Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2016
Do you remember the horrific account of ISIS beheading Christians in Libya about a year ago? This past May, in a hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Jacqueline Isaac of the humanitarian group, Roads to Success, spoke. She told of having met with 15 of the 21 families who had lost love ones. One of the widows told her that her husband knew it was dangerous to go to Libya, but he needed the work. The last thing he asked his wife before making the fatal journey was that if he didn’t make it back alive to teach their children the principals of Jesus. In the security in which we live, it is hard to remember that there are still people who suffer because of their faith in Jesus Christ. This isn’t anything new as we’re going to see in our reading today.
Last Sunday, we finished up our four week look at Paul and Silas in Philippi. After they were released from jail, they were asked to leave town because the authorities were afraid. It was a serious crime to punish a Roman citizen without due cause, yet they’d been beaten and throw into jail. Leaving town meant there was no more evidence. Paul and his friends take the main road that ran across the Empire, heading west, to the capital of Macedonia, Thessalonica. Here we see more of the same. There are those interested in the message and become believers, then opposition arises. Paul and company flee to another town. Some scholars believe Paul’s first written letter was the first letter to the Thessalonians, for in that letter he refers to his desire to return to the city having been hindered by Satan. Read Acts 17:1-15.
I’m sure we all recall what we were doing on this morning fifteen years ago. We were living in Utah so the events started unraveling a little after 7 AM. I was in charge of taking Caroline to daycare that day, but I let her sleep in as I watched in horror and made plans for an evening prayer service. Ever since 911, the world hasn’t been quite the same. Another generation lost its innocence. We are constantly hearing stories like the one I mentioned of the Coptic Christians killed in Libya. Just a few weeks ago, a radical Islamic follower stabbed a priest in France, and this week in the same country the authorities folded a plot to explode a car bomb outside of the famous Notre Dame cathedral.
For the first time in centuries, we find ourselves attacked and essentially in a religious war with a fundamentalist sect of another faith. We are in unfamiliar territory. But Paul and other missionaries in the first century certainly knew what it felt like to be attacked by those with different faith perspectives. We should learn from their response for they changed the world.
On 911, our world was turned upside down. In verse 6 of our reading, the same charge was laid at the feet of Paul and Silas as they travelled through Macedonia. What did their accusers mean? The world that they were turning upside down was the Roman Empire. The Empire saw the Christian faith as a threat to its stability.
There’s an interesting book that was just released this Friday. Obviously I have not had time to read or even acquire it, but I read some advance reviews. The title caught my attention: Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry Hurtado. According to the reviews, the book recalls the harsh treatment early Christians received within the Roman world. They were called names and even condemned for being “new.” As the author points out, “novelty wasn’t a Roman virtue.” Despite such attacks, eventually the church prevailed. But it was a life and death struggle.
For followers of Christ, religious piety didn’t depend on maintaining certain pagan or Jewish ceremonies. Instead, adherents of the Christian faith were expected to act differently. They left the old pagan superstitions behind. They claimed that Jesus, not the Emperor, was Lord. When you consider this, you can understand the charge that Christians were “turning the world upside down.” There was some truth to the statement. Hopefully, it’s still true! But too often, I’m afraid, we are part of the status quo. Instead of envisioning and striving for God’s kingdom, we support things as they are (or were).
Let me point out a few things of interest in today’s text. In the first verse, we’re told that Paul and Silas, once they arrived in Thessalonica, went to the synagogue of the Jews. Unlike Philippi, this city has enough of a Jewish presence to have a synagogue, and as Paul has done all along in Acts, it’s his first stop. But the term “Synagogue of the Jews” is new. So far, Luke has only referred to the synagogue, but Paul is now deep in Gentile territory, so Luke modifies the term to indicate the presence of Jews. There, in the synagogue, they spend three Sabbaths arguing over the scriptures. There are those who believe. It’s not just Jews but also Greeks. Interestingly, Luke adds that there were a number of “leading women” of the city also became believers.
As it has happened in city after city, there are those who want don’t want change. They call in a rough group, who start a riot. They look for Paul and Silas, but they’re not to be found. Maybe they had left the city for a short time to speak in the countryside and, when the riot erupts, are unable to return.
Without Paul and Silas, the crowd turns on Jason, who had hosted Paul and Silas in his home. Jason was most likely a Jew as the name Jason was often taken by Jews who lived in Gentile areas. For you see, Jason is the Greek equivalent of the common Jewish name, “Joshua.” Jason’s troubles provide a new twist in our story. It’s not just Paul and Silas being persecuted, but those around them. Again, as in Philippi, the charge become more elaborate when brought before the authorities. One of the charges they have sworn allegiance to a king that isn’t Caesar, is very dangerous. Such a rumor could ruin you in the Roman Empire. Thankfully, the authorities are able to see through the changes and calm the crowds, allowing Jason to return home after he posts bail.
Paul and Silas now move to the city of Beroea. Here we have a different view of the synagogue. In Thessalonica, they had spent their time in the synagogue arguing, but we’re told those in Beroea dig deep into the scriptures, curious to learn the truth. Again, there are those who believe including, we’re told, a number of high standing Greek women and men. It’s interesting that Luke reverses the usual way one would say this. In the patriarchal world of the first century, one would say (as would most of us) men and women, never women and men. Luke is making a point. He emphasizes the importance of women in the early Church.
As it always happens in Acts, opposition again arises. This time it’s not from those within the city, but outsiders. The angry mob in Thessalonica have followed them and began to cause a ruckus. We’ve seen this before, too. Remember how when Paul and Barnabas were in Lystra during his first missionary journey, those from the towns of Antioch and Iconium followed them and stirred up trouble. Luke, as author of Acts, reminds us over and over again what Jesus taught. The gospel will cause division.  Not everyone is going to accept the message.
Again, Paul is ushered out of town for safety and heads to Athens, where our story will continue next week.
Paul’s time in these two cities serve as a bridge between the events of Philippi and Athens. Luke provides us with a travel narrative. As I have pointed out, a lot of what happens in these two cities have already happened in other places. It’s like we’re listening to the same track of an old record. There are those who accept Paul’s teachings but opposition soon arises and there is suffering for the faith. The growth of the church was never easy. Yes, on Pentecost, we’re told that there were 3,000 saved, but that seems to be the exception. Afterwards, it’s a few people here, a family or household there. The growth of the church is steady but slow.
By recalling example after example of some accepting the gospel followed by those who fight against it, Luke shows the challenges of going against the prevailing culture. Yet, the church grows because of the faithfulness of those like Paul and Silas. They continue to do the work to which they feel called even when facing obstacles. They feel the leading of God’s Spirit working through them and in the hearts and souls of those who find the message of Jesus appealing.
Today, as in the first century, the church finds itself at odds with the culture. I find it amusing yet sad how different groups try to hijack the church for their own purposes and benefit. Politically, those on the right think they own the gospel, yet seem to make a mockery out of Jesus’ teaching on love, acceptance, and turning the other cheek. The gospel is not about being powerful and forcefully subduing one’s opponents. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, reminds us that the God takes what is perceived as weak and makes it strong!
But the gospel is not just a toy of those on the right. Those on the political left are also guilty. They have taken Jesus’ message of love and acceptance, of his call to holiness, and made it into a message of “anything goes.” They tone down the distinctiveness of the Christian life so as not to offend others. Both groups have a part of the truth, but are also guilty of giving us only part of the gospel.
The church, God’s vehicle for sharing the gospel in the world, stands in the gap. We have to resist the lure of both groups and others who claim theirs is the right way. For only Jesus is the right way. We’re to call people into a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s only when we have such a relationship that we can have the courage of that Egyptian dad I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon. His first concern wasn’t his own life, but that his children learn about Jesus. His allegiance was to the one we call Lord.
Christ has purchased us with his own life. He doesn’t belong to us; we belong to him. Christ stands over our culture, bringing judgment. But Christ is also in our culture, transforming it, and offering redemption. We should not look to Jesus to be on our side, for then we have missed the boat. Instead, we must be on Jesus’ side. It won’t be easy, as we have seen with Paul’s struggles, but we’ll be on the right side. Amen.
 1 Thessalonians 2:18. See F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 345.
 Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, September 9, 2016). The reviews were on the Amazon website.
 Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 243.
 F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 343.
 Acts 14:19.
 Luke 12:51.
 Acts 2:41.
 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.