The epistle lesson from the lectionary last Sunday took us to 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8.
It’s a passage that we don’t often hear preached in church or a book we often study in Bible classes, but it’s a passage that has a lot to say to us about the nature of ministry and what the gospel of Jesus Christ asks us to do.
It comes from a context with which many of us are familiar: the Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey.
Paul is seeking to preach the gospel to the unreached and lands in Thessalonica alongside his traveling companions, Timothy and Silvanus.
As he visits Thessalonica, Paul begins with his standard operating procedure. He preaches in the synagogues, then either the people believe or they don’t.
But in the case of this particular town, the opposition to Paul’s message was fierce.
He quickly had to leave though he truly wanted to stay and nurture the new believers there.
Yet, in his absence, he writes a letter back with words of testimony and instructions, saying words such as the one found in the second chapter of his first letter: “As you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.”
Or, in other words, “Church, I want you to know that I was faithful to preach the word of God to you, even though I faced opposition doing so.”
As the church, we’ll mark Reformation Day on Oct. 31 – the movement that started with Martin Luther holding the church accountable.
And as we mark this occasion, it’s a day to remember that sometimes what God needs most from followers of Jesus – both individually and collectively – is to call into question the ways that the culture has watered down our faith.
And to stand and proclaim the gospel even when it is unpopular.
But as I began to think about the context in which I would preach this text from 1 Thessalonians to a gathered community of believers in Oklahoma, I wondered what in the world do we know about persecution for our faith here?
We live in a very Christian society. Just last week, I was at the gym and noticed the Christian radio blasting from the speakers.
I asked a staff member why, for I didn’t know that this was a religious gym. He replied, “Oh, everybody in Oklahoma likes Christian music, right?”
We live in a place where there are churches galore on almost every street corner. Every flavor at your doorstep.
We live in a place where celebrating Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter bring us no ill will. In fact, our children get off these days at school.
So what about declaring “the gospel in spite of great opposition” as Paul speaks of? How do we do this?
The last time I read the gospel though, the message of Jesus was always about standing with those who are ignored, those who are marginalized and those who may be different from the norm. So who are these people in our context?
It’s no surprise to say that Muslim-Christian relations in Oklahoma are at an all-time low.
After the brutal workplace murder last month of Colleen Hufford in Moore, Oklahoma, by a man with alleged extremist Muslim views, all Muslims in our area have grown to have targets on their backs as if the actions of one spoke for all.
In fact, soon after this horrible murder, Oklahoma state Rep. John Bennett said that Muslims in our country were like a “cancer that needed to be cut out of American society.” And many agreed with him.
Some with similar views began making threatening calls to local mosque leadership, sending hate mail and warning children not to attend school in their traditional dress.
One group calling themselves “Patriot Pastors” even organized hate rallies at a Baptist Church in Edmond, Oklahoma.
But there are other voices in this conversation, other voices who believe the Christian message is one that always begins in love.
Many of these have come from ministers like those at Mayflower Congregational Church, who are standing beside Muslims who are a part of CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations).
But this is the story I most want to tell you: There’s a group of Oklahoma University students who began organizing recently to say that all people of this state are not hateful toward our Muslim neighbors.
They began asking fellow students to sign a petition of solidarity with Muslims. The university president even signed.
But then they took their “solidarity” one step further; they began organizing students, faculty and other area pastors to attend Friday Prayers at Oklahoma City’s mosque.
They wanted to show in person that acceptance is stronger than prejudice.
I can’t imagine what some of their parents and relatives must have thought when they found out.
But yet they did it, in spite of the opposition to come, as Paul speaks about.
And I’m so glad they did, even if their small and courageous act didn’t make the headlines on the news.
Isn’t this what the gospel is all about? Even if we have disagreements, God never wants us to be hateful.
The reformers long ago didn’t ask the church to change to be static. No, they reformed so that the church could continue to reform.
So, I ask you, in your community, what reformation is the spirit asking you to make?
As for me here in Oklahoma, I want to find ways to stand shoulder to shoulder with my Muslim neighbors so the extremist voices aren’t the only ones we hear.
Elizabeth Evans Hagan is a freelance writer, interim pastor at the Federated Church in Weatherford, Oklahoma, and ambassador of social advocacy at Feed the Children. She regularly blogs about the art of pastoring at Preacher on the Plaza, where a version of this article first appeared. You can follow her on Twitter @elizabethhagan.
Editor’s note: EthicsDaily.com’s documentary, “Different Books, Common Word,” focuses on goodwill Baptists and Muslims finding common ground to advance the common good. Several stories are from Oklahoma. Details about the film are available here.