Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "Righteousness in Action"
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. We continue our Reformation month theme of “righteousness”. We opened by checking two very different claims we can make before God. Only claiming Christ’s righteousness by faith meets God’s approval. Last week in the wedding parable we saw the robe of Christ’s righteousness is the only acceptable garment at His banquet. Today, we’re going to talk about a different aspect of righteousness. Those first two weeks focused on righteousness as God’s gift—the righteousness that comes by faith. We call this “passive righteousness”, because we didn’t do anything to deserve or receive it—it’s simply GRACE—God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. But today I want to talk about “active righteousness” or “righteousness in action.”
Consider, if faith is a channel or receptacle for God’s gift of righteousness, does the received gift stay sleeping or quiet within us? No! It’s a living gift we use! Halloween is coming up soon—or as it’s better known in Lutheran circles, “Reformation Day” 😉. On Halloween kids have trick or treat bags for their candy. By faith, we open our “empty bag” to God, to receive His gifts and blessings. But I’ve never seen a kid who left their candy untouched and uneaten in their bag! It is the same with faith and righteousness. We receive it passively, but we put it to good use actively! It should be a delicious treat to use God’s gifts!
Now keep in mind that we never post up our righteousness in action for God’s approval. Paul dismissed that idea when he showed how foolish it is to ever boast of our accomplishments or pedigree before God. No, righteousness in action is not for God—it’s taking God’s gifts and giving them to our neighbor’s need! Righteousness in action belongs to this world and to everyday life and the needs of our families, neighbors, friends and even enemies! Righteousness in action is living out the life of faith God gives us in Christ Jesus.
Better than any “trunk or treat”, the church is a one-stop source for all of God’s gifts. We come with our empty bags, to be filled with God’s Word, encouraged by fellow Christians, to learn God’s Wisdom for our lives, to receive forgiveness of our sins and strength in communion in Christ’s body and blood, and the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. With our bag full of blessings, like tricker treating in reverse, righteousness in action is when we give out God’s gifts to others. Paul saw it in the Thessalonians and he praised and thanked God. Their righteousness in action always filled him with heartwarming memories.
And Paul, the great apostle of faith, always careful to strike the chords of grace alone, faith alone, through Christ alone—apart from our good works—uses a surprising description. He thanks God for their “work of faith.” Salvation looks at the receiving side, the passive side, the open, empty bag side of things. But when Paul looks outward to the neighbor, on the giving back or active side, the sanctification side of things, he sees faith busy at work. He sees a lively Christian congregation giving back from what Christ gave to them. He calls this their “work of faith.” Righteousness in action.
Luther knew this well also. Luther struck the same chords of faith as a gift and our good works being excluded from earning salvation. But he also played the melody that “faith is always a living, busy, active, might thing”. It is impossible for faith not to be constantly propelled into good works. Thinking of other passive and active metaphors, we could also think about how we were dead and breathless in our sins, until Christ breathed new life and breath into us by His Spirit. And once alive, the breath does not stay in our lungs, but we begin breathing in and out! Faith and righteousness have their beginning and their continuation in passive receiving, but faith itself is this lively, active, doing thing! It works! It makes a new outward life of righteousness in action, where there was none before. Faith sees that God has been good to me and cannot help but find good to do for our neighbor! And Luther saw these good works in the ordinary care and love of daily life—not in grand and lofty works for show but changing diapers and plowing the fields to feed your family and community. Faithful duty to the stuff of life.
Paul describes their righteousness in action in these terms: their work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus. Labor of love requires sweat and effort. It meets obstacles and resentment. Love is not light and flighty: casual words and superficial gestures; it’s a labor of love: a determined, hard-working, and passionate pursuit. Steadfastness of hope speaks of trusting in Jesus when the way is hard, keeping your joy and your confidence, because God does not fail us.
I see and recognize these same fruits of righteousness in action in you—people loved by God! And with Paul, I know that God has chosen you and He’s left a trail of evidence. Both individually and together as a congregation His Gospel Word makes hearts strong in Him, reveals itself in compassionate people, humbles us when we have wronged each other and need to seek a brother or sister’s forgiveness, and gives us wisdom for these challenging times. God’s Gospel shows evidence “in power and the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Even as God’s Word describes us this way, His Gospel Word is filling our empty bags with new identity in Christ. Gathered around His Word and Spirit in worship, He shapes us into Christ’s image.
Think for a moment about “full conviction” in the Holy Spirit. Righteousness in action is a confident trust in Christ, not cowardly when facing opposition. Challenges to the faith abound. Ugly and exaggerated stereotypes of Christians populate the movies and TV shows we watch. It’s rare to find positive, winsome, and accurate portrayals in popular art. Of course, all of us are flawed, but Christians who openly live out their faith are sometimes attacked and labeled as extremists or haters, without justification or evidence. It’s tough to live with “full conviction.” But righteousness in action doesn’t back down when the truth is under attack. It doesn’t become nasty or bite back with the same slander used against us. Full conviction is walking that difficult line of “speaking the truth in love” and “praying for those who persecute you”.
What will your righteousness in action look like? While the basic outlines is the same for all Christians—walking in the way of righteousness and not worldliness—there will be a great variety among you. Some are Christian teachers here. Some are faithful and loving spouses or parents in your home. Some of you may show righteousness in action as a prayer warrior and friend to others, in your retirement years. For others it may be a faithful single life, with more freedom and adaptability to serve others as God leads. God is already pouring His Gospel Word and Spirit into each of your lives, every one of you becoming a unique and beautiful portrait of righteousness in action, according to the gifts and measure of His Spirit. Your faith at work, your labor of love, your steadfast hope in Jesus. Not for praise or show, but for the good of doing what is right, and helping others. Faith seeks out such works, love seeks such a labor, and hope always clings to Jesus Christ.
It's simple as cause and effect. Catch and throw. Christ’s righteousness received by us causes a righteousness in action that reflects Him to the world. As Paul would say, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord”. Imitating those believers who are strong in the Lord and full of grace, we imitate the Lord Himself. Who are those people in your life that are an example of faith in the Lord? Maybe an elder friend from church? Maybe a parent or grandparent or aunt? Maybe you are the only Christian in your family, and it’s from a co-worker or a friend from church. Who looks up to you as an example? Maybe you don’t even notice the little eyes of the children at church, or the friends and neighbors who watch what we do. Without even realizing it, they are imitating us. In a structured environment like school or family, it might be more obvious, but being outside those environments doesn’t mean that your example is unimportant or unnoticed. You may even stand out more, as you are engaged with many others who are not in the faith. But it’s always ultimately Christ that we reflect to the world. Our righteousness in action will ultimately be living out Christlikeness in whatever we do in Him.
When the Thessalonians lived out their righteousness in Christ, it was like a stone cast into a pond. The ripples circled outward from them. Paul says not only did they become an example to neighboring communities, but the Word of God and their reputation of faith reached far beyond them. Put no confidence in your reputation; don’t “buy your own press” as business people say. But know that righteousness in action has positive ripple effects. We’ve made this our intended ripple at Emmanuel Lutheran Church: our mission to B.L.E.S.S.—Believe, Love, Educate, Serve and Share. I pray this righteousness in action will reach far beyond the doors and walls of these buildings to touch the lives of many in our community and beyond. That mission is a great description of “righteousness in action.” Believe, Love, Educate, Serve and Share are the lived out expressions of our faith.
We can have a life of righteousness in action because God first took action in sending His Son Jesus to love and die for us. We can have a life of righteousness in action because it’s Christ who fills our spiritual bag full of gifts and blessings week by week, day by day. We can have a life of righteousness in action because His Gospel and Spirit are living and moving in you. What do we have that we did not first receive? What do we have that we do not continue to receive from His all gracious hands?! All glory and honor to Jesus’ Name, Amen!