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.
1:2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 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 persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 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, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 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, 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. (NRSV)
On the surface the text looks rather boring and conventional. As usual, Paul begins his letter to the Thessalonians with a greeting and a thanksgiving. With a little flattery thrown in on the side (my, how the other churches are talking up your faithfulness!), Paul also manages to highlight themes that will show up all through the letter. But at the end, Paul does something seemingly odd. Following all of Paul's gushing and hugs and kisses at the letter's introduction comes this apocalyptic tag line in v. 10, "and to wait expectantly from heaven (God's) son, whom (God) raised from the dead, Jesus, the one who delivers us from the coming wrath."
Perhaps to some people, the appearance of this
little apocalyptic motif does not seem odd. Most of us, however, do not
sprinkle the backsides of our postcards with apocalyptic scenarios:
The first verse helps to frame the pericope. Paul offers a typical letter opening of naming the writers, the recipients, and their shared relationship in God through Jesus Christ.
In vv. 2-6a Paul continues with his typical thanksgiving after the opening greeting. What is unique, however, is what Paul gives thanks for. The Thessalonians have been faithful from the kerygmatic get-go, just as Paul and his associates had. In fact, Paul now calls them "imitators" of us and the Lord.
At this point, however, we tend to bristle. In our age, who needs rank imitation? New Testament Scholar Elizabeth Castelli makes a good point (Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power. Louisville: WJKP, 1991). Perhaps this language of imitation is just a strategy of control.
Yet Paul's language of imitation needs to be qualified by what follows in vv 6b-8. What is being imitated is not an "action" (as in, you Thessalonians should do what I do) but an event that happened to them: "in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit." Commentator Daniel Patte notes the importance of this in v. 7 (Paul's Faith and the Power of the Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983, p. 134). The word translated "example" might be better interpreted as "type" (typos in Greek). The object of our imitation is not an example of "what we ought to do," but rather a typology of "what happens to us."
From the standpoint of preaching and hearing the Gospel, the distinction is important. As "imitators," it is not our "job" to do the right thing. Instead, we discover in our suffering that we can nonetheless have joy and faith. While few of us experience the level of persecution that Paul or the Thessalonians may have faced, we are well aware of the strange ways in which our lives, too, are "types" or imitations of what happened to them and to the Lord.
Pastors know this instinctively. Have you ever shepherded a family through grief by asking them to share memories of the dearly departed? Many will share poignant memories, yet so many times those same memories as told in the family evoke laughter. To experience grief is not just to feel pain, but to feel the bittersweet reality of smiling through the tears at memories of a loved-one recalled. Corporately we often do this by joining together a funeral with a dinner afterward. At the grave side we look squarely into the breach caused by death. "Ashes to ashes," we say, "dust to dust." Yet then we so often return to the church to do what? Why, to share a meal of scalloped potatoes and ham, triangle-shaped sandwiches, and coffee. In the moment, the pain is still real: a friend, a loved-one, an acquaintance is now gone. Yet, we are also aware of the tender mercies that sustain us still. In the midst of all this, Paul says, "you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit." This is how we are imitators and examples (types): not in what we do, but in what happens to us and how our joy in Christ is manifest and through our cruciform reality.
So why then does Paul turn to talk of an apocalyptic visitation in v. 10? The material here actually follows quite naturally. In turning to God (and away from idols) we put our trust in the one resurrected from the dead. The old age of idols is done, a new age has begun with resurrection. This is how Jesus "delivers" us from the coming wrath. Please notice: the text does not say: Jesus will deliver us from the coming wrath, but delivers us in the present tense. In other words, the "coming wrath" is not some purely future event, it is coming already, even now. The function of this curious apocalyptic language is thus to reiterate what we described above. If the Holy Spirit is the "pledge" of the presence of God in and through suffering (v. 6b), Christ stands as its two-fold guarantor. At the beginning of this dawning new age, Christ is its prototype: though God's "Son from heaven" was crucified, he was raised. Like some cosmic bookend, however, this same crucified one is also the one we "await." As such, our experience of Holy Spirit inspired joy in the midst of suffering is not just some spiritual quirk, it is rooted precisely in the mystery disclosed in Christ-the mystery of what God has done, is doing, and will do through the crucified and resurrected Christ.
So where does that leave us preachers? Perhaps inviting our hearers to view reality through a cruciform vision. In one of the churches I served, the back of the sanctuary faces toward the street. Instead of being a solid wall, however, it is actually made of stained glass. The part you can see through, however, looks different. The clear part of the wall sized-window is shaped in the form of the cross. As such, the cruciform window works in two ways. Certainly the window helps us to see the cross-shaped suffering in our world. Through the window we can see the truth. God knows there's already more than enough wrath to go around. Yet the window also reveals something more. Through the cross, we see the world God loves so much, a world for whom Christ died and was raised. For though the cross opens up the suffering of our world, it does one more thing: because the cross is empty, it proclaims the one who "delivers" even now-the living and true God revealed through Jesus Christ.
|Several other apocalyptic lectionary texts are treated in my book, Preaching in the New Creation: The Promise of New Testament Apocalyptic Texts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999).|
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