Disruptive Spirit

Disruptive Spirit

Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Bible Reading: Acts 17:1-9 and 1 Thess 1:1-10

As we approach Pentecost we continue to explore how the Spirit moved within the early church – and this week we are looking particularly at the Early Church in Thessalonica. Thessalonica was a busy city with a diverse group of people and religions – and the arrival of Paul with the gospel of Jesus was disruptive. But disruption can sometimes be good as we are forced to consider whether the status quo is still helpful or what might be a new way forward. The Holy Spirit can be a disruptor and in this time of worship we might consider what the spirit might be stirring in our church.

As I explained last week, as we move closer to Pentecost we are looking at how the Holy Spirit moved within the Early Church – and pondering what that means for the Spirit moving within our church here at TUC.

Kevin started us off in Acts chapter 1 with Jesus handing his ministry over to his disciples – but promising them the Holy Spirit to help them.  We jumped over Acts chapter 2 (which we will come back to) but it is the story of Pentecost – when the Spirit came on all people.

Last week I looked at Acts chapter 3 where Peter and John went to pray and we saw the healing power of the Spirit as a lame man was healed.  And we also saw how the Spirit helped Peter become a “community theologian” – someone who could explain to the local community about what was happening and point people to Jesus … which is a role which we also need to embrace. 

And logically you would think that our reading today should have been Acts chapter 4 … but no.  We jumped to Acts chapter 17.  That is because this week and next week we are going to look at two early churches in particular – the church at Corinth and the one in our reading today, the church at Thessalonica.

Thessalonica was a major port city in the northern part of first century Greece.  It still exists today – but it is now called Thessaloniki.  Has anyone travelled to Thessaloniki?

In brief, Thessalonica was a busy city and had strategic importance because of its location as a port city on the Aegean Sea.  Its strategic location made it a bustling centre of trade and commerce, connecting various regions of the Mediterranean world.  Due to its role as a trade hub, Thessalonica was a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. It attracted people from different backgrounds, including Greeks, Romans, Jews, and various others, contributing to its cultural diversity.

The Roman Empire, noting its important location, made it the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and as such, Thessalonica was a centre of political power – overseeing the affairs of the surrounding areas.

You sort of getting a picture of what Thessalonica was like?  Large regional city which had economic power, political power, cultural diversity … and also religious diversity.   Because people were coming and going from all around the world, Thessalonica also had a mix of religious beliefs – from traditional Greek and Roman gods to weird cultist religions to Judaism – there was a synagogue present in the city.  It was into this religious diversity that the Apostle Paul brought the good news of Jesus.

Now, I am going to zoom in on each of our readings but as we do that … remember that we are trying to explore two broad questions:

  1. How did the Holy Spirit help the early church in Thessalonica?  And
  2. What does this teach us about how the Holy Spirit can help us here at TUC?

To this second questions – I think I can draw out three interesting ideas this morning … lets see how we go.

To the first question of “How did the Holy Spirit” work within the Early Church in Thessalonica … the answer is, right from the beginning.  Our reading from Acts 17 comes in the middle of Paul’s second missionary journey.  Paul’s first mission trip was a huge success with many churches set up in what is now modern-day Turkey.

However, Paul’s second missionary journey was off to a rough start.  Paul & Silas & Timothy visited some the churches set up in their first trip and had planned to head down into the province of Asia … but Acts 16:6 tells us were kept from doing that by the Holy Spirit.  They tried to go north into Bithynia but the Spirit stopped them doing that too.  There is no explanation of how the spirit was stopping them, but the result was that Paul ended up in Troas on the edge of the Aegean Sea.  And it is here that Paul has a vision or dream of a Macedonian man begging Paul to come over to the Roman province of Macedonia and help them.    

Now do you remember what city is the capital city of Macedonia?  Thessalonica!  So, before Paul even arrives at Thessalonica we could say that the Holy Spirit was guiding Paul away from the Roman providences of Asia and Bithynia and through a vision, sending Paul to Thessalonica to help set up the early church there.

Which leads me to my first idea on how the Holy Spirit can help us here at TUC… in the same way that the Holy Spirit guided and directed Paul in his mission – then the Holy Spirit can guide us too … both as a church and in our personal spiritual journey. 

Listen to how Paul explains it in Galatians 5 (New Living Translation) 

In verse 16 Paul writes, “Let the Holy Spirit guide your lives…”

Paul goes onto to say that we struggle between our desire to do good and our human nature.  But in verse 18 says the Holy Spirit can help us when we are “directed by the Spirit”.  Instead of living lives of hostility, selfish ambition or any of the sins listed in verses 19-21, Paul writes in 22-23 that we find that when we are guided by the spirit, we grow characteristic such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Unfortunately Paul doesn’t quite explain to us HOW to be guided by the spirit – but judging off Acts 16, Paul felt the “nudging” of the spirit or the spirit speaking to him through other people or dreams.  I’d also add that the spirit can guide us through the bible and prayer. 

But we probably should get to our first Bible Reading for today – Acts 17 – where Paul does what the spirit has been leading him towards … establishing the Thessalonian church.

The first thing we notice here is that Paul follows his tried method when arriving at a new town.  He seeks out whether there is a synagogue and if so, starts there – knowing that they might be the most open to hearing the good news of Jesus. 

Acts 17:2 – 3: As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.

Note the interesting phrase: “he reasoned with them”.  Some other translations have “he argued with them” but I think reasoned is much better.  It fits what we talked about last week that the spirit helps us to become Community Theologians – people who can engage people in a spiritual discussion and point people to Jesus.    This is what Paul does here and a number of Jewish people as well as others, we persuaded and the Thessalonian church was started.

But immediately they were faced with trouble.  The other Jewish people (who weren’t persuaded) were not happy with this development and rounded up a mob to do and attach the house church – dragging the new church members before the authorities with the claim that they were disrupting the status quo – saying that there was another king besides Ceasar.

It is hard to argue that the Jewish mob was wrong – because they were declaring Jesus as king … AND they were upsetting the status quo.  But that is often the case when the spirit starts moving.

You might have noticed that the title I gave this sermon was Disruptive Spirit.  I am not saying this is always the case, but I would say that often when the Holy Spirit starts moving within a community or situation – often it is disrupting the status quo.  Often we get this feeling that the current plan or way of doing things is not hitting the mark and the spirit is stirring things up so that we can discern a new direction or a new way.

Would you agree with that?  Good – because that is my second point of how the Holy Spirit can help us here at TUC … by stirring us up and challenging some of the ways or things we are doing – to be pushing against the status quo.

We might not think that stirring thing up is necessarily helping us – and the church in Thessalonica probably wondered about that too.  We are not sure completely what happened immediately after this narrative in Acts 17.  We know that Paul and Silas moved that night … and we also know that the early church of these gathered believers of Jesus survived … because Paul wrote two letters to them which we have in the Bible.  We heard the beginning of the first letter in our second reading.

This reading gives some hints and the experience of the church in Thessalonica in the year since Paul’s visit.  In verses 2 and 3 Paul acknowledges that he is constantly praying for them and that the church had “laboured” and shown “endurance”.  We learn from the content of these letters that there was significant persecution and suffering – possibly because they did disrupt the power and political balance of the city and stirred up people with their message of Jesus.

And yet it was in the midst of them enduring this suffering that Paul affirms them in the most beautiful way.  In verse 6 and 7, Paul says to this small, persecuted Thessalonian church that they had become “imitators of the Lord” and became a “model” for all the believers in the region.

I really like ideas – that as followers of Jesus, the best way to share Jesus is to become an imitator of Jesus – so that when people look at us, they see a reflection of Jesus.  Maybe this could be the third way that the spirit helps us – to help us become imitators or reflectors of Jesus.  So that our words, our thoughts, our actions remind people of Jesus, point people to Jesus.

This actually reminds me of the promise in John 14 when Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will remind us of everything Jesus did and said.  Why?  So that we can copy it – that we can be imitators of Jesus.  Jesus goes on in John 14 and 15 to tell us to love one another in the same way as Jesus has loved us … to become imitators of that love, to copy his way of loving.

So, in summary – how did the Thessalonian Church’s experience of the Holy Spirit teach us about how the Holy Spirit can help us here at TUC?

  1. The Holy Spirit can direct our mission and guide our personal spiritual journey.
  2. The Holy Spirit might stir up things or stir us up to push against the status quo, to stand against a practice or way of doing things which is not right.  And maybe help us discern a new way.
  3. The Holy Spirit can help us – even in difficult situations – to become imitators of Jesus, to follow his example.

When I see this written up there on the screen – this the challenge for us in the lead up to Pentecost. 

May we all open ourselves more up to the Spirit.

May we all be sensitive to the guiding and nudging of the Spirit.

And even when the spirit stirs things up, may we be open to discerning that that might lead to, maybe a new way

And may we all, with the spirits help be imitators of Jesus in all we do and say.