It is an oft-heard complaint among pastors that congregants are stuck on some long-ago and impossibly wonderful golden age of church life. When the sanctuary was full! And we had two services! And we almost didn’t have room for all the children!
It almost makes you long for a story of a knock-down, drag-out fight, like the one that apparently happened concurrently with the founding of the church in Thessalonica.
Our third passage from the Acts of the Apostles skips over thirteen chapters and many significant events in the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 17:1-9 can be found here; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 can be found here. Working Preacher commentary by O. Wesley Allen, Jr., here.) In this passage, it is Paul and Silas who are taking the gospel “to the ends of the earth.” The city of Thessalonica was a thriving metropolis in 1st century Macedonia (as it is today; it is the second largest city in Greece), and it had a diverse population that included members of the Jewish diaspora as well as Gentiles (Greeks).
When we meet Paul he is making a beeline for the local synagogue, where he “argues” (διελέξατο) the cause of Jesus Christ from scripture for three successive Sabbaths, ‘explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you”‘ (Acts 17:3). (“Argument” here seems to indicate formal reasoning, lecturing, or even preaching.) He has some success, and welcomes some synagogue leaders, both male and female, as well as some devout Gentiles.
Success comes at a cost: it seems that the word “messiah” is too provocative for some of the congregation. The Acts passage relates that other religious leaders are “jealous” of Paul’s success, and make mischief in the city with the help of some hooligans. Jason, who has some connection to Paul and Silas (maybe a new convert?) is targeted, and taken by the mob to city authorities.
Their accusation: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” (Acts 17:6b-7)
The pastoral is political. The authority of Jesus’ name, as invoked by Paul and Silas, is sufficient to cause concern among the civil authorities.
1 Thessalonians also makes reference to persecution of the Thessalonian faith community. The letter may be considered particularly authoritative on this point, as it is widely considered the oldest existing New Testament writing. In it, Paul greets the church warmly, recalling its members’ faith, hope, and love, and reminding them of their connection with the missionaries: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7).
The authorities are often roused to concern when it turns out people of faith serve a God who is “living and true.” The past several years have seen numerous attempts by municipalities to outlaw the distribution of food to the hungry and homeless. The Facebook page “The Misanthropic Minister” recently reported the following exchange:
Colleague: “My congregation voted not to hang out a banner saying ‘Torture is a moral issue’ because it is too political.”
Me: “Why do they think Jesus died? For their sins?”
Congregants, too, can also be thrown by a Jesus who crosses the line from abstract piety to what is euphemistically referred to as “meddling.”
The founding of the Thessalonian church took place in a political environment which was challenged by the person of Jesus, so clearly alive and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, and unnerving enough to cause fights to break out and authorities to round up the usual suspects (who turned out, often, to be church-type people). The disciples Christ gathered around him continued, in turn, to gather others for what one RevGal calls “God’s whole human project… about connecting us with God and each other…”
It can be a risky business.
1. I’m imagining churches this week getting past the stories of the golden glowing glory days and getting real with the ups and down and bumps and lumps of their early days/ their past. What effect does getting real with our past have on us? How does it bear on our mission for today?
2. I’m also nerdishly attached to an idea of 1 Thessalonians as our very closest missive to the living, breathing, walking-the-earth Jesus. What is the connection between a Jesus in living memory and the greeting of 1 Thessalonians?
3. I’m wondering whether folks feel the desire or need to fill in some of the (pretty important) happenings of Acts 4-16. What would you definitely, positively want people to know from that period? Can we tell this story while jumping over that one?
I’d love to hear from you! Please do share your thoughts/ direction with us in the comments. And blessings be upon you, in the study, in the writing, and in the preaching of the Word.
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