A sermon based on Psalm 5 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24 preached on August 24th, 2014.
My dog barks with his whole body. Riley’s 1 year old now—small but stocky and muscular. He was much more easy to control the first couple of week and months I had him, but now all 14 pounds of him scatters across the house in an endless fury of puppy energy.
His bark is powerful and you wouldn’t think by hearing it that it’s coming from such a small mouth. Every bark is 14 pounds of bark. Loud and reckless and unrestrained. Like most dogs, Riley puts the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail into each bark. His entire frame lunges into each outburst. His back legs kick, sometimes his bark forces his whole body to leave the ground.
Dogs are like that. Whether barking or wagging their tails, or eating, dogs put their whole selves to it.
There’s no halfway for dogs. Whatever it is they do, they do it with every bit of their being.
If we could only live our lives “all-in” like them—with the same energy and enthusiasm. Could you imagine how much more joyful our lives would be?
1 Thessalonians is the earliest piece of writing in the New Testament.
Paul has visited the people of Thessalonica and taught them the ways of Jesus and throughout the 5 chapters of this first letter, Paul ventures to explain to these young Christians how to pattern their lives in an entirely different way than they’re used to.
Thessalonica is the heart of Greece, and these Thessalonian Christians have always had a thoroughly Greek way of understanding things—not much different than the way we do in the West today. Greeks are very cerebral and very linear. Logic and reason were considered by the ancient Greeks as the highest kind of knowing. In Greek life, people lived in their heads and the only way to be anybody in Thessalonica was to pursue more head knowledge—to outwit your neighbor and become the smartest person around.
In Greek culture, the body was seen as merely a this-worldly casing—something that was disposable and unimportant for the hereafter—what was important was what they thought—how they used their brains. If you were to ask the typical 1st Century Thessalonian where the center of their body was they would have pointed to their heads. Greek life was a life of the mind.
So, much of Paul’s first letter to the gentile Christians in Thessalonica is an effort to get those young Christians out of the minds—almost the entire letter is an argument Paul makes to get them to live in their whole selves rather than only in their heads.
Paul introduces them to the Hebrew understanding of knowledge—a way of knowing that doesn’t come from just the head. Hebrew knowledge is a full-bodied exercise that comes from head, heart, soul, and gut. If we understood faith in the same way Paul did, the first disciples did, and as Jesus did, we’d say that it isn’t just about what we thought about God—faith isn’t about all the words we could say or the logical arguments we could make. Believing in something wouldn’t be made up of a list of doctrines that we agreed with or began following.
For the 1st Century Christian, believing was about throwing our entire selves totally and absolutely into a new kind of movement. Faith in the Hebrew understanding was a new way of being that resided in some ambiguous place deep inside of a person—it comes from somewhere inside of you that you can’t point to or even explain to anyone else. Somewhere in your gut. Paul says that faith is something that you felt pulse through your whole body. It soaks into every part of us and uses everything we have—it’s wild and untamed—something you throw your whole body into, unreservedly and absolutely.
The Hebrew word for the part of us that holds onto faith and carries it is called “Nephesh.” It’s a Hebrew word that means too much to be properly translated into English.
If somebody asked you to point to the place in your body where your faith came from, where would you point?
We in the West, just like the Greeks in Thessalonica in Paul’s day, so easily separate our bodies into all its different parts, each part having its own distinct function.
We’re so scientific about our bodies, and all this parceling out of its parts by each separate function almost makes it impossible for us to understand what “Nephesh” is. It’s a completely foreign concept to us and describing it using our own language has proved itself impossible. Every effort we make to understand the word doesn’t do it any justice.
In most of our bibles, the Hebrew word “Nephesh” is translated into English as soul or heart or with the phrase “all of our mind”. But none of these translations get there. The closest we can come to explaining Nephesh is “our whole being,” or “everything we’re made of.” Dogs bark with their Nephesh.
For Paul and for the early Hebrew Christians, Nephesh is where faith finds its home inside of us—in every part of us—deep inside our bones. Pulsing through us. And if we understand faith like Paul, Jesus, and the very first Christians did, we’d say that it claims and uses every bit of us. It takes over all of our capacities.
Faith in Christ to a Christian is like water to a fish—something we immerse ourselves in so completely that nothing exists outside of it or apart from it.
Our life in Jesus is everything we know and everything we do—every choice we make and every aspect of who we are, everything we’re made of, is an expression of a full-bodied commitment to Christ. Our devotion to Jesus is something we’re called to put our whole selves into unreservedly, thoroughly, and absolutely. We’re talking about full-bodied faith.
It is only when we begin to understand faith in this way that we can know what Paul means when he urges the young Christians in Thessalonica to pray continually.
Because we in the West, think of faith as something that happens in our heads—we have this idea that prayer is an exclusively head-centered, mental activity. When we understand prayer as something that comes from our heads, it easily becomes limited to a series of words we say and then tack an “Amen” to the end to. For many of us, prayer is this daunting idea of having to think of words, maybe even in public. It becomes anxiety producing, and what if we screw up, get our words wrong, or can’t think of anything to say at all?
See, that’s so Greek of us. That understanding of prayer is anemic and 100% head-centered.
So let’s take a look at this list of things Paul encourages the Thessalonian Christians to do because in these closing words of his letter to this young congregation, practicing prayer isn’t about speaking words.
What Paul is describing is more about living prayerfully. Prayer here is a way of walking through the world that shapes everything we do.
Brothers and sisters, Paul writes, live in peace with each other…Comfort the discouraged…help the weak…be patient…pursue good…rejoice always…pray continually…give thanks in every situation.
All of these things Paul mentions are spiritual gifts that grow organically from the rich soil of a life lived in prayer. Comforting the discouraged, being patient, rejoicing always, giving thanks…they do not come on their own, they are the byproducts that spring forth from a life well nurtured and well-soiled by prayer.
Prayer is not only something we do, it’s something we live out every second of our lives…with every bit of our being, and continuous prayer is the rich and fertile soil from which everything else grows.
God wants us to throw our whole selves into the deep waters of prayer. God wants us to see everything we do and everything we are as a prayer that never ends.
If we develop and begin to foster a life of continuous prayer we will gain a better understanding of ourselves as God’s children—and we will more clearly be able to see God’s intention for our lives.
Living a life of continuous prayer will reshape us and mold us into different, better versions of ourselves: more attentive, less anxious, and more receptive to God.
God wants our very lives to become one big, alive, embodied prayer. That is the picture of prayer given to us this morning through these ancient words to one of the very first churches.
Pray continually and with every bit of your being—unreservedly and absolutely. Lunge your entire self into prayer. Go all in! Pray from your gut! Put your Nephesh into it! Throw your whole self into prayer and become transformed people. God will work wonders through you.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!