1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
I want to begin this
morning a little mini-series on Paul's first letter to the
Thessalonians, so we'll be looking at that today and over the course of
the next three Sundays. I would invite you in the week ahead to
read the letter, sit down and read it in its entirety, will probably
only take 15-20 minutes, as preparation for these subsequent Sunday's.
Since I was just
there, in Thessaloniki, in modern Greece, I thought I'd share with you
some of the things I learned while on my Sabbatical this summer.
Thessaloniki sits on
the northern shores of the Adriatic Sea in northern Greece. It's a
very modern, bustling city, the second-largest in Greece.
Throughout, you will find ruins that speak of the importance the city
had in ancient times as one of the provincial capitals of the Roman
This palace of the
Emperor Galerius, from the early 3rd century, surrounded by high-rise
apartment buildings, is an example:
And in the center of
the city you will find a Roman Forum from the first century:
This is typical of
all of the cities in the Roman Empire that had such a public gathering
place, built according to the Roman standards. When you walk
through there, you are literally are walking where the Apostle Paul
walked. Always kind of astounding to think that undoubtedly he
went to this public gathering space as he sought to share the good news.
There are a number of
ancient churches that sit well below street-level, because over the
years the street rises and rises:
Some of them with
foundations that go back nearly 1,500 years. They provide a
witness of brick and mortar to the importance of ancient Christianity in
that region, and how quickly it rose.
The oldest evidence
of Christianity, though, you will find not in any of those churches, but
in the Byzantine Museum there in Thessaloniki, where the cemeteries --
the Christian cemeteries -- have been preserved, and the tombstones and
For instance, this
painting of a cross:
. . . is from a 4th
century crypt, where an entire family was entombed. I want you to
keep this cross in mind, painted in reverence, out of respect for the
faith of the deceased, as I take you to ancient Rome.
And there you will
find the mother of all Roman Forums, stretching nearly a mile from the
Palatine Museum, to the Coliseum on the other end:
where you get a sense of the grandeur and the power of the Roman Empire.
And on Palatine Hill, where I stood to take the picture above, behind my
vantage point is the Palatine Museum:
museum as preserved artifacts from 5 or 6 centuries of the Roman period,
that were discovered in that area on the hill. This hill was the
primary dwelling place for most of the Emperors of the Roman Empire.
That particular museum is quite sparse and humble:
A very modest museum
by Italian standards, which are plentiful and full of all kinds of
history. Even though there are tens of thousands of tourists that
go through the Roman Forum on any given day, in this little museum,
you'll only find a handful. And our reason for going to this
museum is to see this slab of plaster:
This was taken from a
servant's quarters in one of those palaces of the Emperor. It
dates to the beginning of the 3rd century -- about the year 200 or so.
If you stop and take this in, you'll probably be the only one to observe
it and ponder it. People would wonder what on earth. . .
But you're going to
stop and take a look at it, because you know that it is one of the
oldest archeological evidences of early Christianity. And it is
THE single oldest portrayal of the crucifix -- different from the cross
alone, a crucifix has the body on the cross. The first portrayal
of the crucifix that we have anywhere, preserved on this piece of
I know you can't see
it real well, it's a little easier to see when you're there in person,
so I will share with you an overlay that shows you what is there:
kneeling on the left, in front of the cross. A man on the cross,
with the head of a donkey. And below it, in Latin, is written:
"Alexander worships his God".
words, this is a ridicule of Christianity. Some servant in the
servant quarters, a pagan, is lampooning the central proclamation of the
Christian faith. And he does so by placing the head of a donkey on
the body of Christ, hanging on the cross.
you to keep that image in mind.
this servant would do so, to show how scandalous it was, that one so
shamelessly crucified could by anyone be considered the Lord and Savior
of the world! And called the son of God! That he does so in
the palace of the Emperor only adds to the irony. And of course,
you know from Roman history, the Emperor was worshipped as the divine
son of God throughout the Roman Empire. So we see the contrast
between the two portrayed in this ancient graffiti.
few hundred yards from where this was found on the Palatine Hill, you
can find any one of a number of different temples dedicated to different
Gods. Here the Temple of Saturn:
built during the Republic era, a couple hundred years before the birth
Temple of Mars:
built by Augustus Caesar, shortly before the birth of Christ. Mars
being the God of war.
built by the Emperor Hadrian in the year 132, so the beginning of the
second century, as the New Testament era is coming to a close. And
Hadrian built this precisely to contain the 12 primary Gods of Roman
theology, where they could all be worshipped in one place.
of this in mind as we go back to ancient Thessalonica, and I share with
you not the oldest archeological evidence of Christianity, but
the oldest literary evidence of Christianity -- Paul's first
letter to the Thessalonians, to that church that he established in
Thessalonica. It is written probably about 2 decades before the
gospel of Mark was written, the oldest of the four gospels. And
hence, it is the oldest writing we have that is a witness to our faith.
listen then to those first words recorded that provide a witness to the
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because 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 people we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And 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, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For 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, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the deadóJesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
My reason for citing this history
lesson is to point out how Paul, just 20-25 years after the death and
resurrection of Jesus, probably less than 5 years after he established
the church in Thessalonica, is now asserting that the faith of this
Christian community in Thessalonica has become an example throughout
much of the Roman world, with its temples dedicated to all
manifestations of divine beings, is the most remarkable assertion that
can be made.
And on top of that, we can imagine how
these followers of this new son-of-God (in contrast to the son of
God who sits on the throne from the Empire), that this Jesus, were
viewed by many of their contemporaries as evident in that graffiti that
ridicules Christian faith.
Thus, it is not surprising that Paul
tells us that turning from these Roman and Greek idols has resulting in
persecution for these early Christians. And all the more
remarkable, then, that wherever Paul goes, from city to city throughout
the Roman Empire, he hears stories being told. Not of battles that
they fought, or temples they built, but of their labor of love. Of
their steadfastness of hope. How these followers of Jesus followed
the example of Paul, and Jesus, and in turn become an example of faith
to others throughout the empire.
When you consider what these early
Christian communities were able to accomplish in such a short period of
time, and in the context that was not at all receptive to their message,
it is an amazing witness to the power of Christ's spirit and the work of
God's love that is spreading across that ancient world.
In the book that our prayer triads used
this summer -- "Christianity For The Rest of Us" -- Diana Butler Bass
says that "testimony, sharing our faith with others, is one of the most
empowering Christian practices". She notes that the entire New
Testament is a testimony of the experiences that early Christians had
with the transformative power of God. "Those experiences", she
writes, "were so powerful, so personally transformative, that many were
willing to die rather than recant their testimony".
Only something happened on the way to
the Roman Forum. Constantine legalized Christianity in the year
313. It wasn't too long before it became the official religion of
the Empire. And in the Pantheon, the new rulers of the Empire
simply took out those Roman Gods, and put in the Christian ones:
And hence the building has been
maintained as a church, and that's why it's still standing to this day,
and in such beautiful condition.
And so it was that the crucifix, once
ridiculed, became a symbol that was respected in this Empire.
Now that's a good thing, right?
You know, that's our Lord now that is portrayed in THE public
building of all public buildings for the Gods. That Christ is now
the central focus.
Diana Butler Bass writes: "Once
the faith had achieved a certain level of respectability, people became
Christian for a host of reasons. Simply for political reasons, or
social advancement, or because of birth. The result is that the
need to talk about the faith became less urgent. And testimony
became the sole practice of an elite few -- primarily, the clergy".
You know, only the 'trained folk' know how to do it.
While testimony today has become
popular again with some of the traditions of our faith, it still
remains for most of us a foreign experience. It's something that's
done by those unwelcome missionaries who knock at your door with a Bible
under one arm and leaflets in the other, ready to jam it in your face in
case you try to close the door too soon. And if that's what
testimony is, I think most of us would choose to spend an entire week
watching political commercials 24-7
Or, sitting in a dentist chair for an entire day receiving a root canal.
Or spending an hour as a Husky fan
Oooh, hard to imagine.
But you see, testimony, giving
witness to one's faith, is one of the primary means by which we help
others experience the presence of God.
A couple of short examples from Diana
Butler Bass' book to illustrate the power of testimony:
One of the churches that she visited to
do her research for the book was a United Church of Christ in
Connecticut. She remembers very vividly the first Sunday she
visited that church. She said the pastor there gave an excellent
sermon, of which she remembers nothing. Sound familiar?
And she said what she does remember is
the testimony given that particular morning by a young student from Yale
University, who shared with the congregation how she did not grow up in
a Christian home, did not encounter Jesus until she came to Yale (of all
places) and got involved in a evangelical campus group and became a
Christian. Intellectually, however, she found that group wasn't
very stimulating, and she became increasingly uncomfortable with their
conservative politics, and their lack of diversity. So she began
to search for a new spiritual home. And she found it at the
Redeemer United Church of Christ, where, she said: "God rings in
my ear here".
And that phrase, from an untrained lay
member of the church is what Diana Butler-Bass took away from that
Sunday morning: God rings in my ear here.
And in the honest, heart-felt testimony
of that young woman, that was precisely the experience of Diana
Butler-Bass -- God ringing in her ears.
The second story is from a Lutheran
church in Seattle. There, Diana heard the story of Deanna, who
also came to Christian faith as an adult. Deanna told her:
"I was skeptical, bordering on cynical. I considered myself a very
unlikely candidate for any organized religion, especially
Christianity". But through an introductory course to the Christian
faith, she said "I was was fed dinner, dessert, words, and scripture,
and eventually the people of the church 'killed me with kindness,
conquered me with love'".
I am convinced that what Deanna
experienced in that Lutheran church in Seattle, is what those folks
experienced in Paul's church in Thessalonica. Conquered by love.
And it that witness to the power of that love which changes lives and
makes the presence of God real, that became known then throughout the
Such stories don't just happen in
Seattle or Connecticut or Thessalonica, they also happen here.
I want to share with you, anonymously,
what one member of our church wrote about his experience in the triads
this summer -- writing to the other 2 members of that triad:
"I really loved the book, in terms of
it painting a picture of all the different ways that people join in
community to worship God and experience Christ in our daily lives.
But the part I loved best was the sharing of our life stories.
Praying together. And learning to love the two of you. Our
group was very open, loving, and supportive of different ideas.
What I appreciated most was the time with both of you. It was a
rare opportunity -- taking the time to build a friendship with both of
you, and to be able to share our experiences and lives together was
personally enriching and a true spiritual experience. It nurtured
me, and helped carry me through the challenges that my family faced as
we coped with a health crisis".
We don't think of stewardship
reflections that are shared during our stewardship campaign as being
faith testimonies, but what powerful testimonies we heard over the last
couple weeks. I think many of us will remember for a long time the
story Jerry told of his grandmother, or Carol when her voice got choked
up in reading that last verse of a hymn when we had to read it for her,
recalling the love of her husband Lee. Incredibly powerful faith
stories, and sharing of testimony.
The testimony I remember as being the
most powerful ever given from this pulpit was 13 years ago on Mother's
Day. The speaker was Ronald E. Osborne, a saint of this
congregation, and a saint of our denomination, the Disciples of Christ.
Ronald, on that day, shared with us his faith in the wake of the death
of dearly loved ones. He said:
"We were a small family. Naomi
and I had been married for 9 years when Virginia was born in Eugene.
When she was 5 years old, her mother brought her here to church, and
Ruth Roberts (our minister's wife) carried her all around the sanctuary.
When Ginni entered first grade, racial integration had just begun in the
Indianapolis schools (Ronald was now teaching at our Seminary in
Indiana). Some white children were not kind to the little
African-Americans, but she made friends with them. One day, as she
walked home with Veronica, some classmates gave them a bad time.
One yelled out 'Virginia, what would your mother say if she knew you
were walking with her'. One of the mothers, chastened,
phoned us about Ginni's simple answer: 'My mother won't care,
she's a Christian' J.
Ginni traveled the world with us. Her heart set on going to
medical school, her greatest joy as a teenager in the Philippines (where
Ronald was then teaching in Seminary) was helping once a month in the
well-baby clinics (sponsored by the Seminary), and some doctors from
Manila, for the people of the barrio. Back home, the Girl Scout
troop at the school for the blind asked for a sighted girl, and she
joined them. In time, she went away to Stevens College. On
an evening in May, 27 years ago, a state trooper came to our door.
An oncoming car had crossed into the wrong lane, and in the head-on
collision, Ginni lost her life. Our world went dark. Our
whole future changed. It did no good to ask why. No
explanation would bring her back, there was no explanation. Naomi
struggled desperately with her faith, for she had been taught and
believed implicitly that God watches over God's own. Where was
God? She asked again and again. Not so much in anger, as in
desolation. But God was with us -- when we tried to pray. In
the tearful embrace of loving friends. In the hymns and scriptures
that spoke assurance. In the compassionate eyes of a beloved
minister. In the long days of aching hearts, in the black
midnight's when sobbing awakened us. In the hundreds of letters
from people who cared, in the sensitivity of person's who would talk to
us about Virginia. In the completion of a modest building for the
clinic on the campus in the Philippines as her memorial. In the
outdoor place of worship, which the Girl Scouts named for her at Camp in
Ronald went on to share, then, the
death of Naomi from cancer, and he says: "After 45 years of
marriage, I was alone. No wife, no child, no parent. Yet
consoled by the wisdom once learned from others, 'sorry is the price we
pay for love'. Then God opened a new chapter for me in the book of
life, giving me Noah. A family of children and grandchildren, 9
years now of new joys".
Ronald, who could never stand at this communion table and give a prayer
or devotion without a quiver in his voice, concluded:
"When we gather around the Lord's
table, I think of friends and loved ones assembled with the saints at
that glad feast above. All of us meeting together with Christ our
Lord, the resurrection and the life, and I press on. Sustained by
God's gifts of love and memory and hope".
Ten years ago this October, we said
goodbye to Ronald in our memorial service for him. Just before I
left on my sabbatical this summer, I ran into one of those grandchildren
at Theo's Coffee House. I wouldn't have recognized him, he
recognized me. We got into a conversation about our common bonds
with Ronald. A young man now in his early 20s, a student at Eugene
Bible College, he told me that Ronald was the only grandfather he ever
knew. Keep in mind they were not biologically related, it was only
through Noah he was Ronald's step-granchild. He said that Ronald's
love for those grandkids was an incredibly powerful influence on his
life. He said "Grandpa was my model of Christian faith, and is why
I am a student at the Bible College".
Love's witness is the testimony we are
called to share with those around us. Never underestimate its
power to change lives, and indeed, change the world.