Waldo, Oz, and the Holy Spirit

Inspired by Acts 2:1-4; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13

Do you remember Where’s Waldo? For those of you who don’t, it was a children’s puzzle book series that exploded in the late 80’s. Each book was filled with these great big pictures that had hundred’s of people in it, and the viewer then had to find Waldo, a funny little bespectacled guy in blue pants and a red and white striped shirt and hat. Some of those puzzles were really hard as the pictures included all the same colors and patters that were on Waldo himself! You could also get him in posters, t-shirts, he was everywhere! I remember having a blast trying to find Waldo. You know what’s not a blast! Trying to find the Holy Spirit! Ok, that could used a better segue. But these days, it kinda feels like we’re in this big puzzle book, that’s not nearly as fun as those old Where’s Waldo books, but instead of trying to find Waldo, we’ve been tasked with trying to find the Holy Spirit in this pandemic world of ours. Instead of a fun children’s puzzle book this feels more like a Halloween house of mirrors nightmare! Too dramatic? Maybe, I don’t know.

Finding the Holy Spirit can be a tough job on a normal day. But these days, it sometimes seems impossible. On this day each year, The Day of Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on those first disciples with tongues of fire dancing on their heads. Over the centuries it has come to be known as the birthday of the church. So, happy birthday! This day concludes a few things for us. It marks the end of the Easter season, after this we head into the long green season of the Time after Pentecost. That’s literally what it’s called, the Time after Pentecost. Not very creative, I know. And for us here at Bethlehem, as well as all the churches that use the Narrative Lectionary, today marks the last day of year two of the Narrative Lectionary. The next collection of readings will begin in the Fall, when we will read through a different set of stories from the Hebrew scriptures beginning with Genesis, and then read through the Gospel of Luke, finishing with stories of the early church from Acts and Paul’s letters like we just did. Before that though, this summer we will get the opportunity to have three different series, one on Job, one on 2 Corinthians, and one on the Lord’s Prayer, just to give you a preview of what’s headed your way for the next year.

But back to the elusive Holy Spirit. Of all the persons of the Trinity, she is by far the most difficult to talk about. Maybe that’s because we don’t know much about her. We don’t have all those stories like the creator does in the Hebrew scriptures, or Jesus does in the Gospels. The Holy Spirit gets a few here in there in Acts and is referred to in Paul’s letters but that’s about it. She does appear in the Gospel once in the form of a dove but we’re really left on our own to try and figure out who the Holy Spirit is, what she does, where she is, and how she works. And so, for nearly two thousand years the church has spent a great deal of time and energy, debating, writing, pondering, all things Holy Spirit related. We search and we search for answers, and we always seem to come up short. It never really feels like we’ve figured it out completely. She’s like a crossword puzzle that you just can’t finish, or a jigsaw puzzle that’s missing a couple pieces, or a Where’s Waldo picture that is making you go cross-eyed!

Then, in walks Paul, like a nerd at a Rubik’s Cube convention, to help us with this puzzle. But instead of Paul the great theologian, missionary, scholar, and founder of the institutional church, he’s more like the Wizard of Oz here. In that story, Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion, are all in search of a gift that they long for: home, intelligence, love, and courage. They go to great lengths in search for these things, they even risk their lives to find them. However, in the end, they discover that they had these gifts all along, or the means to get them. They in fact didn’t need any help at all to find what they longed for. It was there the whole time, they just didn’t recognize it. In this passage from First Corinthians that we have today, Paul explains where the Holy Spirit can be found, by describing some of the gifts that the Spirit gives to people, to us. He mentions the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, interpretation, just to name a few, as this is not an exhaustive list. In other words, if you’re looking for the Holy Spirit Paul says, this is what you will find her doing. But even more important than that, this is where you will find her doing those things, in you. And she’s been there the whole time! And it gets better than that, as if that wasn’t amazing enough, this is how the Holy Spirit will make us one body, together, by giving us all different gifts, so that we are dependent on one another to fulfill God’s work in the world.

How about them apples! I don’t even know that that phrase means, anyway. This would be the most amazing news on a good day, during normal times, whatever normal means. But in these days, these days of pandemic and social distancing and sheltering in place, and quarantine, and facemasks, and hand sanitizer, and no in-person school, and no in-person worship, while we’re all left wondering, “Where’s God in all of this?” Paul makes it clear that the answer to that question is, God is right here! Right there! With you and I. Where God has been the whole time! In the form of the Holy Spirit. It turns out that her whereabouts were not an unsolvable puzzle after all, nor was it as scary as a haunted house of mirrors.

My friends, my siblings, my family, we are living in days that are filled with fear, anxiety, sadness, confusion, and all the other emotions that we experience; but thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit, through the many and various gifts imparted to you, there is also an abundance of joy, and adventure, and hopefulness, and peace, and assurance, and love out there. I know this because I have the privilege of being your pastor, and as such, I have the privilege of being a hub that information passes through, that your stories pass through, that your experiences pass through. And so, from my perspective, the Holy Spirit is just as active and vibrant and beautiful as ever, maybe even more so, if that’s even possible. All that is to say this, know most assuredly that God is with you and this world, and as it turns out, is quite easy to find these days. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Being Saved

Inspired by 1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57

Wow! This is some powerful stuff from Paul today! He is fired up! When I finished reading this last week, I almost said out loud, “Amen! Preach it brother!” Just a fantastic piece of writing here. I oftentimes struggle with Paul. He can be a bit obtrusive at times, a bit arrogant at other times, and sometimes too constricting, unwavering, inflexible for my taste. But then I come across a passage like this and fall back in love with him all over again. As a quick reminder, remember that Paul is writing to a church that is in turmoil, by their own hand. They have strayed from the teachings of Paul and Jesus, and are basically not behaving like the church, like the body of Christ that they were supposed to be representing. We don’t really know exactly what they were doing wrong but it’s not hard to read between the lines as you read this letter and figure out what they were doing or not doing that got under Paul’s skin so badly.

Things were so bad there that they needed a basic 101 class on what love was supposed to look like, which we discussed last week. This week, we have more of a doctrinal lesson from Paul to them. Not only were they behaving badly, but their theology was all out of whack too. Which is so human of them isn’t it? Left to our own devices, without anyone to correct us or keep us on track, we naturally stray, we’re like a car that gets out of alignment over time. It happens to every car eventually. The car still functions, meaning it still can get you from point A to point B, but it isn’t running as efficiently as it once did, not to mention, it’s causing unnecessary damage, especially to the tires which you will pay for in the end. Like a car, we too need to be aligned once in a while, whether we like to admit it or not. As sound as our Lutheran theology is, we certainly let some bad theology seep in. I hear it in phrases like, “There’s a reason for everything!” Or, “That must have been God’s plan!” We say those kinds of things all the time! But when you really think about it, they don’t come from very sound theology do they. And that’s where Paul steps in.

So, the theological mishap that he is addressing here is all about our physical bodies. Now, you might be thinking, “It is? That’s not what I heard!” Well, it’s the way that Paul gets us there that might be throwing you off. Let me explain. Paul starts out by reminding them, us, what the gospel is, and all the word gospel means is “good news.” And the good news according to Paul is simple, “Christ died…was buried…and rose.” That’s it. Simple. Paul says that is the good news by which we are “being saved.” Now before we get into what that good news means for us, I want to pause there for a bit and highlight that phrase that Paul used, “being saved.” That phrase, all by itself, is good news for us, is gospel for us. Why? Because in that phrase, Paul asserts that salvation, isn’t a once and done kind of thing, it’s a process, an ongoing way of life for us. Now, why is that good news? Because that means that salvation isn’t a train going by us at full speed that you might miss! It means that salvation isn’t a plane that you need a boarding pass for, and a TSA check, and a RealID for. It means salvation isn’t something that you have to get right at a particular place and time otherwise it’s gonna pass you by!

Think of it this way. For those of you who are or have been married, imagine if all the work to make a successful marriage began and ended on your wedding day. You’d be lucky if you lasted til your first anniversary! Or, for those of you who have been parents, imagine if all your work of parenting, began and ended on the day your children were born! Your baby would literally not survive, let alone become one of the brattiest brats that ever lived. Here’s one more, for those of you who have ever taken or taught a class, on anything. Imagine if all your work for that class could be done on the first day. As awesome as that would be, how much would you really learn? Good things take time, hard work, intentionality, passion, not to mention love. That’s what God puts into salvation for us. God’s not a once and done and move on kinda God. That’s what’s packed into that one phrase from Paul, “being saved.” But let’s get back to that being dead, buried and rose.

For Paul, that’s the crux of the story of Jesus: dead, buried, and rose. But that’s not what the Corinthian church had a problem with. They believed that. But they had trouble connecting the dots between that and what that had to do with us. For them, it seemed that it was enough to confess that Jesus died, was buried, and rose. But for Paul, that’s only half the story. The rest falls on our own death, burial, and resurrection. That’s what this baby church in Corinth could not seem to understand. From Paul’s perspective though, the resurrection of Christ meant nothing without the hope of our own resurrection, and not just a resurrection of our spirit or soul or essence or mind or whatever you want to call it. For Paul, it was important to understand that our bodies would be raised to new life as well, the physical, material, flesh, blood, and bone of our existence.

Now, how literal you want to interpret that is entirely up to you but here is what I don’t want us to lose, as theologian Kathryn Schifferdecker puts it: “matter matters.” Matter meaning the physical substance of our bodies, matters to God, is valued by God, is important to God. God does not see us as a bunch of beautiful souls trapped in smelly, imperfect, decaying bodies! Our whole being, all that makes us who we are is important and valued by God, and moreover, has some sort of place in the here and now as well as in eternity. And if that is hard to wrap your brain around, join the club, because we’re in good company. By Paul’s own admission he calls this a “mystery!”

Now why is this important to our present lives? Remember, this doesn’t mean a thing unless we can relate these teachings to us in the here and now. I find this to be good news, especially now, when we are living in a time when our physical bodies are having to take a back seat to our existence. When we are being told that being together physically is not good right now. When we are, for the good of others, being told to stay away from others physically. When we are expected to be satisfied with virtual meetings, virtual Bible studies, virtual worship, virtual socializing, but the truth is, it’s not enough! And the good news here from Paul, is that God agrees! It’s not enough! We were made for more than this! We were made to be united together, physically, personally, face to face! And as much as pastors and churches are bending over backwards to make us feel connected, deep down our hearts are yelling, “This is not enough!” And God says, “I know! I know. This is not enough.” And to get that affirmation from God is, maybe the most gospely good news I’ve heard in a long time. Cuz, we don’t always need someone to solve our problems, sometimes the best thing someone can do for us, is just acknowledge our pain, and affirm that what we are feeling is accurate. And I don’t know about you, but right now I’m feeling like this is not enough.

So what do we do? Because for the time being, and who know how much longer, this is what we got. So what do we do? Let me circle us back to two points from Paul in this passage for some help with this dilemma, not a solution, but some help. One, salvation is a process, we have not been saved, past tense, but we are being saved. And two, the hope of resurrection. This is why Paul refused to be satisfied with just Christ’s resurrection. But for Paul, if Christ rose then that means we will rise, and not just in some future far off place in the clouds after we die, but now, that process begins now, in fact, it has always been in the works. The hope that new life is around the corner, is in our future, can help us get through the dead parts of our lives, the buried parts of our lives. This pandemic can feel like that at times, like we’ve been buried in it. But Paul assures us that nothing, not a pandemic, not even death, can escape the power of God in Christ Jesus—that though we die, literally or figuratively, we will live, that though we are buried, literally or figuratively, we will be raised, and that resurrection starts now, and includes our entire being. Thanks be to God. Amen.


In the Love Business

Inspired by First Corinthians 13

We continue with our reading selections from First Corinthians today, and we will remain in this letter of Paul’s through the end of the month. This letter is one of his most well known and beloved letters that made it into the Bible, and for good reason, today’s selection being a great example of why. As we learned last week, the church in Corinth had a great start with Paul, but as soon as he left, things went to pot pretty quickly. And that’s putting it mildly! They had a lot of issues to work through as a church, and to be fair, we all do, but things must have been particularly bad there as this letter suggests. They were bad enough that he had to write them several letters, some of which we no longer have, as well as visit them several times, all to try and get them on the straight and narrow.

Today’s reading continues this work of Paul’s with them and it may be one of the most well-known passages in the whole Bible. Even for people who are not church goers, odds are, they have heard this passage because it is one of the most requested readings for weddings. It was read it mine! In fact, we recently came across our box of home videos and the first one we popped in was our wedding and I think it was my sister who read this passage for us. It’s a beautiful passage for a lot of reasons. It is beautifully written. It is raw and down to earth. It doesn’t waste time with flowery language nor is it overly philosophical or academic. It could easily be in the running for passages that best sum up the whole Bible, and win!

However, as amazing as this passage is, as requested as this passage is, historically speaking, the church has done a poor job of actually following this simple, straightforward lesson. And simple it is! The lesson here is: love, period. How in the world do we mess that up so badly? Paul makes it very clear, without a shred of doubt, that the most important element of our religion is love. But we have made so many other things more important than love, directly thumbing our nose at Paul’s lesson here. Over the course of the last nearly two thousand years, we have made things like faith more important than love, we have made doctrines more important than love, we have made scripture more important than love, we have made gender, sexuality, race, marital status, suicide, politics, cognitive abilities, mental health, incarceration, all more important than love, just to name a few off the top of my head.

I don’t think I need to go into detail of all the ways that our religion has allowed each of these things and more to become more important than love, I’ll let you connect those dots. One of the reasons I think we’ve lost the power of this passage is because we only hear it at weddings, and even if we read it in worship on a Sunday, the preacher usually doesn’t preach on it, but instead preaches on the Gospel lesson for that day, another reason why I love the Narrative Lectionary. And weddings are generally positive experiences with atmospheres of hope and encouragement and new life. So when we hear this passage in that kind of context all we here is a sappy Bible passage about how much the couple getting married should love each other. But that’s not it’s original context at all! This was a passage of admonition and correction, even scolding!

But we don’t hear it that way do we, all we get today is a warm fuzzy feeling when we hear this passage. And our response is usually one of, “Awwwww.” Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ll forever respond with awwww every time I hear this passage. But too many people have been hurt, even died, because the church has not taken this passage seriously, that we really can’t afford to only get warm fuzzies from this passage. So, how do we put this passage back into its original context? How do we get its power back? How do we get its corrective nature back? 

For those of you blessed with two loving parents, do you remember doing something bad and then having to wait for one of your parents to get home and deliver the punishment? Do you remember that feeling? That’s the feeling that you should keep in mind as you read this letter from Paul. Or how about being told to stand in the corner and “think about what you’ve done”? Remember that feeling? Oh, this one’s even worse, how about when a parent or guardian told you that they were disappointed in you, rather than handing out a punishment! Oh man, I’d taking a whipping or a grounding any day over that! This is the frame of mind we should approach this beautiful passage from Paul with. As a homework assignment, I’d encourage you to reread it with that mindset and see how different it sounds.

But not right now, let’s keep moving. One of the things that I love about this passage is how practical it is. One of the lessons I remember from my internship supervisor in Alabama was how important it is to give people practical help in a sermon, examples of what you are talking about, to help them incorporate what I’m saying into their everyday lives. And that is exactly what Paul does here. He gives us lots of verbs and adjectives that not only describe what love looks like, but also what it doesn’t look like, just in case we weren’t sure. He really drives this home for us. So, I’d like to first take a look at what love isn’t, and to do that, I’ve put all those verbs and adjectives together, both the ones he gives us for what love isn’t, but also the opposite of the ones that he gives for what love is. Here is what that list looks like, this, according to Paul, is what love is not supposed to look like: hatred, intolerance, cruelty, jealousy, boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, selfishness, irritableness, ignorance, bitterness, despair, injustice, skepticism, impermanence, and disappointment.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it! All those stem from this one passage. If Paul doesn’t get through to us with those, then he’s just not gonna get through, is he! Now, let’s take a look at what love is supposed to look like according to Paul. Let’s take a look at the opposite of each of those words. This is what that list looks like: patience, kindness, pride, humbleness, humility, politeness, generous, easygoing, wise, forgiving, hopeful, just, trusting, lasting, and trustworthy. Again, all those stem from this passage from Paul as he tries to nail down for us what exactly love is and isn’t. And for the Corinthians, they were apparently exhibiting all those words that describe what love was not supposed to look like. Now imagine visiting a church that was exhibiting all those words! I’d like to say that a church like that would never last! But sadly, we know differently. Churches have been thriving on those words for nearly two thousand years now. But for a startup religion like the Corinthian church represented, it could have been a catastrophe, which is why this letter was so important for Paul to write.

Today, it is still important for us to remain vigilant, so that we don’t fall into those old patterns, so that we don’t allow our sinful nature to get the better of us. Even though we are no longer a fledgling new startup religion, the world still takes notice of our actions. And if our actions don’t represent a God who loves unconditionally, then it’s time for a course correction. And thankfully, that is exactly who we represent, a God who loves us, no matter what, a God who does not allow anything to become more important than love, not even God’s own ego. Which is why I love this passage so much, and why it’s so important for us to recapture its power! It gives us a checklist, for those times when we want to see how we’re doing with this love business, for those times when we fear we may be straying a bit, so that we can above all, represent our God, the perfecter of love. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Core Training

Inspired by Acts 18:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

So like last Sunday, today we get another glimpse into the birth and life of one of Christianity’s first congregations. Last week we took a look at the first church in Thessalonica from Acts chapter seventeen, and today we are in the city of Corinth from the eighteenth chapter. We don’t know exactly how much time passed between Paul’s visit to these two cities, but we do know that he visited Athens on his way to Corinth. For those of you interested, Corinth was a big city hub that connected the northern and southern regions of Greece. If you wanted to do any kind of business in Greece, even religious business, you’d be a fool not to go there. It’d be like trying to start a tech company and ignoring silicon valley. Which may be why Paul had the reaction he did in his letter to them, what we’ve come to know as First Corinthians, but we’ll get to that in a moment because like last week, we will get to fast forward and check in on this church with Paul.

In Acts, however, we get this very peaceful scene as Paul begins to make connections with the religious folk of this city. He doesn’t begin by doing some heavy-handed preaching, but rather, he begins working with them, side by side, making tents. Now, I don’t’ know about you, and maybe this pandemic is getting to me, but in my head, this is one of the hippiest scenes in the Bible. I mean, tent-making? I’m picturing Paul in dreadlocks, wearing his very first-century linen garb, sitting in a circle with his new friends, all singing kumbaya, while they make their tents. Again, I might be suffering from pandemic-brain so cut me some slack here. Whether or not you see the same thing when reading this, it is important to recognize the peaceful nature of Paul’s first interactions with those Corinthians.

And before we move on, I feel it necessary to point out what I think made his time there “successful.” And I put successful in quotes because by the end of this, you may or may not find Paul’s Corinthian venture a success, but I don’t want to spoil anything just yet so let’s keep pace here. What I think gave Paul an edge with these first Christians in Corinth was his time making tents with them. Later in the chapter, Luke writes that it wasn’t until Silas and Timothy join him that he really puts his preaching into overdrive. But up until that point, he just works with them. Good ol’ fashioned manual labor. He found something in common with them, in this case, the tent-making trade, and simply worked with them, and got to know them in the process, connected with them.

Now, some might see that as a bit manipulative. I’m not going to pretend to know the mind of Paul, and I wasn’t there, but I’m gonna choose to interpret his actions in the best possible light. I think he was just being a nice person, and getting to know people. I mean, that’s what we’re called to do as Christians right? Be nice, make friends, get to know people where they are? And I think that’s what made his ministry so effective when it finally came time to tell them about Jesus. Did it work on everyone? Of course not. But for those it made an impression on, Paul was able to start a church with. But things didn’t stay so serene and hippie-like for long. Singing kumbaya with each other soon became a thing of the distant past.

Fast forward to who knows how long into the future and Paul is not hearing things about this church that he founded that he necessarily likes, to put it mildly. Since he left Corinth, he’d been to Antioch, Galatia, Phrygia, and is in Ephesus, where he is inspired to write to the church in Corinth. But this is not the same peace and love, kumbaya Paul that they once knew. The dreadlocks are now gone. No, seriously, he stopped at a village on his way out of Corinth and got a haircut! I’m not making that up, don’t look at me like that, Acts 18:18, look it up! Anywho, the Paul that writing to them now, was not a happy camper. He was mortified at what he was hearing about this baby church in Corinth, and babies are exactly what they were acting like! What was once a peaceful community, was now engaged in squabble after squabble!

Let me read to you a short selection from the opening chapter of that letter, “Now I encourage you, siblings, in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My siblings, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? Thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, except Crispus and Gaius, so that nobody can say that you were baptized in my name! Oh, I baptized the house of Stephanas too. Otherwise, I don’t know if I baptized anyone else. Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.

Now, I know, it’s hard for you to relate to this, it’s hard for us to even imagine people at church fighting, right! Inconceivable! But there they were, fighting over everything from marital issues to eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols! And in his opening words of his first letter to them, it’s a fight over competing loyalties that has them all out of sorts. Throughout the letter, he will address many issues that are going on in their church but first and foremost, he needs to get them on the same page where their loyalties are concerned. For some reason, they got it in their heads that it mattered how they first came to this new faith, specifically, who they came to this new faith through. Some were claiming allegiance to Peter, others Apollos, others Jesus, others Paul. And apparently, who baptized them gave them some sort of clout over others. In other words, those who were baptized by Paul may have thought they were more important than those who were baptized by Peter, or vice versa. It was seriously getting ridiculous and Paul set out to correct them with this letter. And for a new religion, they could not afford for the world to see them fighting!

So, what do you do, when things go from being peaceful and serene, to chaos and conflict? We wouldn’t know anything about that, would we? Whether it’s a church split or a pandemic, or an unexpected death, or job loss—life has a way of turning from peace and serenity to chaos and conflict faster than you can say Christ is risen! And when it happens it can be so disheartening! Enough to take the wind right out of you. Things were going so well, and then bam, the world around us is unrecognizable, or sometimes it’s you that’s unrecognizable. What do you do then? Well, I think Paul’s words in his letter to them are helpful and wise, albeit a bit pollyannish. I mean, he does open by saying to “agree with each other and don’t be divided.” He knows we’re human right?

But when things do go south, whether it’s our own divisiveness, or when life just deals us a low blow, what can we do to get back some sense of normalcy? Paul encourages us to return to the core of who we are, and that core is Jesus. What unites us is not a doctrine or a place or a favorite pastor or theologian, it’s not a certain behavior or a sexuality or a gender or a shade of skin pigmentation—it’s Jesus. And when we forget that, it makes the chaotic times of our lives all the more chaotic. As a pastor, I find a lot of my work has been to make you ready for the next big storm that hits us. I know, that sounds a bit pessimistic, but if lightning strikes, and you all flounder not knowing what to do or where to turn, then I’ve not done my job. And I think that’s what Paul was trying to do with that first church in Corinth. Paul knew that their petty squabbling was only the tip of the iceberg of life that was headed their way. And if he didn’t prepare them for that, he took that personally.

Now, more than ever, we need to remind ourselves of what unites us, what feeds us, what guides, what keeps us from pulling our hair out, what keeps us from strangling our family that we are sheltering with, you get me meaning. It is Christ. It is Christ who is at our core, it is the ways of Christ that keep us balanced, it is the teachings of Christ that guide us away from chaos and despair—which is why it is Christ that our loyalty is called toward. Christ did not die on the cross so that we could go about our days, business as usual. No, we are called to die with him, and not just die but to rise as well, which means we are called to be transformed, to adapt under life’s uncertainties—or as I like to call it, to roll with the punches of life. Chin up my friends, this present chaos and conflict that we are immersed in, ain’t got noth’n on the power of Christ, as seen through his body in this world, us. Thanks be to God. Amen.


House Rules

Inspired by Acts 17:1-9 and 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Today, we actually have two readings selected for us, the second one I will read to you in a moment, and this will be the case next Sunday as well. The reason why we have two readings these two Sundays is kinda cool. What they’ve done is zeroed in on two specific churches from those earliest days of this new religion that we’ve come to know as Christianity. The first is the church in Thessalonica, which we will cover today, and the other is the church in Corinth, which we will actually spend the rest of the month in starting next Sunday. For today, as well as next week, they’ve given us the story of the founding of the church in that city, which I just read to you from Acts, and then they’ve also given us a selection from one of Paul’s letters to that city, as a kind of reflection on how things have progressed since each church’s founding in that particular city. And each church ends up in very different circumstances but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. These two weeks should be unique and fun, so let’s dig in!

We are in the seventeenth chapter of the book of Acts, and there we find Paul and his partner in crime, Silas, traveling about sharing the good news of Christ wherever people will listen. And they find themselves in a city called Thessalonica. Paul went to the synagogue there, as he usually did when visiting a city, and got to know the local worshippers. Well, that’s not all he did, he did have a bit of an agenda to be fair. He went there to tell them about Jesus. That part always makes me cringe a bit because I personally would never set out to steal someone away from their church or religion. But in his defense, I don’t think that’s the way he would have seen it. He wasn’t trying to make people leave their religion. He didn’t want them to not be Jews anymore. In fact, he probably thought he was trying to make them more Jewish by bring them the fulfillment of the Law, the Covenant, in the person of Jesus the Christ. His intentions were innocent, as innocent as any human that is. This will be important in a minute.

So, he’s there for at least three Sabbaths, three weeks, according to our author, Luke. During that time he talks with them about scripture and Jesus and how the two are tied together, and some were convinced! Quite a few as a matter of fact! At least enough to start a congregation there. And not only did Jews begin following Jesus but also some Gentiles, Greek God-worshippers Luke calls them. These were probably non-Jews who were following the Jewish religion but hadn’t quite taken the final step toward conversion. And what would that final step be? Circumcision! So, who could blame them for not taking that last step, right! So, these Greek God-worshippers were on the outskirts of this religion they followed, they were on the periphery, not fully one of the crowd, not fully accepted. This too will be important in a minute.

Luke also mentions that “quite a few prominent women” were convinced by Paul as well. Now, whether these were Jewish women or Gentiles is hard to say but from the verses that follow our reading, it was probably Gentile women. Either way, it’s significant that Luke mentions that many women began to follow as well. Talk about a group that lived on the periphery, on the outskirts of society, not fully accepted as equals. This isn’t a minor detail that Luke just drops in here, especially after we just got done reading the Gospel of Mark, where women are featured frequently. They heard something in Paul’s message that piqued their interest, that caused them to follow Paul in the ways of Jesus. Hmmmm, wonder what that was? Let’s keep moving forward in the story.

Not everyone was thrilled with Paul’s message! Imagine that. Not everyone was buying what he was selling about this Jesus guy he kept talking about. However, the Jewish leadership who was not convinced, couldn’t just leave it alone. They couldn’t just let bygones be bygones, and in a very gangster kinda way, they send some, what our translation calls, thugs after them. You heard that right, they put a hit out on them! First they formed a mob, I’m picturing pitchforks in my mind because it’s more fun that way, they start a riot in the city streets, then, when they find out where Paul and his people are staying, they try to attack them there! It was total chaos! All because they disagreed with Paul. Well, Luke writes that it was because they were jealous. But you and I know that’s only part of it.

Jealousy is what comes out on the surface. Jealousy is the outcome of something happening deeper, under the surface. Usually, it stems from feeling threatened. Why would these Jewish leaders feel threatened? Because, as Luke put it, they were “disturbing the peace.” Which is ironic because these same Jewish leaders had just a put a hit out on them and started a riot but whatever. I actually like the translation of this from New Revised Standard Version better which puts it this way, “They shouted, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down.’” That’s what was disturbing their peace. This Jesus character that Paul followed was disrupting the good thing they had going in that city! Because, as we have come to know, Jesus likes to change the rules. They had everyone compartmentalize into nice neat categories of who is in and who is out, who is circumcised and who is not, who was religious enough and who was not, who is male and who is not—and then Jesus comes along and changes all that, changes the rules on them, and they weren’t having it!

Jesus is like one of those annoying friends who, when you’re playing a card game at their house all of a sudden claims house rules. You know anyone like that? They are those people that allow you to stack draw two cards on top of each other when playing the game Uno, you know the kind. Those aren’t the rules! When someone lays down a draw two card the next person draws two and forfeits their turn and the game continues to the next player! But I digress, sorry, anyone who knows me knows that I can be a little competitive, and competition means nothing unless everyone is following the rules! But this is where I would be wrong when it comes to Jesus. Because wherever Jesus goes, you’re playing in his house. And so, Jesus can call house rules, whenever Jesus wants to. And Paul knew that. But some didn’t like that, and felt threatened by it. Long story short, when they couldn’t find Paul and his companions, they went after those who were hosting them, a guy by the name of Jason, whom we know nothing else about, along with some other believers, and had them thrown into jail. They were probably thinking that this would teach them, and that would be the end of it.

Fast forward to a later time, Paul has long left the city of Thessalonica, visiting and starting churches in other cities, and he sends Timothy to go check on them. Timothy does and then brings back a report to Paul. This report inspires Paul to write a letter to them, what we now know as First Thessalonians, of which the first ten verses are as follows, “From Paul, Silas, and Timothy. To the Thessalonians’ church that is in God the Creator and Jesus the Christ. Grace and peace to all of you. We always thank God for all of you when we mention you constantly in our prayers. This is because we remember your work that comes from faith, your effort that comes from love, and your perseverance that comes from hope in Jesus the Christ in the presence of our God.

Siblings, you are loved by God, and we know that God has chosen you. We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know as well as we do what kind of people we were when we were with you, which was for your sake. You became imitators of us and of Jesus when you accepted the message that came from the Holy Spirit with joy in spite of great suffering. As a result you became an example to all the believers in the region. The message about Jesus rang out from you, not only in there but in every place. The news about your faithfulness to God has spread so that we don’t even need to mention it. People tell us about what sort of welcome we had from you and how you turned to God from idols. As a result, you are serving the living and true God, and you are waiting for God’s chosen one from heaven, who is Jesus, the one God raised from the dead and the one who will rescue us from the coming wrath.”

The church in Thessalonica was born out of hardship, cruelty, and even violence. They tried to stop them with mobs, riots, and arrests. But there they were, sometime later, in spite of the challenges, still following the Jesus that Paul had shared with them, a Jesus that changed the rules, a Jesus that turned welcoming and inviting on their head, a Jesus who redefined what it means to be in and out—spoiler alert, everyone’s in—a Jesus who allowed Paul to write them one of the most powerful sentences in all of scripture, “Siblings, you are loved by God, and we know that God has chosen you.” Because not only was this church born out of chaos, it included groups of people who didn’t fit in anywhere else, who lived on the periphery of life, on the outskirts, not fully accepted, not fully included, not fully worthy. Until Jesus claims house rules, and says “No, my siblings, you are loved, you are chosen, and don’t you dare let anyone tell you otherwise.” Words that so many needed to hear two thousand years ago, and today. Thanks be to God. Amen.