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Monday, May 1, 2017

The Origin of the Church

“Called out, called into” (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)
Sunday, April 30, 2017

            You open your Bible.  You flip past the Old Testament and turn to the New, but you skip the four gospels.  You skip the most quoted of Paul’s letters, Romans.  You keep turning pages until you’re at 1st Thessalonians.  What do you see?  Do you see the word Paul invents there? 
            An experienced Bible reader knows many of the New Testament books are attributed to a man named Paul.  Romans is the letter from Paul to the church in the city of Rome.  That letter says in chapter 1, verse 7, “To all God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints.”  First Corinthians is so titled because it is Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.  It be begins, “To the church of God that is in Corinth” (1:2); and so on with Second Corinthians, Galatians and so forth.
            Note the opening to 1 Thessalonians.  In the others, it was ‘God’s beloved in Rome,’ ‘the church … in Corinth’, and so on.  But here it says, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1).  It does not say ‘to the church at Thessalonica,’ but rather, ‘to the Thessalonians.’  I never noticed this in over 25 years of reading the Bible.  What is it about that city that led Paul to write in this way? 
            We find the story of Paul’s time Thessalonica in Acts 17.  He was there with his colleagues Silas and Timothy.  They were hosted by a man named Jason.  Many of the Jews in the Thessalonian synagogue decided to become followers of Jesus because of the preaching of Paul, Silas, and Timothy.  However, many more were violently opposed to the Gospel.  Furthermore, the religious conditions in the city made it certain that any Thessalonian who came to follow Jesus, Jew or Greek, would run into trouble. 
            A mob from the synagogue came looking for Paul and when they couldn’t find him, they forcefully dragged his host, Jason, and several of the other new Christians before the magistrate and accused them of violating Roman law by virtue of their practice of Christianity (Acts 17:5).  It’s an accusation that would have legs because of the dominant religion in Thessalonica – emperor worship.  Ancient coins discovered there indicate that the emperor was seen as a god and was to be honored as the Lord above all others.  Thessalonians believed in many gods.  They didn’t care what god you bowed to as long as you and your god bowed to Augustus and his descendants who served as emperor of Rome.
            The Thessalonian church was born in the midst of accusations coming from Jews in the city and then outright persecution by the Greek city officials who ran the city.  That all hit right at the outset.  This group – the gathering of Thessalonian Christ followers – claimed to be inheritors of the story of Israel.  Israel’s story was fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.  However, though they were birthed in the course of Israel’s story, the early Christians were part of something new, a new group.  And in Thessalonica, they saw themselves as a distinct group.[i] 
There was no word in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek for our English word ‘church.’  When you read in 1 Thessalonians 1:1 “to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” it makes perfect sense, in English.  In Greek it says, ‘th ekklhsia, the assembly.’  What is translated ‘church’ in our English Bibles is actually the word ‘assembly,’ and it had a definite meaning in Thessalonica and other Greek speaking cities.  That meaning was not ‘a gathering of Christians who make up the body of Christ and worship God together in Jesus’ name.’
When Paul writes to the Thessalonians and calls them ‘ekklesia,’ he is defining a new entity, one that had not existed prior to 35 AD.  The first followers of Jesus stayed together in Jerusalem after the resurrection, the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, and then the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  If those events are unfamiliar to you, you can read all about them in the first two chapters of the book of Acts.  That gathering of Jesus followers that stayed together eventually became what we now know of as church.  Paul, who became a Christian a few years later, traveled all over the Mediterranean world, sharing the news that God had fulfilled Israel’s story by coming in the person of Jesus, and in doing so had rescued all of humankind from sin and defeated death forever.  But the first believers didn’t realize they were the first church because they didn’t know what church was.
As Paul preached this message, Jews accepted that Jesus was their Messiah.  Pagan gentiles accepted that their life of pantheism was a lie and that they needed Jesus.  The Jews and gentiles joined together and formed communities.  The letters Paul wrote to these communities helped them define what they were – a people joined together in Christ.  The Thessalonians were one of the first to recognize that by coming together in Christ, they were apart from the culture in which they lived.  Being in Christ collectively, they were apart from Greek culture.  They were set apart from emperor worship.  They had decided to leave behind the culture of their birth.  They did this knowing it would mean harsh consequences.  They could see the goodness of God, and so they accepted persecution to join something new.  When they read what Paul wrote, ‘Thessalonian Ekklesia,’ they knew he was talking about something new and they were part of it.    
What do you make of the title of the sermon that’s in the bulletin, ‘Called out, Called into?’  We see ‘to the church of the Thessalonians’ in our Bibles and don’t blink.  How many churches are in Chapel Hill and Carrboro?  I don’t know.  Over 50?  How many churches are in North Carolina?  When Paul wrote the letter and began with the phrase ‘assembly of Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,’ he was naming what they were.  They were called out of the only world they had known and into something – church – the world have never seen.
Verse 6 sums the enormous significance of this.  “In spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”  In some pockets of American Christianity we see great efforts made to make coming to church an easy, comfortable, attractive thing to do.  Churches try to package the Gospel so that it is palatable.  Some churches go to great lengths to accommodate seekers, unchurched persons, and nonbelievers.  I get it.  The motivation is to help more people who don’t know Jesus come to saving faith in him.  But, what kind of Jesus do people meet when their salvation is packaged with no struggle, no tears, and a sanitized cross?  What kind of Christianity are they embracing, when they Gospel they’re taught is contorted to fit their lives and not inconvenience them in any way?
It is a Christianity out of touch with Gospel we get in the Bible.  Paul preached at Jason’ house.  The group that gathered managed to get Paul, Silas, and Timothy out of Thessalonica, but Jason and others around him were roughed up and arrested and had to pay bail.  In this ordeal of suffering, Paul remarks, you joyfully met Jesus, decided to follow him, and thus became not just an ‘assembly’ like the other assemblies in Thessalonica.  You became his church
I found this definition of church from a scholar writing about Thessalonica.  Church is “the arena in which God’s revelation in Jesus Christ has become present and active.”  In other words, we know it is church because God is here and is doing something.  The definition continues, “The Holy Spirit is present and active preparing those called” for the end time when God will bring everything together.[ii]  Church is not like any other group; there is no analogy.  Church is the “gathering of those who are in Christ,” linked in baptism, commissioned to give witness, and prepared for eternity. 
This sense of being called out of the world was clear for the Thessalonians and they accepted it and the hardship that went with it.  Do we?  (A) Do we truly believe that by gathering with others who are in Christ we are called out from the world?  I’ve made the case this morning that church is an entirely unique gathering, unlike anything else.  Do we believe that?  (B) If we do, do we then accept that by being part of the church, then the church is our top loyalty precisely because when we are joined together in church, we are joined together in Christ?
Chapel Hill of 2017 is not like Thessalonica of 40AD.  You will not have one a group declaring that you are causing society turmoil because you decided to join the church.  You will not have another, more powerful group believe the accusations of the first group and thus beat you up and imprison because you joined the church.  That won’t happen.  When you leave here and go to a restaurant, they’ll welcome you and take your money just like they do for all customers.  Your neighbors will smile and wave, and if you have any trouble and need to dial 9-1-1, the police will come and help you.  As church, we won’t face what the Thessalonians face as Church.  But we are called out of our world just as they were.
I reject the notion that churches should bend over backwards to accommodate the tastes of attendees.  We can and should have a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere.  We must extend generous hospitality.  When people come here, we want them to know that they matter.  When we people meet us, we want them to know they are loved by God and by us.  But love is different than doing whatever is necessary to get people to come and try to force people to be happy.  We want to help people meet God and receive God’s love.  Upon receiving that saving love of God, we want to help people live life as followers of Jesus.  In this kind of life, he is Lord of everything, and we submit everything in our lives to Him.  What do we think the Gospel asks of the individual believer?  We think the Gospel asks you to submit everything in your life to Jesus as Lord. 
We’re called out of the world and into the church, into the family of God, into His eternal Kingdom.  That is our destiny.  Life as his disciples is our current reality. 
We’re called out, but that doesn’t mean we abandon the world.  As we are called into the Kingdom, we are given a mission.  We sent to the world, lost and dying as it is, to call out others who don’t know the saving love of Jesus.  Besides being a worshiping community of person that are linked in Baptism and prepared for eternity, the church is a commissioned community.  We are sent back into the world as God's representatives tasked with helping others hear God’s call.
Paul expresses great admiration for the witness of the Thessalonians on this count.  Verse 7.  He says to them, “You became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Acaia.  For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you … in every place your faith in God has become known.  For the people of those regions report about … how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (v.7-9).  The Thessalonians answered God’s call by following Jesus no matter the cost.  They became known for their faith.
For what are we known?
Called out of the world and into the Kingdom, our answer to the call is seen in how we love each other and in how we give witness to Christ in the world out of which we have been called.  To be called out doesn’t mean we leave the world behind.  It means we become different people within it.  We are in the world as persons and as a people in Christ.  In verse 3 Paul summarizes the values that must be what defines us.  He mentions the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  These same values and attributes – faith, hope, and love – are listed in 1st Corinthians, the great “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13.  We will draw others to Christ when they look at our lives and see faith, hope, and love. 
This came from Jesus, not from Paul.  We have this letter because he was apart from the church, appreciating who they became in his absence.  Our church does not depend on the preacher to provide the faith, hope, and love.  That comes from Jesus.  As has been said for many weeks, after next Sunday, I begin a 4-month Sabbatical.  I won’t be here.  But, I will still be part of this place and no matter who is preaching, we are called together to be God’s church, a people joined in Christ, bound for His kingdom, and sent out into our town to call others out of the world and into the church, the body of Christ.  As long as we remember that this is who we are and as long as we stay attentive to the present, active Holy Spirit, God will speak in this place and we will hear. 
As Paul said to the Thessalonians in chapter 1, verse 4, I now say to HillSong Church.  “I know brothers and sisters, beloved by God, that he has chosen you.”

[i] K. Donfried (2002), Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids), p.143.
[ii] Ibid, p.145.

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