The prayers of Paul
This is a series on the prayers of St Paul found in the letters attributed to him in one of the orders he is believed to have written them. Letters to the same place or person will be treated together with the first letter to that destination.
When I was 16 I attended the Yorkshire Folk, Blues and Jazz Festival in the village of Krumlin in the Pennine hills of West Yorkshire. After a mixed weather Friday, what started off on the Saturday as a wonderful sunny event changed on Saturday night as storm clouds rolled in. There had been some rain before, but nothing like this night of torrential downpour. Sunday morning saw ambulances taking people with hypothermia to hospital and the army searching for people in the area. Fortunately, no one died.
13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
What does the disaster that was the Krumlin festival have to do with Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians? If you read through 1 Thessalonians from the start up to Chapter 2 verse 12 you could be forgiven for thinking that everything was sweetness and light there. It then comes as a shock that Paul’s second prayer in that letter is about persecution. Like a Pennine storm coming in, this change in tone to something darker is surprising.
Persecution was real in those days, Paul had been stoned in Lystra, beaten and imprisoned in Philippi and faced opposition in Thessalonica itself. The Jewish Christians had faced opposition from those Jews who had rejected Jesus by handing him over to the Roman authorities and were now actively trying to stop the Gospel from being preached. It was Jews from Antioch and Iconium who came to Lystra that persuaded the people there to stone Paul. Paul and Barnabas were being followed by people trying to stop them. Paul links the rejection of Jesus by that generation with earlier generations’ rejection of the prophets; he uses the term Judeans rather than Jews for those Jews that opposed the Gospel being preached. Not all Jews were against the Gospel, the early Christians and Paul himself were Jewish.
The Thessalonian Christians also were finding the same opposition as the early Jewish Christians, but it was the Roman authorities that opposed them. there is a cloud of suffering that hangs over a lot of Christian experiences, as we make a stand for Jesus we challenge the still active powers of the world. Jesus has defeated them on the cross and the church has the task of implementing that victory. The powers don’t like that.
The history of the church has not been good on this, as the Archbishop of Canterbury recently pointed out in his call for unity, his second address to the Lambeth conference 2022. The church itself he says has often been a conduit of injustice and still is. This problem goes way back, the book of Leviticus deals with this, specifically, it focuses on how ordinary Israel (or humanity), being prone to inadvertent error and deliberate sin, might nonetheless host the radical holiness of God.
It is that radical holiness that makes us noticed. If we take the injunction to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, which is a law, not a request, then we will be visible. God sees us as we step out in faith, but so does the world.
The Thessalonian Christians also were finding the same opposition as the early Jewish Christians, but it was the Roman authorities that opposed them. We will also find opposition as we follow God. Persecution has not gone away.
Yet Paul’s prayer is one of thanks because the persecution of the church does not stop growing. There are now about 2 billion people who call themselves Christian in the world and the growth is found mostly in places where being a Christian is difficult. Where being a Christian is easy we see mostly decline. As we support the persecuted Church may we learn from their faithfulness to God to grow in our own faith.