Friday, November 7, 2008

A Wonderful, Enigmatic Letter

So, we've looked at the letter that we now call I Thessalonians from the outside- noting the history in Acts 17 of the founding of the church, some principles at work when we read letters in the New Testament, and marveling that when we read I Thessalonians we are reading the first thing written in the New Testament. Now we can look at some specifics, but always trying to keep that "Golly, gee, gosh darn" attitude that we are reading something fresh and new to us.

It is probably time well spent for you to sit down and give yourself five minutes just to read this letter through- from beginning to end- just like you would a letter from someone you know and love. If you can, find a way to read it without chapter and verse markings (I can show you how to do this online, if you wish). The original Greek did not have chapter and verse numbers interrupting its flow. (But, it probably also did not have paragraphs or indentations and other such helpful ways of reading sensibly. My recommendation is to keep them, just to make it more readable.) All of those kinds of things were added later by scribes, copyists, and translation committees, so that the raw text would be easier for us to read (thanks to all the dead people who offered us this help!) Of course, that means that any text of I Thessalonians that we read has been passed down by a lot of people and filtered through a lot of people. By and large, these are folk who have been faithfully trying to preserve the gospel; but they also have inevitably made some judgments along the way as well- some of which might be right, some not. In the main, we can trust that most translations are both competent and well-intended, and that most differences between them are minor and not essential to the faith. Read on, friend, with confidence.

A couple of things that I noticed when reading this letter:

- First, Paul feels really good about this congregation. There is not the constant attention to problems within that we find when reading, say, Paul's letters to the church in Corinth. These Thessalonians have it going on, gospel-wise, and Paul celebrates that repeatedly.

- Second, there is a lot of integrative, holistic expression in this letter. By that, I mean that Paul puts enormous emphasis on the fact that the believers in Thessalonica live as well as they believe- their faith is a matter of knowing and doing, not just believing in the right set of propositions. Another way that Paul writes integratively is his emphasis on the body as well as the soul or spirit. Another is his emphasis on working hard and yet being gentle while encouraging 'idlers.' I guess what I'm seeing is that Paul would be hard to pigeonhole into any extreme categories by reading this letter.

- Third, when it comes to dating this letter, it seems to me that we have to assume some generous lapse of time between when Paul was in Thessalonica and when he wrote this letter. I know that some folks a lot smarter than I feel that this letter was written very soon after Paul left Thessalonica, but I think we need to leave room for the reputation of the believers in Thessalonica to spread. Unless Paul is just being really, really nice (almost to the point of ridiculous), which I doubt, the reputation of the folks in Thessalonica had spread enormously by the time he wrote this letter. Don't forget, Thessalonica was on the main thoroughfare called the Egnatian Way, which means that correspondence traveled very efficiently in and out. Other churches heard admirable things about the church in Thessalonica: their hospitality toward Paul, their hard work, their resolve in the face of persecution, their 'imitation' of Paul, etc. and admired them for it.

[Personal Note: I serve a wonderful church with a good reputation for its worship and service. Let me tell you, I feel like a minority when I conference with other pastors and have loads of good things to share instead of moaning about squabbles, nobody wanting to do anything different, etc. I say a wonderful church is more precious than silver! Yeah Thessalonica! Yeah Philippi! Boooooooooo Corinth- c'mon people!]

And here is a really fascinating thing about this letter: It contains what might be the earliest indicator of a Christian profession of faith in the first chapter, verses 9-10. [I am indebted to William Ramsey for noting this, but his great book is in my office, so I'll offer him an appropriate shout out some other time.] I'll put Paul's words into a more formal doctrinal form:

We, the members of the church in Thessalonica, believe and live these doctrines:
- Radical solidarity with those who labor by proclaiming the Word of God;
- Turning away from idols to the true and living God;
- Waiting for the Son of God to return from heaven;
- Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, is the one who will rescue us from the wrath to come.

Wait, you say, ... "the wrath to come"? What wrath to come? That's a great question. Let's take it up on Monday...

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