Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1.
Preacher: Emily Hayes
For the last three weeks the Thursday night bible study has been speaking about Joshua. This month we return to the lectionary. But not to the gospels or to the Hebrew Scriptures as I tend to preach on but to the New Testament readings which at this time come from 1 Thessalonians.
1 Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament. It is the first of Paul’s letters written around 50CE. For context that’s about 20 years before Mark, the first gospel that was written.
It was written to the church of Thessalonica. Thessalonica was a Greek city, the name came from the half-sister of Alexander the Great. But, by the time Silas, Timothy and Paul arrived they had been under the Roman rule for some 200 years. Thessalonica was the provincial capital of Macedonia. It was a port city and was located on one of Rome’s famous highways. In 42 BC the city was recognised by Rome as a free city, something granted by the Empire in an attempt to win Greek support.
All this gave the city a certain standing. However, it has been argued the community to whom Paul writes in not made up of the Thessalonian elites, rather they are the artisans and manual labourers with whom Paul laboured.
Currently the city is called Thesoloniki. The photos above were sent to me by Sarah. She, Ben, Mabel, Norah and Wilbur happened to be there just last week when I was preparing this.
The founding of the church is also recorded by Luke in Acts. 17. However, Luke’s account of what occurred does differ from what we can deduce from Pauls’ letter. This sermon will privilege what we understand from the letter itself rather than Acts.
Despite 1 Thessalonians significance as the oldest writings of the New Testament, it is certainly not as well known or beloved as many of the other Pauline letters.
Perhaps this is what has called me to it at this time. It has not entered into the many contentious issues of the modern church. It does carry so much baggage that I can scarcely hear the text for hearing all those other debates.
Because, I have to admit, I, like many others, have some Paul baggage. It won’t surprise anyone to know that the way certain Pauline passages on women have been interpreted have caused me much grief.
But more than that, as a younger person I got caught up in the Jesus vs Paul debates. The ones in which many people came to feel a need to choose between the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith or the gospel of Jesus that preached about the Kingdom of Heaven. The gospel that included passages such as the parable of the sheep and the goats, that imply the way we treat people matters in this Kingdom.
Let’s just say I was firmly and fully in the Jesus camp. And if there is a side to be picked then I guess still am.
But Paul is absolutely critical to the story of the New Testament and the Christian faith and so we need to wrestle with him. And as I have done so over the years I have come to love Paul’s letters. They are feisty at times but they are also earnest and honest. There is no doubt Paul is seeking to hear and share the word of Jesus and outlining what a life of discipleship looks like.
They express the thoughts and feelings of a man who thinks and loves deeply. They are at times so beautiful it makes me cry. And encouraging. I said at the start of the service I have really appreciated Paul’s pastoral care.
There are differences between Jesus and Paul and if we take the Bible seriously we need to acknowledge this. But I, and many other greater theologians, have become less convinced we have to choose one or the other. I think Paul would be deeply saddened to think he would ever be placed in competition with Jesus. There is no doubt that Paul loved Jesus. His mission was only ever to create a community of Jesus followers.
And so let us turn to Thessalonians.
The letter begins, “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.”
The image of Paul that often springs to mind, is the image of a lone ranger. An apostle preaching, writing, travelling alone. But from this first letter a different picture emerges. Here Paul is by no means a solo performer, he is part of a team. As we look at the history of the church and the devastation that has been caused by so many of these lone ranger leaders, I think this is important. For all my struggles with the inefficiency of the many councils of this church I give thanks that our leaders are held accountable to them.
And he goes on, “we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. In this we realise that this team is not just his fellow evangelists but the whole community. Paul is transformed by them as much as they are by him.
This triad of faith, hope and love becomes a recurring theme for Paul but in this first letter we are reminded that these things are not things that people simply have or do not have. They are things people choose, work toward and practise in community. And they are hard. In the past month Ralph, Gemma and Celia have all alluded to the fact this is particularly hard in these divided times. But I do not think they have been easy.
Paul goes on, “For we know brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in the power of the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. . . And you became imitators of us and of the Lord.”
While, the Thursday night Bible study has been making it’s way through the Joshua, the Wednesday night crew have been making their way through Acts. And as we have done so, we have wondered a number of times at the faith of the early church. Now days we have so much to base our faith on that the early church just did not have. Obviously, the Bible (both the Hebrew Scriptures, the gospels and the rest of the NT) but also the history of the church and the great, great volume of books, essays, poetry and songs that have been written on these. And all this at our fingertips. As I have been reflecting on 1 Thessalonians again I have wondered on what did this community hang it’s faith?
The testimony of Paul, Timothy and Silas? To be honest it does not seem like much to me. Surely I have thought my faith and the faith of other modern Christians must be superior.
I guess if faith was based on correct belief then that would have to be true. But last week at dinner and discussion group we discussed the introduction of “A Case for God” by Karen Armstrong. In this book Armstrong argues among other things that in in premodern cultures, “religion was not primarily something that people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action. It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual. . . You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing texts of recipes. The rules of the board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated and dull until you start to play.”
Now I really like thinking about God. I love wrestling with the Scripture and theology and the reams of ideas and this ok but “Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians have made it clear that while it was important to put our ideas about the divine into words, these doctrines are man-made and therefore are bound to be inadequate.”
What the Church of the Thessalonians had, was the message of the gospel that came not in word only, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. And they became imitators of Paul, Silas, Timothy and the Lord. They lived their faith.
This theme of imitation is a theme elsewhere in Paul and I have to admit it has at times been another stumbling block for me. It raises issues of Pauline self-aggrandizement and patriarchalism. These days imitations are perceived as mere copies or phonies. But it need not be seen that way. Paul is not demanding that all Christians think, do and say the exact same things as him across time and place. Rather their lives are to be shaped by certain practises that imitate the way of Christ.
And the Thessalonians do this with joy in spite of persecution and in this they become witnesses to people in place far beyond their borders.
This letter more than anything is pastoral. It is an encouragement to the people to keep going even when it is hard. And it is not just a letter but a prayer. A prayer of thanks.
And so this week as I have read Paul’s letter I too have been inspired to write a letter. A letter to you, Alice Springs Uniting church in our own hard time. It is also my prayer of thanks for you.
I feel a bit anxious about reading this. It requires a bit more vulnerability than I like and perhaps I wonder what right I have. But drawing inspiration from Paul, here it is.
Emily, to the Alice Springs Uniting Church in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, grace to you and peace.
I always give thanks to God for all of you, and mention you in my prayers constantly. Daily I hold before God the challenges you all have before you. The health struggles, the grief, the trauma and exhaustion. I hold your relationships with each other, your families, your marriages, and your children and their children. I pray that God would bless you and keep you and strengthen you. I pray that you would know him and his love for you.
I remember your work of faith in your workplaces, in our schools and remote communities, in your homes and streets and at this church. I remember your labour of love for each other and this community and your steadfastness of hope despite all that is going on in our town, and our country and our world.
I give thanks for all the ways that you and this church witnesses to the love to our true and living God. I pray that God will continue to use us in this place. I pray that we would honour our difference and hold together and grow in faith not in spite of them but because of them. And this too would be our witness in these divided time.
I pray the power of the Holy Spirit would fill all of us and this church joy and a passion to see His Kingdom come.