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Wanting to preach from the New Testament and hear the gospel witness in another voice and perspective I turned to the Lectionary (church’s engagement with Scripture for the year) readings as we finish the season of Pentecost, which began back in May and ends on November 15, from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Interestingly enough, this is the earliest writing in the New Testament. Yes, even before the Gospels, or any other book. I encourage you to read 1 Thessalonians all 5 chapters. Notice the movement in his letter to the people of Thessalonica. From the opening greeting in 1:1 to the reception (1:2-10) Paul and his team of Silvanus/Silas and Timothy are greeted with in Thessalonica, moving into Paul’s ongoing care and concern for them in 2:1-3:13. In his letter Paul strengthens them in their witness and the teachings of Jesus’ return, 4:1-5:11, to finally in 5:12-22 encouraging them to give strength to each other as a new community of faith in how they would live their lives in the midst of what for them would be countercultural.
In this first letter from Paul who is responding to a report from his co-worker Timothy after his return from Thessalonica we get to see the beginnings of a church plant. We get to see how the early apostles went about to spread the gospel message of a crucified, dead, risen, and yes returning Lord.
Paul and his team infiltrate Thessalonica working and living among them. This was a major port city along a main thorough fair under Roman rule. While Greek in law and culture, they were under Roman authority. Pagan worship or cults along with some Jewish population or communities (Acts 17) were the reality of the day. Arriving in Thessalonica having been chased out of Philippi (1 Thess. 2:2), they arrive to proclaim Jesus where they are initially well received. Yet, all doesn’t end well. There are dueling loyalties with the Roman government, pagan worship and a Jewish synagogue. This doesn’t deter Paul and his team. They make relationships with the Thessalonians as they live, work, and move among them. They make themselves known through their characters and as witnesses to Jesus. They announce the good news of Jesus’ return which creates a challenge for people to hear. Paul, Silas, and Timothy offer something different and will also be sent away from Thessalonica. If we are honest, not much has changed in the mission field.
We are not told about any conversion as far as great numbers, but we do know there are Christian believers left to make a community of faith and carry on the work that Paul and his team had begun and I imagine it struggled in its identity to go against the culture of the times, against family, and even work. We find a similar circumstance today as the church, to keep our identity in Jesus Christ as we proclaim the good news of Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection, along with his return that often is anti-cultural. Our culture is filled with “something else” that clamors for our time, attention, and loyalty. Paul offers this fledgling community encouragement and gives thanks for them, “remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I encourage you church to not fret over numbers within the church, the din of our society that clamors for your loyalty and attention but encourage you and give thanks for the ways in which you faithfully work, labor in love, and the steadfastness of hope that is in our Lord Jesus as we live in the reality of the in between; a risen Lord and a not yet Lord who is coming. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
With you on the journey,