Wednesday, October 25, 2023

A Dangerous Gamble

This is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity.

This is the link to podcast itself:

A Dangerous Gamble

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

We are beginning to read through St Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians.

St Paul first went to Thessalonica immediately after he had visited Philippi with Sts Silvanus and Timothy (Acts 17:1-8), and after they had established the church there (Acts 16:11-40). We have been reading through the letter to the Philippians for the past few weeks.

Although he went to Philippi before Thessalonica, St Paul wrote first Thessalonians before he wrote the letter to the Philippians. Some think that it is earliest of St Paul’s letters that we possess. I personally don't think it the earliest, but it is certainly one of the earliest. It was written about AD 50 from Corinth, not long after St Paul’s initial visit to Thessalonica, at a time when Saints Silvanus and Timothy were with him.

St Paul writes of the positive reception he and Sts Silvanus and Timothy received from the Thessalonian believers when they were with them. St Paul sees this as evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in the believers. The faith of the Thessalonian believers, St Paul writes, has become something that is talked about throughout the whole of the region. But what was it about the Thessalonian believers’ faith that got it so talked about?

We don’t really understand nowadays just how significant it would have been for pagans to become believers. The first believers after all were Jews. For Jews who became believers, following Christ was about recognizing Jesus as the Messiah they had been hoping for. This was a major step, but while much changed as a result, much didn’t. The God they believed in remained the same; the Scriptures they used were the same; and how they lived ethically remained largely the same. This was not the case for pagans. For pagans, becoming a follower of Christ involved a complete change in their lifestyle and worldview.

Pagans, for example, made physical representations of their gods. Jews were absolutely forbidden from doing so. Most pagans had no prior knowledge of the Scriptures. When it came to ethics, while there were pagans who lived ethical lives, the pagan gods themselves didn’t much care. The behaviour of the pagan gods in the stories about them left a lot to be desired. Indeed, behavior forbidden to Jews was actually encouraged among pagans, especially when it came to sexual ethics. Hence some of the guidance St Paul gives in his letters to new converts from paganism.

The dramatic change coming to faith in Christ involved for pagan converts helps explain, then, why the Thessalonians becoming believers made such an impact in the region. It was a very big deal indeed. St Paul explains what it meant. St Paul writes:

‘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, and 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 1:9–10, NRSV)

This helps to explain something else that would otherwise be something of a mystery to us. St Paul refers in our reading to the persecution the Thessalonian converts had experienced on becoming believers. He refers to it again in chapter 2 (1 Thessalonians 2:14). Why would these Thessalonians becoming believers attract persecution from their neighbours? Pagans after all worshipped a whole multitude of gods. Why would the Thessalonian converts now worshipping the Jewish God be a problem? Why would anyone care?

The answer is that no-one would have cared, and it wouldn't have been a problem, if the Thessalonian believers worshipped the Jewish God as well as the pagan gods. Some pagans did do just that without it causing too much trouble for them. The problem was, as St Paul explains, that the Thessalonian believers had stopped worshipping the pagan gods to serve the living and true God, and that really was serious.

In the ancient world, worship of the gods wasn't simply a matter of individual choice. Every family had their own household gods. Cities too had their gods and all a city’s citizens were expected to worship and honour them. Rome had a whole variety of gods of which the Emperor himself was one.

There are still parts of our world where changing religion has huge social, even political consequences, but for most who are listening to me now, who we do or do not worship is largely our own affair. So, we naturally find it hard to understand what whom or what you worshiped meant socially, economically, and politically in past ages.

Christians in the early years of the church were to be accused by pagans of being atheists because they did not worship the pagan gods. Later, early in the fifth century, St Augustine was to write one of his most important books, The City of God, to respond to the charge that the reason Rome had suffered a humiliating defeat was because it had abandoned the pagan gods in favour of the Christian religion. Turning from idols to serve the true and living God was serious, with serious consequences for those who made the move, and many believers were even to suffer death because of it.

It is amazing, then, looked at from this perspective, that anyone would want to become a believer; the cost was simply too great. Understanding what it meant for someone to become a believer also helps to explain why St Paul puts so much emphasis on God and the role of the Holy Spirit in the Thessalonians he writes to becoming believers. St Paul writes:

‘For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 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.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4–5, NRSV)

Given how much the Thessalonians had to lose and the prospect of what they would suffer, it needed God to be at work within them if they were to come to faith. It was because God was at work in them that they were able to receive the word of God with joy from the Holy Spirit, despite the opposition they experienced to them becoming believers.

So, what does all this have to say to us today? Surely it can’t have much to say given that we no longer believe in idols and pagan gods? On the contrary, it has something fundamental to say to us.

An author I much respect has described Christianity as the ‘destroyer of the gods’. What he meant by this was that as Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire, as well as not worshipping idols anymore, people stopped believing in their existence. The Christian worldview increasingly became the dominant worldview. It was the dominant worldview, as far as Western civilization was concerned, for many years – until comparatively recently in fact.

It was not that during this time everyone was a Christian – they weren’t; or that there weren't varieties of belief – there were. It is rather that the Christian worldview provided the framework within which society functioned. In recent years, however, there has been a systematic dismantling of this framework of basic Christian assumptions about the world and how we should live in it. We have progressively abandoned fundamental beliefs, not least when it comes to God himself. ‘In God We Trust’ might be printed on what is still the world’s dominant currency, but it is no longer the dominant belief of the country that issues it.

More concerning still, however, is that the church itself has also abandoned many aspects of its historic worldview. Unpacking this would take a lot longer than there is time for here. But let me give an example.

St Paul writes that the change in the Thessalonian believers’ worldview meant that they now were waiting for God’s Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

The worldview that most of us operate with has very little place in it for waiting for anything, and we certainly don’t think we need rescuing from the wrath to come, not least because we don’t think there is any wrath to come. We are not here to wait but to get on with enjoying ourselves and to getting the most of out of life. Something that we are constantly being urged to do.

For those who don't believe in God, there is in any case nothing to wait for. However, it is also true that many who do believe in God and in an afterlife also think that God doesn’t want us to wait and that we too are to get on with enjoying life in this world. Many churchgoers also no longer believe there is anything for us to be rescued from, as God (assuming he does exist and even as churchgoers we are not always sure he does) will welcome us anyway. It is, in any case, unthinkable that God would be angry with us and reject us.

Well, that’s fine if that’s what we want to believe, and I accept that it is what the majority of people in the Church do believe, but let’s be clear about one thing. This is a very different worldview and way of thinking to that of our Lord and the New Testament writers. It is also a very different worldview to the worldview that has been held by the Church for most of its history. So, as long as you are happy to gamble on our Lord, the apostles, and the Church all having been wrong and us today being right, then okay. It’s your choice. I have to tell you, though, that for me it is far too big a gamble to take.

And just remember this: you are not only taking a gamble on how you live in the present, in this life; you are gambling on whether you will live at all, in the future, in the next life. What is more, if we do make that gamble, then not only will it affect how we see and live our own lives now as individuals, it will also affect how we as a church see our mission and purpose as a church.

For this talk of worldview is not simply an issue of only theoretical concern. Our worldview results in a radical difference in how we live as followers of Christ and how we function as the body of Christ. Just how radical a difference has been brought home to me recently reading some devotional writing of those in the past who thought about things in the way the New Testament writers thought about them and comparing it with devotional writing today. The priorities and outlook are very different.

‘You shall call him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins’, the Angel said to Joseph (Matthew 1:23). We, however, have decided we don't need saving. Sin is someone else's problem; it’s not ours. All I can say is that looking at our world and the state it is in, it needs an awful lot of courage to believe that we don’t need saving and to think that everything is going to be alright. I would suggest this morning that we need to start taking the Biblical worldview a lot more seriously, and if we do, then that’s going to have huge consequences for us and how we live both as individuals and as a church. Like the Thessalonians, we too are going to be unpopular with our compatriots and on the receiving end of persecution as a result.

In closing, then, a question: what do you believe in when there is nothing left to believe in? We stopped believing in idols some years ago; now we have stopped believing in God. Instead, we believe in ourselves, a belief that is now at the heart of our worldview. Getting people to change their worldview, to turn from our idols to serve the Living and True God, isn’t going to be easy.

Our idolatry of Self and our determination to live for the moment is now integral to how we see ourselves and our world. Convincing people to turn from this idolatry to the living God is not going to be achieved through better marketing, special campaigns, or by forming more committees. It will only be achieved when our message, like that of Sts Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, comes to people ‘not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction’.

And for that to happen it needs to come to each one of us that way first.


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