concern in his heart that he reminds them of their time in Vacation Bible School and of their baptism. He nudges them to recall all of those Sunday school lessons and their catechism, as if to say, "You know better than this. You are better than this." He brings to their memory how they've been set-apart for God's holy service, noting explicitly that this encompasses their sexuality. It is God's will, Paul writes, that they abstain from fornication, control their own body, and protect their fellow believers in these matters.

I wonder why and when the Church in America abdicated itself of upholding sexual holiness and honor, as opposed to excusing lustful passion. As one commentator put it, "We are creatures of God and not at liberty to do as we please."[4] But I don't know, truly, how many of us believe that nowadays. Well, we have our handy-dandy scientific method of inquiry. We have myriad options of unbridled entertainment. And we have condoms and birth control. And we have cohabitation and divorces. And we have unwed fathers, unwed mothers, and even home DNA testing kits to determine paternity. It's within the household of faith, the "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ," that modesty and chastity, for both men and women, has been abandoned.

There's lots of freedom, yes, but little holiness, lots of brokenness, I know, but little separation from the tenets of this world--because, ultimately, we're trusting in the wrong things. We read in Isaiah 40:8, "The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever." You are quite welcome to disagree with me, but it's imperative that Christians abstain from behavior, especially sexual behavior that dishonors the Word made flesh. From pedophilia, polyamory, pornography, rape, adultery--whatever harms the imago Dei must be rejected, less we look like the lost, like we are lost with no salt and no light, perpetually lukewarm. In the latter half of this section of 1 Thessalonians 4, we find echoes of Hebrews 12:14: "Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." Do we really believe that without holiness no one will see the Lord?

Having never read a Bible, or visited a church, or prayed--since those weren't experiences I'd been exposed to in my upbringing--at the age of 20, I finally took the plunge into the deep waters of God's love. The Holy Spirit removed the scales from my eyes, allowing me to experience Christ as "my faithful Savior," my "only comfort in life and in death." What happened was, one Sunday I conceded, and attended church with a few friends from my college dorm who'd been extremely, annoyingly persistent in their challenges that I, in their words, "give Jesus a try." Thankfully, that morning Jesus met me at Maple Springs Baptist Church. And, undeniably, that is an incredible occurrence, a miracle even, but now these 17 years later I still recall how it almost didn't happen because of sex, because of the issue Paul raised with the Thessalonian Christians.

My high-rise dorm at the University of Maryland housed over 700 students; 45 girls on one side of each floor, 45 guys on the other side of each floor, alternating, for 8 floors. And with no real policies in-place to prohibit the practice, the only mechanism to dissuade horny, homesick, curious young adults from one-night encounters and ongoing sexual romps, was a swinging door, located near the elevators in the middle of each floor. You were more than welcome to come and go as you pleased. To spend the night. To look. To touch. To sin.

I believed only in the gospel of me. I had no fundamental qualms with having sex before marriage, so that's what I did. But these friends who professed to have tasted and seen the Lord's goodness, who encouraged me to do likewise, they were more sexually active than me, the unbeliever. Far be it from me to question their faith. That's not what I'm here for. But I do challenge their sense of holiness. I didn't know God, but had a feeling nonetheless that something had to be categorically wrong if the sexual lifestyle of a Christian and my sexual lifestyle, as an unbeliever, were congruent, with both of us playing fast and loose with what should be treasured. If we believed so differently, I struggled to understand, then why aren't we living differently?

Friends, if we're not careful, we can treat God as a relic, honored in cheap, impalpable assent but rejected in the sacrifice of practice--with few distinguishing characteristics between us and those "who do not know God," namely, regarding how we live as sexual beings. This highlights our incessant need for repentance and God's relentless grace, as well as safe Christian community where we hold each other accountable to the pursuit of a life that pleases God. And it's why we the table of Holy Communion is so special. Broken, battered, and bruised by what we've done and left undone, we remember that Christ, though himself innocent, died to bear our sin, that we might come to know God's gift of eternal life. This morning, might we examine our hearts, knowing that it is right to give thanks and praise to God Almighty with both lips and lives.

[1] This sermon was preached by yours truly, The Rev. James Ellis III, on December 2, 2016 at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan for their chapel service with communion. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible is referenced throughout.

[2] Calvin Miller, Letters to a Young Pastor (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2011), 58.

[3] Ecclesiastes 1:9.

[4] See Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians-Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012).