May 3, 2020

“We Always Thank God for You”
Acts 17:1-9 and 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi
May 3, 2020 (Easter 4)

 

Have you ever thought about what it might have been like to be part of the early communities of faith, churches founded by the apostles?  Sometimes we idealize them because they were the first, and they were started so long ago in faraway places.  The more I read and reflect on the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, the more I realize the earliest Christians had it rough, and following Jesus was not easy.  Their faith was amazingly strong and carried them through times of great persecution.

 

The Narrative Lectionary is taking us through two stories of church being founded by the Apostle Paul and his team—the church in Thessalonica and the church in Corinth.  And these stories are matched with letters that Paul wrote to them later. 

 

In Acts 17 we read about how Paul and Silas went to Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia and began to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Paul’s usual way of beginning ministry in a new city was to attend the local synagogue for worship and to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Jews.  He was able to preach and talk to people in Thessalonica for at least three weeks, and he was able to gather a good number of converts, including some Jews, Greeks and “quite a few prominent women” (v. 4)—a diverse group of people.

 

This did not go over well with some of the Jews, and trouble erupted.  Paul and Silas’ host Jason and other believers were arrested.  Can you imagine being a brand-new Christian and being arrested for hosting the evangelist?  This is what they got for believing in Jesus.  And then Paul and Silas had to slip out of town under the cover of night.  Talk about a rough start for a church! 

 

Nevertheless, the church at Thessalonica was established and grew, and evidence of this is the letter that Paul wrote to them.  It is clear that the faith of the church was strong in spite of the suffering and persecution they suffered.  First Thessalonians begins with Paul’s praise and encouragement to the church.  In the first ten verses, Paul notes the evidence of their faith and faithfulness:

·       Verse 3:  “We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Faith, love and hope were not abstract ideas the Thessalonians thought about and believed in, but they were lived values that impacted their life and behavior.

·       Verse 6:  “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.”  Paul credits the Holy Spirit with inspiring their joyful perseverance in their suffering.

·       And because of their strong faith that resulted in action and proclamation, the gospel spread far:  “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere” (v. 8).

 

This is a letter from a pastor who is far from his flock, who is socially distant.  It is filled with affirmation, and you can tell that Paul is quite proud of them.  And later in the letter Paul says that he longed to return to see them again in Thessalonica.  It is clear that he really felt close to and loved the people in the church there.

 

Even though we are not the church in Thessalonica, we can read this letter from Paul as an encouragement to us.  It’s God’s letter to us, encouraging us today in this time of being apart, in this time of suffering and uncertainty.  We are separated—maybe not by long distances, but it feels far because we can’t gather.  And even though we are isolated, we are still the church together.   

 

In the spirit of Paul, and wanting to encourage you as he did for the church at Thessalonica, I wrote a letter to you all:

 

Dear Hawaii Kai United Church of Christ:

         Grace and peace from God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

         I always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in my prayers while we are separated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  I remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 

         For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because the gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.  You are being loving neighbors to the wider community by sheltering in place, not gathering for worship, avoiding crowds, and wearing face masks when you are in public because you do not want to spread or catch this contagious and lethal virus.

         Your love for one another and for your neighbors is showing the power of God’s love.  You’ve sewn countless masks for each other or you’ve helped our mask-makers find the supplies they need to make them.  You call one another to check in and to encourage and pray for each other.  You keep in touch with the children via video text messages and emails.  You offer to shop for each other and you share food.  You respond to the needs of the community by giving your time and money.  You are reaching out with waves and shakas from behind your masks to give cheer to the people who walk by your houses.  You have met the challenge of adopting technology to continue meeting with your small groups for Bible study, fellowship and prayer.  The Leadership Team and your officers continue to carry out their responsibilities to keep the church going.  You continue to send in your generous offerings that sustain our life together and support our mission partners and the wider church family.  All this is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work among us.  All praise be to God!

         While I long for all of us to be together again, I know that through the Holy Spirit we will continue to be in fellowship and worship together.  Until the day when we can meet again, may you continue to walk with Jesus, love God and neighbor, and listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  

 

With much love and gratitude to God for you,

Pastor Janice

 

Our readings today show us that the church has always faced trials, suffering and persecution, and God has faithfully sustained it over the years.  We are no different from our ancestors in the faith.  As God worked through them to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, so God continues to inspire us to do the same through our love for one another and our service to the community.  This is how the Holy Spirit keeps our church going during this pandemic.  This is how we will continue to be the people of the resurrection and followers of our risen Savior, Jesus Christ.  And for this, I constantly give thanks to God.