Beautiful ObedienceStudies

Primary Christianity

I was reading 1Thessalonians today. Three lines in, I ran into a familiar triad–faith, hope and love. Chapter one opens with “your work of faith, your labor of love, and your steadfastness of hope.” It ends referencing how the Thessalonians had received Paul and his team (perhaps love), how they had turned from idols to God (faith), and how they are waiting for Jesus, who will save them from the wrath to come (hope). For Paul, faith is pistis (trust in and loyalty to a person), love is a selfless commitment to the well-being of another, and hope is a sure expectation of a vivid future that concretely conditions how we inhabit the present. These three themes will occur over and over again throughout the letter.

This triad isn’t unique to this 1Thessalonians. Perhaps most familiar is Paul’s assertion in 1Corinthians 13, “Faith, hope and love – abide these three. But the greatest of these is love.” In fact, drawing the hearts and minds of his audience toward these three states appears to be Paul’s preferred method of teaching.

In the case of the Thessalonians, he had had very little touch with them. Paul was there for the very beginning of their faith journey, but had been forced to leave mere weeks into it. Now, at the beginning of his somewhat parental letter to them, he reminds them of their earliest experiences of the Spirit, defines those experiences in terms of Jesus, and then clarifies them with the language of faith, hope and love.

He does something similar in 1Corinthians 15. The Corinthians have concrete questions about the resurrection. Paul takes their question, goes straight to the Jesus story (in particular, his literal bodily resurrection), and then clarifies and bolsters their hope of a vivid, beautiful future based on what they know (in this case, empirically) of Jesus.

It almost seems like faith, hope and love are the primary colors of Paul’s Christianity. The red, yellow and blue, out of which so much of Christian experience is made. As a teacher of the Jesus Way, I find this very helpful, in very practical ways. 

It leads me to wonder, can we say that what we may be seeing in Paul’s practice of sound doctrine – this beeline from experience of Jesus, to reflection, to faith/hope/love – might be able to deliver us from over-simplified and over-complicated approaches to making disciples? Because I’ve experienced both of those extremes, and both have vigorous proponents.

One the one hand, I hear:

“Just preach the cross, and forgiveness of sins.”

“Just speak in tongues and receive a special blessing.”

“All we’re after is worship. Just worship. That’s all we’re going to do forever, anyway.”

“Just read the Bible.”

“Just get in community.”

“Just get people sharing their testimonies and talking to lost people, and a movement will start.”

“Just [fill in the blank].”

On the other hand, we can make things so very buttoned-up or buttoned-down:

“Sound doctrine means teaching Reformed/Dispensational/Whatever theology from the pulpit.”

“People have got to know what they believe about all this stuff, because they might otherwise make a theological error, which is some kind of unpardonable sin.”

“Sure, you can be a cross-cultural worker. When do you think you’ll be done with seminary? What? You’re not in seminary?”

As a teacher of the Jesus Way, I love simplicity. But there is such a thing as an irreducible minimum – a degree of simplicity beyond which the thing is no longer the thing. It’s missing too much DNA to remain itself, or to reproduce after its kind. I also love Biblical literacy, but having pursued it for myself and cultivated it in others for over 20 years, I know it’s very possible to be right and not to be good. Just as it’s possible to be good, and to be wrong about some very important stuff. It’s easier to be good if we get certain things right, and I think that’s where noticing Paul’s primary colors becomes most useful to me, as I teach people who have gone to seminary and people who haven’t, along with my children, and theirs.

We need to anchor our practice of the Way of Jesus in our real experience, and we must be fiercely Christocentric about it. But from there, we need some guidance as to how to move, where to take our reflections on what’s happening to us as we connect with Jesus by the Spirit he has given us, so we can be participants in our restoration, and not just patients. What we can do, is drive toward deeper loyalty to and trust in Jesus, more vivid and vigorous hope, and a more vibrant and self-giving love. That, I think, is the path of participation that I’m noticing Paul continually inviting us into.

I’m looking forward to what else I see in 1Thessalonians this week, but for now, let me leave you with one more honorable mention. Right in the middle of 1Thessalonians 1, Paul recalls that they all got started in this Way with “the joy of the Holy Spirit.” You ever notice how green gets sort of grandfathered into the primary colors club? Kindergartens are painted in 4 colors – the primaries and green. Playgrounds…red, yellow, blue, and green. What if joy is the 4th primary color, the background experience all of this is to be done in?

What if Paul’s approach could be described like this. Experience God profoundly. Anchor that experience in Jesus directly and exclusively. Reflect on that experience, with God, and see how it could bolster your faith, your hope, and your love, with joy. Consider how joy might keep faith from degenerating into duty or dogma, love from turning into self-abusive or self-protective martyrdom, and hope from pulling us out of the here and now to a someday far away, or from assuming all the good stuff is for the hereafter. Consider how joy could keep it all very genuine and present.

I don’t know if that’s what Paul is intending as he sprinkles joy into our conscious palette, but I’m grateful for the effect, nonetheless.

Some questions to consider:

  • Do you feel like you could afford to have your faith strengthened, your love renewed, or your hope focused? Which do you feel most in need of today? Can you ask God about that?
  • If you had to advise someone as to how to strengthen their faith, their hope or their love, what parts of Jesus’s story would you move to most naturally for each? What might you encourage them to do with it? Might you consider trying that, yourself?
  • Are you discipling someone? If so, how might this perspective affect your approach to what discipling means, concretely?
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