Grace to you and peace!
We give thanks to God always for all of you,
constantly mentioning you in our prayers,
remembering before our God and Father
your work of faith and labor of love
and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
For we know, sisters, beloved by God,
that He has chosen you.
Beautiful words, aren’t they?
St. Paul spent only two months in Thessalonica, yet he left behind a thriving community of Christians. How did he bring so many to
Christ in such a short period of time? There was no talk radio, no internet, not even a newspaper. What was the secret to his successful evangelization? The Holy Spirit was involved, of course.
Let’s try to imagine what St. Paul did to convert the Thessalonians. We’ll go back in time to the year 50AD. The place where we live is Thessalonica. Our city is very cosmopolitan with a thriving port on the Aegean Sea. The Via Egnatia – a Roman road that runs through our town, brings merchants and travelers and visitors from all over the empire. We have many temples and statues of gods in Thessalonica, for we are pagans. A large number of Jews live and work in our town, so there is even a Jewish synagogue here.
Lately there has been talk about a Jewish tent maker named Paul, who spoke in the synagogue on the Jewish holy day called Sabbath. Paul told the assembly of Jews that their Messiah had come, that a man named Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee is their Messiah. Despite Paul’s learned defense of his claim, quite a few Jews did not believe him. Loud and angry arguments which began in the synagogue spilled out into the street and continued there.
The Jews are a strange people to us, for they live apart in their own community inside the city, and they worship differently than we do. They have been waiting centuries for their Messiah, a special messenger from their God. Many believe that their Messiah will return Israel to its former prominence as a world power.
Paul works almost daily near the market square diligently sewing and constructing tents to earn his living. The news of Paul’s disagreement with the Jews has aroused the curiosity of many citizens. They have come to listen to Paul speak about this man named Jesus, whom Paul claims rose from the dead after a brutal Roman execution. Paul’s voice is powerful and strong and can be heard clearly, even above the calls of the market vendors and the chattering of the crowds.
Paul speaks about his life, how he was raised in Tarsus, a son of devout Jews. He attended the temple school at Jerusalem, where he became an expert in Jewish Law. He speaks several languages — Greek and sometimes Latin to those of us in Thessalonica, but also Hebrew and of course Aramaic, the language of Israel. Paul’s early life revolved around his loyalty to and his worship of Israel’s God. Some years ago he persecuted those people who followed the way of Jesus the Messiah.
One day, Paul says, as he was traveling to the town of Damascus, this Jesus appeared to Paul in a flash of light so bright and so beautiful that Paul was blinded by it. Jesus spoke to Paul from the light which enveloped him, and Paul’s life was changed forever. Jesus told Paul that He was not pleased with the way his followers were being persecuted by Paul and others. So Jesus gave Paul a special mission — go and tell everyone the good news about God.
Paul says that God sent His son Jesus to earth, where He became one of us, because God loves us so much – not just Jews but pagans too. Jesus is not the kind of god we can carve of wood or stone and carry in our pockets, as we are accustomed to do with our own gods, but He is a God so powerful that He created everything that exists. And Jesus wants all of us to live with Him forever in a special place that He is preparing for us right now. Paul calls this special place “heaven”. Living forever – that is a strange new idea to us. But Paul speaks with great certainty and conviction when he says that man’s life does not end with death.
Paul has told us stories about Jesus – how He had cured many people of their illnesses, how He fed thousands of people when they were hungry, how He taught listeners the right way to live. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were angry that people were following Jesus, so they conspired with the Romans to kill him. But Jesus came back to life and was seen by many hundreds of people, and now, He waits for all of us in heaven.
We have visited with Paul before, so he smiles when he sees us. He tells us that we have returned because Jesus is calling to us and drawing us near. Paul says, Take the hand of the Lord who is reaching out to you — know the joy and the peace which Jesus wants to give to you. Speak to Him in your thoughts and in your hearts, and let His Holy Spirit fill you with His love. Come … take the hand of Jesus …. Just come…..
The scenario seems plausible to me, does it to you?
After Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he spent the rest of his life traveling and teaching the good news and the way of Christ. He suffered beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment, stoning, hunger, thirst and sleepless nights – all because he wanted people to know about God’s love for us.
St. Paul made three great missionary journeys. The first occurred during the years 45 – 49AD. Paul, along with Barnabas, was sent by the Holy Spirit to preach to the Gentiles in Cyprus, Perga, Antioch and three cities in Lycanonia. Despite the many difficulties Paul met, mostly from the Jews to whom he preached, he established Christian communities of Gentile converts in all the places he visited. It was in Antioch that Jesus’ followers were first called “Christians”.
Upon Paul’s return to Jerusalem from this first journey, a Council was held to sort out the question posed by Jewish Christians about whether Gentile converts should be obliged to keep the law of Moses. The agreement, which was ratified by Peter, James and John, leaders of the church, settled the question. Gentile converts need not be circumcised and were not required to follow Jewish dietary restrictions.
Then accompanied by Silas, Paul journeyed to Thessalonica in the summer of the year 50 AD. Paul stayed there at least two months and preached in the synagogue on three successive Sabbaths. As a result of his preaching many Jews and Gentiles came to believe. But Paul’s success earned him the anger and envy of other Jews who organized demonstrations and attacked the house where Paul was staying. Paul and his friend Silas were forced to leave the city.
The recent converts were not adequately trained in their faith and were being persecuted by the Jews after Paul and Silas left. So Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to continue teaching the converts and to report back to him.
The two letters to the Thessalonians, written only 20 years after Jesus’ death, were the first of the New Testament to be written. The letters contain all the main articles of faith which were later formulated into the Apostles Creed.
The Thessalonians were persevering in the faith after Paul left, but they had questions about life after death and the Second Coming of Christ. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, written in the winter of 50 AD reassured the converts about the fate of those who had already died in the Lord.
Paul’s explained that man’s life does not end with death, for his soul is immortal and lives forever. The moment the soul is separated from the body, it enjoys the vision of God, whereas the body must await the Second Coming of Christ, which is an event of great solemnity. Paul says, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.”
The apocalyptic language Paul uses to describe the Second Coming of the Lord highlights the mystery and power of God. After the Lord comes, the dead will rise. Each body will be brought back to life, and those who are still alive on that day will, together with those who were dead and are now risen, go to meet the Lord.
St. Paul is not specific about the timing of the Second Coming. He simply exhorts us to be always on watch, for the day will come when least expected, just as Jesus warned in the Gospels.
Then other problems arose with his Thessalonian converts. Some individuals gave up working, thinking that Jesus’ return was imminent. Paul emphatically stated that “we should keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness, for he himself did not eat any one’s bread without paying…”
Paul encourages the people to remain steadfast in their faith, that the Second Coming of the Lord is not just around the corner. Two things must happen first – the great rebellion and the advent of the anti-Christ. We do not know who this anti-Christ is or what power restrains him. But Paul does not want us to be alarmed by rumors, because this could undermine our perseverance in the faith.
Paul teaches that all Christians are called to holiness. To attain this goal we need to share in Christ’s own life supported by the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Our relationships should be founded on brotherly love; we should give good example to others, correct those who need correction, help the weak, support the sick and be patient with all. We need to be watchful, exercise self-control and sobriety, do our work conscientiously, be joyful, pray always and give thanks for everything.
In the life of the Apostle himself, we learn that God chooses men and women to be His spokespersons, not by their outward appearance, but by what is in their hearts. How many of us could have looked into Saul’s heart when he was persecuting Christians, and have seen the Saint that God would create? God’s grace has touched each of us as well, for it has taken us from our past, no matter where or what it was, and brought us here to study His beautiful Word.
Finally, I want to share this blessing from Paul to you:
“May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness.
May He preserve you whole and entire,
spirit, soul, and body,
irreproachable at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”