April 17, 2016
“Birth and Conflict”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
17 After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, 3 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.” 4 Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5 But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. 6 When they could not find them, 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, 7 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.” 8 The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, 9 and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 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. 6 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, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 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. 9 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, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
I have not always connected with the book of Acts. Certainly, there are some parts – Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit and Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road – which are truly awesome.
But there are also a lot of unfamiliar names, and a lot of descriptions of comings and goings of the apostles to unfamiliar places which I have difficulty keeping track of.
So, I give credit to the Narrative Lectionary for breathing life into Acts for me.
We talked two weeks ago about the very first verses of Acts, about how Luke, the writer of both the gospel of Luke and Acts, moves Jesus off the main stage, and we see this remarkable transformation of these terrified men and women into bold and courageous people who change the world.
We learned that Acts is an absolutely essential book of the Bible because it is the only thing that connects the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection to all the early churches that we learn about through the letters in our New Testament.
The Gospels, which tell Jesus’ life story, end in Jerusalem and there is no church. Acts tells us what happens next. What did the followers of Jesus do with the resurrection story? What happens after Easter?
Jesus teaches his followers over a period of many days and tells them that they are the witnesses of the story, they are the ones to carry on the story with their lives and their words, and to go out to Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. And we are here, at this very moment, because they were the witnesses.
Acts shows how the gospel spreads first to Jerusalem and then because of persecution, the witnesses are scattered and the word continues to spread. And we have recorded in Acts what the early Apostles said to convince Jews and Gentiles alike of the truth that Jesus was God’s messiah.
They used, in fact, a kind of narrative lectionary, reaching all the way back to God’s relationship with God’s people through Abraham and Joseph and Moses, and showing their listeners how everything points ahead to Jesus.
The disciples, now apostles, were instructed by Jesus, given the power of the Holy Spirit, were visited by angels, and were told exactly what needed to happen – the good news of God needed to go out into the world, carried on the lips of ordinary but remarkable men and women. But, here is what struck me reading through Acts this week, it was hard. There was persecution, and people hunted down the apostles, there were imprisonments, not just once but over and over, there were stonings, and conspiracies to discredit them, and trumped up charges. The apostles were accused of turning the world upside down.
We have two letters to the Thessalonians in our New Testament – two letters to an active, vibrant church, whom Paul calls “our glory and joy.” (1 Thes. 2:20) We read in the opening verses of 1 Thessalonians that the church there was a model to Christians in other parts of the world; Paul writes to them, “Your faith in God has become known everywhere.” (1 Thes. 1:8 NIV)
It is remarkable to read those words and then to jump back to the beginning, to Acts where we see Paul first arrive in Thessalonica.
Paul and his companion Silas and probably Timothy as well (16:1-2), were traveling by the Via Egnatia, a Roman highway that was an important trade route and connected many cities.
They pass through Amphipolis and Apollonia, and we are told nothing about what happens in those places, some scholars suggest that those places did not have synagogues, so Paul and his companions did not have a place to preach.
Thessalonica was the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia, on the northern mainland of Greece, and Paul stayed there for three weeks, preaching each Sabbath day in the synagogue when people were gathered for worship and learning, and we get just a brief summary of what he would have said, but it was very similar to what we read in other parts of Acts:
Paul tells the story, beginning with the Hebrew scriptures, connecting the ancestors and the words of the prophets to Jesus, proving that Jesus was the messiah and that the messiah had to suffer and die and be raised from the dead.
And devout Jews and Gentiles, and prominent women, believed.
But then things take a bad turn. Religious leaders there are not happy with what is happening, so they hire ruffians to form a mob, to prove to the city authorities that Paul and Silas are disturbers of the Roman peace, that they are stirring up mobs to riot, just like in other places where they have been “turning the world upside down.”
And if you are an authority tasked with keeping the public peace, this is of grave concern. The religious authorities go one step further, they accuse Paul and Silas of declaring that there is another king, a new king to take the place of the emperor, an act of treason.
But, Paul and Silas could not be found to face these accusations, so they dragged Jason in instead. We don’t know much about Jason, just that his house must have been a place Paul and his friends were known to frequent. Paul and Silas and Timothy leave that night for a town 50 miles to the south.
And that is the story of the birth of the church in Thessalonica.
So often we assume that if something is God’s will or part of God’s plan for us and for the church or for the world, that God will level the hills and make the paths smooth and straight that lead us right where we need to go.
So often we think that if we encounter resistance, or illness, or pain, or discomfort, or unhappiness, or even tragedy, that God has abandoned us, that if it is hard, then God isn’t with us, that is isn’t God’s will.
It seems like the apostle’s had everything going for them, the power of the Holy Spirit and the instruction of Jesus, and it was still hard.
I remember this moment of driving the car and listening to the radio, and the story had something to do with an elderly man reflecting on what he had learned about faith, and he said what he learned was, sometimes what is good is also what is the hardest – that which is good is often also that which is hard.
And that has really stuck with me, because following Jesus is not always easy and not always comfortable, and following Jesus doesn’t mean that everything will be perfect and go exactly our way. Those of you who fasted on Wednesday know that sometimes the way to deeper prayer and communion with God, takes you down a path of discomfort and self-denial.
Sometimes the truly great things that God calls us to do, things that change our lives and the world, are also really hard, and will meet with ridicule and even resistance. Sometimes the new thing that God is doing means that old ways of doing things feel threatened. Think of the struggle to end slavery, the struggle for civil rights, for the enfranchisement of women. Sometimes what is good, is also really hard. And just because it is hard, does not mean that God has walked away.
We know that the spread of God’s story of grace and forgiveness and reconciliation in Jesus Christ, was a success – we gathered here today are the proof of its success, and we have these letters to the Thessalonian church that show us a picture of a vibrant early church, and then tucked away in Acts we also have this story of the birth of a church which tells us that at the start of it all was challenging, there was pain and suffering, there was trial and heartache – there was struggle.
And yet God was there the whole time. God is still here. Amen.