The church in Thessalonica was settled in a thoroughly Roman city. While it was no Alexandria, Thessalonica, named after Alexander’s half-sister Thessaloniki, was a major trading city on the Roman highway. As such, cultic practices were not foreign, particularly the cult of the emperor. Establishing a church in this heavily, and arguably proudly, Roman city would have been met with particular challenges, and this is evident in Paul’s language. In these two letters, Paul’s language is not innocuous: parousia (coming), euangelion (Gospel, good news), asphaleia (security), would have likely been words used in reference to the Roman Empire. Throughout these two little letters Paul coopts royal language to describe not the Pax Romana but the coming peaceable Kingdom.
This first letter to the church in Thessalonica begins in typical Pauline fashion; a lavish introductory thanksgiving. The thanksgiving in 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 comes not only from Paul, however, but his “ministry team” including Silvanus and Timothy. This group gives thanks not just because the church received their word, but because the work of God in their lives has been evident! Paul and his companions aren’t primarily concerned with their personal reception, but the community’s reception of the Gospel.
The thanksgiving of verses 2-5 quickly shifts to words of affirmation. As Paul and his companions sought to imitate the Lord, the church in Thessalonica imitated them and, in turn, the Lord. This has led to an exemplary life that is also imitatable.
From within a thoroughly Roman city, this church has demonstrated faithful living. In the midst of undefined trials, this church stands as an exemplar for the churches in the surrounding region to imitate.
For the first 300-400 years after the resurrection claiming Christianity would not have helped people in their standing. Removing oneself from cultic practices and guilds would have had social and economic implications. It would not have been a politically expedient thing to claim Christianity. Christians were odd… Paul's understanding of the “insiders” and “outsiders” would have contradicted the reality experienced by the Christians in Thessalonica.
While many today mourn the fading privilege of Christendom, perhaps this doesn’t mean the church is dying. Maybe, just maybe, God does God’s best work in the margins. Perhaps the seat of power is too tempting for the Church and we belong in the gutters and alleys with the least of these.
As the church in Thessalonica turned from worshipping idols to God, perhaps the church in North America needs to recognize her idols. Have you ever noticed how we’ve personified the “economy.” We’ve turned it into a “thing” with attributes. We say things like “the economy is struggling” or “the economy is on the mend” or “the Dow Jones is getting back on it’s feet.” Paul writes that the Thessalonians have turned from idols to God, “to serve a living and true God.” They have turned from non-living things to the living God.
Pastor, have we given life to non-living things? And how can we move our churches away from this subtle idolatry in order to give proper worship to the Living God?
 New Interpreters Bible, V. X