1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
This reading is from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, an ancient city in northern Greece. The letter was written in the early 50s, less than 20 years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is probably Saint Paul’s earliest preserved letter, making it the oldest writing in the entire New Testament. There is not yet a Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. There is not yet the record of the Acts of the Apostles. There are no Creeds. There is no ordination process agreed upon. So there is some confusion how to practice the Christian faith, with rivalry among those who purported themselves to be leaders.[i] Lots of conflict, resentment, and inexperience.
In this letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Saint Paul is rather tough. He tells them “to stop complaining.” He reminds them “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands… so that you may behave properly toward outsiders.” If we were to take Saint Paul’s words – from 2,000 years ago – and overlay them on our own Coronavirus circumstances, we find some good counsel for life together during our own conflicted time. Saint Paul’s words are not a perfect fit for today, but we can glean some help:
- Saint Paul says “stop complaining.” Like in Saint Paul’s time, so now, there is rivalry among leaders, distrust, and disdain. Saint Paul says to “mind your own affairs.” If we were to presume that, in minding our own affairs we are doing the best we can, and that everyone else is, too, that would help. I’m not presuming we necessarily agree with others – with our various leaders and companions – how to practice life just now. I’m not suggesting we don’t hold one another accountable. However if we open our heart of compassion towards others, presuming they are doing the best they can right now… which sometimes is quite sad, even bad… we will not be the dispenser of the very poison we decry in the others with whom we disagree. Pray for your enemies with the same fervor you pray for yourself.[ii] Outsiders may not be our soulmates, but we’re in this together. Saint Francis de Sales lived in the 18th century, a terribly conflicted time for both church and state. He said, “What we need is a cup of understanding, a barrel of love, and an ocean of patience.”[iii]
- Then Saint Paul writes to “get to work” and “be dependent on no one.”[iv] The back story is Jesus’ promise about his second coming. That promise was a problem. People in Thessalonica had simply stopped their work, point-blank, and waited for Jesus’ imminent return. And while they waited they got hungry and, of course, had many other needs. The Christians who harshly judged the other people who were working and not waiting, at the same time demanded these outliers take care of the Christians’ needs. Paul denounces the Christians’ presumption and sense of entitlement. We are inter We are responsible daily to contribute what we can for the common good, each in our own different way. At the very least, we contribute our kindness and gratitude, and with great generosity. Saint Paul says, point blank: “Stop complaining; get to work” So for you? What do you need to work on today, in yourself and on behalf of others? What is your vocation today?[v]
Saint Paul’s concern is about life together in the present. The life we have been given is now. Where Christ will be really present is in the real present, in the now, right now, wherever and however we are. Our life will indeed come to an end, if not today, someday, maybe soon. Live today as if this were your last day. It could be. The story is told of Saint Francis of Assisi who was out hoeing his garden.[vi] A passerby asked him what he would do if he were suddenly to learn that he would die before sunset that very day. Francis replied, “I would finish hoeing my garden.”
[i] 1 Thessalonians 2:5, 9. Saint Paul was slandered by some who said he preached the gospel for what he could get out of it.
[ii][ii] Matthew 5:43-48.
[iii] Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was Bishop of Geneva. Quoted from Jack Kornfield’s, A Path With Heart; A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (1993), p. 58.
[iv] 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12.
[v] The English word, “vocation,” from the Latin, from Latin vocationem: a calling.
[vi] Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226).
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