Sun, Oct 18, 2020

Crossing the chasm?

Duration:12 mins 20 secs

Have you ever been overseas to another country? 

What was different? 


Leaving aside differences in the climate and landscape…

you might have noticed “things” that were different—

for example, the type of buildings. 

In hot, tropical climates… 

buildings are traditionally constructed in an open fashion… 

often without fixed walls… 

which allows the house to be opened up in the cool of the evening. 

In cold climates, however… 

there may be central heating and double- or triple-glazed windows. 

You might have noticed differences in things such as clothing… 



and food. 

Such things make up the objective or material culture of the people who live there.


You might also have noticed other, less tangible things:

differences in language;

marriage customs;

their attitude to children;

their attitudes and practices around death and grieving;

the way that they expressed emotion;

or the way that they acted. 

For example, men and women might not have walked or conversed together in public; 

or, you might have seen men kiss each other publicly… 

but you wouldn’t have seen a man kiss a woman. 

You might have noticed how people ate their food was different–– 

both the mechanics of eating…

but, also, where or how they sat… 

and with whom they sat. 

There might even have been complex rituals involved. 

You might have seen different religious images… 

and different religious traditions and practices. 

If you went to a local market… 

and tried to buy something… 

you might have been forced to haggle… 

and you might have become aware of different customs. 

If you happened to break the law… 

you might have discovered very different understandings of justice and punishment––

you might even have been forced to pay a bribe to secure your freedom. 

Such things make up the subjective or non-material culture of the people.


Whenever you go to a foreign country… 

you run up against differences in objective culture and subjective culture. 

What few of us sometimes realise is… 

that when we open our New Testament… 

we are, in effect, journeying to a foreign land… 

and encountering foreign people: 

people who live with a different objective and subjective culture. 

Perhaps all of us are aware of that on one level. 

We know that people in the New Testament didn’t watch television.

And they certainly didn’t watch TV… 

while eating a dinner prepared by someone else…

which had been frozen… 

stored in a refrigerator… 

and then heated in a microwave oven. 

And we know that… 

even without being told that there are no references to such technology in the text. 

Yet we don’t always do the same sort of thing in regards to subjective culture. 

We don’t realise just how different the culture of these people really was;

how different was the social world that they inhabited.


And that’s an issue that we face whenever we read––

and try to glean anything from––

the New Testament.

Sometimes, we have to work really hard… 

to unpack the different cultural assumptions that underpin the text…

and that shape the meaning of the words that we read.

After all, the meaning of a word comes from the culture of the speaker…

and the hearer…

not from the word itself.

And, sometimes, it’s hard to glean anything from the New Testament…

because the lived experience of the people is so different from ours…

so that it’s hard to find any connection or relevance to us.

That’s especially a problem when we come to read Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.

The nature of this community––

its circumstances and its lived experience–– 

is so different from ours…

that it’s hard to find any connection, relevance or meaning.

Apart from living in a very different time…

and a very different culture––

both in terms of objective and subjective culture––

the church at Thessalonica was small…

probably only about twenty to thirty in number.

Okay, that’s not so different from us!

But that’s where the similarities end.

They appear to have been a very homogenous group:

they were all from the same ethnic background;

they were all modest artisans––

possibly from the same or related fields;

and they all inhabited the same, lowly socio-economic status.

And they had all come from a similar religious background:

they had all turned their backs on their ancestral gods—

the gods of their city and state––

in order to follow the way of Jesus Christ.

And that was a problem.


within their world, generally…

and within the culture of their city, particularly––

there was an expectation that everyone would worship the city’s gods;

along with the Roman Emperor…


as the living embodiment of the power of the gods––

was regarded as divine.

Within their culture and their worldview…

the peace and prosperity of their community depended on it.

Not to worship the gods meant provoking their displeasure…

and, potentially, inviting disaster.


It threatened the well-being of the whole community.

So, as a result, the wider community of Thessalonica responded.

The members of the church were subjected to a range of social and economic sanctions…

in an effort to get them to do their civic duty…

and to offer sacrifices to the gods.

The wider community didn’t really care what the Thessalonian Christians did in private.

Culturally, there was a disconnect or a dissonance between public and private religion––

in a way that we would not understand.

But the members of the church had come to see that as wrong. 

They had adopted an attitude––

which Paul seems to have instilled and encouraged in them––

that demanded consistency of public and private.

It also connected morality with religion…

in a way that wasn’t done generally in the Greek and Roman world.

And the Thessalonian Christians had come to regard the pressure to conform––

by means of these sanctions––

as persecution.

And, in some way, they pushed back.

They may have gone on strike.

They may have staged protests.


It’s in that context that Paul writes this letter.


And while, later in the letter, he tried to discourage them from provocative responses…

here, in our reading this morning, he’s full of commendation:

not just for the way that they had “turned to God from idols”;

but for the way that they lived out their faith.

We always give thanks to God for…your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope”.

The Thessalonians’ faith wasn’t simply a matter of ritual practice…

or even belief.

It was about how they lived.

Note, he doesn’t commend them for their faithfulness––

a better translation of the Greek than ‘faith’––

love, and hope. 

He commends them for their work of faithfulness;

their labour of love;

and their steadfastness of hope.

These aren’t abstract virtues that they hold or profess.

They’re aspects of their lived experience.

Paul is emphasising what they do

because of their faithfulness…

because they love…

because they have hope.

And Paul also commends them because they “became imitators of us and of the Lord”…

because of how they had responded to the suffering they experienced––

such that they have become an example to others.

They have continued to be faithful…

to act in love…

and to cling doggedly to hope in the face of suffering and difficulty.

And this, he suggests, is what it truly means to proclaim the Gospel.


Maybe, it’s at that point that we find some connection, today.


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