Persuaded

Last week, we read in Acts 3 about a healing that happened in the earliest days of the disciples’ ministry in Jerusalem. At this point, they were still learning what it meant to be leaders who served, and they were still learning to follow the way of Jesus with only the memories of his teaching to guide them. And the Holy Spirit to prompt and empower them.

Today, we jump way ahead to chapter 17.  

The spread of the good news has happened just as Jesus said… The disciples proclaimed Jesus as the Risen Lord, and as they continued to heal and teach and pray and worship, more and more followers began to do likewise. Gatherings of followers were birthed, communities of Christ-followers taking care of one another and their neighbors – in Judea and Samaria and ever farther out from Jerusalem.

We are now about 20 years past Peter’s first Pentecost sermon. Paul had long ago experienced his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus.  No longer the famous persecutor of the followers of Jesus,  Paul is counted among the apostles. Like Peter, his fiery passion can still be both a blessing and a curse, as Barnabus found when he traveled with Paul.  

As we pick up the thread this morning, Paul is traveling with Silas on a major Roman highway, one that connects the eastern and western portions of the Empire.  Listen for the word of the Lord…   Acts 17:1-9

It would seem Paul’s first visit to Thessalonica is a little rocky. Probably not the first story you would want to tell an aspiring church planter.  But then, much of Paul’s ministry reads like a cautionary tale.

Luke tells us that Paul follows a pattern not unlike Jesus did when he visits the synagogue and begins to teach.Starting with a familiar passage of Scripture, and perhaps a familiar interpretation of it,

Jesus would then come to a new and challenging reading of the text.  “You have heard it said…” he would begin. And then as heads begin to nod in agreement, Jesus would continue, “But I say to you… “

Like all good Rabbis, Jesus was unafraid to argue, to do the work needed to convince others that his way was the right way to understand the holy scriptures. Of course, Jesus had the advantage of knowing God’s will and intent more intimately, more fully, than other teachers ever could.

At least until Pentecost, when the power of the Holy Spirit was poured out in new ways, allowing for his followers to experience a new depth of relationship with God.

So, Luke tells us Paul’s pattern of teaching follows Jesus’. In this case, he argues from scripture that the messiah would, by necessity, suffer and be raised from the dead.  

We should note that this is about a decade before the gospels were written and distributed, much less gathered into a new testament. You see, Paul and all those who proclaimed Jesus as Lord would still say that they were part of the larger Jewish tradition. They looked to the same Hebrew scriptures that Jesus had used when teaching and leading.  

So this is where Paul would start, with the traditional understanding of the messiah coming, suffering and being raised from the dead.  All likely to be met with nods of agreement. Then, he would offer his conclusion: Jesus must be the messiah.  

It was this radically new and different application of the scripture that was so difficult to accept – Jesus as the Christ.

People needed persuading.  If anyone could understand their position, it was Paul.

After all, this was the man who had tracked down followers of Jesus and persecuted them. He was an expert in the law, a pharisee, a leading person in the synagogue… much like the men that Luke refers to as “The Jews” throughout Acts. Perhaps that background, combined with his own dramatic encounter with Christ, is what makes him so persuasive.

In Thessalonica, a diverse group listens and over time, many are persuaded.  There are Jews (some of the synagogues leaders), many Gentiles who have some connection to the synagogue, and some leading women in the community.  

But there are other leaders among the Jews who grew jealous of Paul. Perhaps they argued with him, but less persuasively. Perhaps they knew that debate would be less effective than plotting against him. Especially if they could keep their hands relatively clean by putting others up to no good.

They stir up trouble by hiring ruffians to act as though they are upset with Paul’s teachings, causing enough of a disturbance in their search for Paul and Silas to draw the attention of the city rulers.

Jason, possibly one of the Jews persuaded by Paul’s teaching, became the scapegoat.  Even though they don’t find Paul at his house, Jason is accused of harboring people with dangerous political ideals.

These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.

These charges are false, of course. Jason is not part of a political conspiracy, nor is Paul.

And yet…  

Committing to the idea that Jesus is the messiah IS a political stance. Saying Jesus is Lord – King – the one to whom I pledge my allegiance – is a political statement over against other political powers, including the Empire.  This was exactly the sort of radical statement that placed Jesus in the hands of Pilate and eventually on the cross.

Fortunately, Jason and the other believers are released and need only pay a fine, unlike the flogging and arrest that Paul and Silas had recently experienced while staying with Lydia.  But this was enough trouble that the believers in Thessalonica sent Paul and Silas on to Beroea, about 50 miles away.

Luke doesn’t give any further attention to Paul’s founding of church in Thessalonica.  This is it. That’s their story.  

But we know from his letters that Paul spent a fair amount of time in the city, helping get the church there started, getting to know the people. His first letter to them, probably written a year or so after these events, demonstrates that their relationship was close.

Listen to the opening words from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.

Along with deep gratitude for these friends, Paul speaks to the ways that they, too,  have answered the call to be witnesses. Remember, these are the ones who had been persuaded by Paul’s teaching. Or perhaps by the witness of those who learned from Paul.

They have become imitators not only of Paul but of the Lord, in the ways that they demonstrate faith, love and hope. We know that they have experienced – like Paul, and like Jesus – persecution beyond the event described in Acts.  Yet, in spite of what they endured, they trusted in the good news that Christ was risen.

They had experienced first hand the power of the Holy Spirit, as it opened their hearts and minds to understand and rejoice in the work God had done in and through Jesus, even as they suffered.  

Can you hear the words echoing – some twenty years after Jesus spoke them?  

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.  

Whether you have been waiting 50 days in Jerusalem
or you have been knocked off your high horse 
on the way to persecute other believers
or you have been persuaded by a former persecutor turned preacher…
You will receive power.

And you will be my witnesses. In Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth

In Thessalonica, in Macedonia and Achaia, and to the ends of the Earth.    

They have received power, and word continue to spread of their faith and faithfulness. So much so that Paul gives thanks for them and their witness each time he prays.  

See, it isn’t just the church Paul cares about. Each believer’s experience of the Holy Spirit is important to Paul and his understanding of the good news.  That power is the prime indicator — a down payment, if you will — that God makes in our lives to let us know that we are in this remarkable relationship with the Almighty.  It is a foretaste of the fullness of our relationship to come, and evidence of transformation available here and now.

Living in the Spirit, in fact, is the main way that Paul describes the way of life for believers throughout his letters. In Romans 8, Paul says it this way:

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him”.

The Spirit is evidence that our relationship with Christ is not a distant relationship, but an intimate one. The Spirit indwells us, leads and guides us, connecting us more and more fully to the heart of God and to the hearts of all God’s children. In other words, the Spirit enables us to imitate Christ, obeying his commandments to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The healing, the preaching and teaching, the incredible growth of early church… None of it was accomplished apart from the Holy Spirit.

Jesus accomplished his ministry in the same way, through the power of the Spirit that came upon him as he was baptized..

The hungry and hurting people we see may look and sound a little different from those Jesus encountered, but we have access to the same power that allowed Jesus to look on them with compassion and enter into their lives.  We have access to the same power to offer wholeness, healing and hope for a future.

We have access to the same power that allowed Paul the wordsmith and legal expert to find common ground with a plainspoken fisherman named Peter.  We have access to the same opportunity to reconcile broken relationships within the church and build new ministry opportunities as a result.  

As Paul understands it, imitating Christ requires living in absolute reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit. This means relinquishing all the controls and safeguards we have built around ourselves: Our neat and tidy habits and comfortable rituals might not be God’s plan. The people we’ve kept at arm’s length, the relationships we’ve left untended or unmended, are likely to become the Holy Spirit’s priority.

Living in the power of the Holy Spirit means making choices that make more sense in God’s Kingdom than in our social structures.

Let me tell you a story.  This past December, First Presbyterian Church in York, Pennsylvania, celebrated the 50th anniversary of a very unlikely union. In 1965, Faith Presbyterian, the spiritual home of an all-black congregation, faced a difficult choice: Operate under a crushing financial burden, dissolve the church or merge with another congregation.

The members chose merger.

After researching churches in the area, First Presbyterian was identified as the best option. It was an all-white congregation.  And remember what year I said it was? 1965

Looking back, members recall many differences

“…one church had less than 100 members; the other, more than 1,000. One church building was small, cozy and needing some repairs; the other was large, intimidating and well maintained. … One house of worship was unable to financially support a full-time minister; the other was able to employ at least two.

But the largest difference that had to be addressed was the fact that one church was predominantly  African-American and the other was Caucasian, and these were the 1960s.”

In 1965, a merger of this sort was a courageous choice for both churches.

There was, of course, a combination of anxiety and excitement as the many meetings and conversations took place.  Before the merger could be completed, some members in each congregation chose to leave, but many more decided to stay.

“With the Holy Spirit hovering over the new church, the two congregations molded together and became as one. The first joint worship service was held on one of our most holy days— the day we celebrate the birth of our lord and savior, Jesus Christ. And that Christmas in 1965 gave us much to celebrate.”   (Read the full story here)

Living in the power of the Holy Spirit means doing things that make sense in God’s economy, but not ours.

Let me tell you about the Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  They only had 51-members when they decided to open their church doors in response to the needs of homeless persons  in the Bay View area of the city.

They were among several churches in the area noticing an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness and seeing members of their congregation were at risk. They knew something had to be done, and began exploring viable intervention options.

Their original vision was to create a rotating shelter, but the city made clear that wasn’t an option. So the church responded by opening its doors for prayer vigils—overnight prayer vigils, at which ALL were welcome to pray. Prayer created the only Southside warming room in Milwaukee.

Their prayers also gave birth to the Divine Intervention ministry— which currently provides basic needs to homeless adult men and women through five programs.  There is the overnight prayer vigil/warming room;

three different meal programs;  and Garden Keepers, which offers the ministries’ guests a garden internship as workforce development.

Obviously, a church roughly the size of ours could never do all of that alone – they have partnered with other almost 50 organizations – some churches, some communities of other faiths, some other charities. And they work closely with the Milwaukee Police and Social Services.  (see the full story here)

And the Holy Spirit is right there in the mix, we can be sure.   

Living in the power of the Holy Spirit means taking risks, bearing witness to God’s faithfulness.  

Living in the power of the Holy Spirit is, in fact, why and how followers of Jesus become known for turning the world upside down.

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