Turning from Idols to Serve God -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20A (1 Thessalonians 1)
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1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 New Revised Standard Version
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.
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because 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. 6 And 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, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 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. 9 For 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, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
The ancient Greco-Roman World offered many religious options. Gods were plentiful, and the people indulged in serving them. Jews were a peculiar people since they only worshiped one God, considering all others to be mere idols. The Jesus movement, which was rooted in Judaism, embraced the same view of the many religious options present in their world. That made them rather peculiar as well. The difference between the two was the Jesus Movement was more assertive in its outreach to their Gentile neighbors. Over time that would cause problems for them. When we open Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, we’re taken back to the earliest days of the Jesus Movement. It is the consensus view that this is Paul’s earliest letter, making it the earliest book in the New Testament. If, as is likely, it was written from Corinth around 50 or 51 CE, we are within two decades of Jesus’ death in Jerusalem and subsequent birth of the church on Pentecost. As we know, Paul made Gentiles the focus of his ministry. He might go first to the synagogue, but he was more interested in spreading the gospel to those outside the Jewish community. That of course, led to some conflict between those who embraced the message of Jesus and those who didn’t.
In these opening lines of Paul’s letter, we hear a word of commendation and encouragement to people who have embraced the message of Jesus as delivered by Paul. They have even become known for their commitment to this message. As for the letter itself, it is written by Paul, together with his companions Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy. The mention made here of Silas is a clue that this was written after the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) when Silas replaced Barnabas as Paul’s companion. As he often does, Paul writes that he always gives thanks for them in his prayers. These are his people, and he cares about them. Paul also records that they had received a Gospel message that came not only in words but also in the power of the Holy Spirit. He also notes that their reception of the Gospel was due to have been chosen by God. For Paul, conversion always begins with God’s initiative. That doesn’t require some form of predestination, only God’s initiative. Regarding the role of the Spirit, what he has in mind here isn’t clear but suggests that their preaching was accompanied by signs and wonders.
The church to whom the letter was written inhabited a major Roman city situated in the province of Macedonia. Thessalonica served as the capital of the province and was a port city, making it not only a governmental center but also a commercial center. Thus, like Corinth, Thessalonica was quite cosmopolitan, drawing residents from across the empire and beyond. It was also a city that was known for its many religious options, including the imperial cult (it was a Roman colony after all), along with Egyptian gods, as well as the cult of Cabrius. This figure supposedly had died and had risen from the dead, which sounds a lot like Jesus. Thus, as William Brosend notes, “when Paul praises the addresses for ‘how you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thess. 1:9), he knew that they had made a choice with many alternatives” [Preacher’sBible Handbook, p. 302]. That reality may explain much that goes on in our reading.
Paul commends them for their steadfastness in faith and for imitating him, as well as his companions, along with the Lord. He speaks of them joyfully receiving the message as inspired by the Holy Spirit so that the “word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia,” as well as every place their faith had been made known. This despite facing persecution. Though the persecution they were facing probably wasn’t legal or violent but entailed resistance to the message. What is clear from the letter as a whole, that it has an overtly eschatological feel. It’s not as prominent here in this first chapter, but as one moves into the letter it gets stronger. He writes with the presumption that Christ should be returning at any moment, and because they had received the word of God, Jesus would rescue them from the “wrath to come.”
Getting back to their reception of the Gospel message, it seems apparent that the audience of Paul’s letter was a community largely made up of Gentile Christians. Although Paul had begun his ministry in Thessalonica in the synagogue (Acts 17:1-9), it appears from Acts that Paul didn’t get a very positive reception there. Evidence that the community was largely Gentile Christians is revealed in verse nine, where Paul commends them for having “turned to God from idols.” This isn’t something that Paul would have said to Jewish Christians but would make sense when applied to converts from a pagan context. As noted above, Thessalonica offered many religious options for them to choose from. As for them, they had chosen to “serve the true and living God.” Now, they await the coming of the Son of the true and living God, who is coming from heaven (the eschatological dimension), and whom the true and living God raised from the dead. This Jesus rescues the believer from the wrath to come (judgment day). As Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring note, this message represents the “traditional Jewish missionary message of the one God over against pagan idols, the God whose ethical seriousness is manifest in that he will bring all human beings to a final judgment.” They also note that the Jewish monotheistic message attractive to many in the Hellenistic world. As for the Christian proclamation, rooted in this Jewish message, “the living God is the one definitively manifest in Jesus, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the one through whom God saves at the final judgment.” [People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 639]. While in the modern era, the idea of judgment along with the wrath of God is not well received, this message does make clear the power of an ethical message that insists humans will be held accountable.
While the reading ends with the word wrath, the message is one of joy because God has provided a new way of living that is rooted in Jesus rather than dead idols. He commends them for the way they have embodied the message of Jesus so that all of Macedonia and Achaea has heard the message.
As we attend to this word from Paul, what is its message for us? If we hear in this a call to turn from idols to God, what idols might we contend with? What is it that we worship instead of God? How does serving these idols affect our relationships with one another and with creation itself? To whom or to what do I give my allegiance? Is it my whiteness? My economic situation? Is it a particular politician or political party (this is election season after all)? What about my being a citizen of the United States? In asking that question, I’m glad I am a citizen of the United States, but does it have the ultimate claim on my life? I wrote a book on the Lord’s Prayer that I titled Ultimate Allegiance because I believe that this prayer repeated by Christians around the globe is itself a pledge of allegiance to God and God’s realm. Whatever I give allegiance to rather than to God and God’s realm, then that becomes my idol. May we join with the Thessalonian believers and turn from our idols and serve the true and living God.