1 Thess. 1:1-10
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the Christian community in Thessolonica, in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you, and peace. We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith – your faithful service, and labour of love, and perseverence and steadfastness of hope and in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction and assurance. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
The Lectionary begins a journey through the earliest letter of Paul, written to the Christian converts and fledgling church in Thessaloniki.
Thessaloniki was (and still is) an important seaport about 300 km north of Athens. In Paul’s day, the northern region of Greece was known as Macedonia. The city had supported Emperor Augustus, so the Romans made Thessaloniki a free city in 43 B.C. We’re told that Paul, Silas and Timothy went to Thessaloniki, and attended the Jewish synagogue 3 times to present their case for Jesus as the Messiah. As a result, there were converts, primarily among devout Greeks (Acts 17:4) – Gentiles who were sympathetic to Judaism, but had not yet converted to the Jewish faith.
So there were those in Thessaloniki who continued with worship of idols, those who were part of the Jewish faith, and those who became followers of Jesus. The different faith traditions continue today. In Greece, religious affiliation is aligned with ethnicity – to be Greek is to be Orthodox. It is the state religion. Non-Orthodox churches can face legal restrictions and discriminatory governmental obstacles. They have to have a permit from the Ministry of Education and Religion to operate legally as a ‘House of Prayer’. The Pastors of Protestant Churches can be taken to court for proselytizing.
Paul and his team were preaching and proselytizing, and faced determined opposition. The Jewish leaders at the time were enraged and caused a riot, which was enough to run Paul out of town. Paul headed south to Berea and began to preach again, but the Jewish leaders followed him there and again caused a stir. So Paul headed south again, this time to Athens, and then to Corinth. We are told he was by that time he was in weakness, in fear and in much trembling (1 Cor 2:3). He was very discouraged. And yet, his attention was focussed on the churches he had founded. He didn’t want to leave them with only a distant memory of his teaching. You see, there was no church building or church ecclesial structure as we know it. Just a group of new believers who had responded to the teaching about Jesus and chose to follow the Jesus way. Then Silas and Timothy came to Paul from Thessaloniki with great news: the church there was going strong. The local organization was basic, but sufficient enough to carry on the business of the church, even when Paul was no longer present to guide them. Paul became so excited that he dashed off this letter to the Thessalonians. It’s what we’re reading today, and understood to be the first letter penned by Paul. He wanted to help focus their attention on being a community of mutual interest, care and fellowship.
The Thessalonian Christians had experienced the integrity of Paul and his colleagues – their unselfishness – their agape love. They were confident that Paul and his colleagues were truthful and that they were serving God rather than promoting some sort of private agenda. Having decided Paul and his team were people to be trusted, the new Christians in Thessaloniki responded by imitating them. Then, in turn, they became examples to others in their community. Everybody asked, ‘What has happened to these Thessalonians? These people have broken their idols: they worship the one God; they trust in Jesus. They are no longer drunken, dishonest, impure, contentious.’ The new believers became witnesses to others by the way they lived. People noticed the difference in their lives.
The new believers simply shared with their neighbours and friends what God had done in their lives. They explained the new joy and peace that had come into their hearts. Then, when their friends began to ask questions about what had happened, they shared their faith with them.
Now, being a busy seaport, the word about the new believers in Thessaloniki spread all over the country, silently, and without fanfare. People far and wide were stirred by what was happening in the lives of the new believers. Faith is not merely belief; it is something that changes you. Faith makes you turn from what is wrong to what is right, from dark and hurtful things to right and true and healthy things.
Paul writes to them, that they are beloved of God. Now, the Jewish people reserved this descriptor for supremely great men like Moses and Solomon, and to the nation of Israel itself. Now, this accolade is being extended to the humblest of the Gentiles. You are the beloved of God.
Henri Nouwen wrote: “Personally, as my struggle reveals, I don’t often “feel” like a beloved child of God. But I know that that is my most primal identity and I know that I must choose it above and beyond my hesitations. Strong emotions, self-rejection, and even self-hatred justifiably toss you about, but you are free to respond as you will. You are not what others, or even you, think about yourself. You are not what you do. You are not what you have. You are a full member of the human family, having been known before you were conceived and moulded in your mother’s womb. In times when you feel bad about yourself, try to choose to remain true to the truth of who you really are. Look in the mirror each day and claim your true identity. Act ahead of your feelings and trust that one day your feelings will match your convictions. Choose now and continue to choose this incredible truth. As a spiritual practice claim and reclaim your primal identity as beloved daughter or son of a personal Creator”.
In this letter, Paul writes the famous triad for the first time: faith, hope and love. But Paul’s stress is not on these virtues as an end in themselves, but rather upon what they produce. Their faith produced work – as is the nature of true faith. Their love produced labour. The ancient Greek word used for work implies toil that is strenuous and sweat-producing. Their hope produced patience, which is the long-suffering endurance needed to not only survive hard times, but to triumph through them. Paul writes in this way so that we may see these as the great motives of the Christian life.
Jesus said that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mt 20:28, Mark 10:45). The verb douleuo (to serve) was apparently never used in a religious sense in pagan literature. No Greek or Roman could take in the idea of ‘serving’ a God… There was no room for it in their religion. If life was to be a moral service rendered to God, it must be to a God quite different from the ancestral worship.
In reflecting upon this passage this week, I remembered my friend Verena, a German woman who has been living in Thessaloniki for about 3 years, supporting the refugees. She attends the International Protestant Church in Thessaloniki, where about 8-10 people take turns preparing the services. Small, just the way the early church began. She wrote to me this week, reflecting on the passage from 1 Thessalonians. “I remember the first time in Thessalonica when we were reading passages from Thessalonians. Three years later, I still get excited reading this passage.The Bible has become even more personal since I moved to Thessalonica and this passage (1 Thess. 1:1-10) has become precious to me. It has been encouraging in times of my personal difficulties when moving to a foreign country, learning a language, figuring out daily life.
This passage has been encouraging in the work with refugees. In the camp where I have been going I play with and teach the children. It has been encouraging in the work on the streets where we distribute food, clothes, and sleeping bags, and in the organisations where I am working.
It’s been encouraging when on every Tuesday and Saturday we distribute groceries, vegetables and clothes. Families, many with children, don’t have any support from the government. So they are coming because they have literally nothing to eat anymore. When I start to think about the coming winter, I know there will be hundreds of people in the city of Thessalonica who will hide themselves in the street in order not to be found by the police who are doing illegal pushbacks – to Turkey. I think about past winters and the snow we had one year ago and the flimsy tents that broke down under it.
(1 Thess 1:6) “For you received the word in much affliction…” Verena says, I see the refugees in Thessaloniki who were able to leave the island of Lesvos in Turkey, and the Moria camp which has now burnt down, and who say “we want to go back to the hell of Moria, because here it’s worse.”
(I think you may have heard the same sentiment from those living in the hell of indefinite detention in Australia and offshore in immigration detention).
In Thessaloniki, the refugees live in an overcrowded camp or on the streets. The traumatized children cannot stop screaming or are frozen or simply don’t speak anymore. The shoes of the people are inadequate, too small, too big, too cold. A desperate situation that is getting worse and worse.
She says, Then I am thankful to know, to see, to live what I can read (1. Thess:1.5): “because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” This power is so necessary in this work, where is no end in sight. Where people after years still don’t speak English or Greek. Where there is no infrastructure and the camps are not made for integration. Where things are not getting better but worse because the European Union is happy with the Dublin II-law that determines that refugees have to apply for asylum in the country in which they arrived – which of course are the few countries on the edge, one of them being Greece.
“…to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:5) Thessaloniki has so many people in need. How could I do this only by myself? I can’t. Knowing that God put me here to serve makes it possible. When people ask me what they can do for us here, I ask them what Paul did for the church of the Thessalonians then: “constantly mentioning [us] in [your] prayers” (1 Thess 1:2).
So, please hold Verena in your prayers – and the people she supports.
Her experience has many parallels with life for refugees and those seeking asylum in Australia. Refugee advocates report that over 60 asylum seekers – including women, children and infants – who are in community detention in Adelaide have been given just 3 weeks to find work and a new place to live (now extended to six weeks). The youngest is just 8 months old. They are being transitioned to “Final Departure Visas”, which means they will receive no income support. Some individuals are already without an income. If they cannot find work, authorities have advised they “will need to return to a regional processing country or any country where they have a right of residence.” A third of these people are stateless. This would be a huge challenge for anyone at any time, but the fallout from the COVID19 pandemic takes this desperate situation to a whole new level. Community groups are assisting with food, bus tickets, mobile phone vouchers, medicine, utility bills and emergency accommodation. (If you would like to donate a few dollars in support, head to COFA Circle 110).
Last week I did the ‘drop off’ of food packages to families as part of the program to support refugees and those seeking asylum who have no work due to COVID. You know Libby Hogarth had been involved in this program, coordinated with Catherine Russell. I’d love to hear from you if you’re interested in being available to help in any way with packing or delivery.
And on a really positive note, an Afghan family Libby has been working with were able to board their flights to Australia yesterday. The sponsor (husband and father) is already in Adelaide and has been struggling with the weight of all the stress. He looks forward to welcoming his family including his teenage daughter who is seriously ill and needs medical attention. Pray for this family, on this long flight, and for the joyous reunion that awaits them.
Let us continue to be the kind of community that is known by faithful service, labour of love, and perseverence and steadfastness of hope in Jesus Christ. Amen.
(A sermon at Pilgrim UC by Rev Sandy Boyce, Sunday 18th October 2020)