Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our lectionary makes a big leap today. Last week, we heard in Acts chapter 3 the story of Peter and John, who, after receiving the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, began their task of sharing the good news.
Today, we jump 14 chapters in Acts, to the 17th chapter. The chapters in-between describe the spread of the Jesus movement from Jerusalem into Samaria and Asia Minor. This geographic movement corresponds with a shift in audience, as well, from a Jewish mission to one that becomes predominantly Gentile. This movement toward the Gentiles in mission is a result of God’s direct guidance. It is not just the story of how the known world was eventually converted to Christianity. But, it is particularly about how the early church had to push beyond its own boundaries. To set aside racism and sexism to become faith to the gospel message. One contemporary theologian says it best: The church is being made to convert, even as it seeks converts.
Our focus today in Acts chapter 17 reading turns to Paul. If you know anything about him, you know that his birth name was Saul. He was both Jewish and a Roman citizen. Trained as a Pharisee, a legal expert in the Torah. We first meet him in Acts 7, where he is identified as a persecutor of the earliest followers of Jesus. But, perhaps the most famous story of Paul we find in Acts 9, where we hear of his conversion from Saul the Persecutor to Paul the Christian missionary. On the road to Damascus, Jesus appears to Paul and then sends him. Eventually, he will travel throughout the Roman empire on three different missionary journeys. It was on his second missionary journey that he arrived in Thessalonica, which is where we find our story located today.
After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go. --Acts 17:1-9 (NRSV)
Paul and Silas, his partner, travel from Phillippi to Thessolonica, located in Macedonia. Which is present-day Greece. Thessolonica was one of the major cities of the Roman Empire, located on the Egnatian Way, which was the main road that connected the entire eastern part of the Roman Empire with its capital city, Rome. It was an important military and commercial port. Early on, in return for its support for the Roman empire, it had been declared a free city. So, its relationship with Rome and especially Roman patronage of the city was very important.
Jews, during this time, had spread from Jerusalem throughout the empire. Wherever they went, continued to practice their faith and to gather in synagogues. This was the case in Thessalonica. So, when Paul and Silas arrive, it was natural and their custom to go to the synagogue.
Our text says that, for three Sabbaths - or three weeks - they remained at the synagogue, arguing. Really more like being in dialogue with those in attendance, trying to explain and to convince them that the Jews had been misinterpreting scripture, that Jesus was the Messiah. And that the Messiah the Jews expected was not who this Jesus was.
In this short time, Paul and Silas have some small success. A few of the Jews, some of the devout Gentile Greeks and a few prominent women are convinced.
But, imagine if someone came into our church, into our worship, week after week, trying to convince us that our entire belief system was wrong. That we had misinterpreted Scripture. That, this Lutheran thing was all wrong. Well, you can imagine what might happen.
It was no different in the synagogue in Thessalonica. The Jews became angry. Then they gathered together some thugs hanging out in the local market. And formed a mob, making a huge uproar in the city. They went to the home of Jason, one of Paul’s converts who had taken Paul and Silas in. They went to his house to find Paul and Silas. And when they couldn’t find them, they dragged Jason out of his own house and took him to the local authorities, shouting: “These people. They are turning the world upside down!”
These people! They are turning the world upside down!
But, isn’t this what the good news of Jesus Christ does? Turn everything upside down? When we least expect it. Or sometimes when we least want it. The good news in Jesus begins to work through the power of the Holy Spirit. And, then, look out! Everything changes!
Paul and Silas were able to escape. And, in time, Paul would write a series of letters to this upstart community in Thessalonica. The first of these letters, likely the oldest text in the New Testament, written only 10-20 years after Jesus’ ascension, is a testament to this young community of Jesus’ followers. To their faith. And their love. And their hope.
We read from 1st Thessalonians, the first chapter.
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
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 labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 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 power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, 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. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. --1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (NRSV)
It may feel, in this moment, that we, like the early community in Thessalonians are being persecuted. We are experiencing suffering and loss. Deeply. Throughout the world. Whether it is health-related, economic, or the fear and anxiety we feel that keeps us from sleeping at night, so many are suffering in our world today.
Yet, like the church in Thessalonica, we continue to do our work of faith. Our labor of love. To live steadfastly in hope. To turn this dark world upside down. All in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We, like the church in Thessalonica, are an example to our own community of faith, love, and hope. Known because we serve a living and a true God. And our neighbors as ourselves.
This past Wednesday, we received a text message from one of our pantry members that attests to this. I’d like to share it with you now. “OMGosh! Just when I think you guys couldn’t possibly do more for us, you all go on and continue the drive thru pantry, not only in masks, but in the pouring rain! How can I begin to thank all of you for this? I hope you know how much it means. You all make a world of difference in so many ppl’s lives. Thank you. ❤️”
It makes a difference, what we do in our little church. Whether we are apart from each other or not, what we do as a community of faith in our little area of Kentucky matters. What we do as followers of Christ in our own little corner of the world matters. Just as the community of faith in Thessalonica and what they did mattered.
Because this is who we are and who we are to be, as people of a resurrected Jesus. Even in the midst of suffering. Even in the midst of fear and darkness. Even in the midst of a grieving world, we do what matters. We turn the world upside down in a way that matters. We do this because what Jesus did matters.
So, I give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in my prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. May you continue to be an example to all the believers. That through you, our Lord Jesus Christ might be made known. Amen.
Preached May 3, 2020, Online with the community of Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Acts 17:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Mark 13:9-11; Psalm 16