After Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity, he traveled all over the Mediterranean preaching the good news. In today’s story, he stopped to preach in Thessalonica, Greece and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath—three weeks in a row to preached about Jesus. It makes sense that Paul would go into a synagogue to preach since he himself was Jewish and most of the Jesus followers also identified themselves as Jewish. They understood Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah. They saw him as standing in the tradition of the prophets and as being the next political leader of the Jewish people. These Christian Jews lived the Jewish traditions and worshiped in the synagogues with their family and friends.
Paul convinces some of the listeners in the synagogue that his story of Jesus is true and so they also become followers of Jesus. The Jewish people who were not following Jesus weren’t happy about this so they stirred up a mob and started looking for Paul and Silas and attacked Jason and some other new followers and threw them in jail until they could make bail.
These events established the Christian church in Thessalonica. Paul and Silas escaped and continued their journey around the Mediterranean setting up churches but these events were not written down until later. In the meantime, Paul started writing letters to all the churches he had helped established to encourage them and to continue teaching from a distance. Thessalonians is the first of those letters.
Back to the story in Acts… There was tension in many Jewish communities between the Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not. In many cases this tension became violent and the Jesus followers were forced to leave their synagogues and temples. There was also tension between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. The Jewish Christians saw Jesus as an extension of the Jewish faith and felt that the Gentile Christians needed to convert to Judaism and follow Jewish customs in order to be considered Jesus followers. Paul was an early teacher of inclusivity and was clear in the churches he taught and established that Gentile followers did not have to convert to Judaism. All of these tensions eventually led to the establishment of Christianity as its own religion.
For the Jewish people, where they drew the lines of who’s in and who’s out was a big deal. Sometimes it split families and communities. Throughout the history of the church there is tension between groups of people who identify as Christian and yet believe differently. That’s part of the reason there are so many different denominations. Sometimes the splits are amicable but sometimes the splits are bitter and even violent. And in these splits, the body of Christ is broken. The debates over who belongs and who doesn’t continue within the Christian church and within the United Church.
There is often a tendency to want the people in our group, in our denomination or our congregation to believe and worship and behave in the same way we do. But the United church has a history of trying to hold in tension many different beliefs. There is currently a debate that is focused on a minister named Getta Vosper. She represents a movement within the United Church and many other denominations that identify themselves as Progressive Christians. In the video below, Gretta speaks about the congregation she serves which identifies itself as theologically barrier free.
The point is not whether you agree with Gretta but how we choose to respond to people who disagree with us. We need to understand that there has never been one single set of beliefs in the Christian church. We have never all agreed on who God is, who Jesus is or how God calls us to live. Life is simpler if we simply assume that there has only been one way and that people who disagree with us are deviating from what God intended. Christians have never come to a complete consensus in their belief.
We could draw the lines around the church very tightly but then the question becomes which set of beliefs do we consider the standard beliefs. I know there are some who find what Gretta has to say very uncomfortable and would not want to participate in worship that she leads. And that’s OK. There are people who would come and worship here and find this congregation uncomfortable. And that’s OK. Recognizing that there has never been a consistent standard of belief helps to put our own faith within a broad context that allows for many different perspectives of faith. We need to recognize that the spirit works through many different people and in ways that we don’t always understand or appreciate.
When we begin pushing people out—whether theologically conservative or progressive— the church as a whole suffers. We are no longer the whole Body of Christ. We need that variety of theological perspectives to help us grow and learn from each other so the Body of Christ can be healed.