I attended my first high school reunion a few years ago. Like many others preparing for this oft–awkward gathering, I experienced a good bit of terror in the weeks leading up to it. However, my main concern wasn’t whether or not my high school classmates would judge my accomplishments, relationship status, or significantly better beard; instead, I feared the organizers of the event would forget to hand out nametags.
So, I tore through a few rooms in my apartment looking for the yearbook I’d buried away. In homage to high schoolers everywhere, I’d hoped to cram names in my brain at the last possible moment. Unfortunately, again like high school, my study notes were nowhere to be found. Therefore, as something of a people–pleaser, I obsessed over how many, “Hey . . . good buddy,” lines would offend old acquaintances.
I did have something of an excuse. While a number of people I’d graduated with continued to live in the area and see one another from time to time, I’d lived out of the region for a good bit. With no social interaction reconnecting the synapses, the chapters of my life began to blur together. For this soon–to–come reunion, “out of sight, out of mind,” handcuffed me.
Geographical distance often leads to forgetfulness. However, for the global mission of God, we must war against it. God calls the church to more than what we see. Thankfully, the Apostle Paul modeled this tension in his correspondence with the Thessalonian church. For him, geographical distance did not always diminish spiritual realities.
1. Geographical distance did not diminish Paul’s affections.
Acts 17 tells us that, after Paul spends a short amount of time preaching in Thessalonica, the displeased formed a mob to attack the house of Jason where Paul and Silas were staying. Therefore, Paul and his co–laborers end up needing to leave town, quickly separating them from the new believers.
Later, in 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul looks back on those events. In candid terms, Paul describes being “torn away” from the church at Thessalonica. However, he quickly qualifies this separation: “in person not in heart” (1 Thess 2:17). As detailed in the opening anecdote, this is largely counterintuitive to the human experience. Absence often makes the heart wander. Since Paul had other people in his face now, surely he’d forget about the last town he rolled through.
Instead, he insists that he prays regularly for them (1:2–3). Then, in a word we might gloss over, Paul describes how his feet could stand in Athens and his heart beat in Thessalonica. He writes, “But since we were torn away from you, brothers . . .” (2:17).
In contrast to our recall concerning decades–ago classmates, Paul’s remembrance actually lines up with the human experience. Ask the parent who sent their eldest off to college last week if their affections decreased. Ask them what they think about in bed. You might retort, “Well, that’s family.” Exactly. Paul wasn’t as flippant with the term “brother” as your hometown preacher. His ecclesiology was overtly and persistently familial. While the mob might separate physically, they remained powerless to move Paul’s affections.
2. Geographical distance did not diminish Paul’s eagerness for contact.
Verse 17 continues, “ . . . we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.” Not unlike the mom and dad currently planning a college visit over Labor Day weekend, Paul’s distance from the Thessalonians only increased his desire to see them again.
Paul laments, however, that he was prevented from coming immediately (2:18). Nonetheless, chapter 3 opens, “When we could bear it no longer, . . . we sent Timothy” (3:1–2).
Paul’s connection to this church, and his ongoing desire for communication, could not be explained by mere sociology. Since being torn away from them prematurely, he’d feared the tempter’s influence (3:5). Therefore, because he longed for the Thessalonians’ perseverance in the gospel, he was willing to be left alone in Athens, sending away one of his closest co–workers. Meanwhile, if he couldn’t go himself, he would begin to write that church the letter we study today. To the degree geographical distance decreased his affections for family, it also abated his eagerness for contact with them. In short, it did neither.
3. Geographical distance did not diminish Paul’s rejoicing in the Lord.
Paul’s contact with these believers eventually functioned to further stir his affections for them. Timothy purchased a round–trip ticket to Thessalonica. When he returned to Athens, he brought Proverbs 25:25: “Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” The Thessalonians, though separated from Paul and his co–laborers, continued to persevere in their shared faith (3:6). Paul rejoiced. In fact, he’d write, “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord” (3:8).
You might be saying to yourself, “I’ve never been attacked by a mob and torn away from a church I helped plant in Greece.” While that might be true, it is likely you are separated geographically from someone trying to advance the gospel elsewhere. You used to be close. But as the months go by, you think about them less and less. You don’t remember contacting them recently. Because of that, your affections might have even decreased. Further, you can’t remember the last time you rejoiced in the Lord over something they told you. The question for us is this: Would Paul have heard of and rejoiced in this good news if he hadn’t stayed in contact with the Thessalonians?
In 2017, the mediums for communication dwarf that which Paul had at his disposal. Therefore, curate your own missionary yearbook. Study it. To war against the tyranny of distraction, set an alert on your Google Calendar. When you’re reminded, write an email or schedule a FaceTime with a church planter in the Northeast or a missionary abroad. If you do that enough, you won’t be content with that form of communication. As your affections increase, FaceTime should lead to face time.
And then you’ll know, “out of sight, out of mind,” has no place in the mission of God.