Hold Fast

Last week, we celebrated the resurrection of Christ.  On this, the first Sunday of Eastertide, we began an exploration of the ways that the first believers lived their way into the Good News.  In doing so, we considered I Thessalonians 1:1-10.

If you were to order the books of the New Testament according to the date on which they were written, you wouldn’t start with Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  You wouldn’t start with one of those big impressive epistles that lay out so neatly what it means to believe in Christ and how we come to saving faith in his name.

Nope, if you wanted to lay out the books of the New Testament in order, you’d start with a little note from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in the town of Thessalonica.  Last week, we celebrated the resurrection.  This is the first written record we have of the ways that people in the first century responded to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, and it dates from about 51 AD.  For the next few weeks, we’re going to be spending some time reading other people’s mail – looking at this letter in the hopes that we can grow in our understanding of the faith by considering the example of our earliest brothers and sisters.

Did you ever have one of those days when nobody notices anything that you do right, and when things start to go poorly for you, it seems like nobody cares?  The Apostle Paul was having one of those years.

Paul, as you might remember, was not one of the original followers of Jesus.  In fact, he was out to kill Christians in the days just following Jesus’ resurrection.  He had a vision of the risen Christ, however, that changed his life and he began preaching like nobody’s business.  Everyone he met, from peasants to kings, heard about the amazing power and grace of Jesus.  And if you read the New Testament, you’ll see that he got pretty good at it…but it started rough.  Here’s what happened to Paul right before he wrote this little booklet of I Thessalonians.

Paul's journey from Troas (in Turkey) across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece.

Paul’s journey from Troas (in Turkey) across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece.

First, he was over in Asia – a part of what we call Turkey now.  He had a vision to go over to preach in Macedonia and Greece in Europe.  So he made the journey across the Aegean Sea and wound up in Philippi.  He was beaten and arrested and eventually escorted out of town.  So he headed south a few miles and found himself in Thessalonica, the capital and largest city of the region of Macedonia.  It sat squarely on the highway called the Via Egnatia, a road that connected Rome to the important seaports that lined the Aegean.  Thessalonica was a thriving town that had a population of close to a hundred thousand, including a sizable number of Jews.

I took this photo of the Via Egnatia in 2008.  The road is used by pedestrians to this day.

I took this photo of the Via Egnatia in 2008. The road is used by pedestrians to this day.

Paul was received well by the community, but after a few weeks, he had managed to alienate some significant leaders in the Jewish community, and when he tried to preach they incited a mob to turn against him.  He was hustled out of town and went a little further south to Berea.  He picked up where he left off, until some of the Thessalonians heard where he was and they sent a mob off to rough him up a bit.  His friends Silas and Timothy figured that he needed to get out of town, and so they shipped him down to Athens and told him to stay out of trouble.

Right.

He started preaching in Athens, but became “deeply distressed” by the lack of belief and the number of people who simply scoffed at his appeal.  He left Athens and made his way to Corinth, where he was so disheartened that he was only able to preach with what he called “weakness and fear and much trembling”.  That is hardly a description of the bombastic sort that he is often made out to be!  But when you stop to think about it, for a period of some months, he had been beaten down, figuratively and literally, in every place.  He was sure that God had called him to come over to Europe, but he had seen nothing but difficulty.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul's preaching.  Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul’s preaching. Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

After a few weeks in Corinth, he had a visit from Timothy, who brought news from the Christians in Thessalonica.  Now, remember, the last time Paul saw Thessalonica, he was being dragged out of town by the police.  The last people he saw from Thessalonica were the tough guys who came down to Berea to make sure that he forgot where Thessalonica was.  So what is Timothy’s report going to say?

Maybe the word from Thessalonica is, “You know, Paul, this is great!  Since we began to follow in the Way of Christ, all our problems are gone!  The Romans – turns out they’re not such bad guys.  Those religious people that tried to kill you? They came to the pot luck last night.  Things down at the salt mine are better, we have more money than ever before, our children are better behaved – the Lord is really just blessing our socks off.  Thanks for telling us about Jesus, Paul….”

Nope.  That’s most definitely NOT what Timothy said.

Here’s what he did say – that the believers in Thessalonica can see God at work.  It’s tough going, they say, but they knew that going into it – they’d seen as much in Paul, as a matter of fact.  There is some persecution, there are some significant challenges – but they are carrying on.  The bottom line, they say, is that they are a changed people – NOT because they hit the cosmic lottery or because God has sent them amazing prosperity as a reward for believing the right things about him – they are a changed people because Christ has become real to and among them.

What has happened in the lives of these men and women from Thessalonica is that there has been a complete turnaround.  The God of the Bible – in fact, the Bible itself – was unknown to them.  Verse 9 tells us that the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols” – in other words, it’s not as if they were Jews who knew and accepted the truth of the Old Testament and then saw Jesus as its fulfillment.  No, they had been totally outsiders to the faith, and now have come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

How significant was the change in their lives?  Well, consider this.  In verse 4, Paul uses a little word to describe the believers in Thessalonica: he calls them “brothers.”  In fact, if someone with a lot of time on his hands, say, some preacher in the midst of the “slow week” after Easter…if someone like that was to go through the first and second letters to the Thessalonians, he would discover that Paul uses that word – “brothers” – twenty four times­ in these five pages. That’s more often than Paul uses the word “brothers” anywhere else, with the exception of 1 Corinthians, which is nearly three times as long.

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles, Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles , Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Do you see? Paul is simply overwhelmed.  Paul, this proud old Pharisee with an stellar education and an outstanding lineage, is writing to a group of former pagans and slaves and intellectuals and merchants – those whom he used to see as adversaries or contemptible and unclean…and he can’t stop calling them “brother” or “sister”.  What happened here?  What would change a relationship like that?

The power of Christ revealed in suffering. They were not changed from Paul’s tormentors or adversaries to Paul’s brothers because they hit the lottery.  They were transformed by sharing in the hard times.

How do you act when things get tough?  What does struggling reveal about your character?  In some way, isn’t it the difficult times that make us who we are?

Just think for a moment about a time in your life when you felt as if you grew somehow.  A time when you knew that somehow, you had become a better person.  I would imagine that more often than not, that has been a time rooted in challenge or difficulty – you faced something frightening or daunting, you worked through it, and you came out on the other side better equipped to live the life that God has for you.

When I say that the Bible talks about “faith, hope, and love,” what do you think of?  “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13:13)  That’s from the “Wedding Hall of Fame,” right?  We know faith, hope, and love!  We get a little teary just thinking about them.

But look at how Paul speaks to those three in this letter – the letter that was, need I remind you, written prior to I Corinthians.  He remembers their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.”  These three qualities are not little presents that we find under the tree at Christmas or even in the box of cards at a wedding…in fact, they are not, in this sense, things that we possess at all.  Instead, they are disciplines that we seek to practice.  They are qualities in which we seek to be active.

The Thessalonians were transformed, not because God came and sprinkled a little Jesus Joy on top of them and made everything all better, but because they had learned, from Paul, that it’s possible to stick things out and to see the power of resurrection in the every day trials of life.  And they were able to see this power, says Paul, because they practiced it.  They sought to become better at being people of faith; they sought to grow in their ability to be people who loved; they sought to improve the quality and quantity of their hope.

C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, in addition to dozens of other stories and works of theology, got it right when he said this:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.[1]

We are now in the season of Eastertide – the six weeks following the resurrection where the church not only rejoices in the truth of Christ’s rising from the grave, but actually decide to live as if that resurrection mattered in our own lives.  It is important for us to remember that faith is not a waiting game wherein we watch the blessings pile up because God is just so crazy about us.  The life of faith, the life of resurrection is shown in how we deal with each challenge, each day, and each other.

If we get this right – if we acquire this work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope – then we, too get to be “brothers and sisters”.  We, too, experience a change that comes from becoming the people that God intended us to be. And when we become “brothers and sisters”, then, just as it happened in that little town in Macedonia, God’s name is praised.  And when that happens, then the world really changes.

It started with an empty tomb, and we celebrated that last week.  Today, I need to know, where are the struggles that you face, and whether you think that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is able to deal with the challenges in your life…and whether you will choose to grow in the practices of faith, love, and hope to the end that the resurrection power of God is not confined to a Palestinian cemetery 2000 years ago, but is unleashed in our neighborhood today.

May God bless us as we move into this joyous season of Eastertide, and may he be with us in our challenges and in the ways in which we respond.  Amen.


[1] From Mere Christianity.

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