How Christian Communities Emerge (in 1 & 2 Thessalonians)

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The Martyrs Mirror (365-­367) has preserved memories of some contacts between sixteenth­-century Anabaptists and Christians in Thessalonica. A hymn in the Ausbund, still used by the Amish, has been inspired by these accounts. The story has a seventeenth-­century Dutch source. According to this information, in the 1530s the Turks captured some Moravian Anabaptists (Hutterites) and took them as prisoners from Moravia to Thessalonica, where they became acquainted with some local Christians. To their mutual joy these Anabaptist prisoners and the Thessalonian Christians discovered a remarkable kinship of spirit. This led to a delegation from Thessalonica going to Moravia for a visit with the Anabaptists there. Recognizing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, they joyfully celebrated the Lord's Supper together. The Thessalonians declared the Anabaptists to be "the true church of God." Furthermore, they reported that "the church of God at Thessalonica had remained unchanged in faith from the time of the apostles."

According to Friedmann, the details in this narrative cannot be verified historically (ME, 4:708­-709). We are left to wonder about the eventual fate of the original Christian community in ancient Thessalonica. The possibility that a sectarian group in that city might have connected with Moravian Anabaptists in the mid­sixteenth century sounds intriguing. My visit to modern Thessaloniki in 1986 proved disappointing because of the sparse archaeological remains and the apparent lack of vitality, at least in churches the tourist brochures identified as having historical significance.

What are some connections between the life of the church today and the opening of the first letter to the Thessalonians? The recital of events in Thessalonica which evoked Paul's gratitude creates resonance with anyone involved in the ministries of evangelism and church planting. What this text provides is not a strategy but rather a theological framework for understanding the key stages which lead to the conversion of a people and the formation of a community of committed disciples. Some reflection on these stages follows. Illustrations come from the writings of Peter Riedemann, a sixteenth­-century Moravian Anabaptist, who may or may not have met the alleged delegation from Thessalonica.

First, God loves and God chooses! In fact, God's love precedes all human response. Those not yet within the community of faith are nonetheless also people whom God loves. They need to hear the story of God's love, especially as revealed in Jesus Christ, and be invited to appropriate God's love for themselves. Quarrels with Calvinism or other theological traditions which espouse predestination should not blind heirs of the Anabaptists to biblical understandings of election. As Riedemann says:

We confess also that God has, through Christ, chosen, accepted, and sought a people for himself, not having spot, blemish, wrinkle, or any such thing, but pure and holy, as he, himself, is holy. (Rideman: 38)

Second, the church has been called to proclaim and live out God's message of love. Unless congregations share this message in words reinforced by their actions, the good news remains hidden, like a treasured heirloom which is hoarded rather than shared. The dynamic witness by living word and loving deed invites repentance and personal acceptance of the good news. Turning toward God requires a corresponding movement away from cherished idols. The genuineness of that step of faith expresses itself in a deep joy which transcends outer circumstances. Riedemann articulates some of this:

According to the words of Paul, this faith comes from a diligent hearing of the preaching of the word of God, which is proclaimed by the mouth of God by means of those whom he sends. Here, however, we speak not of the literal, but of the living word that pierces soul and spirit, which God has given and put in the mouth of his messengers. The same word makes wise unto salvation, that is, it teaches to know God; and from the knowledge of God faith springs up, grows and increases, and with faith knowledge. (47­-48)

Finally, this personal step of receiving the gospel involves more than just the individual choice to accept Jesus. Personal decisions to affirm the good news will lead to the formation and growth of communities of believers characterized by faith, love, and hope. As the experience of the church in Thessalonica demonstrates, groups of believers sometimes face persecution. This calls for both conversion and a genuine transformation of life, even when the surrounding society rejects Christian values. After reading the above quotations from Riedemann, Ashish Chrispal, former dean of Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India, raised a concern in one of our conversations. Ashish lamented that present-­day preaching often "proclaims the gospel as a medicine for inner turmoil" rather than as the way of life for the faith community as it follows Jesus and is empowered by the Spirit. The ancient church in Thessalonica, the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, and this brother from India all speak to us about the need for faithful discipleship lived out in the world through Spirit­-empowered communities of believers.

South African missiologist David Bosch eloquently describes the Christian community living within the world:

We live within the creative tension between the already and the not yet, forever moving closer to the orbit of the former. We Christians are an anachronism in the world: not anymore what we used to be, but not yet what we are destined to be. We are too early for heaven, yet too late for the world. We live on the borderline between the already and the not yet. We are a fragment of the world to come, God's colony in a human world, his experimental garden on earth. We are like crocuses in the snow, a sign of the world to come and at the same time a guarantee of its coming. (Bosch: 85)

Catching this beautiful vision of an experimental garden, of crocuses in the snow, present-­day missioners can join Paul and his companions in proclaiming and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ in today's world. Such ministries will bear fruit in the emergence of Christian communities whose identifying marks are faith, love, and hope.

Jacob W. Elias