Soul Report: I Thessalonians Vernon K. Rempel (soulreport.wordpress.com) Advent and Epiphany (2012-2013)
Hello friends, I have decided to collect my verse-by-verse blog/commentary on I Thessalonians into a single document, which some may find useful for devotional reading.
I had never looked closely at I Thessalonians before this. I was surprised at what an empassioned spiritual love-letter it is from Paul to the beloved community. I now have the sense that it comprises a heart-statement about our faith, hope, and love which overflows with wonder at the effects of the Holy Spirit creating community. It is a theology of hope and divine faithfulness that is also an ethic of encouragement, non-violence, care for the vulnerable, and a gratitude which answers all cruelty and narrowness.
I have brought to this letter of Paul my background in systems theory, the Quaker spirituality of Parker Palmer, and my love of poetry and hymns. Most of all, I read echoes here of the same shock of divine love that I have experienced, which is always surprising and always so much more than we tend to imagine. I hope that if you read this, you will sense an eternal light – the light of divine love – shining in the words. Vern
Introduction This is day one of my blog for Advent and Epiphany, thinking about “Faith at Home”. How is our spiritual experience and faith commitment expressed in our daily lives? I will offer reflections that can be accessed on laptops, smartphones, tablets – at home or wherever we are. Have a small connection with your faith community: one verse a day from I Thessalonians.
I Thessalonians 1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
In this opening verse, the senders of the greeting are a community and write to a community. We need solitude but we are created for community. And the character of this community is “in God…” and “Christ”. So the purpose and inspiration of the community is divine, infinite, full of holy soul. And this character is immediately expressed in the first lovely words of the message itself: “Grace to you and peace.”
I Thessalonians 1:2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly...
This is not the CIA, or the dominant mode at the Pentagon, or most churches, for that matter. Or families. How often do we give thanks? How often are we in a situation where we have looked after our key relationships in such a way that we can give heart-felt thanks? It is not something to merely try. It is something that must be practiced day by day, in the full light of the Spirit of Christ (in our prayers, constantly....).
I Thessalonians 1:3 …remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is a society of “grace and peace” as has been just stated. But it is not mere happy-sounding words. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled said “all love is work”. What calls forth the sense of trust and joy in the opening greetings is memory of doing good work. And this capacity for work is located in a particular hope – hope in “our Lord Jesus Christ”, which is to say, hope in this particular friendship and history and social movement that was inspired by Jesus. This person – Jesus – was apparently so full of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that he came to be seen as “God on earth” or perhaps “this is what God looks like walking around.” This hope changes the sense of possibility for what can happen in our daily lives and in history. Now there is hope, and the “work” within that hope is “love” and not various compromises to lesser work. Love is possible. That is saying more than it looks like at first blush.
I Thessalonians 1:4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you,…
People beloved by God…. So life is not a closed cycle of power struggles, “necessary” deceits, and “inevitable” violence. There is divine input into life. If history is a desert mountain, this divine input is a fresh spring gushing forth within the heart of history. People are not just people-as-brutes. People are beloved by God. That is a welcome reframing. The love here is spoken about for a particular community – the Thessalonians who have chosen to accept this gift of love. And so they are chosen. For in choosing love, we discover that we, actually, are chosen. That’s a welcome surprise – like “divine flow” on the desert mountain. May this grace be yours, my friends.
I Thessalonians 1:5 …because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake.
So in other words, it’s more than words. Or perhaps words, such as these that are being written now to the Thessalonians, but backed by real risk-taking for the sake of love and out of hearts that have been renewed and encouraged by love. This is power – love that is risk-taking-love moves through time and space, gets stuff done. This is the Holy Spirit – again, not a closed calculus opining about what can’t be done, but a Spirit of life who moves and renews in all things. And finally, this is full conviction. No snark, not a wink or a nudge, but joy that is joy, compassion that is compassion, transformation that is publicly visible, and – really cool – radiant love – the kind where when you see it, you know it. Oh yes.
I Thessalonians 1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit,…
We nurture, shape, and build up one other by drawing into proximity. Then all the powers of our social-mapping brains with mirror neurons et al, and the mutual resonance of our hearts and something more ineffable – the “moreness” of the Spirit – all move together to create “imitation” wherein we find great joy in shared human society. It is all infused by the divine Spirit so that it is spacious and has power.
I Thessalonians 1:7 …so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
The social multiplication that is happening here is not something willful or forced, or the result of a “campaign.” It is the infectious spread of joy, from body to body, heart to heart.
I Thessalonians 1:8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.
There is something infectious about joyful transformation. It’s not just “going to church”, either by habit or sheer discipline. It is rather “taking it to church” as blues musicians say, when the music opens up, the soloists rise, and the good vibrations are heard “not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place….”
I Thessalonians 1:9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,…
Turning from idols and offering hospitality are linked. Get free from addictions and distractions (idols), and the capacity to welcome will flow. It can be most surprising.
I Thessalonians 1:10 …and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Paul, like many who have great spiritual insight have done, could see that the world as he knew it would end, and not end well. This has been true in many times and places as era has passed to era. Those with the inspired love, courage, and character that people found in relationship with Jesus will find an eternal strength even for the worst times, as the song says “when the earth shall melt like snow.” To put it succinctly: This will not go on forever; learn and embrace great love while you can.
I Thessalonians 2:1 You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain,…
Paul will go on to speak of sufferings, convictions of the heart, the power of God. This is no cocktail party. But it is the party of the Spirit of God, who makes all things new, and that is never in vain. What community do you have in your life with that kind of power?
I Thessalonians 2:2 …but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.
In systems theory, “homeostasis” names the impulse to keep things the same, and sabotage is often part of the picture when any of us work for transformation. The execution of Jesus was an attempt at sabotage. Paul and friends get a taste of that too. But great joy can nurture and support great courage. And so the goodness moves forward in spite of sabotage. Nothing can separate us from this divine goodness.
I Thessalonians 2:3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery,…
One thing I love most about our congregation’s children’s stories during worship is that they are told for the sake of love, and nothing else. Nothing is being sold, no manipulation, but rather, exhibited there is a care and compassion. Paul and friends have this approach with their fellow Christ-travelers.
I Thessalonians 2:4 …but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.
And thus the “spin” is not on. Because when the heart is fixed on the “big picture” of the love of God, the soulfulness and joy of that, then the gaming that comes from ego and competitive distortions need not enter into it. This makes people feel solid and trustworthy.
I Thessalonians 2:5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed;…
I have been on retreat in Snowmass; the days were glorious! Meanwhile, people are now saying it, because of another sad, sad shooting incident: “We need a new conversation about guns.” Can it be an open and honest conversation without “flattery or pretext for greed” or all the other spin we tend to put into these conversations? Let us listen to each other and listen well, and speak with other and speak well. Our children’s lives are at stake!
For the record on gun-control: I think we need to get over the ancient practice which has now turned into a destructive addiction – the idea that we need to kill people and threaten people with death in order to make the world work and be safe. I think we need a new conversation about what makes us safe (non-lethal means). How can we pursue that more wholeheartedly and courageously as a “community of all humanity”?
I Thessalonians 2:6 …nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others,…
Paul is continuing to offer his credentials: he and his friends are here for the people, the community, and the transforming Holy Spirit who makes all things new with love. That is it. Nothing hidden, or egoistic, or leading to a “bait-and-switch.” What a relief it is to be around people like this!
I Thessalonians 2:7 …though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.
So leadership – making demands. The demands of love!… we hope. Urgency not about control or being right but about good relationships. We were gentle…. This reminds me of the poem by April Bernard – “What would happen then?” that has the line “‘Why not’ would replace all other dicta/but gently as a sunlit nudge.” Why not? Why not love? Even the demands of love as a good “apostle” might make. But “gently as a sunlit nudge.”
I Thessalonians 2:8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
Here is genuine care, on the ground. Not only the gospel, in the sense of a form and a message and an approach. But “our own selves” – the depth of personal relationship out-distancing even Paul’s beloved sense of the gospel message. But he is, of course, here offering a fuller gospel, not only of words or even of memory and history, but of personal risk and commitment and passion.
I Thessalonians 2:9 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
It may be well for workers of the gospel to receive pay. But Paul’s marker here is that even with no expectation of support he still offered the gospel, which again is love poured out, not an abstraction, but through giving “ourselves” (vs 8). Not a “professional” approach or a “performance” but giving ourselves.
I Thessalonians 2:10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers.
No mooching, manipulating, baiting-and-switching, spinning the facts. Just the love of God – “how rich and pure, how measureless and strong” as the hymn goes. Where all do we find love like this? It is worth everything.
I Thessalonians 2:11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children,…
This sounds somewhat paternalistic. I think the intention is not to affirm actions from on high unto the low ones, but rather familial kindness and connection.
On an unrelated note, in my Sunday reflection this morning, I said that there is no right to bear arms against other people. That is an Anabaptist-Mennonite ethical commitment. But where does this commitment take us? How do we articulate and deploy an adequate sense of security and defense without remaining in the addiction to lethal force? I think a collaboration between military strategists and non-violence strategists needs to be tried (or tried again, if it has been tried.).
I Thessalonians 2:12 …urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Hmm, this is kind of unnoticed, too often, I think. Faith is about being called into glory, not just a bitter slog through necessary beliefs and ethical obligations. In fact, it is neither of those. Rather it is “glory.” One Hebrew word that is translated as glory in the Old Testament is kabod. This word also has the connotation of weightiness or significance. Faith, I think, is finding the weighty significance – the glory – of life. From that sense of great substance flows belief: belief in undying hope, and the indefatigable power of love. From that sense of great substance flows an ethical commitment, but not as obligation. Rather a compulsion and courage and joy to live in generous love begins to well up. So there is belief and there is an ethic. But it is glorious. Happy Christmas Eve!
I Thessalonians 2:13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.
Merry Christmas! Peace on earth, good will to all. And God’s word, a.k.a. God’s spirit, a.k.a. God’s personal loving presence, is at work among the believers then and among us now. We’re not in closed social systems where we must fight over scarce “goods.” No, there is constant divine input, so that our “cups may overflow.” May we on this Christmas Day take the next wonderful steps toward this divine experience.
I Thessalonians 2:14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews,…
Judean followers of Jesus called the non-followers “the Jews.” Out of this “familial” argument among Jews arose anti-Judaism, which hardened into anti-Semitism, with pogroms and Holocaust. Out of the fulmination of the early days of the Jesus movement arose a great darkness to distort the great light.
But be “imitators” of love. This has the capacity to prevent fiascos of historic proportions.
I Thessalonians 2:15 …who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone…
Yikes again! These were Biblical words that helped drive centuries of violence against Jews, up to and including the Holocaust. As Phyllis Trible did so ably with Texts of Terror against women, so also with these passages we must challenge and argue against them as prima facie reads, and deeply and soundly contextualize them and, frankly, put and keep them in their place.
So again, the context here is an intra-Jewish argument: those who found their lives transformed by Jesus, and those who weren’t having it. And I think we dare not judge for anyone but for ourselves: are our lives transformed by Jesus? If so, we will show it by astonishing joy and compassion. And never will we set up institutions of harm and exclusion.
I Thessalonians 2:16 …by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.
Paul, the agent of change, is speaking in anger against those who have resisted his change. Even as he was violently resisting the same change before his Damascus road turn-about.
How often this is the case. The change we managed to make, by the grace of God, or the change we need to make if we will let the grace of God work in us, is intimately linked to the change we fret and rail about in others. There is so often more “cure in here” than we think as we focus on what’s “out there.”
I Thessalonians 2:17 As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face.
Here again is the heartfelt delighted love that I’m looking for in community. Once more with feeling!
I Thessalonians 2:18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way.
Oh yes, blame it on Satan. But I’ve also too often had the experience of some perversity blocking me from what I want to do – even for the sake of relationships with people who are important to me.
I Thessalonians 2:19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?
The proof is in the eating of the pudding. And the pudding here is a joyful community of faith on the ground, real and present.
I Thessalonians 2:20 Yes, you are our glory and joy!
Yes, that’s what I’m talking about, looking for, praying for, longing for, working toward.
I Thessalonians 3:1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens;…
I often jokingly say that it’s a wonder Jesus could bring in the kingdom of God without a photocopier. Or text messaging. And here Paul writes longing for information about the Thessalonian community. He has been expressing his love in this rare chance to write a letter. Now he notes a worry he had. As we shall see, it was not a worry about money or health or romance. What then?
I Thessalonians 3:2 …and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith,…
Paul stayed back in Athens (vs 1) and sent Timothy. The purpose was encouragement.
Parker Palmer, the Quaker author, has written much about encouragement or simply “courage.”. Courage comes from listening more and learning better from our “inner teacher” who tells us about our true selves. Just learning about what is most true for us gives us courage.
My experience is that from renewed courage flows love, service, and joy. I call the “inner teacher” the place where our hearts meet God’s heart – the “cross”-roads of the soul. Like the ancient Roman use of the cross, it seems likely that there will be cruelty in the world and in our lives. And often this is flushed out and strangely activated right at the same time that we are experiencing the greatest transformation for love in our lives. So where our hearts meet God’s heart is the “cross.”
But it is also the “roads”, the roads available to us for great journeys of profound, astonishing, heart-leaping delighted love as we live out who we were created to be in the midst of God’s creation. So listening well to our “inner teacher” brings courage. And courage takes us to the “cross”-roads where our hearts meet God’s heart. And that always makes all the difference.
I Thessalonians 3:3 …so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for.
Here we see it. Paul’s concern is that the Thessalonians will lose faith because of the persecutions that have seen in Paul’s life, and may be seeing in their own. It is a daunting prospect. It is also certainly something I have hardly ever faced.
Sharing time in my congregations deals with cancer, travels, life transitions, maybe some depression and mental illness (thankfully, openness about mental illness is increasing). But I cannot recall that we have ever had any sharing about persecution for the sake of faith. This is a good thing, so long as it doesn’t mean that our faith lacks distinctiveness. For Mennonites who don’t go to war, persecution and at least social disapproval is always something that has the potential to re-enter our experience as it did during World War I (and to a smaller degree WWII). We live in a society that deeply believes in war (this is partly an addiction to violent solutions, I think, and partly it is simply a false but traditional expression of a legitimate desire for security). What will the future hold? We may need a “Timothy” to come encourage us in our faith.
I Thessalonians 3:4 In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution; so it turned out, as you know.
This then, is their faith challenge. Persecution “so it turned out, as you know.” Persecution is the most intense form of sabotage. Set out for the sake of joy, and often someone will try to slow, stop, or reverse you. And they can’t help themselves, or at least it adds nothing to assign blame. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” What they often think they are doing is saving the day for sanity, security, and good order. Innovation and certainly new revelation wakes up tiresome, or dangerous, or even deadly spirits of sabotage and resentment. Only joy that goes all the way to the ground, all the way to the heart, can carry one through.
I Thessalonians 3:5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain.
The temptation is to pack it in when sabotage rears its head, to leave off through the fatigue, pain, and even terror of resistance. But fortunately the gift of the gospel is an awakening of a delighted love “that will not let me go” to quote the old hymn.
This underlines, however, that the ways of the gospel cannot be adopted for the sake of guilt or obligation. These will not carry us for the distance. Only a great love that makes all the difference in our heart of hearts.
I Thessalonians 3:6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you.
Longing to see each other: now that’s a basis for a faith community. That’s the sign of transformed relationships. Not just putting up with each other. Not enduring the manufactured sternness of so-called church politics. But delighted love. There is no substitute, and so accept none. If your faith experience is not about this, “get thee to a new place” to paraphrase the old quote. And do it now. The days are always growing short, when what is at stake is failure of love versus the success of love.
I Thessalonians 3:7 For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith.
The encouragement – during and after the experience of persecution, with possible accompanying PTSD – is not simply social but “through your faith.” This means the encouragement comes from something greater, some “more” that projects into a good future, and is infused with energy from beyond a closed circle of resources. Faith is the recognition of the much bigger picture that this earth and human society is not a closed system, neither locked into the present (the future good always can find its way into the present), nor limited to apparently available resources (our “two loaves and five fish” are never all that is “there” for us). That’s the level or quality of encouragement needed when facing the pain and indignity of persecution.
I Thessalonians 3:8 For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.
What a difference it makes in the quality of our lives if we are surrounded by good friends living high-quality lives of love, courage, and goodness – marks of “the Lord” for Paul. It means truly, that we may “live”.
I Thessalonians 3:9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?
Again, it’s not about bearing down, not about obligation, not even – at the core – about being practical. It’s about joy. Joy! Do not delay in seeking and finding this joy.
I Thessalonians 3:10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Well…. confident leadership, I guess. That “we can restore what is lacking in your….” That’s always a dicey enterprise. I think what’s overflowing here, a bit, however, is not ego but rather overjoyed love. Still a bit of an overflow. But still about love – not an ego project.
I Thessalonians 3:11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.
The pathways of the new life are the divine pathways. Not pathways about “me” or even “you” but about the Holy One who is creating new pathways between us and for us. In this way we may come together and may walk together.
I Thessalonians 3:12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.
“Abound in love”. Not correct in religion or superior or even safe, at least in the short-sighted sense of safe. So much of religion is not about “abounding in love.” But it could be. And that is so compelling. It has been in my life.
I Thessalonians 3:13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Love does not mean playing fast and loose. It’s about holiness – being blameless. But too often spirits of who-to-exclude and social-control have taken over. Holiness is about freedom from destructive ways in renewed relationships of love.
I Thessalonians 4:1 Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more.
One of the great geniuses of our Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition is that faith inspires us to a different quality of life. What is in our hearts is also in our relationships and society and world. The inner transformation and the outer transformation reciprocate with wholesome and saving results. This is what Parker Palmer calls “life on the moebius strip” – that very unusual artifact made of a strip of paper, given one twist, and refastened into a loop. The apparently inner and apparently outer surfaces prove to only be one side. Take a pen and draw on the “side” of a moebius strip and you will see.
I Thessalonians 4:2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.
Here again, Paul reflects the reality that the new group in Thessalonica is not a “flat” social group but a group mediated by a spirit, the Spirit of the recently departed Jesus. There is a sense of infusion and inspiration.
I Thessalonians 4:3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication;…
And now come the daily-living teachings. It is generally understood that some folks thought that because all of life was being transformed that it might mean that everything goes. So Paul is at pains to undergird some of the ordinary ethical practices that maintain good relationship and order among people. But the impulse here is for the sake of the spirit-infused community, not for the sake of the teachings themselves. Sometimes the way the Bible has been enshrined by religion, the teachings have superseded the community life.
I Thessalonians 4:4 …that each one of you knows how to control your own body in holiness and honor,…
Teachings such as this have often morphed into dour imprecations against enjoyment of the body, whether in sex, drink, food, etc. Self-control is indeed vital. But enjoyment is also vital. They are perhaps a yin and yang of the body. The movie Babette’s Feast is a glorious exploration of this question.
I Thessalonians 4:5 …not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;…
Bacchanalian feasts – seeking ecstasy through licentiousness – have long been an impulse, from a culture of shopping to college drunkenness to orgies of violence on and off the battlefield. We need ecstasy. But there is a difference between the desperation and wildness of those who are lost and without loving community, and those for whom all the bodily joys and wonders are celebrated and practiced in true and transparent relationships of love.
I Thessalonians 4:6 …that no one wrongs or exploits a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.
Here’s the thing – people can be wronged by our “celebrations”, if we are not paying attention to the whole community.
I Thessalonians 4:7 For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.
But purity does not mean snootiness and exclusivity. Holiness doesn’t just mean “keeping away from bad stuff”. That’s a small meaning. A larger meaning is that holiness is the grand project of a passionate outpouring of love for the sake of the whole community – for the whole world! and universe! in God’s purview.
I Thessalonians 4:8 Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Again, it’s not just words. It’s the Spirit, and power, and conviction. It’s people taking risks, giving up their days and their lives. And not for human dominance. But for a divinely inspired love.
I Thessalonians 4:9 Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another;…
Yes, love one another. Not organize one another. Not tolerate one another. Certainly not be mean or lethal to one another. Not even just care for one another. But love one another.
I Thessalonians 4:10 …and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more,…
As we shall see, Paul is heading toward an encouragement to live normal lives, rather than “whooping it up” in expectation of the end of the world and return of Jesus. However strong the hope for and expectation of a new heaven and new earth, the pathway is ever to plant gardens, organize your papers, clean up, and create something useful.
I Thessalonians 4:11 …to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you,…
See previous blog post. I will just add here that my one time rabbi mentor Ed Friedman used to like to ask rhetorically: “Why is it that all across America, people are trying to live other people’s lives instead of their own.” He, of course, had an answer. It’s so much more addictive and easy to work on someone else from a distance than to do the hard work of growing in our own hearts and minds.
Paul agrees: “Mind your own affairs.”
I Thessalonians 4:12 …so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no one.
It’s not the apocalypse. All bets are not off. Paul is trying to show that hope for Jesus’ return does not mean the end of daily living, but rather a transformation of daily life.
I Thessalonians 4:13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
Nevertheless, Paul is writing, there is the incredible, life-changing resurrection hope, that even changes the way we grieve. It doesn’t mean we don’t grieve. But we grieve with a deep sense of the power of love to connect and re-connect, and that this will be true beyond all time.
I Thessalonians 4:14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.
This is the heart of our Christian faith. It is from this sense of the infinite and unending grace of God’s love that pours into our lives, remaking all suffering and death, from which arises any ethic and any lifestyle that may be called distinctively Christian.
I Thessalonians 4:15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.
I don’t know if there’s anything else behind this from ancient culture, but the “dead rising first” is a structure of restorative hope. Those gone from among us will be “there” (however this will look) first to greet us and so the “circle will be unbroken”.
I Thessalonians 4:16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
The imagery is ancient, with heaven “up” and angels, and trumpets. But the structure is that our hope and future is not death and decay and ignominy, but rather joyful sound and motion and invitation. This is the stuff of the human fate, not “the grave” with all it’s regret and finality, a la Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters (a brilliant but grave-end piece). The pathway on which we walk does not end in a black hole but in the love and light and brilliance of life.
I Thessalonians 4:17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.
Again, the vision is of restoration, and ongoing connection. Now, if the phrase “The Lord” doesn’t do it for you, translate it. We will be with the Love Who makes all beauty and light, art, music, and the amazement of geological and stellar constructions and patterns. We will abide “heart with loving heart united” with the Soul of the universe.
I Thessalonians 4:18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
How many associations in your life can you call a gathering of encouragement? The myths of contention, scarcity, competition, and domination run rampant. How important in these days as always is the reality of a human place where “encouragement” is the watch-word?
I Thessalonians 5:1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.
Here begins the final part of the letter, which will call for people gathered in this community of love and encouragement to pay attention and apprehend the signs of the times. At the macro level, what is coming is the burning of Rome in 64 A.D. (I Thessalonians was likely written somewhere between years 48 and 54.) And there is the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in year 70. Mt. Vesuvius erupted in year 79. Looking back from the point of view of these and other experiences of disruption, Paul’s final words here, while not predictive, certainly ring true as a general application. To wit: live in love and encouragement, but pay attention, because great and terrible things will happen. The human pathway will encompass soul-rejoicing redeeming delightful love but to make this happen in the midst of disastrous times as well as peaceful times. So prepare to hold and keep your love – Christ’s love – in all times and seasons.
I Thessalonians 5:2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
In case anyone was thinking that there would be a neatly timed Swiss-style train out of here, think again. The life of faith is not filled with anymore certainly than any other life. Rather, faith has confidence in love, and does not abandon love for the sake of any other so-called certainty. Certainties always turn out to be false, whether of doctrine, philosophy, military might, or personal wealth. Only love will sustain and prevail.
I Thessalonians 5:3 When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
“Peace and security”, unfortunately, are often part of a program of control and domination. They are words that spill easily from the lips of dictators who will torture citizens without compunction for the sake of “peace and security.” Do not say “peace and security” unless you are clear that your ultimate commitment is to the kind of love that Christ demonstrated and brings, a love that is not addicted to peace and security but rather to relationships of encouragement and hope.
I Thessalonians 5:4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;…
Instead, you are paying attention, not only to pathways of success and pleasure, which are fine as far as they go. But you are also paying attention to the spiritual pathways that take you all the way home, pathways of deep reflection and understanding about the structures of the universe, organized by love.
I Thessalonians 5:5 …for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
This could be called one of the great Anabaptist-Mennonite texts. Often it was the case that Anabaptists in the 1500s would be discovered because they had become noticeably more honest – children of the day! Honesty means congruency and integration – all parts of one’s life fit together and flow together. So there is no problem with transparency. Even the “TMI” bits, which should not be shared, are congruent – the alignment of bedroom and boardroom politics. All are integrated into the community of light and day.
I Thessalonians 5:6 So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober;…
Not serious, not inflexible, but awake and sober, truly living our lives, rather than just passing the days in an entertainment-and-busyness-blurred haze.
I Thessalonians 5:7 …for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.
This is not a brief for staying busy all night and all day, as in the much overused “24/7″ of go-go professional and business culture. Take a break. But do not sleep the sleep of numbness and isolation. Live your life.
I Thessalonians 5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
To live well, to live our lives, means joining in the struggle for love. And as Ed Friedman used to say, leaders – anyone leading or starting anything – must learn in some way to love the struggle.
I Thessalonians 5:9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,…
Life is not one damn thing after another and then you die. That’s why we can have courage to truly live our lives and not distract ourselves. We are destined for salvation, and the more we live into that destiny, the more it not only lies ahead but becomes our daily life.
I Thessalonians 5:10 …who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
We live in a faithful reality that is with us wherever we go.
I Thessalonians 5:11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
And here we are back to encouragement and mutual support. Not competition and domination. The theology of hope translates immediately into an ethic of love.
I Thessalonians 5:12 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you;…
Love your leaders. Or find new leaders. Or a new community. But don’t waste another day in something for which you are half-hearted.
I Thessalonians 5:13 …esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
And again, find this now. Not next week. Today is the day for peace.
I Thessalonians 5:14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.
Be engaged with each other in patience, which is one of the marks of love.
I Thessalonians 5:15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
So do not unleash revenge. Keep it leashed. Revenge is as satisfying as a large sugary drink. It’s tempting, addictive, and tastes good at the time. And leaves us empty. And leaves harm on the earth, adding harm to harm.
I Thessalonians 5:16 Rejoice always,…
I Thessalonians 5:17 …pray without ceasing,…
Not praying in the boring way, but praying as the wild dance and confab with the love of the universe – holding self and others in the amazement of eternal light and love.
I Thessalonians 5:18 …give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I have known people who in the midst of the pain of cancer, the loss of dear loved ones, the grief of sudden accidental or suicidal death still nevertheless give thanks. I have heard reports from the refugee camps and greater hell holes of earth. Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor who wrote about the “will to meaning” in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, could have in the same way spoken of the “will to gratitude.” When the foundations of the our world give way, what we fall into, in our despair, terror, hopelessness, and pain is an eternal love. The answering echo of this love in our hearts is gratitude. If there are times we cannot hold it, others will hold it for us. And for all of us, it is our destiny. And, as I said of “salvation” earlier, the more we live into this destiny now, the more it will become our daily life. And in so becoming, we may more ardently seek the healing and reconstruction of all places of harm on God’s good earth.
I Thessalonians 5:19 Do not quench the Spirit.
Don’t rain on the parade of love. Why would anyone? Because love always mean change and something new. And the status quo is an addiction for which we will at times sabotage the new, just to stay in the old.
I Thessalonians 5:20 Do not despise the words of prophets,…
Again, why would we? Because the work of prophecy is born of the work of love which is always the work of change. This is why Scott Peck calls the root of evil “laziness” and the reality of all true love “work.” (The Road Less Traveled)
I Thessalonians 5:21 …but test everything; hold fast to what is good;…
The work of love is also the work of deciding, of discernment. Decide has the same root meaning embedded in it as “incise” and “scissors.” At the buffet of life, don’t just snarf, but decide!
I Thessalonians 5:22 …abstain from every form of evil.
Why wouldn’t we? See above under “addiction” and “laziness.” Some of this is so hard that it drives us into community just so we can take the next step in our “spiritual 12-step program” of getting on with the work of love.
I Thessalonians 5:23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Please note – the Holy One is “the God of peace”, not the God of war or retribution. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Romans 12) is not a counsel about God’s core character but more about how vengeance is never our department. When God takes care of vengeance, it is transformed by the faithful and amazing alchemy of divine love. You can’t believe it unless you’ve experienced it.
I Thessalonians 5:24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
As the hymn goes, quoting James 1, “there is now shadow of turning with you” (“You” being the pronoun that struggles to be adequate to the task of speaking of divine, transforming, delighted love in the 2nd person). But the main point here is “faithful.” In all things. Whatever happens.
I Thessalonians 5:25 Beloved, pray for us.
An honest and open request that affirms our spiritual connection woven of cables strung out of the very heart of the universe.
I Thessalonians 5:26 Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.
A kiss can be a prayer and a prayer a kiss. These bodies are the vessels of our spiritual connection so long as we are of these bodies. Let us use them faithfully. Again, I think of April Bernard’s great poem “What would happen then” which has the lines “The kiss, held back all those long years, at last would release into the mouth in flood/and ‘why not’ would replace all other dicta/but gently as a sunlit nudge.”
I Thessalonians 5:27 I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
Transparency, community, connection.
I Thessalonians 5:28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
May you know the love that gives birth to joy and gratitude in a community of encouragement in all things.