Paul in Thessalonica

This is the text of the message I prepared for Servi Church (KSSM) for Sunday 7th July 2019.  It was the day before our church “Family Camp” during which the Bible Study sessions would be on 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

Acts 17:1-15

This week coming is a bit of a first for me; in fact it’s a lot of a first.  I have not been on a family camp with the local church for close to forty years, and so that means that I have never been as an adult.  When I was a child my family worshipped with the Wheelers Hill Uniting Church as part of the Mulgrave Parish, we’d been the local Presbyterians since the 1880s and they (Mulgrave) had been the local Methodists.  In 1977, with Church Union, we joined up formally having been informal friends and ecumenical neighbours before that.  Our annual family camp took place over Cup Weekend, back when Monday was not a public holiday but no one went to work in Melbourne anyway, and we’d be away from Friday night until Tuesday lunchtime.  I remember a time of fun and I remember that there was always water: we usually (but not always) went to Wilson’s Promontory and stayed in on-site vans, back when they really were vans and not purpose-built cabins.  I remember a lot of colour too, and I distinctly remember one year when we were not at “The Prom” when we were visited by Rosellas.  Many of the memories and some of the photos I have of that time involve body paint, I made a very cute little pirate with my primary colours eye-patch and moustache.  But, as I say, that’s back in the seventies, or maybe the early eighties, but certainly no later than 1984.

This week to come, and Family Camp at Halls Gap, will I hope bring back happy memories for me.  I also hope it will create new happy moments which will become happy memories for me in the fullness of time.  I hope and indeed pray the same for all of you, especially the littlest people.  But what will mean the most for me in my memories is that this will be the first time I am the pastor, and the first time that I’ll be leading an intensive Bible Study.  Not that the Bible Study will be intense, there’s no high pressure stakes here, but there will be a series of sessions rather than it being a one-off chapel event on the Sunday (which is today) and then it’s kayaks and badge-making after quiet time.  I’m excited by what God has drawn my attention to, and by what we’ll be learning about God-in-Christ and Christ-in-Church as we spend some time in and with The Word.

Our main texts will be Paul’s two letters to the Church in Thessalonica.  This is interesting because 1 Thessalonians is almost certainly Paul’s first letter, (or at the very least the earliest extant letter of his).  Historically we can date it to 51 CE when Paul was living in Corinth, a year or so after his visit to Thessalonica.  If we follow the tradition (and many scholars these days do not), 2 Thessalonians was written within six months of the first letter, and so is Paul’s second (or maybe third, depending when he wrote to Galatia) letter.  Two things can be said straight away about this history:

  1. Paul is doing something new: he’s writing a letter where he has never written to a Church before. Paul is beginning a new form of ministry; with hindsight we know that this will become a major aspect of his legacy.
  2. Paul engages in correspondence: not only does he write to Thessalonica he writes back. We can assume that there was a letter, or a least an oral message, between the two letters of Paul because we see how the second letter expands on some of the points of the first.  It seems as though the Thessalonians had a few specific questions, and Paul addresses them.

The Thessalonian letters are personal letters of encouragement, written during a period where Paul is seeking to establish a communal work of God amidst cultural opposition.  There’s no finer point to be made here: Paul is inventing the first form of congregational Christianity outside the Jewish homeland, and he’s doing it on the hop.  Paul uses a lot of family language wherein he addresses the Thessalonians as siblings; the Christians are his brothers and sisters, the adult children of God the Father, who are becoming a new kind of family that engages in mutual support including responsibility for material care.  There was sharing but not like in Acts 2:44 with complete equality of possessions administered by a central body of apostles: in Thessalonica there was to be shared care from each person’s conscience and capacity such that in 2 Thessalonians there is teaching about what to do with bludgers and spongers.  It seems that Acts 2:44 didn’t work everywhere, and even 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 had been misconstrued and some correction was needed: the Christian Church is inventing itself and making notes about what works or doesn’t as it goes along the way.

So, in these first letters we see Paul trying out some new ideas as he puts them into writing; he plays around with words and phrases that he will develop as his preaching and correspondence ministries continue.  Paul is not writing systematic theology here, these are letters and not a text book, so the ideas do jump around a bit.  But isn’t that just more exciting?  Well I think it is, but then I’m a preaching nerd so I like this sort of thing anyway.  I mean, look at how we get to earwig in on Paul as he follows his trains of thoughts to their various stations, even jumping between trains every now and then.  He’s writing with passion, with fervour for the truth and a love for his friends at Thessalonica, and that’s a good thing.

There are a few key themes in the letters to the Thessalonians, and we’ll meet some of those at camp, but one that I want to highlight now is how Paul directs these new Christians to seek God-esteem rather than self-esteem as they struggle against opposition, persecution, and inexperience.  As we read in Acts 17:1-9 Paul had had a difficult time in Thessalonica and he may have been there for less than a month.  Paul had had to leave in a hurry, (and he never returned), so Paul is concerned for those new believers he left behind and for the work that he began but was not able to support long enough to see safely into self-replicating growth.  His prayer and desperation is that God will make up for the absence of the apostles, that the new believers will look to Godself for wisdom and insight rather than struggling to make philosophical ends meet from their own wisdom, small as it is.

Along this line, of this whole thing being new and a bit slapdash, notice in Acts 17:4 where not only were some of the Jews in the synagogue convinced by the gospel as Paul proclaimed it, but so too were many of the Gentiles (probably local Greek believers in Judaism rather than random pagans) and some of the leading women.  This new church is diverse from the outset, and perhaps as was the case in Philippi where Paul and Silas had met Lydia of Thyatira there was a distinctly European (Macedonian) model of church forming, distinct from the Judean and Asian models.  This is all new as even the models of Antioch and Jerusalem wouldn’t have fitted.

From the perspective of my history the Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry is very unique.  As a student of ministry and theology with the Uniting Church I had not been trained for work in a shared or combined cross-denominational ministry setting, despite at least one of my lecturers having served as minister at Keith One Church.  (And even Keith One Church is one church, not two in partnership.)  Of course this arrangement is not new for you, and this is especially true in Serviceton, but what might have been missed is that external models do not work well here: Servi Church is more unique than other churches.  (By the way “more unique” and “very unique” are totally fine as usages, neither is grammatical but both are linguistically significant.)  Why do I say this?  Well because you (and Kaniva) are doing something that no one else has done, at least not in the same way: and that is what Paul was doing alongside-yet-away-from the Thessalonians.  This is why I chose Thessalonians as our Biblical text for Camp.

So, the theme of the Bible studies at Family Camp is “building a church in changing times”.  The question is how or even if times are changing at Serviceton, and how or if our circumstances are difficult.  Where is there upheaval in our town; what are we doing about it now, and what are we prepared to do differently to proclaim the Kingship of Christ in the Wimmera and the Tatiara?  (Do we need to do anything differently?)  One of Paul’s key answers to this question, and there are several answers, is primarily found in 2 Thessalonians 2 and it is to “get on with today”.  The narrative of Acts 16-18 reports that Paul was thrown out of three major Macedonian cities: and he’d even been beaten and gaoled in Philippi.  Paul arrived in Thessalonica having been forced out of Philippi (Acts 16:39 and 1 Thessalonians 2:2) and he had had to flee from Thessalonica.  Paul’s confidence to continue preaching came from God and the assurance that he was doing God’s work (Acts 16:10 and 1 Thessalonians 2:4), but that must have been hard.  Imagine that you have seen “a man of Macedonia” in a vision like Paul had done, and imagine if Holy Spirit had three times closed the door on Asia and Bithynia so that you would go straight to Macedonia, don’t pass go, don’t collect two hundred denarii.  And then you get beaten up and gaoled, and then threatened with more of the same if you don’t sling your hook from the town you went for refuge, and the town after that.  I’d be asking God some serious questions about the whole endeavour, and I’m sure that Paul did, but Paul heard God and he took God at God’s word, and so Paul went on into Achaia and Athens and Corinth.  This is the same assurance Paul wants to give and to hear back from Thessalonica as they face trials of their own: Paul is like a father who wants to see his adult children doing well in their own maturity just as God the Father had desired the same from Paul.

I want to end with the words Paul began with, so look with me at 1 Thessalonians 1:1b and 2 Thessalonians 1:1b where Paul writes to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Shalom! I like that, because it speaks of people gathering together rather than of an institution.  It is the people who matter, perhaps that’s why Paul used the phrase “brothers and sisters” so often in these letters.  And so as we gather in the coming week, in more relaxed circumstances and with plenty of free time to share, let’s be mindful that we are “ecclesia”: not just “church” but gathering, “assembly”, “mob”, and also in Christ, “family”.  Together we are about to do something new and exciting, something which might just change the world.

Amen.

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