1 After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, "This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you." 4 Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5 But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason's house. 6 When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, "These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, 7 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." 8 The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, 9 and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go. ~Acts 17:1-9
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 2We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because 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; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For 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. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. ~1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Arguing. Fighting. It’s everywhere, and it starts early. First, it’s about who gets to play with the new set of pretty-colored blocks at the preschool, or which toys are mine only and which I have to share. Eventually it’s about who gets picked when choosing sides for teams, and then who gets picked to be Yearbook editor, or who gets in the starting lineup. Eventually we are arguing over everything from parking places to immigration reform, from who can use which bathrooms to who can be made to produce birth certificates. And, inevitably, it cycles back to what I get to claim as mine and what I have to (or should) be willing to share.
You may have noticed there’s an election this year. And the arguing and fighting seems to have been ratcheted up this year, which feels like the worst year ever (but maybe we say that every time… I’m not sure). I personally have been arguing with people about the election for months. I feel passionately about so many issues, and I’m fiercely defensive of the people I support, and sometimes… it turns into an argument, and it goes on, and on. Arguing. Fighting. It’s everywhere, and I’m part of it.
And right alongside politics on the list of things people love to argue about is religion… and it’s not just that we argue about whose religion is right, or even whose interpretation of their own religion is right (both of these are true), it’s also that people of faith are known for arguing with one another about everything from the color of the carpet to how we give and serve. In other words, what do we get to claim as ours, and what should we be willing to share?
As I sat down to write this sermon, I found this prayer for a church meeting. It reads,
As I journey through this life of faith,
heeding your call, serving your ministry,
and especially today as I venture out
on my way to yet another church meeting
where your beloved ones gather to discern your will, to do your work, and to witness to your love,
I humbly ask that you help us to not be jerks to each other in your name
Boy, can I use that prayer. So could Paul. Paul was a fighter. The scrappy Pharisee, once known as Saul, first comes to our attention in chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles, when he is watching over the coats of some people while they, in turn, create the first Christian martyr by stoning to death a deacon named Stephen. Paul approved of that, we are told, and then we get more information about him, searching out people, hunting them down, trying to bring them to ‘justice’ for the crime of believing in Jesus. The text describes him as “breathing threats and murder” against the early members of the church, right up until the moment Jesus shines a very bright light in his eyes, and gives him a three day sabbatical to reconsider. And after that, Paul is still a fighter. He’s just a fighter for Jesus, and not against him.
Mark Russell, the political comedian, says of Paul, “Nobody matches the zeal of a new convert, or gets as much done as someone who doesn't know what they're doing. Saul had both of those things going for him.” He summarizes this part of Acts by noting, “Paul left Philippi and traveled the world, preaching the word and angering many diverse people in exotic locales.”[ii]
And… don’t take my word for it. The passage in Acts describes Paul’s first weeks in Thessalonica by saying, ‘And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you”’ (Acts 17:2-3). The scholars who translated this passage needed to translate a Greek word, διελέξατο. According to my Greek dictionary, they could have chosen to translate that word, “conversed,” “addressed,” “preached,” “lectured,” or “reasoned.” They chose the word “argued.” I daresay there’s a reason for that. Paul was an arguer. Paul was a fighter.
Of course, there are times when you want someone who is skilled at argument on your side, like when you are on the debate team, or when you need a really good lawyer. I think that is the kind of arguer Paul was. He wasn’t literally fighting with anyone when he preached in the synagogue (at least, I don’t think so). He was arguing from scripture. He was making a case, as so many of us try to do when we feel passionately about something. The case that he was making was that Jesus was the Messiah.
Please understand: this was never an easy case to make. It was expected that the Messiah would come in power, a royal leader from the house of David, and a military commander who would vindicate the cause of God’s people right away by restoring the monarchy. Even though scripture connects Jesus to the lineage of David, there is little else about him that makes him the obvious candidate for Messiah. Jesus was a nobody from a one-horse town who, not only did not overthrow the Roman occupiers… he was killed by them, in the most humiliating form of capital punishment that existed at that time.
And yet, Paul argues, that was part of the plan, because it is actually Jesus’ death and resurrection that are God’s saving acts, not a political or military overthrow. Jesus is turning the world upside down—it’s true. But he is doing it in a revolutionary way: through nonviolent resistance. Through complete self-giving. And through gathering a community together that will walk in his way.
That is what Paul is doing in Thessalonica. He, like Jesus, is gathering a community together, and in the letter to the Thessalonians, we see the first fruits of that community, through the words Paul writes in his letter to them. Even though they, like Jesus, are considered troublemakers by the Roman Empire, they are full of joy. Even though they are persecuted, the Word sounds forth from them (1 Thess. 1:8). Even though they are a small, besieged community, they serve a God who is living and true. Paul’s pride practically glows in the words he writes to them. They are participating in Jesus’ project of turning the world upside down, in a really, really good way.
Paul was a fighter, and he helped turn the world upside down with his arguments. What about us? Are we fighting to turn the world upside down as Jesus did—to bring good news to the poor, to gather together a beloved community, and to open our table to the outcast and rejected? Or are we fighting for the reasons people often fight… because things feel out of our control, or because we need to prove that we’re right? And when we are arguing or fighting for something we wholeheartedly believe to be good and worthwhile, are we able to do it in such a way that it is a work of faith, and a labor of love, and a testament to our real steadfastness of hope”?
The history of the church is one of argument and resolution, fighting and reconciling, clashing and forgiving. It is also one of fights that are not mended for years and years… sometimes, centuries, until a new and prophetic peacemaker rises up. Making peace is another way of turning the world upside down. It is a risky business. But it is the business of the one who gathers us together. It is the business of the one who wants us to be, not in lonely exile, but in community. It is the business of the one who wants our work to be the work of healing. And… dare I say it? … it is the business of the one who wants us to go about our work together—at home, at school, at work, in church, in the world—without being jerks to one another. Let it be so. Thanks be to God. And Amen.
[i] Rev. Erin Counihan, Thursday Prayer, RevGalBlogPals, https://revgalblogpals.org/2016/04/14/thursday-prayer-88/.
[ii] Mark Russell, God Is Disappointed In You.