First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 24

William Loader

Pentecost 24: 3 November  2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

This is the second letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, but, unlike the first, it is not altogether without controversy with regard to authorship. Many see it as a letter penned at a later date by someone other than Paul who seeks to protect Paul's heritage and keep it alive as he sees it. It takes a different track on the future from 1 Thessalonians and may be seeking to rebalance what was said there. Be that as it may - and many do find the authentic Paul, here - we have just two snippets of the opening of the letter from the beginning and end of chapter 1. Much of these 6 verses reflects the formal letter structure, but within it are some core statements of faith and hope.

Before turning to them however and because context is important we cannot simply ignore 1:5-10. We soon see why the Lectionary planners decided we should skip over these verses. The author seeks to comfort the afflicted Thessalonians by assuring them that those who afflict them will be terribly afflicted themselves when Christ returns. One wonders where good news and generosity have gone when the author resorts to what is a form of comfort with the thought of vengeance, even if it is allegedly divine. Love definitely takes second place in such schemes and if we dwell on them, we find all our words about compassion and love begin to unravel, because they are secondary. We can just as easily slip in and out of gospel mode today. At most one can say that these are often the responses of people facing severe danger and deprivation, a kind of spiritual terrorism. We need to understand the pain behind such strategies without agreeing with them - unless that is also part of our theology.

The greeting (1:1-2) is almost identical to that used in many other letters of Paul or of those attributed to him and reflects a standard approach of the time. The opening "X to Y, Hi!" contains a standard expansion where the "Hi!" includes the words, "grace" and "peace", reflecting what was originally a Jewish form. The "grace" and the "peace" now receive their definition from Jesus. Both are revolutionary words. "Grace" is generosity beyond bounds and "peace" is wholeness and goodness of life. For what more could one wish? What could be more challenging and confronting?

The thanksgiving (1:3-12) is also a standard component of letters and usually includes assurance of prayers, as here in 1:11-12. Alas the creative new element is largely what we leave out (1:5-10) but also includes elements of 1:3-4. The concrete references come when we look at what becomes the focus of thanksgiving. Here it is "faith" (1:3), which will mean more than coming to faith. It also has an aspect of continuing faithfulness. This will be much more than adhering still to a belief system. It is obviously something costly for which these people put their lives in danger. They are in fact growing in their faith - none of the modern trend to look on faith as something which gained one entry to a status or a future heaven and counting for little in real life!

The other object of thanksgiving is love. This one might expect given the centrality of love and grace to the gospel. Here the focus is limited: love for one another. Perhaps that reflects the pressure. They are forced into a situation of surviving with little space to think of loving beyond their own circle. But it is very dangerous and spawns what follows in 1:5-10. 1:4 then reassures the Thessalonians that the authors are proud of them and acknowledge their sticking with it despite sufferings.

We skip down to 1:11 where another standard element of the Thanksgiving section occurs, namely the assurance of prayer. To be made worthy of one's calling appears to mean something like: to help you to measure up to what it demands by becoming the kind of person it requires. That of course depends on human response to God's work in us, but it assumes that the life and agenda of God is directed towards producing good intentions and good deeds. Goodness is a helpful and very human way of understanding God's grace. It is not a sterile morality which does nothing wrong (and does no one much good either), but a dynamic ("in power") movement of the Spirit to produce in us the fruit of love in both attitude and action - strong enough even to undo the vengeance motif in 1:5-10!

The glorification of Christ or of God relies less on what we sing or say than on what we actually do and how we live. "Glory" is a way of speaking about God's aura or being. In such contexts glorification is more than praise. It is recognition of God's being and presence. 1:12 also suggests we might be glorified, but again we should probably see that less in terms of the heaping up of praise and rewards and more in terms of being surrounded with the being and goodness of God in ways that are plain to see. The Thessalonians appear to be faced with anything but glorification in their situation, so this is reassurance. The author ends the chapter where he began: with the grace of God. God's goodness and generosity is the foundation. Under pressure we are wont to go for easier alternatives which give up such a foundation. But only in such grace is there also peace for us and for our world.

Gospel: Pentecost 24: 3 November Luke 19:1-10

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