Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 30, 2022
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 Commentary
Among the various elements of Paul’s epistles, two are, arguably, the most challenging to proclaim in a 21st century context: the apostle’s “personal touches,” and his eschatology. It can be as difficult to preach about the apostle’s more personal messages as about his proclamation of Jesus’ second coming.
That might seem to make the challenge of any proclamation of 2 Thessalonians particularly daunting. It, after all, the apostle brings together those two difficult elements. In 2 Thessalonians 1 Paul both expresses his appreciation for members of Thessalonica’s church’s faith and faithfulness and talks about Jesus’ return.
The Lectionary, of course, evades that “double-barreled blast” by excising Paul’s talk of the eschaton from the Epistolary Lesson it appoints. As other commentators have noted, this seems to be a part of the RCL’s organizers’ general aversion toward passages of judgment.
So what might a preacher do with this convergence of challenging topics? Our colleague Chelsey Harmon’s very fine commentary on 2 Thessalonians 1 suggests that proclaimers focus on what it says about our covenantal relationship with God. Our colleague Scott Hoezee has also written a very fine commentary on this passage. In it he explores its unsettling but important message about God’s dead seriousness about evil.
Both commentaries at least suggest that those who follow the Lectionary include the verses 5-10 that it omits. I too encourage preachers to at least consider proclaiming all of 2 Thessalonians 1. Those who do so might also consider combining a proclamation of Paul’s praise for the Thessalonians’ faith and his reminder of Jesus’ coming return. That would help highlight the stark contrast between those two elements of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.
After all, it’s almost as if Paul’s description of God’s condemnation of evil and evildoers at Christ’s return are big, dark letters that stand out against the bright background that is the Thessalonians’ faith and love. Or, to reverse that, the Thessalonians’ faith and love stand out against the dark backdrop of the evil that Jesus Christ is coming soon to judge.
A theme of the persecution of God’s dearly beloved people for their Christian faith runs through 2 Thessalonians 1’s apparently disparate elements. Each of verses’ 3-12 major sections (thanksgiving, suffering, judgment and perseverance) are at least informed by that persecution.
Yet that theme may make this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers feel even more remote from this text than the 2,000 years and countless miles that separate it from especially Western Christians. So preachers want to be mindful of those distances as we proclaim 2 Thessalonians 1.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Pauline praise for his brothers and sisters in Christ is effusive, much like it was in his first letter to them. The apostle, in fact, insists that Timothy and he feel strongly compelled to constantly thank God for the Thessalonian Christians’ growing faith and love for each other. They are, in fact, so grateful to God for the Thessalonians’ Christlikeness that they boast about it to and among God’s churches.
Among the things that make those adopted children of God’s faith and love extraordinary is the context within which they grow. They’re flourishing in the face of the “persecutions” (dogmois) and “trials” (thlipsesen) they’re “enduring” (anechesthe).
Thessalonica’s Christians’ faith in God and love for each other isn’t shrinking or even just somehow holding steady in the midst of the storms of persecution that are battering them. Their faith and love aren’t, in fact, somehow just “increasing.” Paul insists that the Thessalonians’ faith especially is hyerauxanai, literally “increasing exceedingly.”
How is that even possible? Paul doesn’t try to explain the Thessalonians’ remarkable growth in faith and love. Yet he may hint at its cause through 2 Thessalonians 1’s persistent link of the Thessalonians to “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1, 2, 12). The New Testament scholar Mariam Kamell speaks of the apostle’s “consistent, near over-emphasis on [the Thessalonians’] identity in God and Jesus.” It is this Triune God who will, says Paul in verse 5, count the Thessalonians “worthy” (kataxthiothenai) of God’s kingdom when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.
The people whom God will judge at the end of measured time will include those who have troubled (thlibousin) Thessalonica’s Christians. As we noted above, evildoers’ refusal to either know or obey God stands in stark contrast to the Thessalonians’ love for each other and faith. God, promises Paul in verse 9, will punish them with everlasting destruction and banishment from God’s glorious presence.
The apostle’s words seem so harsh to modern sensibilities that we aren’t surprised that the Lectionary omits them from this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. No Christians who shares God’s love for our neighbor is eager to see God pay back trouble to those who trouble Christians. God’s dearly beloved people tremble to think that God would condemn anyone to eternity under God’s judgment and separate from God’s presence.
So why would the Paul also who longs for all to coming to a faithful reception of God’s grace even talk about what he elsewhere suggests also pains him? It’s part of his reminder that the Thessalonians’ suffering for their faith will not last forever. Their persecution will not get the last word in their lives. God is just. So God won’t just give relief to those whom others trouble for their faith. The apostle insists that God will also give trouble to those who have troubled Christians.
Both Harmon and Hoezee’s commentaries on this passage help their readers understand why Paul would speak in such harsh terms about evildoers’ fate at the last judgment. Harmon (ibid) notes that the apostle is reminding the Thessalonians that God can be trusted to serve justice because God always keeps God’s covenant with God’s people.
But she also points out that the apostle is insisting that that justice is served by Jesus and not his friends. Since God always acts justly, God’s dearly beloved children don’t have to take justice against God and our enemies into our own hands. We can trust God to do what’s right not just now, but also when Christ returns at the end of measured time.
Hoezee (ibid) also points out that Paul writes about God’s coming judgment at least partly because he understands that it’s hard for God’s people to take evil seriously if we don’t allow God to be serious about it. The kind of evil Jesus will come to judge is a dark power that finally only God can ultimately destroy.
What’s more, Paul’s grim warning about evildoers’ ultimate fate reminds God’s adopted sons and daughters of that from which Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead to rescue us. It’s only by God’s amazing grace that God’s dearly beloved people escape God’s punishment that includes eternal exclusion from God’s glorious presence.
Paul longs for the Thessalonians to escape that fate so that they may eternally live in God’s presence. So, he adds in verses 11 and 12, he continues to pray that God will keep them faithful and loving. That way, they won’t just avoid the grim fate about the apostle writes in verses 5-10. The Thessalonians will, then, also reflect God’s glory for all, including those who persecute them, to see.
The New Testament scholar James Boyce suggests that it’s no accident that Paul literarily and theologically locates all of this within the framework of God’s grace and love. The apostle begins this epistle by speaking of God’s grace and peace (2). He also ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by referring to the grace of God and the Lord Jesus Christ (12).
Paul understands that the challenges that Thessalonica’s Christians face are not just great, but may also become even greater. However, he believes that the grace and peace of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are even greater. They alone will sustain the apostle’s Thessalonian readers through the dangers, toils and snares that lie not just behind and around them, but also ahead of them.
2 Thessalonians 1’s preachers and teachers may reflect with their hearers on the nature of Christian suffering in the light of this text. The Thessalonians’ suffering for their faith was an appetizer of what some of God’s people are even now enduring in parts of east and south Asia, as well as the Middle East. Preachers might share examples of how that suffering manifests itself so that the rest of God’s people can pray with and for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But because suffering for our faith may seem remote to many who read this Commentary, preachers may also want to reflect on coping with the kind of suffering that everyone endures. Such suffering, Paul insists, will not get the last word. Christ will come someday to judge and condemn it. So Jesus’ friends can persevere, knowing that God’s grace and are sufficient to carry us forward until that day.
In her book, Walk With Me, Kate Clifford Larson poignantly chronicles the life and times of Miss Fannie Lou Hamer. Miss Hamer was a deeply Christian, fearless and tireless worker for civil rights for members of the United States’ oppressed peoples, especially its African Americans. She suffered greatly for her courageous work.
In one instance, authorities had jailed Miss Hamer for “disturbing the peace” by standing up for Black friends who had the temerity to ask to be served at a Whites-only café. Larson chronicles how a Winona, MS police officer named William Surrell assaulted Hamer while she was imprisoned for that. As Surrell drove a weakened and battered Hamer to the courthouse, she asked him, “Do you people ever wonder how you’ll feel when the time comes when you’ll have to meet God?”
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