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  • Writer's pictureFr. Gustavo

When push comes to shove (II)

The story of the Christians in Thessaloniki, what we can learn from them and from St. Paul's ministry among them.

Upper dome of the Church of the Savior, Thessaloniki
Dome of the Church of the Savior, circa AD 1350

The Book of Acts tells us that after several years of training and teaching, Paul went into what we now know as his First Missionary Trip. In fact, it has to be said, it should be called Barnabas Missionary Trip for it was Barnabas who lead the mission (Acts 13).

As they went along there was a major development – More and more gentiles began to follow the Way of Jesus. And, as I told you earlier, that caused a big commotion. Do the new converts needed to follow the Old Testament Law and the Jewish religious and cultural traditions or not?

The argument eventually boiled over, and it caused the calling of the first ever council of church elders (Acts 15). Eventually the council made a decision and wrote the first ever letter to all the Christian churches. In the letter they said that after much prayer and deliberation,

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well.” (Acts 15:28).

Then the council commissioned Barnabas and Paul, and Judas and Silas to distribute the letters among the churches.

Before leaving, however, Paul and Barnabas had a row over the young trainee John Mark. Eventually they decided to part ways, and Paul took a new companion, Silas a.k.a. Silvanus for was to be his Second Missionary Trip.

Leaving Antioch in Syria, they started their overland trip. Arriving in Lystra, they picked up a new trainee, Timothy. They continued along visiting churches, teaching, and affirming in the faith the new Christians.

Eventually reaching the region of Pisidia (Western Asia’s central region laying between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean), Paul wanted to go North, but they were stopped. They continued Northeast towards Mysia and perhaps Istanbul, but again they couldn’t proceed.

But it was there that Paul had a dream about a calling to go West, towards Macedonia and Greece, today’s Europe. They arrived at the port city of Troas and they went across the sea and eventually they made their way inland arriving in Philippi (Acts 16).

There, they started preaching and one of the first converts was Lydia (July 9) one of our saints in our series.

While in Philippi, Paul heals a small slave girl, which for different reasons became a great “Aha!” moment for Paul. The slave owners didn’t take it lightly. So, they beat up Paul and Silas and threw them into the dungeon.

Now, while they were in prison, Paul and Silas rather than crying for mercy spent the evening singing hymns. There was an earthquake, and they were freed but they refused to leave. The Warden asked what his now famous question, “What should I do to be saved?”

Eventually they arrived in Thessaloniki and here is where we are in our second lesson.

In today’s gospel the religious leaders again questioned Jesus about the greatest commandment. In other words, what is at the heart of faith. Again, in other words, it was the question that eventually played out in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).

And Jesus is quite straight-forward. Jesus told them “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself.” And, to boot, Jesus added, “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

I think that in our Episcopal tradition and certainly in the Methodist tradition, “Love your neighbor” is well understood. This is why we spent time, money, and energy doing something as silly as selling crabcakes.

Today’s lessons, however, point us how the first part should play out, the “Love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” thing.

Let me suggest that today’s lesson is what all and every minister and every leader in the church need to hear and heed. For it is a lesson about what Christian ministry is all about – It is never an easy road. Ask Jesus if you any doubts!

Paul had to deal with his old friends that couldn’t believe how Saul of Tarsus, the Enemy of the Cross turned into a champion of the faith that it is in Jesus. Enemies without. And enemies within.

As in in Thessaloniki, slackers, know-it-alls, and that kind of Christian that becomes the bane of not too few a church – The mild-mannered, always nice member, who just floats around totally immersed in his or her own world, and for whom Jesus is just a Christmas ornament. Paul had to deal with all of them with love, compassion and, for their own sake’s, determination. Such is Christ-centered ministry.

Now, there will be one day when you will be asked to call someone to follow in my footsteps. Forget about CVs, and letters of recommendation, and strong hints from the Bishop or others.

Just ask any prospective candidate to tell you how today’s second lesson has played out in his or her own life.

Don’t believe for a minute that I have it done all. Please don’t! You know it and I know it. I’m striving – barely – but striving to follow in the same steps.

But it is also a lesson not only for Christian leaders but for all. Because, as you can read, “Loving the Lord” is just not a fuzzy feeling and singing Kumbaya. It is practical and, above all, a down to earth.

Let’s take a moment to ponder today’s lesson.

First, sharing the good news is at the heart of loving the Lord. Sharing the good news is not finger-pointing how someone else’s church got it all wrong. Or to shame them telling how messed up are they in their lives. Or to ram the Bible down their throats.

No. It is to share the good news of God’s love, mercy, and grace. No, it is not gloss over whatever wrongs one has made. But it is to announce the refreshing balm of God’s Holy Spirit available to all, no matter where they are in life. And as Paul preached in Athens, it is God’s open season of love and redemption.

Sharing the good news essentially involves letting the Great Accuser do his job. Our job is to focus ourselves to the sharing of the good news of God. A loving God who overlooking and forgetting all and everything that it is wrong in our lives, now is offering us a bargain, “Believe and Be Free.”

Second, motivation. Sharing the good news is not about balancing the church’s budget. As St Paul put it, “God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! (1 Tess. 2:5).

Sharing the good news is not about growing the church so that others know that God is with us and not “Them.”

In the Old Testament (2 Samuel 24:1) there is an intriguing as challenging story about King David. In those days, King David ordered a census. Back then a census was ordered to find out how big an army a King could muster as well as how much money was available. However, God was not pleased with David’s move. Why?

Because the order was based more on David’s fear and insecurity, rather than in trusting that God would show up. Which is what Paul told his brothers and sisters in Thessaloniki. He did not need them to get paid. But, on the other hand, it would be right for the church to support him in his ministry.

Paul has at his heart the best for his brothers and sisters. He loved God too much to act otherwise.

Finally, what’s the goal of it all? With so much vitriol coming from some churches and religious leaders, I wonder what is the goal of sharing good news that sound more like bad news. Why is a whole generation not even interested in joining a church? And why millions are dropping out?

The Church is not of human invention. How is it transformed, – or deformed? – into a local church to a large part is influenced by what “we” believe God wants or what “we believe it is for God’s best interests.”

Therefore, more than ever, we are called to preach God’s loving grace. A love moving us to share the good news – real good news. And, conversely, a love that should move us to haul the logs out of our eyes before trying to remove the stick out of someone else’s.

In other words, to teach and encourage others – including ourselves -- to live “lives in a way that God would consider worthy” (1 Tess. 2:12).

Living lives worth of God is at the heart of our calling to be saints of God. Living lives worth of God is nothing less and nothing more than loving to hang out with the Lord. When things go right, and when go wrong. If our brothers and sisters in Thessaloniki were able to pull it off, so we can.

But that’s the subject for next Sunday’s sermon. Stay tuned!

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, by your Spirit help us to follow in the steps of your Son Jesus who preached the good news of redemption and love to the broken-hearted and joy and freedom to those who are hurting, so that together we may glorify your Holy Name and sing the power of your grace. Amen.

Fr. Gustavo

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