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Sunday, August 12, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
The Seeds of Church
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Acts of the Apostles 17:1–9
1 Thessalonians 1:1–10
Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually,
without noticing it, live some distant day into an answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke
It is hard to start a new church. I say that having never experienced it firsthand, so you can take that proclamation with a grain of salt, but I have seen and heard enough stories from colleagues and other clergy to feel comfortable proclaiming it nonetheless. Starting a new church—or church planting, as it’s often called—is multilayered, complex process that requires more than just charisma and a sense of vision. As one experienced church planter put it, “Every plant is a new adventure full of excitement and potential doom. . . . The planter needs to have nerves of steel and thick skin. Planting can be lonely and messy, filled with long hours and hard work.”
Although that quote was directed towards those considering starting their own church plant today, it’s easy to imagine those words applying equally well to Paul. In our first lesson from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we heard about a visit that Paul took to Thessalonica. The assessment of the author is that his visit didn’t exactly go very well. Although several people were persuaded by Paul and Silas’s preaching and teaching, the end result was an angry mob chasing them out of town and dragging Paul’s patron before the authorities to be fined. This treatment then continued into the neighboring city of Beroea, where Paul was once again forced to flee the threat of violence—something that would become a semi-routine occurrence for him whenever he preached in new cities.
However, that strongly negative reception among the wider population of Thessalonica helps to explain our second reading from the opening of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Thought to be the oldest surviving letter of Paul (and therefore the oldest surviving book in the New Testament), Paul is effusive in his praise and support for this early, fledging community. As one of the earliest church plants outside of Israel, this community was no doubt in need of encouragement—indeed, as we read about in Acts, this message that Jesus was the Messiah would potentially open these earliest converts to mob violence. But despite this threat, Paul writes that these believers had become “imitators of us [meaning Paul and Silas] and the Lord” and “became examples” to all throughout that region. Many of these men and women were likely those early believers talked about in Acts 17:4—the only reason that Paul’s journey to Thessalonica wasn’t a complete disaster—and yet, through the help of the Holy Spirit, this early community had become what every church planter dreams about: a self-sustaining, self-growing congregation built around faith, hope, and love. It’s no wonder that Paul seems to have a particularly soft spot in his heart for this group—later on in his letter he writes that he “longed with great eagerness to see them face-to-face” and they are “his glory and joy.” So what can we make of these two passages being paired together and Paul’s early efforts at church planting?
We have been looking for lessons that we can learn from the early church as we’ve traveled through the book of Acts these past few months, as well as through similar passages from Paul’s letters. And as I read over these passages several times, I saw three major themes rising up to the surface: the importance of contextualizing your message, the necessity of allowing your beliefs to shape your daily living, and the need to find positives even in the midst of setbacks.
I’ll elaborate, first on context. Throughout Paul’s missionary journeys, we often see him follow a similar pattern when he enters into a new city: he heads to the local synagogue, argues and debates with religious leaders about the ways that Jesus fulfills scripture, and then he heads out into the marketplace to share his message with those who will listen. Although we know Paul best for his mission to the Gentiles, it’s telling that his first stop whenever he arrived in a new city was the synagogue. Paul had studied with the Pharisees and clearly held a deep knowledge of Jewish tradition and thought—knowledge that he now used to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah to those who held similar knowledge about Jewish tradition. But despite this deep background in Hebrew scripture, if you read through his entire first letter to this early Thessalonians community, he does not quote or reference a single person, story, or verse from the Old Testament. Scholars have long assumed that this Thessalonians community was entirely Gentile, meaning that Paul’s preaching and teaching completely changed depending on the group that he was with.
Changing our tone and content is something that many of us do reflexively—most people don’t act the same way around strangers as they do with friends or family—but the malleability of Paul’s message to fit his context is an important message that I believe we as a church can still learn today. The language that we use in worship to talk about God does not need to be the language that we use to talk about God in our everyday lives. We have a rich history of theologically dense language, and that language can be wonderful once you have had a chance to be steeped in it. But even common phrases like “called by God” or “lift up our hearts” or theological concepts like “atonement,” “justification,” or “grace” are probably unfamiliar to well over half of the population. Paul, even though he was steeped in Jewish tradition, instead took care to write his letter in a language that the Thessalonians would understand. That matters.
This also becomes important when we begin taking a broader view of our context and how others view us. Strange as it may sound, as Christianity began to spread across the Greco-Roman empire, two of the most pervasive myths among those unfamiliar with Christians were that they were atheists and they were cannibals. People believed that they were atheists because they denied the pantheon of gods—like Jupiter, Juno, etc.—and people believed they were cannibals because they heard that these early churches held a ritual in which they ate their Savior’s body and drank his blood. Context and language matter; after all who wants to live next to an atheist cannibal? That was almost certainly a big reason why Paul spends much of this letter to the Thessalonians praising them for their actions and for becoming imitators of Christ, closing his letter by imploring them to “see that no one repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” By living out a positive example, early Christian communities were able to change perceptions of who they were—even if their rituals and language remained unfamiliar.
Although we today live in a context far more familiar with monotheism and with what we mean when we talk about Jesus’ body and blood during the Sacrament of Communion, it is valuable for us to take stock of public perceptions of who Christians are. The Pew Research Center, one of the leading public opinion polling institutions in the country, particularly in the area of religion, surveyed non-Christians a few years back about what their views of Christians were. Although I was surprised to see that views were generally more favorable than unfavorable, you won’t be surprised at the two words that jumped out most frequently among those with unfavorable views: Christians are judgmental, and they are hypocrites.
These views are reinforced by communities like the Westboro Baptist Church getting airtime or by yet another example of deep and harmful hypocrisy from the pulpit as news continued to come out this week about serious sexual harassment allegations against Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels—and it forces all of us who care deeply about the church to grapple with a history of deep and lasting harm perpetrated by those who call themselves Christians. Most of us want to stand up and scream, “That’s not me! That is not the type of Christian I am, nor is it the type of church that I believe in.” But then I step back and think about all of the times when I’ve met others and dance around what I do for a living or downplay the role that church plays in my life, all because I’m worried about what this person might automatically think of me: that I’m a hypocrite or that I’m judgmental. Every time that I do that, I am missing an opportunity to change someone’s perception about what it means to be Christian in our world today—to advocate for all of the positive ways in which church has shaped my identity, has asked me to serve, has challenged me to live for something bigger than myself. Honestly, we have it quite a bit easier than those earliest Christians—no one is mistaking us for cannibals—but we do have to be willing to put ourselves and our lives out there as an example of what it means to have faith. And that brings us to our second lesson that we can draw from our passages today.
In his letters, Paul writes over and over not just about the importance of faith in Jesus as Messiah, but of the importance of allowing that faith to shape our daily living. I already referenced the strong encouragements at the end of this 1 Thessalonians letter, but there is a laundry list of others: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and knowledge, and have faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and if anyone has a complaint against one another, forgive each other.” “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” Over and over, Paul writes to these church plants that their faith should invariably change their lives for the better. To follow Jesus—to be an imitator of Christ—is to strive to be the best versions of ourselves that we can possibly be, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of all of creation. We are to be a church built on compassion in action, with lives that proclaim faith, hope, and love to everyone we come across. We don’t do this for the purpose of trying prove to others that we’re not hypocritical or judgmental—doing that would be about as self-serving and hypocritical as it gets. We instead do this because it is what God asks of us—we do this because we want to hold on to the good, to be clothed with compassion, to live lives defined by faith, hope, and love.
And that brings us to our final lesson from these passages today: a reminder that even though we may aspire to do all of these things, we will inevitably fall short. We will not always be the messenger or ambassador for our beliefs that we want to be, and even our best example may not change someone’s mind. Rather than resign ourselves to failure, though, I hope we can take a lesson from Paul. When we read about Paul’s visit to the Thessalonians in Acts, it sounds like a disaster: he was chased out of not only that town but a neighboring town as well. Yet you would never know it given the warmth of the letter that we read today: Paul is grateful for this handful of people whom he was able to reach.
Psychologists have long known that our brains tend to focus far more on bad events and interactions than on good ones, so how is Paul able to find positives in a situation that we might view as a failure? My guess is that whenever you can truly believe in the good that you are doing and you can humbly accept your own limitations, then you can start to separate yourself from defining your life by results. We live in a results-based world—that is certainly a part of our context—but our passages about Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians suggest to me that our work as a church should be defined by more than just numbers. Whenever we allow our beliefs to shape our communal life—whether it be keeping our doors open to the community in welcome despite the cost, or investing in the lives of others through all of our various programs, from Chicago Lights to the Center for Life and Learning to the Counseling Center and beyond—we proclaim God’s love forcefully to the world around us, and that proclamation can never be a failure.
So, friends, how will you proclaim your belief in the strength and power of God’s love today and in the week ahead? How might you be an example of what it means to be Christian to those in your life who are wary of what it means? I’ll be wrestling with those questions too, and hope that together we’ll continue living into an answer. Amen.