Since I have my sermons for the past few years on the Internet, it has become relatively easy to see what I preached about in previous years on this second Sunday of Lent. It turns out that for at least five years running I have spoken about the Gospel—so it occurred to me to say a few words today about the Epistle.
At first brush it seemed like little more than an exhortation to keep the Commandments—a good idea, any and every day of the liturgical year, but not something one can say much about in a sermon—“keep the Commandments” stands pretty much on its own. But it always helps to put these brief passages we read on Sundays in their proper context. This morning we only read seven or eight verses out of one chapter of this Epistle of five chapters.
It helps to look at the circumstances under which this epistle was written. Thessalonica is a city at the end of magnificent natural harbor that lets out to the Aegean Sea at its north end, along the coast of modern day Greece—in Paul’s time the area was called Macedonia. Saint Paul established the church in Thessalonica during his second missionary journey, about the year 51 AD. The city was populated mostly by gentiles, but there were a number of Jews as well, so Paul began his preaching in the local synagogue. We have a few details recorded in the seventeenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Only a few of the Jews were interested in what Paul had to say about Christ, but he made a good number of converts from among the gentiles, including a number of “women of rank.”
The majority of the Jews, however, were disturbed by Saint Paul’s preaching, and his success in making converts. After about three weeks they organized a riot, and denounced the new Christians to the Roman authorities, claiming that the Christians intended to replace the Roman Emperor with Christ the King. Those that were arrested were able to post bail and avoid trouble with the authorities, but they were forced to send Saint Paul unwillingly on his way. He went to Athens, and then on to Corinth, where he composed the two letters to the Thessalonians which we find in the Bible. They have the distinction, very likely, of being Saint Paul’s very first canonical writings.
Before writing, Paul sent Timothy (the future bishop of Ephesus) to see what had become of the hastily made converts, for which he had such high hopes. Timothy’s report was generally favorable, or so Saint Paul wrote, but the Epistle seems to be offering words of praise and encouragement to the Thessalonians, in order to confirm them in the Faith. He began by boasting about them, that they were “a pattern to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia ... who turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God.” But Paul was concerned that, in spite of Timothy’s good report, the unconverted Jews of the Thessalonian synagogue would persecute and lead his converts astray. He denounced them as “the Jews who have both killed the Lord Jesus, and the prophets, and have persecuted us.” Paul was concerned that the Thessalonian Jews not only rejected Christ for themselves, but were bent on “hindering [Paul] from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved.”
Paul’s concern is that his new Christians not lose their faith; that the “word of God” and the “Holy Ghost” which they received from him would remain with them and preserve them as believers in Jesus Christ. It may seem strange, then, that he placed such emphasis on keeping the Commandments. After all, the unconverted Jews of the synagogue were also committed to keeping the Commandments—they should not have been much of a source of difficulty to the Christians on that account.
But Saint Paul understood something that is basic to the belief of Catholics; basic to receiving, possessing, and retaining the true Faith. And, Paul’s insight is at least as valuable in our own time as it was in his. Paul knew that the true Faith is a gift of God’s grace. Although faith is a virtue of the intellect—a virtue by which we believe what God has revealed—the virtue is not something which we can possess through intellectual activity alone. People can (and do) read about Christianity, without being convinced of the truth of God’s revelation. Those who are convinced are those who have received God’s free gift of grace—the graces that come before and with the Sacrament of Baptism; the graces that are strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation; the graces that are nourished in receiving Holy Communion.
It is not at all surprising, then, that those who have fallen away from the faith are so very often those who have forced God’s graces out of their souls by deliberately committing sin. Nor should it be surprising that the fall from belief also encourages a further fall from morality. Immorality and disbelief go hand in hand.
Just look at our own times. At the same time that the Church has been riddled by scandals, it has become more and more difficult to pin down just what Catholics are expected to believe today. In the “mainstream Church” everything seems to be negotiable; everything is up for discussion; nothing seems to matter!
We have been hearing about unchastity, theft, violence, and now even collaboration with atheistic communism—do we seriously think that people who give them selves up to such evil have any regard or any interest in the things of God? Have we any reason to be surprised that the Faith is in such sharp decline? A man who is stealing in order to have a good time with his lover has no time for the Blessed Virgin Mary, or for her Divine Son, that’s true—but even worse than that, such a man has driven the grace of faith from his soul. Without true contrition, purpose of amendment, and sacramental forgiveness, he will never have time for the things of God ever again. It matters not that he may find religion intellectually interesting—without grace, he will never have Faith again.
That is why Saint Paul encouraged the Thessalonians (and encourages us today) to “make even greater progress ... in sanctification, in abstaining from immorality, in learning to possess ourselves in holiness and honor ... not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” Because if we are to know God—if we are to have the true Faith of God’s revelation—we must do our level best to walk in the ways of God by keeping His Commandments.
There are many things that we can do to restore the Faith in our time. We can speak of the Faith to others by word, deed, and good example. We can give of our time, our talents, and our possessions. But all that will be of naught if we lack the virtue of faith, a gift from God, which forms the souls of those sanctified by His grace.
As Saint Paul wrote at the end of his Epistle: “Test all things. Hold fast to that which is good. Keep yourself from every kind of evil.”
 1 Thessalonians iv: 1-7.
 Acts xvii: 4.
 1 Thessalonians i: 4-10.
 Ibid. ii: 14-15.
 Ibid., v: 21, 22.