Pentecost 23: 16 November 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Paul continues to use traditional imagery, as he had in 4:13-18, and, again, we find ourselves in a strange world. It made sense for Paul to warn about the possible sudden return of Christ, like a thief in the night (5:2). He was expecting it during his lifetime. One never knows when contractions will start (5:3). One never knows when the day of the Lord will come. We no longer live on the edge of our seats in this regard. 2000 years is too long a time.
Nevertheless we can find meaning in Paul's words of comfort and encouragement in other ways. Again Paul is employing popular categories when he contrasts light and darkness, day and night, wakefulness and sleep, sobriety and being drunk. This can be reduced a crude self-congratulatory "us" and "them" contrast. Paul's wider perspective shows that he is not at all happy to run off with a saved clique and condemn the rest of the world. His life mission is to reach out in love to all. Rather Paul is wanting to reinforce the identity of the Thessalonians, to help them see a contrast implicit in that contrast which should sustain them.
It is not difficult to find matches for the metaphors of sleep and drunkenness in today's world. It is important to recognise the intoxicating effects of modern western society, in particular. We can be swept up into behaviours, attitudes, values systems and politics which are destructive for ourselves and others, without knowing it. Paul encourages us to stand back and recognise differences. There were pressures in his day as there are in ours. People need to keep just as awake today as they needed to then, perhaps even more so, because we are being constantly bombarded and manipulated by subtle strategies of persuasion, "spin" of all kinds, including political "spin".
In 5:8 Paul uses a military metaphor drawn from Isaiah 59:17 and better known from Eph 6:14-17, where it has been further elaborated. Here in 5:8 the armour is defensive: protection for the chest and a helmet. Military metaphors can be dangerous. They invite notions of domination and power and frequently use language of aggression. Here the focus is defence. Paul uses the familiar trio, faith, love, and hope. These are not innocent virtues, but robust stances which enable people to live in a way that resists the pressure to conform to what the powerful want and to stand out against abuse in solidarity with the abused and violated.
Ultimately the contrasts which Paul draws are not narrow and sectarian nor focussed on heaven and eternal damnation (though Paul alludes to such ideas in 5:9), but between sharing the life of God, made known in Christ and dynamically present in the Spirit, on the one hand, and living according to the gods and priorities of greed and power, on the other. It is faith in the one who gave his life for others, who embodied love, and so gave people hope, which defines this new existence. So in 5:10 Paul takes us back again to Christ and returns to the thought of 4:17. Our future is in solidarity with Christ and that is also our hope - to live now and then with him.
It is a pity that people make a paragraph break between 5:11 and what follows. In 5:11 Paul, ever with a sense for the present implications of faith statements, encourages the Thessalonians to mutual support. On the ground, that really matters. Not much hope grows where not much love flows and love needs to flow through people. Paul understands this life of faith, hope, and love as one lived in community where the processes of change and renewal are generated through real experiences. 5:12, then, moves even further into practicalities. Support people in leadership. That was as important then as it is now. Paul knows that they can become vulnerable. They are human. They need loving, too. And sometimes, then, as now, they probably needed to be persuaded to heighten their level of self-loving and caring. Intentional care of this kind is the presupposition for what Paul goes on to say in 5:13: Be at peace with each other.
Paul moves toward the conclusion of his letter with a fine exhortation about pastoral care in 5:14-24. Warning the idle (5:14) always recalls for me a word of dismissal which I once saw printed in an ordination liturgy where the spell check had no qualms about leaving "idol" in the text. Warn the idol indeed! At least Paul in our passage brings to our awareness that the issue of idolatry is far from irrelevant for our times, even if the imminence of the day of the Lord is not. These days the idols have major corporate sponsorship and represent powerful vested interests, but from much of Christianity there is little about which they need to be warned. Paul believes Christians should not be so drowsy and drunk, but be asserting the radical new way of faith and love and hope. His world needed it and so does ours.
Gospel Pentecost 23: 16 November Matthew 25:14-30
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