Much has happened in the narrative world of Acts in between last week’s reading in the Narrative Lectionary and this week’s reading.
The mission of the church has now spread beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria (Acts 1:8). With that outward movement, the narrative focus has now been placed squarely on Paul. Paul (that is, Saul) was first introduced to the readers as a persecutor of the church (Acts 8:1, 3). Then he was converted and began immediately proclaiming the gospel, which in turn drew persecution his way (Acts 9). Barnabas took him under his wing as a partner in Antioch and beyond (Acts 11:25-26; 13:1-4). Eventually Barnabas and Paul split up (Acts 15:36-40), and thus by the time we reach chapter 17, Paul’s independent mission has been well underway.
Luke portrays Paul as traveling the Via Egnatia (Acts 17:1), a major Roman highway connecting the eastern and western parts of the empire. He stops at urban centers along the way, preaching the gospel in the synagogues “as was his custom” (compare Luke 4:16). Paul’s initial visit in this narrative section is to Thessalonica.
The pattern of Paul’s preaching that Luke offers (Acts 17:2b-3) is to argue from scripture that it was necessary for the messiah to suffer and be raised from the dead and that therefore Jesus must be the messiah. In other words, Paul’s argumentation starts with that which his hearers consider to be an accepted authority — the Scriptures — and then applies it to that which is radically new and difficult to accept — Jesus as the Christ.
A diverse group hears Paul and many are persuaded by his argument: Jews, Gentiles connected to the synagogue, and leading women (Acts 17:4). But “the Jews,” that is leaders in the synagogue, grew jealous of Paul. Luke does not tell us whether they argued against Paul, but he does describe them as foregoing argumentation and plotting to persecute him without being directly involved. They stir up “ruffians” in the marketplace (Acts 17:5). Luke intends the reader to see a class difference between the “leading” citizens who accept Paul’s message and the day laborers looking for mischief in the marketplace who are stirred to action against him, even without hearing him.
Jason, presumably one who was persuaded by Paul (although Luke does not state this explicitly) becomes the target of the crowd (Acts 17:5b-7). They come to his house seeking Paul; but not finding him there, they turn their attention to Jason. They take him and others before the city rulers and accuse them of political conspiracy. Of course, no such direct political conspiracy has occurred, but in truth accepting and committing to Jesus as the messiah is a political stance over against other political powers. The magistrates do not give in to the crowd, but simply make the believers pay a fine and release them (Acts 17:8-9; contrast the previous scene in Acts 16:19-40). The fact that the magistrates follow appropriate legal procedure does not mean Paul and Silas are safe, so the newly formed church sends them off from Thessalonica to Beroea, some fifty miles away (Acts 17:10-15).
Even though this short scene is the whole of the attention Luke gives to Paul’s mission in Thessalonica, we know from his letters to the church there that he spent significant time in the city and founded the church there. 1 Thessalonians, especially, demonstrates a close relationship between the apostle and the church n Thessalonica.
More importantly for our purposes, the picture of the young Christian community in Acts 17 as being rejected and persecuted is confirmed by Paul’s own words in the opening to 1 Thessalonians (1:4). While Acts’ narrative purpose is fulfilled by describing a single episode of persecution in Thessalonica, Paul names in terms of ongoing suffering. Preachers must avoid anti-Semitism in describing the persecution to which Acts refers. Luke describes “the Jews” as becoming jealous and stirring up trouble against Paul (Acts 17:5). But remember, Luke has already told us that Paul persuaded “some” in the synagogue (Acts 17:4), who were obviously Jewish, along with Greeks (that is, Gentiles). When the narrator speaks of “the Jews,” then, he specifically means leaders of the synagogue. That there was tension between the early church and the synagogue is undeniable, but we should always remember that this was more of a sibling rivalry between two Jewish sects than it was to different religions sparring against each other.
The text from Acts, like many in the second half of the book, lacks an explicit theological claim that can serve to focus the sermon. Luke writes the second half of the book in a way that has a cumulative effect on the reader: Paul enters a new city; he preaches in the synagogue first and to others afterward; some accept the gospel he offers while others reject it and even persecute Paul and his followers; then Paul moves on to the next city. What is important to remember is that Luke’s intended audience was the church — people already convinced of the gospel and who already new at least elements of this story. He is neither writing history in the modern sense of that discipline nor is he engaging in evangelism. He is offering a narrative that is meant to undergird the life and faith of his church.
In that sense, then, this text invites preachers to be honest about the struggles facing the church from the outside without engaging in self-pity or moving toward despair. Christians in various parts of the world experience significant persecution still today. While there may little of that in North America, in this context, we certainly experience rejection as is evidenced by the decreasing number of people involved in institutional Christianity and the lack of diverse Christian voices in the public sphere. Yet the gospel moves on. The good news of this passage is not that God frees the church from persecution and rejection but that “some” hold fast to the faith in spite of persecution and rejection.
PRAYER OF THE DAYMessiah, Jesus, your followers established churches in communities near and far. Take us outside of ourselves and teach us to give away what you have given to us. Show us how to witness to your presence in places near and far. Amen.
HYMNS O Zion, haste ELW 668, H82 539, UMH 573 Built on a rock ELW 652
CHORAL Built on a rock, G. Winston Cassler