Pentecost 19: 19 October 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Paul begins his letter to the Christians at Thessalonika (modern day, Salonika) very positively. He has heard news from Timothy (3:6) who has reported that all is well with this new community of faith. They have apparently been subject to adversity and have held firm. They also seem to have stayed with Paul's approach to the gospel and not wavered. The words, "you know", occur frequently in the letter. The effect Paul seems to be trying to produce is to underline and reinforce what they know (or should know if any of them doubt!). So Paul is wanting to consolidate what seems to be a stable community.
Paul is also concerned about the relationship between himself and his team and the community. So he reminds them of the founding visit. It is interesting to see him stressing the miraculous side of his visit (1:5). That will later turn around against him when opponents accuse him of being deficient in this regard or not as impressive - as we see in the later parts of 2 Corinthians. Even here one suspects that Paul is being very sensitive to potential rivals. A little later on he will reassure the Thessalonians that he does not use manipulative or exploitative methods (2:1-8). The first two chapters are entirely taken up with Paul's efforts to consolidate and to present himself in good terms. There was obviously a potential problem. So he is both relieved at Timothy's news and still somewhat anxious.
Paul wants them to model themselves on him. He also praises them as models for people in the region. They have made an impact. It is impressive. Paul does not want to see all this contaminated by invasions from outside, especially from preachers who turn the Christian gospel into a set of laws and justify doing so by appealing to the authority of scripture as happened in Galatia. Let people rejoice in the gospel of grace and goodness! Religion can be so destructive to faith when it comes out of fear and the desire to control.
Our final two verses give a brief summary of what Paul achieved. The Thessalonians abandoned idolatry and turned to the living God. Simple as it may sound, it represented an assertion of God's generosity beyond the traditional bounds. It would have infuriated some contemporaries of Paul, who would have taken Paul to task for not handling the matter in conformity with scripture which in Genesis 17 clearly demands circumcision. We know little of the religion of the Thessalonians. Were they bound in superstition? Did they particularly suffer through it? All we know is that they turned away and accepted what Paul would have presented as an offer of God's love. That is to be celebrated.
The simplicity of the conversion finds expression also in the final verse of our passage. It almost sounds too simple. What was the purpose of the conversion? To wait for Jesus to come again and for rescue from God's anger. Perhaps Paul's preaching did reduce the gospel to a simple message: believe in Jesus and be saved from God's anger! It certainly leaves a lot out and raises serious questions. Perhaps we already see this in what Paul goes on to say later. Some seem to believe that Christian life is a matter of lazing around waiting for future deliverance - or, at most, trying to save others. Paul turns the focus to practical things like the need to work and to watch how one lives in the present.
On the other hand these verses do give a reduced version of the gospel. It is so reduced as to distort the focus of the good news and should probably not be treated as an adequate summary. It is after all just an aspect of what Paul is saying and emphasises a change of direction. If we invited the Paul we know from the other letters to expand the outline, we would begin hearing about who this Jesus is whom they await and what his vision for the future was about. We would begin to see that God's anger is not about being peeved or temperamental but at least in part can be seen as a mechanism of self harm which people bring on themselves. We would also hear that the living God is indeed alive and active through the Spirit and through the living Christ building community and bringing liberation and wholeness in the here and now.
Gospel Pentecost 19: 19 October Matthew 22:15-22
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