NOVEMBER 9, 2014

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer


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            In the late 1990s Trudy and I took a group of people on a "Steps of Paul" Trip to Greece and Turkey.  We flew to Athens and then waited a few hours for our connection to Thessalonica or as the Greeks call it Thessaloniki.  We stayed in Thessalonica, a city about the size of Omaha, for a couple of nights.  It was a quick in and out. 

            Thessalonica was a significant city in the ancient world.  In fact, for a time it was a question whether Thessalonica or Constantinople would be recognized as the capital of the world.  It's claim to fame was it's location.  It lay astride the Via Egnatia, the Egnation Road, which connected Rome to Asia.  If Christianity took root in Thessalonica, it was bound to spread east along the Egnation Road until all Asia was conquered and west until it reached the city of Rome.  So, the Apostle Paul's bringing Christ to Thessalonica was a crucial moment in making Christianity into a world religion.

            For this, and the next two Sundays, we are going to take a quick trip to Thessalonica ourselves.  Paul wrote two letters to them, and we are going to make a three-night stop, or should I say three morning stop, in the first one, seeing what this ancient letter has to teach us today.  So let's begin reading the letter.


            Paul, Silvanus (also known as Silas, the one who took Barnabas place on Pauls second missionary journey.  Silvanis literally means love of words so he might have been rather long-winded), and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

            We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 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, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.


            It has been said that wherever Paul went he either started a revival or a riot, and most of the time it was both.  The both applied to Thessalonica.  Paul and Silas began their ministry in Thessalonica, where they usually started, in the local synagogue. Three weeks later riots broke out. Leaders at the synagogue brought Paul and Silas before the local magistrates. Here is what they said about them: "These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them; and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus" (Acts 17:6-7). 

            Note those words once again These men who have turned the world upside down . . ."  Turning the world upside down, now thats influence. You know theres a great difference between power and influence.

            A powerful man and an influential man lived at the turn of the 13th century. The powerful man was Pope Innocent. He took Jeremiah 1:10 as his ordination verse.  Listen to it. "See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant." Pope Innocent lived by this verse, believing that his position gave him the power over both kings and rulers. He declared King John of England to be subject to his rule, and claimed that all of England belonged to Rome. If anyone stood in his way, Pope Innocent excommunicated them.  Some say Pope Innocent III was the most powerful pope in history.

            At the same time that Pope Innocent was amassing his power, there was another man from a tiny town in Italy, named Francis.  Born to a wealthy family he lived a life of ease and self-centeredness until two tragic events brought him to his knees: he suffered a serious illness, and then, while a soldier, he was captured and held as a prisoner of war for one year. Through his sufferings, Francis came to know Jesus Christ, and after embracing Christ he dedicated himself to serving the poor and the sick. Francis turned his back on his family's wealth and lived as a beggar.  And he took for himself a different life verse than Pope Innocent.  He took Matthew 10: 7-10, "As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of God is near.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep."

            Of course the Church had to give its "seal of approval" to any new religious group, so Francis traveled to Rome to gain an audience with Pope Innocent. Innocent took one look at the simple missionary and suggested disdainfully that Francis go "roll in the mud with the pigs." Francis, in all humility, left the papal offices and went to the nearest pig sty, where he rolled on the ground in the mud. He wasn't thinking of his position. His sole focus was on continuing his ministry among the poor and sick. If that required humiliating himself at the direction of the papal authority, then Francis would gladly humiliate himself.

            Pope Innocent was so moved by Francis' devotion that he gave official status to Francis' ministry and that ministry continues today through hundreds of schools, hospitals, and service ministries led by the Franciscans.[2] Innocent III had power. St. Francis of Assisi had influence and like Francis, St. Paul had no worldly power, but because of the power of God working through him, Paul had great influence.  He was turning the world upside down.  Listen to what Paul writes next.


            And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the deadJesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.


            I want us to focus this morning on becoming like Paul and the Thessalonians.  That is to say I want us to focus on becoming people of influence. Is there someone we would like to influence? A spouse? A child? A friend?  A co-worker? Of course, the question is, How do we become a person of influence? How do we leave a lasting impression on our family, our friends, our co-workers, and our community?

            Well, people of influence, first of all, are usually driven by a passion. We see that in St. Paul. What was his passion? We can sum up his passion in two words: Jesus Christ. People of influence have a passion. They have a passion for their family, or a passion for their work, or a passion for their community, or a passion for their church. About what are we passionate?

             Remember Marie Curie? She has been called the scientist's scientist. According to one source, Madame Curie quantified everything she did. Curie wouldn't just tell you she was tired. Rather, she would say, "I climbed 22 steps and had to rest." Similarly, when her daughter lost a tooth, she recorded the event as, "seventh tooth, bottom left."

            Curie's dedication to research on radiation won her two Nobel Prizes. It led to the first effective treatment for cancer and, ironically, may have claimed her life. He biographer, Susan Quinn, says "Marie was passionate about science. It wasn't work to her." Quinn states. "To Curie conquering the unknown was the only thing worth conquering."

            That's passion. Influence requires passion.

            But there is a second thing that sets people of influence apart. They have a respect for people.  Notice how St. Paul begins this letter ...


            We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you ...


            Paul bestows high praise on the Thessalonians, and he means it.

            Maybe you have heard about James Surowiecki's book, The Wisdom of Crowds. The basic theme of this book is that the average person is smart, and that polling a large cross-section of the public is, more often than not, a better way to make sound decisions than relying on the advice of so-called experts. That, of course, goes against conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom says you can never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, but this author shows that the conventional wisdom is wrong.

            A memorable example from the book is the television show, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Do you remember the format of the show? The contestant would start with multiple-choice questions that got more difficult as the game went on. When the contestant was stumped on a question, he or she could pursue one of three solutions. He could ask that two of his four choices be eliminated, giving him a 50% chance of answering correctly. Or he could call a family member or friend that he had designated before the show as an expert. Or he could ask for the audience's help, and they would poll the audience.

            Now, the experts did fairly well. They were right 65% of the time. But here's what's surprising. The audience was right 91% of the time.[3]

            People are not dummies. People who influence others know this. They respect people. They know that to be effective they must help others use their natural intelligence for the collective good.

            In Pauls day, the Roman emperor Nero had the power, but Paul had the influence.  He had a passion for Christ and a love for people. Today people name their dogs Nero and their sons Paul.

            In the thirteenth century Innocent had the power. Francis had the influence.  He had a love for the down and out and a passion to help them. Hardly anyone remembers Innocent today, but hundreds of thousands of people each year journey to the small town of Assisi to honor St. Francis.

            In 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. We're told that his footprints are still there. Where are we leaving our footprints? Amen.








[1] Bulk of sermon borrowed from King Duncan's message "People of Influence."

[2] James L. Garlow, The Twenty-One Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004).

[3] James Surowiecki The Wisdom of Crowds, New York:Doubleday, 2004.