May 3 : Acts 17 & 1Thessalonians 1

Prelude

Benedetto Marcello Psalm 19 Chuck Parsons, organ

Opening

Confession

Prayer of the Day

       In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss. In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving. You are our mother, brother, and savior. In you, Holy Spirit, is marvelous and plenteous grace. You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us. You are our maker, our lover, our keeper. Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.   Amen       ~ Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416

Sermon

You may listen to Pr Linda here.

Some of you may know that, prior to the mid-March ‘shelter in place for the sake of your neighbor’ close-ing, I was planning a three week coast-to-coast hike in England in May. Fortunately, I was planning a solo hike and arranging the details myself, so there aren’t catering or pre-booked cancellations to manage. Other than a rain jacket, new boots, and various guide books, my only real expense was the flights. Aer Lingus has offered a voucher for the tickets and, hopefully, they’ll continue to fly and I’ll be able to try it all again next year. I’ve been left with a longing – and a number of really excellent maps. Studying them, google-earthing sights along the way, following the hand-drawn topographic maps of Alfred Wainwright (the trail designer) in comparison to my huge detailed map of that area of England is a new hobby. GPS, well marked pathways, and a plethora of maps has given me a (perhaps false) sense of courage. I can do this grand adventure! Especially, since, at the moment, I’m not supposed to leave my yard!

I wonder what of those traveling benefits the apostle Paul had with him. I imagine they had maps of some sort. He must have known where he was going, the general direction of cities in Asia Minor, and the Roman Empire had well marked roads. Knowing the geography is important in getting an idea of the tremendous scope and energy of Paul’s ministry, and in seeing the spread of the early Christian church. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was not given a home in Jerusalem, nor was it received as truth among many/most of the area’s Jews. Christianity was forced to move beyond the cluster of villages, the home regions of Galilee and Judea where Jesus and the disciples lived. They say the church was born in persecution. Without opposition, hardship and the threat of persecution snapping at their heals,  the Christian faith might not have spread. As it was, Paul traveled and taught throughout the Mediterranean basin, encouraging those who had fled persecution in Jerusalem or Rome and came into contact with the world of Gentiles. On this, his second missionary journey, Paul sets out again from Antioch to travel through Syria and Cilicia.

Along the way he meets a man from Macedonia, and guided by a vision, Paul and his companions set sail for that region. At Philippi their message is well received – particularly by a group of women led by Lydia. But they also encounter opposition after Paul drives out the “spirit of divination” from a slave-girl and her owners get angry about losing their ‘small business’ profit from her fortune-telling reputation. The owners drag Paul and Silas before the authorities, charging them with disturbing the city and advocating customs that are unlawful for Romans, after which Paul and Silas are flogged and thrown into prison. An earthquake breaks open the prison doors (and their chains), and through a series of favorable events, the jailer comes to faith, and is baptized along with his whole household. Meanwhile, the magistrates decided to release Paul and Silas and so they are free to continue on toward Thessaloniki, the leading city of Macedonia and headquarters of the Roman governor. 

I don’t really enjoy preaching on the book of Acts, it’s better, more interesting, just to read it – but, pairing it as we are is a good idea. We hear the action of Acts with the letters that Paul wrote to the various communities along the way –  Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Rome, and today – the very first book of the New Testament to be written – the letter to Christians in Thessaloniki.
So, first from the Acts of the Apostles, a few verses from the 17th chapter:

After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessaloniki, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.  And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three consecutive 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 where they had been staying.  When they could not find Paul and Silas, they dragged Jason and some other 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. 

The charges brought against Paul and Silas in their absence are similar to those brought against them earlier in Philippi, but ratcheted up a notch. They are charged not simply with disturbing the city, but with turning the “whole world upside down”; not simply for advocating new religious customs, but with what amounts to treason — “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king, one named Jesus”.

Following what is becoming a typical pattern for Paul, the Thessalonian believers send him and Silas off to Beroea, where they find a more receptive audience in the synagogue. But they have made enemies in proclaiming Jesus the messiah, and the opposing Jews from Thessaloniki follow Paul and stir up crowds against him in Beroea. Crowd sourcing protests are nothing new! So Paul’s sympathizers get him out of the city and convey him as far as Athens. From there, Paul travels on to a safe haven in Corinth, where Silas and Timothy eventually rejoin him.

The term, “geography of faith,” has stuck in my head as I’ve been reading about Paul’s missionary trips. It’s also the subtitle of a book I refer to now and then, An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor. A geography of faith certainly applies to the movements of the apostle Paul. He is constantly on the move, teaching and arguing the scriptures in synagog after synagog, town after town, being shouted down, threatened, imprisoned, pursued from city to city. He has covered most of the north shore of the Mediterranean by now. It’s hard for me to imagine that life, that calling, and passion without feeling increasingly anxious. I get restlessly defensive just reading about it. I could never do that. Never. I have no passion to turn the world upside down, I have no gifts for that. It seems so completely and entirely foreign to me – his world and his life and his faith – that I can find no connection in it to my own. The map of the Mediterranean might as well be the map of the moon. So it is easy for me (and maybe for you, too) to dismiss this stuff as historical and biblical – and therefore doubly inapplicable to my normal quite small, mostly insignificant, peaceful, COVID-sheltered life. And therefore… I don’t have to do anything about it. I’ve found my own safe haven from the threat of the gospel in that I’m so not like Paul, God would have no reason to expect it of me.

Except,…when I stop to think about the lives of people in those towns and villages and communities – like Lydia or Jason. People who listened, were stirred, curious, convinced: Those whose lives the living Word transformed. The travelog of Acts sets out the large context, the map of the Roman world. Paul’s letter to the folks he left behind in Thessaloniki gives God’s mission a particular place, a location, where the hand-drawn topographical maps  – and Google Earth that can bring you to a street view of a specific home – are key to God’s purpose. Maps are ways of marking out a trip, of paying attention to the geography of place names and locations. Looking at the scale of big maps allows one to cover a lot of turf, see the big picture. Traveling it all seems overwhelming. Topo maps show variations in terrain, notice the meanderings of a creek bed, indicate high points and ridges, help one find one’s way. I’m more at home with topographical maps. But then, I notice that I’ve lost some of my excuses for not engaging this grand, “too big for my imagination” mission. God’s word is clearly both all-encompassing and located in small details. God’s purpose, God’s work for us to be about, is clearly about both the world, and our neighbor.

From Corinth, with Silvanus (Silas in Greek) and Timothy, Paul writes a letter back to the community of believers they left in Thessaloniki:

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10   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 there, 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, the Christ.

In the synagogs, Paul argued the scriptures, set forth his case for belief in Jesus and the necessity of his death and resurrection.  Paul made enemies as well as converts, and he moved on. 

In his letter to those he left filled with God’s word, but facing the opposition of the enemies stirred up against them, Paul provides pastoral care. 

His letter is to gentiles, converted/converting pagans. They were not part of God’s original covenant and plan. His letter is to all of us who may not feel like insiders in the church, born and bred, dyed in the wool, holy to the core. It is to those of us who have questions and doubts and wonderments about the word of God and Jesus Christ, but yet who are drawn to the word of life, the table of mercy, the community of faith. He says to them, to us …God has chosen you. 

So much for excuses. So much for safe distancing between the missionary activity of Paul and my own little life. 

“God has chosen you.”

“Hmmmm. Chosen for what?” (I mentally reach for my shield of excuses

“Chosen for life.” 

“Oh?” 

“Chosen for all of the ways in which your life, your work, your prayers show the labor of love, the imitation of Christ, the conviction and joy of your faith.” 

“Oh.”  

“You may not be accused of turning the world upside down, but you may very well, be responsible for turning someone’s world around.” 

“Ooooh!”                  (ask Harry about his mom’s one word conversations!) 

“For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only there, 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…” 

“So, we don’t need to speak about it if our lives demonstrate the love and hospitality of Christ?” 

“You might be asked questions, be drawn into a conversation, be inspired to share the motivation of your service or hospitality, but we don’t necessarily need to hit the road proclaiming loudly the pathway that leads to God.” 

“Oh, good.” 

“In fact, Lydia and Jason proclaimed it more loudly by living their lives, staying home, letting their transformed attitudes and actions attract notice and converts. Staying put may be the more difficult path, to let yourself be known. Being beguiling may be the best form of transmitting the good news!” 

“Ohhhhh!”

The irony is that on the one hand, the charges brought against Paul and his fellow travelers – that they are disturbing the peace and promoting disloyalty to the emperor – weren’t true, just as the same charges brought against Jesus weren’t true. The movement of Jesus’ followers is not about political ambition or plotting to overthrow Caesar. Those who bring the charges, who have incited mobs and gathered ruffians to attack Paul and his companions, were in fact the ones “disturbing the peace.”

But at the same time, there is something that is very true – though not in the way they meant it – in the charges that the proclamation of the gospel threatens to “turn the world upside down.” Loyalty to Jesus the Messiah supplants all other loyalties — to family, nation, empire, or religious hierarchy – to our values, and comfort, and small, peaceful, mostly insignificant lives biding our solitary time. What will happen when we are released? How might our hearts and lives turn from ‘what is’ to ‘what if’? How might this new normal that doesn’t yet feel normal work on us to imprint radical change environmentally, economically, socially.  We have known racial, economic and environmental justice is a necessity, that this nation’s systems must change if we are to live into our own national values of integrity, equality and freedom – now we have the power of knowing that it can happen. Whole societies can change overnight if they are convinced it’s in their own best interest. If we are compelled by a virus, can we not be compelled by the suffering of racism and poverty, the suffering of global climates changing? The world is about to turn. But will we move it, mitigate while there’s a bit of time, or will we retreat and react? 

The good news of Jesus the Messiah does indeed threaten upheaval. It’s true in large scale, world map kind of ways, but more significantly, it’s true in individual lives, in the topographical maps, the peaks and valleys and obstacles that show up in our lives. Hearing that you are chosen by God has a certain comfortable, secure feel, but it is also a truth that won’t let you sit still in comfort. God, as they say, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Those reversals of being chosen and being challenged, of being forgiven as we practice forgiveness, receiving in joy what we pass along in service, become the topography lines in the geography of our faith. Once we’re infected, the viral nature of God’s ways spreads its sacred contagion throughout our lives, attitudes, outlook, excuses. We can’t help but get involved. It’s good work, being an imitator of Christ, finding ways of translating, transmitting God’s love into your occupations and relationships and convictions. God has chosen you, for life – in every sense of the phrase. And for that we don’t really need a map, you know the way. The path is well marked. 

Thanks be to God.

The Church’s One Foundation

~ Chuck Parsons, organ
  1. The Church’s one foundation
      Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
    She is His new creation
      By water and the Word:
    From heav’n He came and sought her
      To be His holy Bride;
    With His own blood He bought her,
      And for her life He died.

3 . ’Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
  Shall be the Church at rest.

Samuel John Stone (1839-1900)  Music: Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876)