We began a Bible Study on First Thessalonians this week. You can find out what we did on the web site.
There are lots of important matters and issues raised in First Thessalonians. But for me, what I like most about it is that it is the earliest of all the Apostle Paul’s letters, and the earliest document in the New Testament. It gives us insight into the early church days, before things were codified and doctrines established. First Thessalonians is a much different letter than, for example, the Letter to the Romans which is a theological treatise written several years after this letter. In Romans, Paul writes about things like grace, Adam, Abraham, and baptism. He lays forth very logical arguments. He goes through detailed points of ancient tradition and new understandings.
First Thessalonians is more personal and much shorter. It’s a letter where Paul’s thanksgiving, joy, and love are poured out. The members of that church in Thessalonica, though the church hadn’t been around for most likely, for more than year or so, were Paul’s pride and joy. He writes, “The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word…you’re the message.”
Though Paul became the most famous of the message writers in the New Testament, he realized the real message is not what gets put down on paper, but what gets put down in people’s lives. And he and lots of other people liked what they were seeing in Thessolanica. All these folk in Thessalonica were trying to do was piece together what it means to follow Jesus. They didn’t have much to go on, because this was all new.
What they did know is that they were caught up in a movement that was meant to change this world. When the risen Jesus, who had given them new life came back, then all things would be put right. They lived with that hope. In spite of all the persecution they had experienced, all the troubles that come along with daily living, they were hopeful because the future was in God’s hands. What Jesus had started would one day be finished. They were a part of it all. And they weren’t really sure what it all was. But they were figuring it out on the fly.
They began by turning from idols. We talked about this for a bit in the study the other night. It is probably hard for us to imagine how central idols were to life in the world in which they lived. As Tom Wright, John Dominic Crossan, and others have pointed out, idols were an integral part of day to day life in first century Greece and Rome. Tom Wright writes, “if you were going to plant a tree, you would pray to the relevant God. If you were going on a business trip, a quick trip to the appropriate shrine was in order. If a son or daughter was getting married, serious and costly worship of the relevant deity was expected.” Crossan in his book, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, lays out the archeological evidence to show how pervasive idol worship was in a place like Thessalonica.
The even more crucial thing both authors point out is that the emperor of Rome and Rome itself were added to the pantheon of gods. Rome was seen not merely as a gift from the gods, but a god itself.
This quickly set up Christianity against the empire, Jesus against the emperor. To accept one was to reject the other. And the emperor got nasty when he was rejected. The emperor’s before Jesus’s time were the first to take on the title son of God.
When the Thessolonians chose Jesus they were doing exactly what had been foretold on that day when Jesus ascended to heaven. Jesus told his disciples they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, and now that witness was taking hold in places like northern Greece.
Paul’s joy and deep satisfaction was that the message had taken root in Thessalonica. They were imitating Jesus even though it has brought them great trouble with the empire. In Acts 17 we read that when Paul and the others were hounded by the mobs in Thessalonica, the accusation made against them was that “These people are out to destroy the world, and now they’ve shown up at our doorstep, attacking everything we hold dear. And Jason is hiding them, these traitors and turncoats who say Jesus is king and Caesar is nothing.”
What has happened in the life of the Church, the life of the world, since the church made accommodation with the empire in Constantine’s day? What does it mean when the Church blesses the wars and ways of the empire rather than standing in the stark opposition to the empire as Jesus and then Paul did? We can no more serve God and country than we can serve God and money. We have to make a choice like the Jesus followers in Thessalonica did.
They modeled their lives after Jesus. And how else did that show in addition to their willingness to stand with Jesus against the empire? Paul talks about their love for one another. He writes about their labor of love. He says in the fourth chapter “Just love one another! You’re already good at it; your friends all over the province of Macedonia are the evidence. Keep it up; get better and better at it.” He knows the power of love unleashed in them when he prays that Jesus would “pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you, just as it does from us to you.”
They didn’t have much to go on, but they were doing pretty well with what they had. They had turned from idols to Jesus, from the empire to the Kingdom of God. They weren’t sure what exactly this all was, but it was a part of their faith. They were trying to model their lives after Jesus and the best way they could do that was by excelling in love. They were building this marvelous church, this gathering of the faithful to offer something new to this world, to bear witness to Jesus.
So Paul just wants them to keep on keeping on. He was so worried about them, knowing they might be tempted to turn from the faith. But every report he got back was glowing. They were doing their best to follow Jesus, they were hanging in there, they were renown for their love.
And it wasn’t only the outside pressures he worried about. Persecution was one thing. But he also knew that issues like sexual promiscuity and getting in each other’s business could destroy their community of faith. But they were okay. They were figuring it out along the way. And everybody noticed.
Obviously, we could read thousands and thousands of books written to help us figure out Christianity. But Jesus didn’t leave us anything on paper. He let others write the story knowing, as Paul discovered, that what is written in our lives is what matters most. The story is still unfolding. It’s not been contained to the pages of holy scripture, or church tradition.
All these years later. All these books. All these sermons. All these hot debates and we are still where those folk in Thessalonica were. We are trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus when you’re living in the empire. We’re trying to figure out how love can pour out of our lives and spill into the lives of others. We trying to figure out how to live the healthy and holy and whole lives Paul commends near the end of the letter.
We’re the message. That’s what it boils down to. We are witnesses of Jesus Christ, the one who broke loose from the grave. We’re not any closer or further away than the first folk hearing this letter were. We are in the same process. And it’s the same hope that propels us ahead. We are a part of the same movement bent on changing the world and remaking it along the lines of the Kingdom of God. That’s radical stuff that gets ignited when we turn from idols to the living God and decide we are going to try to love each other the way Jesus loves us.
The Apostle Paul was overjoyed, his anxieties about the folk in Thessalonica were relieved because he knew they were building a community that would sustain them for whatever was ahead as they worked on following Jesus. They had convictions of steel, they were Sons of the Day and Daughters of the Light. They loved each other. They believed that the future included Jesus.
Paul wrote lots of other letters, only a few of which made it into the New Testament. And I doubt he ever imagined that the ones that did were destined to do so. He was just trying to help the folk in the churches become the living letters, become the message of Jesus Christ, be the witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth.
Paul was confident in the power of the Holy Spirit to keep this movement going, to build churches, to keep the message of Jesus alive in the lives of people in places like Thessolonica, Rome, Oberlin, and Elyria.
The folk at Thessalonica may have lived in a place and time far different than ours, but they are not too far away. We, like them, are still doing it on the fly. We’re wondering what it means to follow Jesus, to model our lives after him. We are trying to be his witnesses, trying to love each other. We’re still asking some of the questions they were asking in Thessalonica like what is this second coming stuff all about? But something of Jesus has grabbed hold of us. And to our delight, and the Apostle Paul’s I’m sure, we are doing this together, with each other we are the message.
We get to be the church with each other. We receive a lot in our lives from each other but, even more wondrous, we get to give something of ourselves to each other, just like it happened in Thessalonica. We get to build the church and we’ve all got something to bring. And it makes a difference in this world.
You might want to come by on Wednesday nights and get in touch with your inner Thessalonian. They really started something.