Long-distance relationships can be difficult. Faith needs community. Expressing relationships in spite of distance can overcome Satan’s attempts to divide.
Paul clearly thinks some aspects of faith formation can only happen in person. In fact, Paul says as much in verse 10: “We pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith.” The Thessalonians are lacking something, something crucial to their faith, something which can only be remedied by an in-person visit.
It sounds as if the Thessalonians are in some sort of trouble. Furthermore, verse 10 seems like it could be biblical support for an “online worship is not really worship” perspective, or at least for a “you are missing something important if you are not here in person” approach. In fact, without further context, you might assume Paul is concerned that the faith of these people is in danger; lacking, as it is, in something essential that can only be delivered face to face.
Read around in 1 Thessalonians a bit more, however, and a very different picture emerges. At one time, Paul was indeed concerned about their faith. But with the recent report from Timothy, Paul is almost giddy with love and affection for these people he dearly misses.
Paul uses all kinds of relational images to describe his long-distance relationship to the Thessalonians. Paul can describe his own ministry among them as a “nursing mother taking care of her own children” (2:7) and “like a father with his children” (2:11). Paul is both father and mother to these faithful believers, and they are at the same time like his parents, for losing a face to face relationship with the Thessalonians was dramatic and traumatic from Paul’s perspective: “When we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you” (2:17).
Paul does not blame the Thessalonians for the current situation. In fact, Paul says their ongoing separation was caused by Satan himself (2:18). Instead of calling them to repentance for this obstacle to their relationship, Paul goes out of his way to express familial love and longing for the Thessalonians. Paul’s abundant joy in hearing of their faithfulness and their ongoing bond of mutual support brings rich praise to God and a renewed longing to see them in real time, face-to-face.
From everything Paul says in his letter, it is clear the Thessalonians are not lacking something when it comes to trust or salvation. In fact, Paul celebrates their faith! So, what is the thing “lacking” in their faith that Paul thinks he can only remedy by an in person visit?
In context, I suspect the thing they are missing, the thing which can only be remedied face-to-face, is being together with Paul. The one thing you can only get in person is being together in person. And that reunion would be valuable both for Paul and for the Thessalonians. So much so, Paul prays, longs, and plans for that face-to-face visit, even though he already knows his friends are standing firm in the faith.
The one thing you can only get in person is being together in person.
The relationship-at-a-distance Paul experiences with the Thessalonians falls under the umbrella of another relationship-at-a-distance: Paul and the Thessalonians, together, wait for “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints” (3:13). With this ultimate connection in mind, Paul prays for their relationships to abound in love (3:13), even as Paul expresses his relationship with the Thessalonians by sending Timothy, writing this letter, and regular, fervent prayer.
Preaching on this text is, therefore, an invitation to express love and longing in your relationship with your hearers.
The problems in relationships caused by separation (ongoing COVID concerns, busy schedules, worshipping at different service times or online vs in person, etc.) provide the Accuser an opportunity to put obstacles in the way of true faith and true relationship. Paul’s answer to that spiritual problem is to express deep love and relationship for these people from whom he is separated, trusting the Lord Jesus is the One who removes those obstacles to relationship both now and in the life of the world to come.
The hearer’s experience of separation from loved ones—separation caused by COVID or hectic schedules or broken relationships, especially during Thanksgiving or Christmas—could be an entry point into the text.
You might choose a Problem/Solution sermon structure to explore the negative effects of distance on our faith relationships, and the way our ongoing love for each other is anchored in the work of Jesus already now as well as in the promise of Jesus coming again. Like Paul, you will want to ground the problem in the work of the Enemy, not in something lacking in the faith or faithfulness of your people. And like Paul, you will want to express the love you have for your people and the importance you place on your relationship with them.
The central role of relationship in this text also makes a Relational Structure sermon design (ME, WE, GOD, YOU, WE) seem appealing. You could give expression to the different experiences of relational separation your hearers know firsthand and bring them all together under the beautiful words of relationship-at-a-distance expressed by Paul in the text (this blog is not trying to be a sermon, but it does use a Relational Structure to process 1 Thessalonians 3).
We follow Jesus better when we follow Him together. Our waiting and longing for Christ’s return teaches us to long for real relationship with other believers, even when that relationship must be sustained at a distance. Thank God for the times we are able to meet together face-to-face and supply for each other what is lacking in our faith: An ongoing, personal, loving and committed relationship which points us back to Jesus.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13.