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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Pie in the sky?


Readings: Deuteronomy 34.1-12
                 Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17
                 1 Thessalonians 2.1-13
                 Matthew 22.34-36

Paul’s remarkable letter-writing ministry began, as far as we know, when he wrote to the Thessalonians. As he moved around the Roman Empire, proclaiming the gospel that he fervently believed had been entrusted to him, to which he had been commissioned primarily by his encounter with the risen Lord, Paul left behind him faith communities that were forced to find their way on their own. He had no choice: it was his belief that he was called to move on and on – in the end he never reached his final destination, which was the area we now call Spain and Portugal – covering enormous distances and undertaking great risks to serve his Lord. The cost of his wandering, peripatetic ministry was that the communities he founded and nurtured in faith had to learn to fend for themselves. Like a parent, he had to set them free to fly solo.

Paul’s was a pastoral heart, and he never ceased to care for his people: as news reached him of trials that were being experienced by his beloved Thessalonians he turns to quill and papyrus to stand in as a substitute for his own comforting and encouraging presence. In an age of easy email it is hard for us to imagine the thrill his letters – at least those to Philippi and Thessalonica – would have brought to their recipients.

Thessalonica, though not one of the major cities of the Roman Empire, was no backwater, either. It was a city whose inhabitants were keen to stay onside with the leadership of the Roman Empire, and the presence of a new upstart religion in its midst was bound to be a course of concern to many in positions of power. Slowly the Christians found themselves first ostracized, alienated and shunned in the markets and other social circles, and then persecuted for their faith in Jesus. It was becoming increasingly difficult to remain optimistic, as many were barred from purchasing food in the local markets, and as normal community infrastructures were being denied them. Some Thessalonian Christians were dying – not necessarily as a direct result of the persecution, though that was no doubt a factor – and life was increasingly difficult.

This then is the dire context Paul addresses – with in part a heavy heart – as he writes to the Christians whose suffering is a direct result of his own ministry and evangelism. He seeks to encourage them by reminding them of the joy they experienced as he worked, preached and pastored amongst them, reminding them of the first flushes of divine energy they experienced as they surrendered their lives to the risen Lord.

Paul asks the Thessalonians to reconnect with their previous joy: 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. But as he writes the Thessalonians he uses another technique, too, a kind of pre-membering, looking forward to the experience of the fullness of the Kingdom, the completion of God’s work in the realm that is yet to come. It is a primary technique of the style of thought that we call apocalyptic, a vision forward, cynically able to be dismissed as ‘pie in the sky’, yet in reality able to transform the hearts and minds of believers for more than two millennia. In particular we can recall the way in which hope of a better existence kept the Afro-American slave communities alive through decades of abuse and neglect.

The hope of heaven, as we might call it, is a powerful medicine, even if it can be criticised by some as keeping the downtrodden in their place. Paul makes clear though that he sought always to share not just words but his very life as a sign of the compassionate love of God: 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. It is perhaps because of the quality of Paul’s love that we still have and read his letters today. It is this kind of life-transforming quality of love that Jesus is referring to as he speaks of love of God and neighbour. But central to all he writes to the Thessalonians is a word of hope: God is in control. Martin Luther would one day capture Paul’s hope in his own remarkable and most famous words:

Despite all foes, the Word shall stand 
against all their endeavour; 
God’s gifts and Spirit, close at hand, 
shall be with us for ever.

What can it mean for us? Few of us have suffered or will suffer much for our faith, and pray God we won’t have to. Paul urged the Thessalonians and other Christian communities that they would not be tested beyond their ability to endure, but it is clear that some at Thessalonica had undergone considerable trial. Paul was pitting the claims of his God against the claims of Caesar, and there was always potential for that battle to end in tears. For us life is more simple. Nevertheless there are times we need to stand up for values that our wider society has forgotten. There’s a tacky-but-true bumper sticker that says ‘if you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ There’s no doubt that for the Thessalonian Christians the answer was ‘yes’; the challenge you and I face is to ensure that this would be the case for us as well, as we strive on in our witness to the God who comes. This will involve proclamation of a word of hope – a dimension some theologies dismantle, as well as a word of compassionate love and justice. This is the commission we share.

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