A popular translation of our text for today reads like this:
You know what kind of people we were when we visited you. We were there for you! And you became just like we are. Just like the Lord is. After all, even in great turmoil, you accepted God's word with the joy only the Holy Spirit can give. All the believers in Macedonia and Acacia look to you as examples. Because of you, God's word has rung out, not only in Macedonia and Acacia. Your faith in the Lord has spread everywhere. So, nothing more needs to be said about your example. What we've heard about you tells us how you welcomed us and how you rejected old ways to believe.
Larry Broding is a Roman Catholic scholar who reviews the Revised Common Lectionary and posts his analysis online. I was drawn this week to what he had to say about his section of Paul’s writing. “The community at Thessalonika had adopted the faith in spite of great opposition. Unlike the internal strife in the Corinthian assembly, this church had a cohesive faith with a sense of unity and purpose. The many competing religious movements among the pagans in the city, the extreme loyalty to Rome and the imperial cult from the city leaders, and fierce competition from the Jewish synagogue created a survival mentality among the local Christians. There was no time for cliques, fancy theologies, or leadership intrigue. The Thessalonians were true to the teaching and example of Paul and his friends. Their church became an example for others. Why? In spite of the competition and social pressure, the Thessalonians proved themselves very hospitable, very open to the Paul's teaching, and very faithful to their new religion.”
Paul’s letters were always specific to the church and community he was addressing. In the case of the Corinthians he was writing a church divided, in conflict, bickering about leadership, arguing about whose gifts were more important than others and how conflict ought to be resolved. But in his letters to the Thessalonians Paul observes a church practicing what they preach, practicing what Paul had preached.
I often wonder how Paul would address the challenges of the church today. I think he would find it very challenging to identify with us. The church then met in local houses and was constantly being harassed by the Roman state. Christians in North America seem to have forgotten what real persecution looks like. We as Christians are free to worship as we like, where we like, with whom we like. Moreover many of our leaders openly embrace Christianity and our national holidays accommodate our Christian festivals. Even more, when we give money to our church we get a tax break and our church properties are not taxed at all. For a man sitting in prison, likely to be executed for his faith, such a relationship between church and state would sound more like the pagan faith, which posited Caesar as a god, than the movement named for a man who was executed as an enemy of the state.
Paul would also not likely understand some our doubts about miracles and healings, the discoveries of science in the generations to follow had not yet occurred. In Paul’s time miracles and healings were understood to be common practice, in religious and civil society. And Paul would have been surprised that Jesus had not returned, he and his fellow leaders in the early church expected Jesus to return, soon. More than two thousand years later I am sure Paul would be more than slightly confused.
But one thing Paul would understand about the church of today as he did about the church of his time was the need for believers in Jesus to live as Christ did. We are not just to preach and pray about Almighty God but to live it out for all the public to see. Paul was a convert to a movement founded on the life and ministry of Jesus. And Jesus was very clear about what he regarded as servant-leaders.
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. Luke 22:24-27
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. John 13:12-15
Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. 1 John 2:6
Paul addresses the early church in a variety of letters and over and over again he tells them to model their lives on Jesus, just as he is doing. For Paul the most effective means to passing on something you believe to be true is to live it yourself. In this text Paul suggests that the Thessalonians have imitated him as he has imitated Jesus.
A few weeks ago I told you about a new pattern in church life, grandparents bringing their grandchildren to church. More and more my colleagues see this, the missing generation in most mainline churches are people my age and thus grandparents are asking their adult children permission to bring the grandkids to worship. I want to add to that story and share that when an adult comes back to church, after a long absence, it used to be because of a personal crisis. Whenever someone in their 30’s or 40’s would just show up I would hunch there had been a divorce, a job loss, a bout with depression, something had shaken their world. But now that story has changed. Time and time again I meet one of these young adults who tell me they are back in church because a parent or grandparent has died. When the young adult had given it deeper thought s/he had concluded that there was something about their loved one they wanted to imitate. An example had been set and now someone was following in their footsteps.
Let me conclude with two quotes from an unlikely source in a Christian sermon, Gandhi. As you likely know Gandhi was a deeply spiritual man who made our world a better place. Gandhi was a practicing Hindu. He also saw Christians up close and personal in his effort to bring independence to India. The British Empire, led entirely by Christians, were not so impressed. That is the context for these quotes:
“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
My friends if you believe that your Christian faith is worthy of attention by those who currently are not connected to a church then remember that people assess this faith in large part by how they see you, how they hear you, how they experience you. You are a witness, I am a witness, and together we are sign boards for something that can and does change lives.