Let’s pray, “Lord God, as the message of the gospel came to the Thessalonians with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, may it come to us this day.”
So, this is our second week reading through the book of 1 Thessalonians.
1 Thessalonians is a letter attributed to Paul (but the opening says it is also from Timothy and Silvanus, known in Acts as Silas). Scholars believe it was Pauls first letter written to the church of Thessalonica around 50CE. Thessalonica was a Greek city, but, at the time of this letter they had been under Roman rule for some 200 years. Thessalonica was a provincial capital and was recognised as a free city thus it had some standing in the Empire. However, it is worth bearing in mind, the recipients of this letter were not made up of the Thessalonian elite, rather they were the artisans and manual labourers with whom Paul worked.
Last week we began with Thessalonians chapter 1. In this opening Paul, Timothy and Silas give exuberant thanks for the Thessalonians. Unlike many of Paul’s other letters, this letter is not delving into controversies, there are no particular conflicts in the church to address. Rather it about God’s good news that transforms the way we live. It is pastoral, warm and positive throughout though particularly in these opening lines. Its main purpose is to encourage the Thessalonians in their faith, even in hard times. Perhaps this is something we all need a little of right now. I certainly have appreciated it.
In chapter 2, which we have read today the focus moves to Paul and his coworkers and their leadership.
At first, it sounds a little bit like they might be big noting themselves or defending themselves against some kind of accusation. However, it need not be read this way. There are historians who have written about leaders at that time who were trying to manipulate and dupe the population with trickery. This was done for money and status and followers. Paul here is distinguishing himself, Timothy and Silas from these people.
They are particularly eager to point out that they did not come with a pretext for greed or looking for praise. They worked for a living. While, in later letters such as to the Corinthians Paul asserts that, “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel,” I do think that those of us in paid ministry should take his comments on greed and approval very seriously.
Because, this issue was certainly not limited to first century Rome. Today, we live in a world of Christian influencers, tele evangelists and a largeish number of Christian leaders have incomes in the millions. They live in mansions and drive sports cars and private jets and unfortunately, no one is particularly surprised or scandalised anymore when it is discovered that this money has been used corruptly.
Now I am conscious it is easy to point the finger, that I perhaps sound a little like the Pharisee praying, “God I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
It is important to look at our own greed. I too spend more time than I would like thinking about money, worrying about money, wanting more money and envying those who have lots of money. It is not a nice quality and it does not bring out my best. May God have mercy on me.
But Thessalonians 2 is paired in the lectionary with Matthew 23 in which Jesus emphatically calls out religious leaders for their hypocrisy. Seven times he declares “woe to you.” He calls them snakes, blind guides and hypocrites. And as said in this letter Paul and the others are trying hard to distance themselves from this kind of leadership.
It is a fine line we tread. We do not want to be “judgmental.” But Jesus Christ said, among many things about money, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” For the sake of his gospel we do need to call this kind of wealth out. We should be somewhat scandalised by it.
Paul, Timothy and Silas go on to describe their leadership as gentle, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.
This imagery I think subverts the popular notion that Paul takes a thoroughly hierarchical and patriarchal stance toward the churches. While there is an element of this in Paul’s later letters it is not here. In a society with highly structured perceptions of gender, a man who speaks of himself as a nurse-mother voluntarily hands over his place in the gender hierarchy, however fleetingly.
The authors then describe themselves as dealing with the Thessalonians, “like a father with his children urging and encouraging them to live a life worthy of the God who calls them.”
The main commentary I am drawing on for these sermons is the Interpretation commentary by Beverly Roberts Gaventa. She says this about this section,
“Too often when we turn to the Bible in connection with questions of ministry, we linger over texts that emphasize the power or authority of those individuals who are commissioned. Here, by contrast, those who are “entrusted with the message of the gospel” know that it is not their own possession. They work, not for their own promotion, but on behalf of that gospel. They do not pass along the gospel as if it were a commodity that might be packaged and conveyed from hand to hand without altering the ones who pass it on; instead, they are themselves involved in this passing along. They cannot give over the gospel without also giving over something of themselves.
To read this passage as if it addressed only apostles or only ordained ministers would be mistaken. If this text is instructive for the Thessalonians, rather than merely recalling their past or defending Paul and his colleagues, then it addresses all Christians.”
A friend of mine and others here, a woman named Naomi Nash who actually works in the field of leadership says, “There is a prevailing view that leadership is a luxury item, reserved for the special few. This model selects certain individuals and invests in their development, leaving others behind. The result is that organisations have a great deal of untapped leadership capacity, in people who don’t see themselves as leaders. At a time where we are facing many complex challenges we can’t afford to keep this limiting view. A collective approach to leadership supports innovation and flexibility in the face of change.”
I think this is particularly true in our churches. Everyone who preaches, sings, prays, leads kids church or bible studies, welcomes and care for others, is on church council is offering leadership. And I know many of you also exercise leadership in your workplaces, homes and communities. And I think perhaps Paul was getting at this even 2000 years ago.
As many of us know today is Laurel Butcher’s last service with us. This is a big deal because Laurel (along with Charles) has been a member of this church for 42 years. Alongside working as a nurse and raising a family there is not a lot that Laurel hasn’t done in this church. She is an elder of the Uniting Church and has served at Adelaide House, the Op Shop, on the church council and in the services. She is an exceptional host of many, many church events.
I imagine many of you who when you were new here were welcomed by Laurel. She always looks out for new people or people not talking to someone at morning tea and goes over to say hi. And she doesn’t talk about herself and how long she has been here but is interested to hear about others.
Laurel is a woman who I think epitomises this kind of leadership that I am talking about. Which I think Paul was modelling. Everything she does is not for personal gain or approval but out of care for others and for the glory of God.