Archive for May, 2007

Person: “Hey Steve, do Christians really need to go to church?”

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

It’s always interesting when someone feels the need to tell me that they don’t feel like they need to go to church to be a Christian. It’s usually followed by statements like feeling the presence of God on a walk, or at the beach, in a beautiful sunset, or in the quiet of the morning.

I really don’t know what they are hoping my response will be. Given my vocation, I bring a bit of bias to the topic. I think being an active part of the church, the community of faith is crucial. And here’s why. Pentecost and Babel. We, of course, have been recounting the story of Pentecost this morning. All those folk from all those different places speaking all their different languages were hearing the same thing. The tower of Babel was being undone.

Do you remember the story of Babel? You find it in Genesis 11. “At one time, the whole Earth spoke the same language. It so happened that as they moved out of the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled down. They said to one another, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and fire them well.’ They used brick for stone and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.’”The story goes on, of course, to recount God giving them different languages so they couldn’t understand each other and complete this tower to heaven.

The Tower of Babel was meant to be a curse, but we have turned it into a virtue. The history of humankind to this very day is that we cling to our separations from each other. We divide into clans and tribes and nations, and find all manner of ways to remain separate from each other, including hating and killing each other.

Babel, though, is undone on the Day of Pentecost. Suddenly everyone Medes and Cretans alike understands what these Galileans are saying, hearing their praises of God. They are learning something about God they never expected to learn from such people.

It’s not only the language barrier that was coming down, though. Remember on that day of Pentecost the men and women who followed Jesus were together in that room when the Holy Spirit came upon them. It wasn’t just the men. And when Peter recalls that prophecy from Joel about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he talks about the sons and daughters prophesying, the old and the young seeing visions and dreaming dreams. “When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit on those who serve me, men and women both, and they’ll prophesy.”

Pentecost is moving us out of our Babel comfort zone and taking us to a new place where we hear God in the languages of others. And it is not an easy place to go.

It wasn’t easy for the disciples who were there when the Tower of Babel came crashing down. They argued hard and long with each other about whether that ultimate separation in their part of the world could or should be bridged, the separation between Jew and Gentile. That argument is all over the book of Acts. But the Holy Spirit continued to lead them to a new place. We get an example in Acts 10 where Peter says to this group of Gentiles the Holy Spirit has just led him to, “You know, I’m sure, that this is highly irregular. Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other.”

To see Babel undone. That’s why we need to go to church to be a Christian. When those first spirit filled followers hit the streets of Jerusalem they were looking to build a new community, a new way of living with each other in this world that would bear witness to the Jesus who was alive again. You can only build the new community of Jesus Christ with other people. Community building is a group activity.

That doesn’t negate the value of the contemplative life away from the crowds. Time alone with God is good. We need to be in touch with those places on the inside where the Holy Spirit is at work bringing healing and insight and drawing us closer to Jesus. Mary has been pointing out of late that it would be good for us to explore more of the contemplative life in this town.

We need to do that inner work for the healing it brings. But we also need the healing community of Jesus. And others need the healing we bring to that community. People need us to help them find Jesus.

We surely can find the presence of God in a special way on the beach, or alone at home. But the presence of Jeus is also found in each other.

This idea of Christianity on my own, without having to hear the languages of others is very, very appealing in this Babel mesmerized world of ours. Have you seen that old Peter, Paul, and Mary concert on TV where Paul Stookey talks about how first there was People magazine, and then Us? That’s the story of Babel right there. He wonders why we don’t just cut to the chase and have a magazine called Me.

Why should I bother to hear what others are saying when I can figure it out for myself? We’ve always been taught we are in this on our own. It is the most conservative of viewpoints I can imagine. But it has become a substitute for the gospel truth for a whole lot of progressives.

If we are going to build this new community of Jesus there is no other way to build it except with each other and all our different voices. It takes, as we read in 1 Peter, ‘living stones.’ And that can’t be accomplished by those who see themselves as Christians but unrelated to the church. To not be a part of the church is to not be a part of each other.

It’s so clear in that very first church we read about at the end of Acts 2. This new community of Jesus followers worshiped together. They prayed with and for each other. They shared meals and bank accounts with each other. They realized their spiritual growth was dependent on one another. Being a part of the community wasn’t a nice option, but essential to their own spirituality. They knew they needed each other if they were going to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. They each had something to bring that others needed.

Obviously, there are issues we have to confront. People who are trying to do the solo Christian thing often, but far from always, have good reason to do so. They haven’t found the church a place where people are interested in building a new community of Jesus Christ. Churches have often been the greatest defenders of the Babel status quo, baptizing our separations, animosities, nationalism, hatred and wars in the name of Christ.

People are rejected all the time by the church because of their marital status, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, race, national background, previous religious affiliations or lack thereof, or for a number of other reasons.

That is not the church that Pentecost envisions. And it’s easy to understand why doing the Christian thing alone seems preferable to much of what passes for church these days. But our call is to build the church of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t easy for the first followers of Jesus, and it’s not for us. Babel is in our DNA.

It’s not, at all, impossible, though. It takes our work and commitment, and a healthy dose of the Holy Spirit. But there is a new world, modeled after the Risen Jesus Christ, for us to build. It’s not the failings of Pentecost that ought to cloud our vision, it’s the possibilities Pentecost offers that draw us forward. When we hear God in each other’s voices, we get a chance to build something. It’s not a tower that gets us to heaven, but a community that gets heaven to us.

Now you might be wondering why on a Sunday morning, of all times, when the regulars are here I would talk about the need to be here with each other. I guess there are a couple of reasons. First is that this is commencement weekend when we are always saying good-bye to somebody. Today it’s Melissa and Liz. Nobody comes to this place, to this church, without leaving a part of themselves with us when they leave. That’s what community means. I simply want to encourage them to remember as they go on to all the places they go, that they have something to bring to the community of faith. Not to mention what they will receive. There’s always church to be built and the church needs folk like them to help build it.

And when people are graduating, it gets us all thinking about the possibilities for the future. We wonder what is going to unfold for these four folk, as they mark an important milestone in their lives.

And Pentecost is a time for us to be thinking about the future. It’s one of the markers that remind us why we are here, and why we have done all this work we have done. We are the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. God is creating something in this place, and we get to be a part of it.

There are easier things to do than build the church. If we could all do this on our own, build our own personal churches, find our own enlightenment it would save us lots of time and aggravation.

But look how Jesus did it. He didn’t simply head for the mountains so he could figure out this thing by himself, find God by himself. He spent time in the wilderness for sure, but he built this community of men and women and said let’s find God together. And they did. And we still are finding God with each other.

So, yes I think Christians need to be in church. We need to be with and for each other. We need to receive and give, teach and learn, help each other follow Jesus Christ. We need to pray for and with each other. We need to eat together. We need to encourage each other in the ways of Jesus. We need to watch Babel come crashing down with each other. We need to do Pentecost with each other all the time. We need to glory in all the wonderful things we hear in each others’ languages about the work of God in our lives and this world.

Like commencement, Pentecost reminds us is there is always something new beginning for the church that we get to be a part of. There is a new community of Jesus Christ we are always becoming. And it only happens with each other. What an amazing gift we are to each other.

I guess sometimes you got to keep getting it wrong until you start getting it right.

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

People talk about the patience of Job, which is something I’ve never really understood. Now I’m not going to talk about Job with Mary Hammond present. But I do have to say Job has never struck me as a patient guy. He endured a lot, but that’s a far cry from patience.

If you’re looking for someone in the Bible who comes across, to me, as patient, look no further than Jesus. Sure there was a lot that irritated Jesus, and I doubt the Pharisees or other religious types would have characterized Jesus as a patient guy. But when it comes to Jesus and his disciples, Jesus takes patience to it’s extreme. He gives those guys more slack than is humanly possible.

And in today’s story the disciples are at it again. It’s been a long three years for Jesus. He has traveled the length of Israel with these guys. They have watched him. They have heard him. He has pulled them aside on numerous occasions to illustrate lessons. And now, when he’s about to leave them they ask the question, “Jesus, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

You can almost see Jesus gritting his teeth and trying his best to not give them a dope slap. He could have easily said to them, “that’s the question you have been asking me all along and I keep telling you this is not about restoring the Kingdom to Israel. You were asking me that question before they killed me. Are you ever going to get it?”

And it was a question they were always asking. They were pretty consistent in their hope that Jesus was the one who was going free Israel from it’s Roman captors and make Israel greater than Rome ever dreamed of being. But Jesus was also consistent.

What’s the very first thing we read about when Jesus starts his ministry? Back in Luke 4 we read this, “Don’t you realize that there are yet other villages where I have to tell the Message of God’s kingdom, that this is the work God sent me to do?” And at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, “After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee preaching the Message of God: ‘Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.’” That’s all at the beginning of his ministry.

And at the close of his ministry what do we read? “After his death, Jesus presented himself alive to them in many different settings over a period of forty days. In face-to-face meetings, he talked to them about things concerning the kingdom of God.” Jesus was just as focused as the disciples were. They kept asking the wrong question, he kept giving them the right answer. And he hung in there with them, when you would think anybody else would have given up on them and just gone to heaven.

The disciples must have been pretty anxious by now. Jesus was about to leave them for good. Israel still hadn’t been restored to it’s glory. They wanted reassurance. They wanted to know the timing. And here is what Jesus told them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is God’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

They won’t get to know the timing about anything. But they will get something, Jesus says, much more important. They will get the Holy Spirit and these disciples, of all people, will be the witnesses of Jesus to the very ends of the earth. Heaven was about to break loose and these guys had no idea what part they were going to play in this new thing God was doing.

Do you remember how long Noah was in the ark? How long was Moses up on Mt. Sinai before he came down with the ten commandments? How long was Jesus tempted in the wilderness? How many days was Jesus with his disciples, according to this story from Acts, between his resurrection and his ascension?

Forty days is a big deal in the Bible. After 40 days in the Ark, Noah emerged to a new world. After 40 days on Mt. Sinai Moses came down to create a new nation, Israel. After 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus launched his ministry. After 40 post resurrection days with the disciples, Jesus was ready to put the movement into their hands, even though they were still asking the wrong question.

When it taks 40 days it means God is going to do something big..

Jesus left the disciples trusting they would open themselves to the presence of the Holy spirit and change the world. And he was right. His patience paid off.

But it wasn’t magic. They didn’t suddenly start getting it. They were still thinking about Israel. You see that pretty quickly when they feel the need to replace the traitor Judas. They really wanted 12 disciples because it so wonderfully mirrored the 12 tribes of Israel.

But you also begin to see how Jesus has made more impact on them than we thought. After Jesus ascends, we get a list of the remaining disciples, before they pick the replacement for Judas. All eleven of them are listed and then there is this interesting comment, “They agreed they were in this for good, completely together in prayer, the women included. Also Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers.”

No men in that day, other than Jesus, were including women in anything. But suddenly these guys were, and the Holy Spirit was still a few days off.

So these men and women, these first followers of Jesus, were in this thing together for good. They really had no idea what they were in for, nor how good it was going to be. By the end of the book of Acts, though, they were completely different people. There concern was no longer when Israel would be restored. Their lives were now devoted to that other kingdom Jesus had always talked about, the Kingdom of God.

What’s really, really strange all these years later is that Jesus followers are still having a hard time getting it ourselves. Just listen to a preacher on radio or TV and they are not talking about the kingdom of God, but Israel. And they are asking the question the disciples finally figured out it was time to stop asking, “are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?” They, of course, are saying yes and Jesus is crying out, with some patience I trust, “No, no, no. It wasn’t the right question then, and it’s not the right question now.”

We’ve talked about this plenty of times before. But I am still amazed that some of the most Biblically literate people have no idea what the Kingdom of God is. It was the most important thing Jesus talked about. Beginning, middle, and end, the ministry of Jesus was all about the Kingdom of God. But since most Christians in this country have never even heard of the concept, the best most can do is say it must have something to do with heaven.

And, of course, in a way it does. But not the way they imagine. The Kingdom of God is about heaven, but it’s not heaven. The Kingdom of God is about bringing heaven to earth, about making God’s ways our ways. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

For Jesus, heaven wasn’t simply the destination for his followers, it was the model for how his followers rebuild the earth. And slowly and surely and with lots of help from the Holy Spirit those men and women got it. The issue was no longer restoring Israel, it was restoring the whole world.

So those men and women got the witness out about Jesus from Jerusalem, to Samaria, to Judea, to the ends of the earth. Even to Lorain County, Ohio. And what they did is build little churches, little communities of faith here and there, where people could help each other discover God’s Kingdom.

I know most of you heard the great sharing that Heather, Jenny, and David did last week. Some of us have been talking this week about what David said about students in Seminary struggling with all the issues of this world that God’s Kingdom calls us to address, and saying there is no where that is going to happen.

David’s response to them has been, yes there are places where that happens. Lots of them. One of them is the Peace Community Church in Oberlin, Ohio.

I am more and more convinced that we need to shift our understanding of the importance of church. We always talk about church in the terms of what we can get out of it. And there is a lot here for us. There’s life, and forgiveness, a God and people who love us. We find strength here to get from one Sunday to the next. We see God doing amazing things in our own lives and the lives of others.

When Jesus was looking at those disciples who still weren’t getting it right before he was leaving them, he wasn’t thinking about what they were going to get out of this church. He was more interested in what they were going to give. He was excited about what this world was going to get because these men and women were committed enough to build a new community that would make God’s Kingdom, God’s ways, real in this world. And he is still looking for us to unleash heaven.

I think this is why Jesus was able to be so patient with the disciples. He knew good things were going to happen because of the disciples and, sometimes, is spite of them. He knew what the Holy Spirit could do with people like us.

We may still be asking the wrong questions far too often. There is a lot we don’t get. And none of us is as open to the Spirit as I imagine we could be. But the Spirit still works in us and Jesus is patient. He is more convinced about us than we are ourselves. He can’t help but imagine that slowly but surely, we are going to get it right. He’s actually depending on it. And he’s got a whole lot more patience than Job or any of the rest of us.

First Thessalonians–Session 4–The Future Includes Jesus

Friday, May 18th, 2007

We may be able to finish up First Thessalonians tonight. As I mentioned last week, we still have sex and the return of Jesus to talk about, but it may actually make more sense to cover all of that in one session. As to why it makes sense, I hope that is evident by the end of tonight’s session. And it’s not like either of these topics have been left unexplored in the course of Christian history.

To do that, though, we need to start near the end of First Thessalonians and work our way a bit forward, so we are going to start with the second coming of Jesus and see where we end up.

Obviously, there has been much speculation about the second coming of Jesus since the early days of the church. It comes up in First Thessalonians, which is the earliest of the documents we have. The issue arises out of the fact that some of the folk have died, probably some have been martyrs. The expectation in the early church was that Jesus would quickly return. We get that sense when Paul writes in 4:16 “those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead or leave them behind.” The expectation being that some of ‘us’ (Paul and the people he was writing to) would still be alive at the return of Jesus. But some of them have died, and the folk at the church in Thessalonica want to know what gives.

First of all, Paul reassures them that the dead will not be left behind when Jesus (shortly) returns. There is no need to grieve like there is no hope for them, “as if the grave were the last word.’ I think that phrase is critical in understanding Paul’s thoughts about the return of Jesus.

In 5:9-11 we read this, “God didn’t set us up for an angry rejection but for salvation by our Master, Jesus Christ. He died for us, a death that triggered life. Whether we’re awake with the living or asleep with the dead, we’re alive with him! So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this; just keep on doing it.”

For Paul, the sign that salvation had come was in the resurrection of Jesus. The death of Jesus brought about life, and for Paul there was nothing more incredible than being alive in Christ.

Romans 6:1-11–So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!

That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country.

Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That’s what Jesus did.

Being alive in Christ, for Paul, meant that the line between this life and the next has become terribly fuzzy. He writes later in Romans 8, “for I am convinced that neither life nor death…nor anything in all of creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And it’s all based on the resurrection of Jesus. That’s why the grave is no longer the last word. If it wasn’t the last word for Jesus, it doesn’t have to be for anybody. This is the word of hope that he wants the folk in Thessalonica to encourage each other with. The hope that Paul keeps talking about in this and other letters is the hope based on the life that is in Jesus Christ, a life where the grave is not longer the final word.

The question, then, quickly becomes, when is Jesus coming back? How will it all unfold? And don’t forget these folk were bearing the brunt of the empire’s displeasure with their allegiance to Jesus and God’s kingdom rather that Caesar and his kingdom. They were getting killed and thrown into jail. Their property was being taken away from them. They were ostracized, their businesses were boycotted. Think what it must have been like to be Jewish in Warsaw around 1940. That may be something of what the folk in Thessalonica were experiencing. Some of them must surely have thought the sooner Jesus came back, the better, because they were ready for this new world that his return promises.

All of us, the Apostle Paul included, are in uncharted territory when it comes to the return of Jesus. Paul doesn’t talk about it a lot, at least in the letters that are generally agreed to be authentically his. In Paul’s greatest theological treatise, the book of Romans, the subject of the return of Jesus isn’t covered the way it is now with all kinds of speculations of how and when. Here is what we do have from Romans 8 and I think it probably gives us the best insight into what Paul thought about the second coming of Jesus.

Romans 8:15-28 “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’ God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!

That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”

We do get a bit of what people have taken as the how in 1 Thessaloninas 4 when Paul writes in verse 16 (or thereabouts) “The Master himself will give the command. Archangel thunder! God’s trumpet blast! He’ll come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise–they’ll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Master. Oh, we will be walking on air! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words.”

This passage has help create lots of difficulties, or that’s my perspective, anyway. This is one of those passages that those folk who talk about the rapture turn to. In a full disclosure statement, I must let you know, that I don’t think there is, or will be, such a thing as the rapture. Thus, all the popular theology about the end times that makes up the Left Behind series and much of the preaching you hear on the radio or on TV and in many evangelical churches holds little sway with me. I don’t get it. I don’t see that it has anything to do with the Bible.

Think about this. Paul is working with an image here when he talks about meeting Jesus in the sky. First of all, I can’t imagine Paul believed in a three tiered universe where heaven was up, hell down, and planet earth in the middle. Our minds are clouded with this idea of a three tiered universe, particularly from theologians from the dark and middle ages whose notions still have a grip on us. But we also know something, the best we can about dimensions. So for Paul heaven was not up but other. That’s why in Colossians 3 where he mentions the return of Jesus it not as an occasion where we meet Jesus in the sky, but he simply says ‘when Jesus appears.’ Or another way it could be translated, when Jesus is ‘revealed.’

So secondly, I think Paul’s understanding of the return of Jesus was more along the lines of Jesus being revealed, the cover pulled off, rather than these long and complicated time lines, and expositions that pull in a verse here and there from Ezekiel, Daniel, Matthew, 2nd Thessalonians, and The Revelation. And don’t forget, I think The Revelation has little to do with the second coming of Jesus, and a whole lot to do about the struggles of following Jesus in the empire.

So it’s unfortunate, I think, that people have grabbed hold of this image from First Thessalonians and used it to construct something that you can’t find in the Bible. Don’t forget that the issue Paul is really addressing is not the second coming of Jesus but what’s going to happen to those who have died when he does return. The images he uses of the trumpet blast, thunder in the heavens, Jesus descending from the clouds, are all images from the Old Testament about God’s rescuing the faithful. And he closes that section, once again, not talking so much about the return of Jesus, but comforting those who wonder about their loved ones who have already died. “There will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words.”

There is so much talk and concern about the second coming in much of Christianity these days. Jerry Falwell is a vivid reminder of that. But the New Testament doesn’t go into a lot of detail, nor do most of the writers feel the need to do so even, as I have suggested earlier, the writer of The Revelation. The attitude we find in the New Testament to me is summed up in 1 John 3:2-3 “But friends, that’s exactly what we are: children of God. And that’s only the beginning. Who knows how we will end up! What we know is that when Christ is revealed, we’ll see him–and in seeing him, become like him. All of us who look forward to his Coming stay ready, with the glistening purity of Jesus’ life as a model for our own.”

I think the Apostle Paul’s joy was simply that the future includes Jesus. All the speculation about the when and the where and the how, as if we could figure something like that out, is secondary, at best.

This is how, I think, we get from the return of Jesus to sex. And it’s related to what we read in the first chapter about turning from idols. More about that in a minute. But first, we need to look at what Paul writes immediately after this business about the second coming of Jesus. At the end of the discussion he says we can’t even know the time, it will happen when it happens and just about everybody will be caught by surprise.

Then this in 5:4-6: But friends, you’re not in the dark, so how could you be taken off guard by any of this. You’re sons of the light, daughters of the Day. We live under wide open skies and know where we stand. So let’s not sleepwalk through life like those others. Let’s keep our eyes open and be smart. People sleep at night and get drunk at night. But not us! Since we’re creatures of the Day, let’s act like it. Walk out into the daylight sober, dressed up in faith, love and the hope of salvation.

And near the end of the letter we read this in 5:23: May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together–spirit, soul, and body–and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.

For Paul there are some things that help us get ready for the coming or revealing of Jesus and some that don’t. One that doesn’t is sexual promiscuity. Paul would argue that sexual promiscuity is a sign of a life that is not only not holy, but not whole.

We don’t have to go into how sexually charged our own culture is. And it turns out, that you don’t have to be so openly craven about it to be a sexually charged culture. It’s interesting that fundamentalist Christians and Muslims worry about sex all the time. It’s got as much a grip on them as it does those kids you see dancing on MTV.

There is, however, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, nothing new under the sun. First century Thessalonica and lots of other town large and small were sexually charged places. In Thessalonica and many of those other places, sex was part and partial of worship in the temples of many of the gods and goddesses who were worshiped. It was all hedonistic. There was no expectation that married couples would restrain from adulterous activities.

So it’s in this world that these new converts to Christianity, most and maybe all of them not from Jewish backgrounds and used to the sexual license of a place like Thessalonica, were called to live holy and whole lives as they awaited the return of Jesus. Paul raises the issue, because it was an issue.

Have any of you seen any of the Rome programs on HBO? It’s a show about Rome in the days of the great Caesars, like Julias and Augustus. I’ve seen a few of the shows, and it is obviously not PG rated. And it may overplay the sex aspects, but if the Roman empire was anything close to that, there is nothing in comparison to what happens these days that would have made any of them blush. But, and again, who knows how much artistic license is taking place here, it’s clear that it was not a happy sexual climate. Even though everybody is committing adultery, and expected to do so, it still leads to feelings of betrayal, jealousy, self-loathing, and a wish for something better. And it ends up destroying relationships in the formal and informal communities relate to. People don’t trust each other.

I think that is precisely why Paul addresses the issue of sexual promiscuity for the folk at Thessalonica. It’s not simply a matter of pure and whole and holy lives. It’s about maintaining a Christian community where there is trust, respect, and the desire to build a community of faith, modeled after the ways of Jesus, that offers an alternative to the sexual promiscuity of the community that surrounds them. People are looking for that alternative community. And this, Paul writes, is the community that awaits the return of Jesus, a community of Light.

Paul raises another concern, more pedestrian than sexual promiscuity, but just as prevalent and threatening to the community of faith they are trying to build. He encourages them to make sure they aren’t getting into each other’s business.

I think it was Phyllis who a couple of sessions ago raised the issue of the real tyranny, I don’t think those were her words, that Christian community could create. Paul wants the folk at Thessalonica to keep on loving each other and do it even better than they have been. He doesn’t want them to run each other’s lives. The challenge for any community of faith is to believe people will be faithful to the concerns of the community, and trust each other to live out the calling we have to follow Jesus Christ. Paul loved the freedom the Gospel brings into our lives, and for him it would be an awful thing for us to take that freedom from each other.

It turns out, this is no easier than sexual purity. You get a taste of that toward the end of the book when Paul writes in 5:13-15 “Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on. Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out.”

There was some call for the folk in Thessalonica to get into each other’s business, especially with the freeloaders. That may well have been a reference to idea that some feel like Jesus is going to return soon, so why do I need to get a job. They’re not going to let me starve while we’re waiting.” That may be somebody’s business they need to get into but Paul wants them, even in a case such as this, to be careful. “Gently encourage them…be attentive to individual needs.”

It’s a challenge to be the church. They are trying to figure it all out. And the answers aren’t easy, but the goal is clear. Be a community of faith that makes Jesus known.

He point to yet another challenge as we near the end of this letter. “Don’t suppress the Spirit, and don’t stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted with evil.”

How do we check that out? It seems to me that Paul is making a very honest admission at this point. You want to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit. But not everything we attribute to the Spirit is from the Spirit. Some of it, in fact, can be pretty evil. It’s up to the community to discern what’s of the Spirit and what’s not. And that’s not always easy for a community to do.

As Paul begins to finish up he offers what have been a couple of more problematic verses for far too many people. 5: 16-18 “Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.”

It sounds so very spiritual, but is it honest. I remember hearing a woman from a charismatic house church thank God for the recent tragic death of her son. She wanted to be thank God no matter what happened. Do you think that is what God wants of us? Can we really be cheerful, no matter what? And haven’t there been times when it’s just hard to pray.

I think it’s good to be thankful. I’m pretty sure that God deserves much more thanks than God ever gets. There is surely something to be said for cheerfulness. And some of the best prayers may come when it is a struggle to pray. Is there something else Paul is getting at than upholding a spiritual facade when our lives are crumbling or is he just being ridiculous? What do you think?

I really like how Paul emphasizes that this letter needs to be read to anyone. Right at the end he says “Don’t leave anyone out.” He is so grateful for each and every individual who makes up that community of faith in Thessalonica. Together they are the church, and a pretty good one. So Paul wants to make sure that everyone knows he appreciates them. Remember this is the Paul, who for most of his life would never even have talked to a Gentile. Now he is pouring out his thanksgiving, joy, and love for this group of Gentiles in Thessalonica. They are his sisters and brothers in Christ. It is no wonder he signs off with these words “the amazing grace of Jesus Christ be with you.”

First Thessalonians Study–Session 3–Good things come in threes: Faith, Hope, and Love

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

We talked in the first session about that trilogy of faith, hope, and love the keeps coming up in this letter. In this session we want to take a closer look at what Paul writes about faith in this letter.

What does it mean for the folk in the church at Thessalonica to have faith? Remember this is before the New Testament has been established, before church creeds were developed, while doctrine and practice were being developed. As you look at these scriptures about faith what do you think Paul meant by the word faith?

1:2 We call to mind your work of faith, your labor of love, and your patience of hope in following our Master, Jesus Christ, before God our Father.
1:7 The news of your faith in God is out.
3:1 He’s [Timothy] a brother and companion in the faith, God’s man in spreading the Message, preaching Christ.
3:3 That’s why I couldn’t quit worrying; I had to know for myself how you were doing in the faith.
3:6 But now that Timothy is back, bringing this terrific report on your faith and love, we feel a lot better…Knowing that your faith is alive keeps us alive.
3:9 We do what we can, praying away, night and day, asking for the bonus of seeing your faces again and doing what we can to help when your faith falters.
5:4 Walk out in to the daylight sober, dressed up in faith, love, and the hope of salvation.

The word that is translated faith is also translated as ‘faithfulness,’ ‘loyalty,’ and ‘allegiance’. Do these words help us to understand what Paul and the Thessalonians meant by faith? What were they faithful to? Where were their loyalties? How did they make their allegiance known?

How was their faith (faithfulness, loyalty, and allegiance) shown?
1:4 Something happened to you. The Holy Spirit put steel in your convictions.
1:6 You paid careful attention to the way we lived among you, and determined to live that way your selves. In imitating us, you imitated the Master.
1:7 Your lives are echoing the Master’s words.
1:9 you deserted dead idols of your old life so you could embrace God, the true God. People marvel at how expectantly you await the arrival of his Son, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus who rescued us from certain doom.
4:8-10 Regarding life together and getting along with each other, you don’t need me to tell you what to do. You’re God-taught in these matters. 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.

What does faith mean to us? Is it a set of doctrines or beliefs we acknowledge? Is faith a noun for us? How do we respond to the question, Are you a person of faith? Or when someone tells to keep the faith?

We often think about allegiance (allegiance to the flag and the country for which it stands) and loyalty to country (loyalty oaths). But faith for the people of Thessalonica must have meant something about faithfulness to the Kingdom of God rather than allegiance to Rome.

What is the place of doubt in faith?

Would you agree with the comment I heard the other day that Job was a example of the importance of doubt in our faith? I heard that on a program we are going to hear just a bit of. It was on the radio show, Speaking of Faith (May 3, 2007). The topic for the show is the history of doubt with Jennifer Hecht, a poet and a Professor of History who teaches at Nassau Community College and wrote the book Doubt: A History. She is interviewed by Krista Tippet.

We live in a world of doubt when it comes to religious matters, and doubts traveling companions skepticism and cynicism. So faith comes with a different history for us than it did the Thessalonians. But as Hecht argues, early Christianity was born in a world where doubt was starting to take hold. So maybe our issues of faith and doubt aren’t as different all these centuries later.

It was Soren Kierkegaard who made the idea of a leap of faith essential to the discussion of faith. You don’t believe or have faith because of the evidence. Faith is not devoid of evidence or logic, but it’s never completely logical. That what makes it faith.

Do the ideas of faithfulness, loyalty, and allegiance help us think about what faith means to us?

Isn’t the caution in the book of James about faith without works being dead another was of saying you are the message?

Notice that Paul doesn’t mention individuals when he talks about the faith of the Thessalonicans. It’s the faith of the church, the community that he talks about. What are the implications of that? We are always talking about people of great faith, but when do we talk about churches of great faith. And if we did, what would that mean. We do, though, try to capture some of this when we talk about faith communities or communities of faith. Where do faithfulness, loyalty, and allegiance come into play in our churches, our faith communities.

Paul is worried that the persecution in the church might cause the people to lose their faith? If Paul were around today, in the United States, what might he have to worry about that would cause people or churches to lose their faith? Remember that simply because you are a church doesn’t mean that you are a faith community.

Revelation 3:1-4

Write this to Sardis, to the Angel of the church. The One holding the Seven Spirits of God in one hand, a firm grip on the Seven Stars with the other, speaks: “I see right through your work. You have a reputation for vigor and zest, but you’re dead, stone-dead.

“Up on your feet! Take a deep breath! Maybe there’s life in you yet. But I wouldn’t know it by looking at your busywork; nothing of God’s work has been completed. Your condition is desperate. Think of the gift you once had in your hands, the Message you heard with your ears—grasp it again and turn back to God.

“If you pull the covers back over your head and sleep on, oblivious to God, I’ll return when you least expect it, break into your life like a thief in the night.

“You still have a few followers of Jesus in Sardis who haven’t ruined themselves wallowing in the muck of the world’s ways. They’ll walk with me on parade! They’ve proved their worth!

At the end of the third chapter Paul prays that the way might be cleared so he can go see the folk in Thessalonica. He also prays that “the Master pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you, just as it does from us to you. May you be infused with strength and purity, filled with confidence in the presence of God our Father when our Master Jesus arrives with all his followers.”

I’m wondering if we aren’t beginning to get some definition to what Paul might have in mind when he writes about faith, hope, and love. Faith is allegiance to God’s way as revealed in Jesus Christ. The hope comes in a Jesus who has defeated sin and death, and is a part of the future. Love is the great sign of our faith, that has it’s hope in Jesus, who leads us to keep loving more and better. Faith, hope, and love is a circle that seems, for Paul, to keep coming around each of the three reinforcing the other two. But don’t forget, that in First Corinthians 13 Paul says these three remain: faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love. I think that means Paul could never comprehend a faith that is not grounded in love.

Lessons from the Whirlwind

Sunday, May 6th, 2007

Mystics and contemplatives throughout the ages have told the rest of us how important it is to see with our hearts that which we see with our eyes. An ant hill, a towering pine tree, a bird in flight–all are worthy objects of meditation. All are places where we can begin to see God more clearly if it is God that we seek.

How many of us have a special outdoor place which gives our hearts joy, providing a sanctuary for the spirit where neither walls nor doors interrupt? Let’s name some of these places together. I’ll start. Morgan Street. [Others are invited to share here]. There is a reason we need such places–many reasons, in fact–as we discover through God’s Monologue in the Book of Job.

A little background is in order if you are unfamiliar with the story of Job. He is a righteous man who loses nearly everything he holds dear, from his children to his servants, his livelihood to his reputation, and at last even his own health.

For an unnamed period of time–which surely feels like forever–Job protests and complains about his fate to his God. For an unnamed period of time–which surely feels like forever–his closest friends offer woefully inadequate theories to explain Job’s sufferings. For an unnamed period of time–which surely feels like forever–the God Job serves so faithfully remains utterly silent.

Job questions God and questions God some more. Silence. Then, one day, out of the whirlwind, God speaks. Now the questions began to flow the opposite direction. God begins hounding Job, just as Job has hounded God. “Where were you when I created the earth? Who decided on its size?…Who took charge of the ocean? Have you ever…explored the labyrinthine caves of deep ocean?…Do you have one clue regarding death’s dark mysteries?…Do you know where Light comes from and where Darkness lives?” (from Job, Chapter 38).

On and on God persists. “Can you teach the lioness to stalk her prey?…Who sets out the food for the ravens?…Have you ever watched a doe bear her fawn?…Will the wild buffalo condescend to serve you?…Was it through your know how that the hawk learned to fly?” (from Job, Chapters 38 and 39).
For years, God’s response to Job bothered me. Why did God ignore Job’s honest, heartfelt questions? Haven’t the saints through the ages prayed, cried, and screamed out so many of Job’s questions in their own dealings with God in times of darkness? I know I have.

When God starts questioning Job, what happens? What are Job’s answers to God’s questions? We can imagine how it goes.

“Were you there, Job, when I….?” God asks.

“No,” says a tentative Job.

“Do you know, Job, how to…” God asks.

“Um, ah, no,” says a tentative Job.

“Can you, Job, do, …” God asks.

“Ah, um, not really,” says a tentative Job.

Job’s answers to God’s questions are again and again a stark reminder of Job’s place in the wider scheme of things. He is a human, in the midst of grandeur; a human, in the midst of mystery; a human, in the midst of beauty; a human, in the midst of diversity, creativity, and power. Why, even the mythic beasts Behemoth and Leviathan are stronger than the human being, Job! (Job 40-41).

Gustavo Gutierrez, in his wonderful book, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, suggests that, in creation, Job recognizes the marvels of God’s gratuitous love–a love without guile, a love that is unearned, a love expressed vividly in the lavishness of God’s cosmic and earthly project. It doesn’t take an Honors Project on the Problem of Suffering to reach Job’s heart! Yet, he has to get outside of his own pain to be able to see anything new. He has to move beyond the boundaries of his human-centeredness, or anthropocentrism, if you will.

Life is bigger than you, Job! Look and see the wonders offered to you by this heretofore seemingly absent God!

There is something else happening for Job besides getting outside his own human condition and seeing God’s love in creation. Job is reconnecting with the living God in a way that he can handle amid his still very fragile state of suffering and loss. When we cannot find God in our sufferings or those of others, we can look for God in the glory of the skies, the energy of the stars, the majesty of the horse, the grandeur of the eagle, or even the silliness of the ostrich! God invites Job to rediscover the Holy One’s presence and grace—not by beating his fists on the doors of heaven, not by looking up to some divine throne in the skies, but by looking out to Creation itself, and there, rediscovering the Creator. The mystics and contemplatives through the ages have had it right.

There are two ways Job’s response is translated, and it makes all the difference in how we understand what happens between God and Job. One is the traditional translation, “I repent in dust and ashes,” (Job 42:6, GNB, NIV, KJV). Here Job realizes he has been at fault; his pride has been his undoing. God is great and he is small. This I call the, “What a worm am I!” approach.

Even in my youth, I remember distinctly disliking this way of seeing Job’s response. I simply could never believe Job was on an ego trip. He always seemed to me like an honest person trying to make sense of his relationship with God while facing overwhelming suffering and loss. Indeed, both the Prologue and Epilogue of the book describe Job in glowing terms and vindicate him (Job 1:8, Job 42:7).

In my late 30’s, I discovered Gutierrez’ translation of Job’s response in his book, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. He translates one preposition differently, and it makes all the difference. Job’s encounter with God leaves Job confessing, “I repent of dust and ashes” (see P. 83, Gutierrez).

Dust and ashes are symbols of mourning in ancient cultures. To repent of dust and ashes is to end a period of mourning and move on. Job’s vision of creation, and ultimately of God through creation, takes him to a new inner space. While never directly addressing Job’s principle questions, God’s response is enough. The deeper mysteries of suffering can remain mysteries. Job can live without all the answers. He is OK. His relationship with God is intact. To repent of dust and ashes is to proclaim, “I no longer need to complain and protest. I no longer need to mourn. What I now see means that I can move on.”
And what, in fact, does Job see? He sees God in and through Creation. He sees a world–even a cosmos–that he can love but not control, that he can enjoy but not create. This same Creation is here for our seeing, for our entering, for our caring. Can we, like Job, rediscover God through the stories of the deer and the eagle, or through the songs of the heavens? Maybe these are voices we need to listen to in the 21st century.

At this time when global warming threatens to change planetary life as we know it, is God speaking to us out of the whirlwind? Is God again responding to our human-centered complaints with a monologue on Creation, reminding us of our own place in the grander scheme of things?

Recently, Steve suggested that we need a revolution of global consciousness about environmental stewardship not unlike the revolution that occurred centuries ago when Galileo suggested that the world was round and not flat. He was imprisoned as a heretic, and only recently pardoned by the Catholic Church. Lest we smirk at this, there are those in the wider contemporary church who have for years branded environmentalists as heretics, tree worshipers, and God-deniers!

The day and time is well past for the Church to rise up and stand with Job as God questions us. The day and time is well past to face the tragic results of our own preoccupation with ourselves at the expense of the rest of creation. The day and time is well past to enter fully into the gratuitous love of God as stunningly demonstrated in the glory of Creation. May we listen today–and every day–for the God who tests us in the silence and speaks to us through the whirlwind. Amen.

First Thessalonians Bible Study–Session 2–You are the message. All y’all are the message

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

If the only information you had about the Apostle Paul was what you read in First Thessalonians, how would you describe him? What would you think of him?
How does this picture of Paul (based only on First Thessalonians) differ from the picture, or what you think about Paul, from all the rest you know about him, both from his writings in the New Testament and what you have heard from others?

What does Paul pray about in First Thessalonians? What is he thankful for?

1:2 Every time we think of you, we thank God for you. Day and night you are in our prayers as we call to mind your work of faith, your labor of love, and you patience of hope in following our Master Jesus Christ, before God our Father.

2:13 And now when we look back at all this and thank God, an artesian well of thanks! When you got the message we preached, you didn’t pass it off as just one more human opinion, but you took it to hear as God’s true word to you, which it is, God himself at work in your believers!

3:11-13 May God our Father himself and our Master Jesus clear the road to you! And may the Master pout on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you, just as it does from us to you. May you be infused with strength and purity, filled with confidence in the presence of God our Father when the Master Jesus arrives with all his followers.

5:16-17 Be cheerful not matter what, pray all the time, thank God no matter what happens.

Paul’s joy was seeing churches be the church, communities of faith bearing witness to Jesus. The witness to Jesus is not simply the individual witness we make, but the witness the community makes. The Greek word most often translated church means simply assembly, or gathering of the community. When Paul says to the Thessalonians that ‘you’re the message,’ he means the community of faith. The way Southerners might say it is ‘all y’all are the message.’ The church is the message. And the message we model is something that comes from our lives not our words. In his commentary on First Thessalonians, Tom Wright includes this poem he first heard from a Scottish pastor:

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one, and day;
I’d rather that one would walk with me than merely show the way.
The eye’s a better pupil, more willing than the ear;
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear.

Acts 2 talks about the very first church that began in Jerusalem. What was going on in Thessalonians seems to capture the spirit of what was taking place in Jerusalem, though we have no idea what the form of the church was in Thessalonica.

Acts 2:41-47 That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.

That very first church in Jerusalem, that was born on Pentecost, was the message. People liked what they saw or, at least, some did. What did they see there? They saw vital worship. They saw people dedicated to learning what it meant to follow Jesus. They saw them taking care of each other, even selling their possessions so no one among them had need. They were a real community. Worshiping together, learning together, eating together, taking care of each other. How do we capture such a vision for the church today and in our context like they did in Jerusalem or Thessalonica today?

It was important for Paul that these churches he and others were starting, these communities of faith, this community of faith, demonstrate within the community the message of Jesus. It didn’t always go as well as it did in Thessalonica. Here’s the beginning of the Letter to the Galatians:

Galatians 1:1-7 I, Paul, and my companions in faith here, send greetings to the Galatian churches. My authority for writing to you does not come from any popular vote of the people, nor does it come through the appointment of some human higher-up. It comes directly from Jesus the Messiah and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. I’m God-commissioned. So I greet you with the great words, grace and peace! We know the meaning of those words because Jesus Christ rescued us from this evil world we’re in by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins. God’s plan is that we all experience that rescue. Glory to God forever! Oh, yes!
I can’t believe your fickleness—how easily you have turned traitor to him who called you by the grace of Christ by embracing a variant message! It is not a minor variation, you know; it is completely other, an alien message, a no-message, a lie about God. Those who are provoking this agitation among you are turning the Message of Christ on its head.

When Paul writes about the message being turned on its head, his concern is how legalistic the churches in Galatia have come.

There are no words of thanksgiving, no mention of prayers offered on their behalf. There is nothing about faith, hope, and love. There is no longing to get back to see them, though he wouldn’t mind some time spent helping them to get back on the right track. And he writes this intense theological treatise to them on the meaning of law and grace. There is nothing like it in First Thessalonians.

One of the really important and oft sighted passages is Galatians 3:28-29 “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous ‘descendant,’ heirs according to the covenant promises.”

Unfortunately, this passage was included by Paul, not because it was something they were modeling to the rest of the churches, but they were divided off from one another, separating Jew from non-Jew, men from women, slaves from free. Another verse that sort of sums up Paul’s feelings about the Galatians is at the beginning of the third chapter. “You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set before you clearly enough.”

Again, Paul’s concern is the witness the community is making.

“It stands to reason that religion, too, demands social expression, and will come to its full strength and richness only when it is shared with others. And so in fact we find it. There is a sweetness in private prayer, but there is an additional thrill when we join in a heartfelt hymn and are swept on the wave-crest of a common emotion. Most of us have come to the great religious decision in life only under the influence of social emotion. With most of us the flame of religious longing and determination would flicker lower and lower in the course of the years, if it were not fanned afresh by contact with the experiences and, the religious will-power of others. When Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is in the midst of them, he expressed the profound truth that his presence if fully realized only in a Christian society; it may be a very small group, but it needs at least one other human heart next to ours to be fully sensible of the Christ.” Walter Rauschenbusch – Why I Am a Baptist–My Second Reason.

In the second chapter of First Thessalonians, Paul talks about his, and Timothy’s, and Silas’s integrity. It was not unknown for preachers from a variety of kinds of religions to come into a town or village with a message from God, like the three of them had. But all too often, it was obvious it was for personal gain. Money was, at least anticipated, if not demanded. It was not unusual for these men to pick out the more attractive women or men for ‘private instruction.’

That was not the way it was with Paul, and Silas, and Timothy. They actually became a part of that community, they fell in love with all the folk there is that church.
2:6 Even though we had some standing as Christ’s apostles, we never threw our weight around or tried to come across as important, with you or anyone else. We weren’t aloof with you. We took you just as you were. We were never patronizing, never condescending, but we cared for you the way a mother cares for her children. We loved you dearly. Not content to just pass on the Message, we wanted to give you our hearts. And we did.
2:12 With each of you we were like a father with his child, holding your hand, whispering encouragement, showing you step-by-step how to live well before God, who called us into his own kingdom, into this delightful life.’

If Paul and the others were traveling around Greece and other places looking for money and personal favors, you could understand why they would want to keep going from one place to another. What they got was beaten up, run out of town, thrown in jail, and eventually killed. We read a bit about that last week when we looked at Acts 16 and 17. They were beaten and thrown in jail in Philippi and when they came to Thessalonica the mobs came looking for them. But they managed to escape under the cover of dark.

But the persecution didn’t end for the Thessalonians when Paul and the others left. Even though they were mainly a Gentile group, they suffered the same fate their Jewish brothers and sisters had in Rome:

2:14 Friends, do you realize that you followed in the exact footsteps of the churches of God in Judea, those who were the first to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ? You got the same bad treatment from your countrymen as they did from theirs.

Acts 7 is the story of the stoning of Stephen, one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church. After he is killed the persecution in Jerusalem gets intense.
Acts 8: 1-4 That set off a terrific persecution of the church in Jerusalem. The believers were all scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. All, that is, but the apostles. Good and brave men buried Stephen, giving him a solemn funeral—not many dry eyes that day!
And Saul just went wild, devastating the church, entering house after house after house, dragging men and women off to jail. Forced to leave home base, the followers of Jesus all became missionaries. Wherever they were scattered, they preached the Message about Jesus.

The persecution came from primarily from two sources. There were the people committed to Rome who saw Christianity as a threat to the empire. We read about that last week in Acts 17:7 where the mob drags Jason out of his house with the accusation that “These people are out to destroy the world, and now they’ve shown up on 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!”

But the other group that Paul mentions in 1 Thessalonians 2 are ‘the Jews who killed the master (not to mention the prophets).’ These are amongst the more regretful words in the New Testament, and they have been used to justify all kinds of persecution against the Jews, up to and including the Holocaust.

There are some things to think about that don’t excuse or lessen the impact of such words, but they are still good to remember. First is that Paul was Jewish as was Jesus, and all the Apostles, Mary and Martha, Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and everybody who was a part of that first church in Jerusalem. So it is hard to imagine that Paul would offer a sweeping indictment against himself, Jesus and everyone else.

I think it is fair to say that when Paul and others in the New Testament castigate ‘the Jews’ they are talking about the power structures. And as I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks back it is not only Jewish power structures that have been given to persecution and other acts of injustice. The Christian power structures have not escaped that charge.

And then we need to realize that a theological civil war had broken out between Paul and the Jewish power structures. Paul and the others had originally assumed that Christianity was a Jewish reform movement. Their opponents did not agree. Nasty rhetoric and violence are a part of civil wars. 

What was going on in the lives of the members at the church in Thessalonica that they were able to withstand such persecution?

They had faith, hope, and love, (not some mystical kind of love, but love that showed itself in action). They had conviction of steel. They believed the message of Jesus was one that had come from God. They had been nurtured by Paul and the others. Paul sent Timothy to help them out. They had a sense or their connection with other churches. They believed they were a part of a movement led by Jesus.

Keep reading First Thessalonians. What I would like us to think about for next week is what faith meant to the folk in that community of faith.