+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Last week we looked at the ministry of Peter and John in Jerusalem, a ministry that brought salvation to many and, in the case of the particular text appointed for us, gave the gift of healing to a man who had been unable to walk his entire life. The two men at the center of that story bore public witness to the powerful name of Jesus, and through that witness brought many to faith in the crucified and risen Lord.
Today, we turn to the other pillar of the early church, our congregation’s namesake, and one of the most influential people in the history of the world: the apostle Paul. During his approximately two decades of ministry in the Mediterranean, Paul was responsible for founding a number of churches in important imperial cities, thereby aiding the spread of the gospel into the West and making the name of Jesus known far and wide. In weeks to come we’ll focus on the church he founded in the city of Corinth, and reflect on both the joys and struggles of discipleship then and now. First, however, we have the opportunity to look at one of the first churches established by Paul – the assembly of Christians in the city of Thessalonica. By way of introduction, let’s look at the opening of the first letter to the Thessalonians, which you can find in your bulletin insert:
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
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. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, NRSV)
These are beautiful, stirring words that continue to inspire Christians today. They paint a picture of a church in harmony with itself and others, an image to which many congregations aspire. They also may give us a slightly biased picture of what was going on in Thessalonica. To give us a little more context, let’s revisit our other reading from Acts, in which the Christian community in that city finds itself at odds with much of the surrounding populace. The way they describe the presence of the church in their midst is quite different from the way Paul describes it. Just look at verses six and seven: When [the people of the city] couldn’t find [Paul and Silas], they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests!”
It’s true, of course, that Paul and Silas were on the receiving end of that charge, but it’s also true that the charge against them can’t be limited to them. After all, Paul says that the Thessalonian Christians were known throughout neighboring regions of the empire for being imitators of them and of the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 1:6, NRSV) What happens if we put both of these accounts of the church at Thessalonica together? We see that the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” that was so highly regarded by Paul and other Christians was seen by people outside the church as “turning the world upside down”!
That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? The first Christians in Thessalonica were best described by the rest of their fellow citizens as outside agitators, the kind of people who threatened the very fabric of society, and they were treated accordingly. That relationship didn’t last, of course. In time, Christianity and the state became so closely bound up with one another that it was hard to see where one ended and the other began, a state of affairs that persisted for the better part of fifteen hundred years in most of the Western world. Much of the recent discomfort in our communities, in fact, has to do with the fact that this long-standing cooperation between the church and the state has been eroded in recent decades, with the result that many of us probably feel much like the church at Thessalonica once did.
If that’s true – if our situation today is starting to resemble the situation in the first century – then we have some choices to make. How are we called to live in this world that is beginning to look so different from the way it has for so long? Should we seek to hold onto the way things were, fighting tooth and nail to preserve our privileged place over and against others? That was how the crowds that dragged Jason and the believers before the city authorities reacted to this new things happening around them. Or should we, instead, seek to “turn the world upside down”, not by raising our voices in anger or fear, but by unleashing the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” that is our heritage, an example begun by the Thessalonians and repeated throughout the centuries by faithful men and women who spent their lives serving a living and true God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ?
As society wrestles with the change that is besetting all of us – some positive and some negative – what will be said about us and our witness? Do others look at us and see people who are willing to step out in faith to turn the world upside down with the grace and love of Christ? Does the way we live demonstrate our trust in God so completely that others take our faith and faithfulness for granted? Are we prepared to speak the message of the gospel in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, not as a bludgeon, but as an invitation to a transformed life?
If these questions are scary or daunting, remember that like the Thessalonians were are beloved by God and chosen to live this way. This is not a matter of law, a picture of something that we must do to be regarded as faithful by God, but a matter of grace, a picture of the life to which God invites us through Jesus by the Spirit. As we strive to be imitators of Paul, the Thessalonians, and the Lord, we are promised the gifts of grace that make that imitation possible – faith, hope, and love, virtues that God has poured out upon us in Christ and energized by the divine breath that filled us at baptism and continues to move in us and in our world. As we celebrate these gifts and the promise of resurrection that speaks life in the midst of our fears and opens up new possibilities, we call to mind how God is strengthening us to turn the world upside down, so that suspicion gives way to trust, despair gives way to hope, and hatred gives way to love. May it be so among us. Amen.