I've just spent a while reading Paul's two letters to the Thessalonian Christians. I'm reading Paul's letters in chronological order, and reading each of them in their entirety at a sitting. Paul could never have remotely imagined the centuries of scholarship and study, exegetical and expository activity, contemplative prayer and public reading, that would expose his occasional at times frantic writing to letter by letter scrutiny, word by word lexical analysis, syntactical disentangling, grammatical scrutiny, theological construal, contextual reconstruction, textual criticism and socio-rhetorical examination.
I've spent most of my life immersed in the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures, and Paul has been a conversation partner with whom I've argued, to whom Ive listened, whose company I've mostly enjoyed, whose tone of voice has often comforted, upset, inspired, interrogated, rebuked, encouraged and nourished my mind and heart. So I'm spending some time trying to hear once again what he is saying. You know how those few close friends we have who know us so well we can't kid on in their presence, they know us. And we know them too well to be daft enough to think we can wing it and present only a selected self? Paul is like that for me - actually, so is the Jesus of the Gospels, only more so, but that's another story.
Near the end of the second letter to the Thessalonians Paul writes one of his wish prayers, which comes as a softener for some of the hard things said and one or two hard words that follow. "May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ." (2Th 3.5) Just now and then words like that clarify what it is that makes us and keeps us Christian. The way Paul writes the phrase " the love of God" is deliberately ambiguous - it's about how we read the genitive 'of' - is it the love of God for us, or our love of God. Likewise the steadfastness of Christ - the word means faithful, longsuffering, durable, persevering, indefatigable - it's a word that is much more descriptive of the real thing than those abstract nouns so loved by preachers, such as commitment, decision. Christ's steadfastness towards us enables our perseverance; his durable love enables us to endure; unless we trust the steadfastness of Christ towards us, it will be hard for us to live after and in the steadfastness of Christ.
The psychology of Christian obedience is shaped by profound gratitude for the love with which God loves us, and given resilience and durability by Jesus Christ whose own patience and perseverance endured the cross, and defeated death, and lives in resurrected power that makes new, creates grace, and recreates us.
I've never used this verse as a benediction at the end of worship. I'm not sure I've ever heard it used. Has anyone else? But next time....
"May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ."
Yesterday I met my steadfast friend Ken for breakfast and a long catch up. His life is now divided between the United States and Scotland, and we try to meet up each time he is back here. Amongst our obvious shared passions are reading and books, and there is probably a book could be written about our book chasing adventures -like the one at the greasy B&B in Oxford. That too is another story. As was our attempt yesterday to eat a soft poached egg in a roll with some decorum, minimum mess, sitting across from each other and with barely controlled hysteria!
The point of this diversion is that amongst the sacraments of the steadfastness of Christ are those friends who are steadfastly there, who share our lives, and by whose kindness and faithfulness direct our hearts to the love of God. I have several such sacraments.