Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

A Matter of Timing

October 31, 2010

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

A Matter of Timing

What circumstances have occasioned this apparent second letter to the Thessalonians? Just how much “time” has passed since the arrival of the first? Such questions of “timing” may arise for a modern reader who notes, among other things, the almost verbatim mirroring of this letter’s greeting with that of the first letter and the somewhat strange to Paul prominent theme of judgment that pervades this brief letter. Might such comparisons suggest a later “timing” when associates or followers of Paul have penned this letter in his name.

Whatever the “timing,” even a cursory reading reveals a community undergoing stressful “persecutions and afflictions” (1:4) that tempt it to “give up” or “grow weary” in the struggle to keep doing good (3:12-13).

A Time for Thanksgiving
The opening theme of “thanksgiving” is pure Paul. Yet here somewhat uniquely thanksgiving is an “obligation” (opheilomen), a duty, that belongs to the gift of community (Paul says “ we” are bound to give thanks; 1:3) identified by its characteristic marks of “faith” and “love.” It is “always” the right time for thanksgiving for a Christian community whose faith “grows abundantly” (the unique emphatic word here illustrates a favorite Pauline device — prefixing a verb with the word hyper-, as if to suggest “hyper-growth”) and whose love toward one another continues to increase.

Paul’s words come as a reminder of several aspects of thanksgiving. First, thanksgiving in the Christian community is always somewhat counter-intuitive. When “times” are good, one easily forgets the gifts of God that create and sustain life. When “times” are bad, it is difficult to muster a list of things for which one should be thankful. Second, thanksgiving is never a private matter; it is founded and sustained by life in community–by the mutual interplay of faith in God’s grace and the energizing power of acts of love in service to one another.

A Matter for Boasting
Like a mother who tenderly yet firmly encourages a young child who has been “roughed up” on the playground, Paul’s loving arms now surround and encourage this community. Avoiding any note of pity, instead he compliments them for their “steadfastness” in the midst of intense persecutions and sufferings (the word “all” underscores the enormity; 1:4), steadfastness that has become a matter for his boasting about them among all the churches. Still one notes here the absence of the third member of the familiar triad of faith, love, and hope (see 1 Thessalonians 1:2: “work of faith,” “labor of love,” and “steadfastness of hope”).

Perhaps Paul senses a community whose world, beset much like our own with divisions, hatreds, and suspicions, places it at risk of giving up the faith or losing energy for loving care of the neighbor (see 3:13). Such times call not for slinking back into our private enclaves, but rather for open boasting about and renewed encouragement of a community actively engaged in the obligations of faith and love.

Prayer with a Purpose
“To this end we always pray for you.” (1:11) Paul’s prayer bespeaks a confidence in God’s care and concern for what happens in this world, a confidence that cannot be taken for granted. A well-known contemporary New Testament scholar and prolific writer puts it this way, “I left the faith…because I could no longer reconcile my faith in God with the state of the world that I saw all around me…There is so much senseless misery in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe that there is a good and loving God who is in control.”1

Paul is not naïve about the world of the Thessalonians. Such communities do not happen by accident. They are founded on the purposive presence and call of God, sustained by God’s power to bring to fruition (“God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill…” 1:11) acts of love and mercy precisely through the faithfulness and steadfastness of this believing community. This is “tough stuff,” not a matter for wimps. Such works depend on “resolve” and “faith” (the Greek word used here, eudokia, has the sense of a firm and positive decision). That firm resolve is not to be taken for granted; it too is a gift of God and it comes in response to prayer that is sustained within the broader community of faith.

Finally, such resolve and good work are not ends in themselves. They redound to a mutuality of glory in which the name of Christ is glorified and, in return, Christ gives glory to the community that bears his name (1:12). It is no accident that all of this, both literarily and theologically, is located within the framework of God’s grace and love. “Grace and Peace” begin Paul’s address (1:2), and “grace” marks the conclusion of this opening chapter (1:16), underscoring that all Christian community and life are framed by the grace and love of God.

On Whose Authority
The reading assigned for the lectionary skips verses 5-10 perhaps because of their somewhat uncomfortable or troublesome theme of “judgment” (1:5). The writer speaks of current afflictions as part of God’s righteous intention “to make you worthy of the kingdom,” and promises that “on that day” those who persecute you will in the end be punished because they “do not know God” and do not “obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”

Such strong images of judgment have led many to question Paul’s authorship of this letter and to wonder whether the viewpoint expressed does not belong to a later period of the early church, when apocalyptic images such as those in the book of Revelation are more prominent.

For the Preacher
Included or not, the letter overall imagines a time of persecution and suffering for the church and points to the destructive realities of evil in the world. Like the seed sown on rocky ground in Jesus’ parable, Paul’s community lives in perilous times which place at risk its faith in God who is just and is continuing to live out its calling to love and serve in God’s world.

Paul’s words call this community to “hang in there” in hope and faith. All signs to the contrary, God is faithful and wickedness will be punished in the end. In the meantime mutual thanksgiving and prayer, and common resolve to be engaged in acts of love for one another founded and continue to sustain this community.

A final suggestion: since the lectionary readings for Pentecost 23, 24, and 25 encompass essentially the whole of this brief letter, this offers the preacher an opportunity for a three-part series on this letter:

Chapter 1: Thanksgiving for Steadfast faith and love (God’s and ours) in the midst of persecution and suffering (see 1:3-4)

Chapter 2: Chosen for Salvation and Gifted with Hope (2:13, 16)

Chapter 3: Do Not Grow Weary in Doing the Right Thing (3:13)

1 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them), (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 17.