Advent 1: 29 Novemberr 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
We are in the middle of a relationship. Paul had founded the church at Thessalonica. He has been anxious about how the new Christian community was faring, especially because he knew that they would face a rough time from fellow citizens. In 3:1-5 Paul reminds them that he sent Timothy to find out how they were. Timothy has just returned (3:6) and in response to his report Paul is overjoyed. In 3:6 Paul mentions two main things that cause him joy and relief: their faith and their love.
The faith is about their holding up in adversity. Paul connects it to the situation which he and Silvanus have faced. As he had predicted to them, he, too, faced persecution. These were dangerous times. Paul also connects such conflict to the troubles which Christians in Judea faced and which originally brought Jesus to his death (2:14).
Equally important is "love". Here Paul is referring above all to their love for him and his fellow apostles. Much of Paul's almost poetic euphoria in our passage comes from this energy, as much as it comes from his joy about their faith. Why was it so important? It was not just solidarity. Reading between the lines of what he has said so far in the letter, we can see that there were real dangers that they might turn away from Paul. Right near the beginning of the letter Paul finds the need to remind them of his integrity and effectiveness. It was not just words (1:4-5). Then in 2:3-6 he emphasises that he did not engage in manipulation and trickery, but acted as one properly authorised. He was not beholden to anyone, needing someone else's permission or praise. He was gentle (2:7). He did not burden them by seeking payment and upkeep, but worked to pay his own way (2:9). Paul continues to emphasise his integrity and authorisation (2:10-12). Then, leading up to our passage in the rest of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3, Paul almost goes overboard to reassure the readers that he really cares about them and wants to visit them.
We are in the middle of a sensitive relationship and Paul is writing to sustain it. From his other letters we know that people (including other Christians) questioned his effectiveness, his legitimacy as an apostle, his methods, his lack of faith in God (Jesus instructed apostles to accept hospitality and upkeep), his roughness. Such criticisms had come to a head by the time he wrote 2 Corinthians, especially chapters 10-13. But even here these issues seem to be emerging. Paul is mightily relieved that he has not lost the Thessalonians. He has a big personal investment in this - and it shows. He doesn't try to hide it. It is healthy in ministry to know when you have a big investment - at least that way you can control it and monitor it and know what energises it.
Paul's big investment is a coinciding of what he wants and what he believes God wants. Paul thinks of faith as life in community, life in relationships. So he finds it hard to separate people's response to God from people's response to himself. That can be a dangerous combination. Yet at another level it is, or can be, a wholesome pain felt whenever love fails and a real joy when love is present. Responding to Christ means joining his generosity and openness to others. That is how Paul understands it.
It is not that Paul is concerned only with himself. He has become convinced of a generous open loving as characteristic of God and as the evidence of the Spirit. Paul is not clinical and aloof about this. It is something he needs just as much as anyone. He can be aggrieved when people block this love - not only towards him, but also towards others. For Paul there is a fascinating coalescence of love for God, love for others and love for self. Paul's was not a spirituality seeking serenity and protection from the vicissitudes of life, but one which went right into the thick of conflicts and laid itself open to rejection. That vulnerability exposed Paul not only to persecutions from outsiders, but also to the subtle range of innuendo and 'theological' attack from insiders and from his own.
The depth of Paul's vulnerability is matched by the depth of his joy. Paul is a big-feeling person. At times his rhetoric seems a bit over the top and, matching the rhetoric of the time, sometimes is much more flowery than we are used to. Paul is certainly doing things with what he saying. These are big hugs that are looking for some response - if we might deconstruct Paul's flourishes in this passage. Paul's passion is to enable people to be real (cultic language, read: holy, blameless) before God. The breadth of his vision is clearly evident in the final two verses. Notice that the goal in 3:12 is that the Thessalonians "might abound in love for each other and for all"; he adds "like we did towards you". After all, this is how Paul understands mission: the expansion of love to all! Then 3:13's words about holiness and blamelessness are obviously not about a sterile morality which does no evil (and does no good), but about a oneness with the God of compassion.
Paul's letters have a way of engaging us and inviting us to be part of sensitive and transformative relationships, full of joy and pain. When we hear his letters as part of his human story, they are never just words; and they are never just his story.
Gospel: Advent 1: 29 November Luke 21:25-36
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