The First Christians

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 1-11, Acts 11:19-26

God loves unsettled times. Throughout the Bible, most of the great events, laws and covenants, were given during times of transition and hardship.

In Genesis, God made a covenant with Noah, giving the world the sign of the rainbow in the aftermath of the great flood.  Moses gave the law to the Hebrew people not while the people were in Egypt, or in Israel, but in the wilderness, that in between place of wandering.

God would then send the great prophets to the Israelites in times of trouble and turmoil: Samuel while they were transitioning from the judges to kings, Elijah while the Kingdom of Israel was struggling with whether or not to keep to their worship of God or to worship Ba’al, a local God of storms. Jeremiah was sent while many of the people were being exiled from Jerusalem, and Ezra and Nehemiah while they were allowed to come back to the city.

Jesus, for his part, comes to the people while they suffer under the occupation of the cruel Roman Empire. This Roman Empire that was forcing people to choose their ultimate allegiance: either to Caesar, called the Son of God by the authorities, or to the God of Miriam and Moses, Jacob and Ruth.

While Jesus Christ is the prince of peace, there are disruptive and unsettling aspects to his ministry. He is both God and Man, breaking down the barriers that said that those two categories are completely distinct.  He even tells the disciples at one point that he does not come to bring peace but a sword, a sign of the hard decisions about allegiance and loyalties that the people would have to make.  Would they be for Rome? Or for Jesus?

Furthermore, although at first Jesus comes to spread the Good News to the Jewish people, it is not solely, or some argue, primarily, for them.  The Good News of Jesus Christ is for the whole world, joining all the peoples of the earth into a new covenant with God.

This becomes especially true after his death, resurrection, and ascension, and the era of the early church begins. This is a time of disruption, tension, and transition for those early followers of Jesus. Yet out of these times come the seeds which would allow our faith to flourish, to move to a decentralized faith focusing not on charismatic figures producing healing miracles but on making disciples who could witness through our words and faith to the power of Jesus Christ. This faith, this witness, calls to us, almost two thousand years later, to faithfulness.

Both of our readings testify to this.

We’ll start first with our reading from the book of Acts. Here we see the planting of the first seeds that eventually flourish that transform the followers of Jesus from an obscure Jewish sect into the Christian church which is open to all.

The first step in this journey is in the first verse, noting that because of persecution, Jesus followers would become dispersed over a relatively wide, for the time, geographical area. They had moved out from Jerusalem to modern day Lebanon, Cyprus and southern Turkey.

This was the first, not accidental, but incidental, step to transforming a tight knit geographically based religious community directly centered on Jerusalem to a network of churches that would eventually spread throughout the known world.

These communities, were unlike Jerusalem in one crucial way: they were not majority Jewish with a gentile (non-Jewish) minority, but minority Jewish with a Gentile majority. 

So while some of these followers of Jesus decided to focus spreading the gospel to their Jewish kin- remember that all of the apostles, and Jesus followers at this time were Jewish- some decided to do something different.  They decided to preach to the followers of the Greek and Roman religion- what the Bible calls the “Hellenists”.

This was new; this was innovative.  Religion, back then, as I’ve said before, did not cross ethnic lines, yet these early followers saw something in the power of Jesus Christ, in his sayings, in the story of the resurrection, that was necessary for people of every nation.

The church back in Jerusalem, still the mothership, the home base, gets word of this new development, and sends out someone to check in on what was happening. Although later there would be conflicts between the Jerusalem church and the churches founded by Paul, at this point, the book of Acts tells us that at this point that there was none.

Barnabas who comes out to the community, seeing this innovation, does not condemn it, but praises the Lord and provides them with an example of spiritual strength as he lives with them.  But also knowing that he could not stay there forever, Barnabas decides to, and pardon the baseball metaphor, call someone up from the minor leagues.

Barnabas calls up Saul, who was in the triple A town of Tarsus, compared to the Major League of Antioch, one of the major cities of the ancient world. Saul is different from the other apostles- he never knew Jesus during his earthly ministry.

He’s not known for healing ministries or miracles like Peter is.  No, Saul’s greatest strength, as we will see in our second reading, is his ability to empower people to spread the gospel themselves, instead of relying on him to do so.

Perhaps this is why these early Jesus followers start to call themselves “Christians”- the realization that in some way, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they were as responsible for spreading the Gospel as any apostle was.

Jesus was not just another teacher, a good rabbi, but the one to whom allegiance demands a change in identity. We see this play out in our second reading, the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.

The events in this letter take place about 20ish years after our Acts reading, and this letter is special because it is our oldest Christian writing in the New Testament, probably written about 25 years after Jesus died.

Saul, who by this time had taken on the name Paul, had planted churches in Thessaly, a region of Greece, some time before, and was writing to them in encouragement.

What I find really interesting about this letter for our purposes today was not just that the Gospel message spread, but how the Gospel was spread not only to this church, but through this church, to other places, surrounding towns and countryside that Paul never met. Paul notes “that 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”

I believe this means that Paul spreads the gospel message primarily through words, accompanied with the power of the Holy Spirit. This is different from the way that Jesus’ ministry plays out, which is primarily a ministry of healing, food, and miracles.

Although Jesus uses his words quite a bit, especially in parables and stories, often these explain his purpose to those who already know his power. The words of Jesus need no special power of their own, for Jesus is, after all, the word of God.

Paul on the other hand, is someone who mostly has to rely on his spoken and written words. Paul has to preach, to convince, to testify to the power of Jesus Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul needs the words of God to testify to the word of God.

The problem though, to someone tasked to preaching to the nations is that any one person can only reach so many people in one place. Any one of us can only do so much. I mentioned earlier that Paul was an innovator, and that his innovation was that he was really good at empowering people, and that comes from this portion of the letter.

Let’s remember that Paul by the time he’s writing this letter has moved on from that community in order to start churches and spread the gospel in other places. For it is in verse 8, Paul says that “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it”

This work is not Paul’s, but instead belongs to the church in Thessaly, as empowered by the Holy Spirit. Paul was so impressed with their faithfulness and witness, not only in their immediate communities, but in their region and as an example to believers everywhere that he felt he didn’t have to go on any further. This from Paul, who never misses the chance to use his words.

This group of believers don’t need the superstar Paul to be able to testify to their communities. They have been empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to do so. 

At this point I ask us, what could we do if we really believed that the Holy Spirit was on our side, as it was for this ancient church caught up in the throes of persecution. Although we do not face official persecution as the early church did, thank God, we live in a time of increasing secularization, of decreasing relevance, of great social upheaval.

But if God, as I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, that God loves the unsettled times, how then, is God acting in this unsettled time?  And then how are we to be a part of it? I don’t have the answer to that question for this congregation- I can help you ask the question, but it’s one y’all will have to figure out on your own through the grace of God.

But have courage, people of Wolcott Congregational Church.

Just as the love of God, the witness of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit were with the Church in Cyrene, in Thessaly, and in Antioch and Jerusalem, so do they now reside with us. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.