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Love's Witness

Sermon - 10/26/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

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 Empire.

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 the crypts. 

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:

 

Here is 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:

 

This 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 plaster:

 

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:

 

A man 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".

In other 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.

I want you to keep that image in mind.

That 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.

Just a 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:

 

This was built during the Republic era, a couple hundred years before the birth of Christ. 

The Temple of Mars:

This was built by Augustus Caesar, shortly before the birth of Christ.  Mars being the God of war.

The Pantheon:

This was 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.

Keep all 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.

So, listen then to those first words recorded that provide a witness to the Christian faith:

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 J.  Or, sitting in a dentist chair for an entire day receiving a root canal.  Or spending an hour as a Husky fan J.  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? J

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 Roman Empire.

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 Indiana".

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".

And 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.

 


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