Monday, May 18, 2020

A Teachable Spirit -- a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter 2020

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
A Teachable Spirit
Acts 17.1-9, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10 (NRSV)
17 May 2020, Easter 6 (NL2-35) — Easter theme: Witness Apprenticeship Programme

After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.’ Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the market-places they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’ The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.

Did you catch what happened there? It’s something that’s actually still happening a lot these days, but it’s sometimes difficult to recognise it when we’re in the middle of everything.

The people who gathered the mob and set the city in an uproar accused the people they were attacking of turning the world upside down. And the ones who were accused, who were not the ones in the mob but rather the ones dragged out of their own house by the mob, ended up in jail and having to pay bail to get out, while the ones who started the riot went away with no consequences.

How often do we see these situations where some people are accusing others of the very thing they are actually the ones doing? 

It’s an interesting accusation: these people have been turning the world upside down. They say there is another king besides the emperor. 

On the one hand, that’s true! The followers of Jesus do proclaim another king, and following him does require changes to our relationship with the political system of the world. And the followers of the empire recognise the danger, because if too many people start following Jesus instead, then a whole host of things would change…things that currently benefit a few at the expense of the many. Imagine the Roman industrial complex if people loved their neighbour….and also loved their enemy? Imagine the imperial economy if people shared their food and their possessions so that no one went without. Imagine the class structure if landowners paid workers according to their value as people, rather than according to how much wealth they produced for him. Imagine partisan politicking if leaders cared as much about the one lost sheep as the 99 who were safely grazing within sight. Imagine the society pages if children, outcasts, homeless people, widows, the sick, the poor, and the marginalised were all invited to the feast. It would indeed turn the world upside down, and the imperial system couldn’t survive it.

So in a way, the people who started the riot were right. They recognised the truth of what God was doing in Jesus and his followers….the trouble is, they didn’t want any part of it!

If we back up a little bit in the story we just heard, we can see something of how this hard-heartedness happens. Paul and Silas did the thing they had done for their whole lives — they went to synagogue on the Sabbath day. There they worshipped with the community of their fellow Jews, and they preached and taught just as guests were often invited to do. It was during that preaching and teaching that Paul started to turn things upside down.

It says that he spent his sermons “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and rise from the dead.” That was pretty much the opposite of what Jews had said and taught about their own scriptures for many hundreds of years. He was offering the congregation a brand new interpretation of scripture, changing their traditions, and reshaping everything they thought they knew. Only once their understanding of what the Messiah was had shifted would they be able to see Jesus as the Messiah God had promised. Only once they had let go of their old ways would they be able to enter into this new way God had revealed in Christ.

Some people were open to re-thinking, and they received this teaching and joined in following Jesus. And others could not stretch their imaginations to see how Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s promises.

It’s the ones whose hearts and minds could not stretch and shift, like a new wineskin stretching to accommodate the fermentation of wine, that tried to use other means to hold their rigid position. They could not imagine something new, so they fought instead. They accused, and rioted, and gossiped, and ran the people who were trying to change the tradition out of town. 

But just as Christ could not be contained by a tomb, and just as the Holy Spirit cannot be contained in one language or one upper room, the good news of God’s love and promise fulfilled in Jesus cannot be stopped by closed minds and hearts. 

So it is true that Paul and Silas and those who joined in the way of Christ with them were turning the world upside down. And it is true that they were disturbing the peace — the Pax Romana, which was only good for some — by proclaiming the far deeper justice of the peace of Christ instead. And the grace of God continued to be alive in that place, even after Paul and Silas moved on, leaving this fledgling community to try to be faithful in the face of opposition, from both the religious authorities who would not countenance the idea of changes to tradition, and the political authorities who understood that their power and socio-economic system were threatened by this new Way.

A bit later, Paul wrote back to the community in Thessalonica to encourage them. In the very beginning of that letter, he wrote:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace. 

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 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 people we proved to be among you for your sake. 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, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 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.

How did this community formed in the midst of a riot end up being an example of faith so great that everyone knew about them, even many miles away? All across the Roman Empire, people had heard about this church and their faithfulness to the Way of Christ. They continued to turn the world upside down, changing not just their minds but their hearts and their way of life — their faith was public.

And all of that because they were open to a new interpretation of their traditions.

So Paul writes to them to remember those early days — the way the Spirit worked in them, the joy of experiencing the truth of God’s amazing grace, the love and faith and courage that sustained them through the difficulties. Remember the feeling of the Spirit opening your heart and mind. Remember the exuberance of fresh, new understanding. Remember how that newfound faith changed everything about your outlook on life. Recapture that excitement, that joy, that hope. Not only has it been an inspiration to others in ways you don’t even know, it will also sustain you in the days to come.

In these days when everything is changing, when we are just beginning to realise that there is no going “back” to the way things were, only forward into a new way, and when we are considering how to prepare to be witnesses for Christ in this changed world, perhaps there is a lesson here. Remember when we were excited about our faith, about trying our best to live a Christian life, about learning more about God’s word and faithfulness and love. Remember…Not so that we can go back to that time, but so that we can recapture that teachable spirit that first allowed grace to transform us. 

I think a “teachable spirit” sums up the ethos of that Thessalonian congregation. They had to be willing to shift and change, to re-shape their understanding and their tradition, in order to incorporate the new thing God was doing into their faith and life together. They didn’t rigidly insist that the way they’d always done it, or the way they’d always understood, was the only way. Instead, they were open to the Holy Spirit moving them in a new direction, and that journey of faith changed not just them, but the world around them. It was dangerous to the empire, threatening to the people who used the tradition as a way to hold onto their own power…threatening enough to be worth rioting about!…but it was also a source of hope and courage and peace for those who were ready to experience the goodness of God in a new way. Their witness opened the path to faith for countless others.

What might God do with us, when we decide to have a teachable spirit? When we remember the joy of our early faith, and pray for the gift of openness and flexibility, of readiness to follow where Christ leads…even if that means we have to be willing to re-think the things we thought we already had figured out. 

We will need to learn how to be Christ’s body, the Church, in new ways for a new world, making space for new interpretations of the living word, speaking a fresh message…and that might mean re-shaping tradition. We can’t go back, only forward. This may just be the moment when allowing the Spirit to teach and transform us again could lead to a renewal of faith, hope, and love in the whole community, church, nation, and world….and also a moment when having a teachable spirit is itself a witness, showing the world that Christ and his church are not only for the past, and not only for a far-off future, but also for right now: bringing life out of death and light out of the shadows, hope out of despair and joy out of fear…grace, for all.

May it be so. Amen.

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