When push comes to shove...
The story of the Christians in Thessaloniki, what we can learn from them and from St. Paul's ministry among them.
Today, and until the end of our Liturgical Year and the First Sunday in Advent, the lectionary readings include selections from the New Testament’s first ever letter.
Indeed, First Thessalonians is the first formal letter ever written by an Apostle to a Christian Church. It was written even before what we know as the gospels were written.
No one believes that Paul ever intended to have his letter circulated. Or even that over two thousand years we would be still reading it! It was only much later, when Paul wrote to the church in Colossae that he asked that his letter would be shared with another local church in Laodicea.
Nevertheless, his first letter became one of the many seeds that eventually developed into what we now know as the New Testament.
As a matter of fact, there is absolutely no record of the elders of the early church ever ordering the compilation of the New Testament. Somehow – well, perhaps we should be chalk it to the Holy Spirit, -- Paul’s and what we now know as the gospels began to be circulated among the Christian churches.
It took well over three hundred years for the New Testament to be compiled and defined as the New Testament. Or as someone put it, during the New Testament times there was no New Testament.
However, let us zoom back to Thessalonians.
Paul and Silas planted the church in Thessaloniki, during their second missionary trip. According to Luke (Acts 17), they spent there at least three weeks, though it may appear that it was a bit longer, perhaps a month or so.
As usual, Paul addressed first the Jewish community who, eventually, sent him packing, although some Israeli Jews became Christians. However, Luke tells us that “A great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.”
However, a riot ensued. The city elders recruited a mob hoping to seize Paul and Silas. They didn’t find them, but they instead dragged Jason before the magistrates. As we know, Jason opened his home to Paul and Silas, one of the first house-churches, and the earliest way by which the church developed.
But here is a tidbit. A tidbit which is a precious as it is challenging. Jason was accused of harboring Paul and Silas who are “turning the world upside down by claiming that “contrary to the decrees of Caesar, there is another king—Jesus.”
Of course, Paul and Silas, and Christians to this day were not engaged in political action. But, nevertheless, proclaiming that God was the ruler of all rulers was deeply embedded in Jewish theology.
For instance, in our first lesson we hear Isaiah flatly proclaims that Cyrus, the great Persian Emperor who ruled from Turkey to Egypt to Pakistan somehow was serving God’s purposes. However, even like today, the Greeks and Romans and all other rulers of the day were not keen about hearing about someone whom they considered a competitor.
So, the gospel, the good news of the freedom that Jesus, the Risen Lord offered was not received merely as a religious message, but as a political manifesto. And, therefore, Paul and Silas and other leaders had to be scooted away from the city.
Even after Paul’s departure, the believers were dissed and harassed from all quarters. Nevertheless, as we hear from the first verses of Paul’s letter, they remained faithful.
If you read the New Testament pretty soon you are going to realize that Paul’s relationship with his brothers and sisters in Thessaloniki was remarkable. For some reason, even after his short stay, strong bonds of affection developed between Paul and the church.
So much so, that Paul continued to be concerned about the future of the young church. And as we know, as Paul’s departure had not been planned, the young church had no mature leaders.
While in Athens, then, Paul decides to send Timothy, a young leader to visit and confirm the church. After Timothy’s arrival, it is clear that he reported back to Paul, who now was in Corinth. Timothy’s letter is lost, but by reading Paul’s response, we can gather what were some of the issues that Timothy had to deal with.
So, the upheaval caused by the preaching of the gospel, Paul’s hurried departure, the bonds of affection that developed even with Paul’s short stay, all contributed to be foundational to what today we know as the New Testament.
So let us go to our lesson. Let me highlight some ideas that I believe could be relevant to our own understanding of “church” and “mission.”
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy”.
Paul and Timothy, we know. But who is Silvanus? Most scholars today agree that Silvanus is the Latin spelling of the Greek name Silas, Paul’s companion in the mission of planting churches (cf. Acts 15-18).
Silvanus – or Silas – appears four times beyond the book of Acts. He is listed in our First letter to the Thessalonians and in the second, as well. He also was in Corinth helping Paul with the planting of the church.
And, amazingly he is mentioned again by none other than St Peter, as the courier for his first letter. According to Peter, Silvanus was a “faithful and reliable brother”, (1 Peter 5:12).
People like Silvanus are at the heart of what keeps the church healthy, growing, and true to its calling.
For Silvanus never pretended to be a second-rate number one, but rather accepted his calling as a loyal and first-rate number two. In a way, all that Silvanus did was to say “Yes” when he was called.
And even if Silvanus himself was not a world-changer, nevertheless Paul’s transforming ministry may have never come to full fruition without Silas’ support. Thanks be to God for those who are willing to say “Yes” when God calls.
In verse 6 of the letter Paul acknowledges that “in spite of the severe sufferings” the message caused, the church remained firm in her faith in such a way that they became examples for all the churches.
I wonder how such testimony squares with the idea that “If you believe, and do this, and do that, all your problems will disappear.” Healing, money, prosperity, and all the good things in life shall follow.
Yes! Jesus said that if you followed the Kingdom of God, “all these things would be added unto you.” And yet, tell that to the Christians in Thessaloniki. What they’ve got were beatings, isolation, enmity and even death or exile.
What today’s gospel present us as a kind of rhetorical question – “What are we going to render unto God?” And “What are we going to render unto Caesar?” – was way more than a theological argument. For them it became a matter of life or death. And yet, they dug in their heels, and remained faithful.
I wonder what the story of the early Christians in Thessaloniki can teach us, contemporary Christians who are looking for good-sized parking lots, fancy movie-theater chairs, great programs for all ages, worship bands and big video screens. And plenty of money in the bank’s accounts, or in the preacher’s pockets.
Rather, I would like to believe, our brothers and sisters in Thessaloniki were able not only to endure but to grow and to become an example of faithfulness even to this day.
Over two thousand years ago, theirs is an example to follow. And how they did it? Out of a shoe-box. And in the power of the Holy Spirit of God.
Sometimes I wonder what the Diocese, those who visit us and never return, and even my colleagues in ministry make out of St. David’s.
What I’ve come to believe is that perhaps without trying and even without being fully aware, St David’s follows the still very much valid example of our brothers and sisters in Thessaloniki.
Recalling the imagery of yesteryear’s heroes of the faith cheering those who still are running the race, I can imagine our brothers and sisters cheering us and we, in turn, saluting them.
I am so grateful to God for your ministry. Yes, technically as your Vicar, I may appear to be a number one. But in the great scheme of things, as a representative of the ministry of the Bishop, I must excel in being a faithful and reliable number two.
And on the other hand, without you, St David’s would have gone belly up long ago. You are God’s number two, faithful and reliable, who like Silvanus have been called to be couriers – which is another word for evangelists – of the message of the Word of God wherever you go.
In St Paul’s words, “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, and in Aylett and in Richmond and in New Mexico, and in Brazil and in Germany, and beyond…”
Let me end with this prayer,
Almighty God, who called your servants in Thessaloniki to serve you and in the power of your Spirit became faithful disciples even in the midst of trying circumstances: Strengthen us to stand fast in adversity, and to live righteous and godly lives in this present time, that with sure confidence we may look for our blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.