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The Call to Suffer
October 29, 2017 (500th Anniversary of the Reformation)
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana

Text: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

As Paul writes to encourage the young church in Thessalonica church he praises them for “becoming imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea.”

How might one congregation imitate another? Has the Jerusalem church, with its additional maturity and closer association to the apostles, developed a set of best practices the Thessalonians have adopted? Are they singing the same songs or using the same liturgies? Have they looked to their sister church for theological understanding, seasonal rituals or possibly community outreach ideas? Do they have the same governance? Or Christian education curriculum.

If they do share any of these, Paul doesn’t mention it. “You became imitators of the churches in Judea,” Paul writes, “because you suffered the same things from your own neighbors as the Judeans did from theirs.”

For a first century Thessalonian, to accept Paul’s teaching, to profess belief in Jesus Christ, was to choose a path of suffering and persecution. As a white, straight, male, Christian in America I’ve never had to suffer for my faith. Once, on a train in New York City, a drunk guy threatened to kill me for wearing a Boston Red Sox hat, but never in my 45-years have I been denied a job or refused a promotion, been cut off from family members or thrown into prison, had my house firebombed or been denied access to my place of worship because I confess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.

As he writes, Paul continues to heap praise on the young Thessalonian church. You heard my preaching for what it truly was, God’s word. You experienced it at work in you through the power of the Holy Spirit. And you chose to follow that word despite being kicked out of your synagogue for blasphemy, disowned by your family for being an embarrassment and being condemned by your country for betraying the emperor. As I read and prayed over this passage this week I began to wonder. Would I be willing to publicly, steadfastly follow Christ if doing so had any cost at all?

It was fun – at least I thought it was fun – to do our own little reenactment of Martin Luther’s nailing of his thesis onto the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. But for Luther, nailing 95 statements accusing the Pope, and by extension the entire European church, of corruption and false teaching, had very real consequences. He lost his job as a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. He was removed from his spiritual family – the Augustinian monastic order. He was excommunicated by his church and stripped of his credentials as a priest. He was declared an enemy of the state. Had Luther not come under the protection of Frederick III, a powerful German nobleman who had his own, considerably less spiritual, reasons for taking on the pope, the Reformation would have been over before it started.

Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517. Friends printed up copies and circulated them throughout Wittenberg’s academic community. Other supporters made copies of the copies and Luther’s accusations were soon widely known throughout Europe. Luther continued to write and lecture, gathering ever-increasing support. As Luther’s support grew, so did his opposition. A series of heresy trials cumulated in a showdown the Diet of Worms, the supreme court of his day. The court issued an ultimatum. Luther must repent of all his heresies or else face excommunication from the church and a death sentence from the state.

Luther refused.   God’s word, he claimed, had more authority than the corrupt and self-serving words of popes and kings. The Holy Spirit’s guidance was more trustworthy than the sin-tainted guidance of councils and politicians. Historian Thomas Cahill suggests that Luther was the first to be willing to die not for country, clan or religion but for that which he, alone, believed. I believe Luther was only imitating the saints in Thessalonica before him, who were imitating the church in Jerusalem, who were imitating Jesus Christ. Like those first Christians, Luther’s commitment to the gospel message led him to be driven out of his spiritual community. Like them, his declaration of Jesus as Lord brought him into conflict with the state.

As an American Christian I’ve been taught to rejoice in my lack of suffering. Thanks be to God that I live in a nation where I can worship freely. Thanks be to God that the religion I profess lies within the socially accepted mainstream of my country and culture. Thanks be to God for a personal profile – straight, male, white and politically middle-of-the-road – fitting the preferred image of one who practices and leads my branch of Christianity.

As I praise God for my lack of suffering, Paul praises the Thessalonians for accepting the suffering inherent in their decision to follow Christ. The Thessalonians suffer when they place God’s word over the word of religious leads and councils. The Thessalonians suffer when they let the Holy Spirit guide their lives instead of culture and custom. The Thessalonians suffer when they proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord while reminding human leaders of their mortality.

The Thessalonians get kicked out of their synagogues where they’ve worshipped God their entire lives. Their houses get firebombed. They get beaten and thrown into prison. Yet they praise God. They remain steadfast in their faith. They don’t back down. Neither does Luther. Am I missing something?

Are we as white, American Christians missing something? Is our lack of persecution and suffering a testimony not to American freedom but to the blandness of our faith and the tepidness of our conviction? Have we mistaken the words of politicians and councils for God’s word? Have we mistaken cultural norms for spiritual revelation? If we truly proclaimed Jesus as Lord, if we let the Holy Spirit reveal to us the radical, society shifting truth of the gospel, would we too be led to suffer? Would we then give thanks?