This penultimate Sunday of the Liturgical Year brings us a pericope from Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians 1:2-10. Paul’s Letter could be one of his earliest, along with Galatians. Some scholars think it could be the earliest section of the New Testament.
Thessalonica is in modern Greece. Paul visited there and converted both pagans (thus the reference to idols) and Jews. Acts 17 gives us information about Paul and his brief time in Hellenic, but Roman subjugated, Thessalonica. Paul’s and Silas’ and Timothy’s preaching must have included descriptions of Christ as “king” and “lord.” Their Jewish opponents stirred up an “uproar” in the city and got them dragged before the authorities with a charge of treason for saying there was another king than Caesar, perhaps given the early date, Claudius. They immediately went to Beroea after that. The Jews in Thessalonica then stirred up the Beroeans, whereupon Paul departed for Athens though Silas and Timothy stayed.
That’s how the enemies of Christ work, isn’t it, even today. Once they target you, they relentlessly, mindlessly, pursue you by stirring up others.
In 1 Thess Paul shares some news about himself and other coworkers, speaks of Timothy, and then gets into issues that the local Church had to deal with, including problems with Christian belief about death, the return of Christ and the end times (cf. ch. 4). But our reading today is confined to the introduction, which contains the greeting in v. 1 (left out), and then a paragraph of thanksgiving for his listeners (ancient letters were read aloud).
That’s some historical biblical context. Let’s see our reading in the RSV:
[Brethren:] We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you; for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedo′nia and in Acha′ia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedo′nia and Acha′ia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
Paul is already talking about the Trinity in his earliest letter, speaking clearly of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (v. 5). The fact that this is in the introductory part of the letter presupposes that Paul had taught the Thessalonians a theology of a Triune God. He wasn’t going to hit them with something new off the bat! Also, in v. 3 we have a mention of the three theological virtues, faith, hope and love. Later in the Letter, in teaching correctly about the death of Christians and the resurrection, the theme of hope will be central.
The Apostle to the Gentiles reviews how the faithful converted pagans welcomed his preaching. The “Gospel” came to them in “power” and “the Holy Spirit” (v. 5). The reference to “power” probably means casting out demons and healing the sick, miracles, as we see him do in Acts. Miracles have always been a proof of the veracity and authority of the Church, which is why we today should ask God for miracles, both of defense against harm and of healing.
Next, Paul tells the Thessalonians that they are good examples to other communities. One of the things they have done is “turned from idols”, which would be mainly a pagan Gentile concern. This is praiseworthy. They have turned to the “living and true God”, a fine Old Testament Jewish phrase.
What a horrible thing it would be to backslide or even appear to backslide into idol worship, or anything like it or resembling it.
Paul returns to praise a particular aspect of the Christians of Thessalonica, namely, their faith (vv. 2 and 8) which has made them “an example” to believers elsewhere. It is not just theoretical faith, such as something one might study in a book. It is, as Paul writes, “the work of faith… to érgov písteos), which in that passage is closely connected to the phrase “labor of love… kópos agápes”). A kópos is a “a beating, blow” and “a trouble, something causing intense labor with toil.” Both of these, their érgon and their kópos are concrete, that which is from faith and that which is from love, agape, the latter being the more earnest and more difficult, hence deserving Paul’s praise and their reputation among other Christians. This is not to forget hope of course, nor to pit the theological virtues against each other. They are interwoven.
One thread I pluck from the braid of virtues is that Paul, by word and Spirit and miracles worked in their presence, converted many and brought them to great conviction. In 1 Cor 15:3 Paul wrote, “tradidi enim vobis quod et accepi … For I gave to you what I had received.” Now the Thessalonians in their turn give what they have received, both to each other in their work of faith and their labor of love, which sounds rather like another way of describing the categories of spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
To circle back to the faith aspect, we can make a distinction and bring our glimpse into this ancient Christian snapshot up to the present.
Paul must have heard that there was confusion in Thessalonica about the Last Things. That’s the main reason why he wrote. He knew that the people there had a strong faith by which they believed the fundamental Christian truths (such as the Lordship of Christ, the Resurrection and the Triune God). He learned that there were things to shore up in the faith in which they believed (which he would undertake more concretely in ch. 4). We today can also talk about the faith in terms of in which and by which. Using Latin terms, there is a fides quae creditor (in which) and fides qua creditor (by which). The former, we study and dissect and memorize and dispute, etc. We learn it in catechisms and we hand it on with explanations. The latter is the infused gift of the Holy Spirit. These two, facets of the same coin, work together: our capacity and God’s grace, which raises and perfects our natural gifts. Grace perfects nature.
In making these distinctions, remember too that the true content of the Faith is a Person, the Divine Person of the Word, Our Lord Christ Jesus. He is in and behind and before all the truths that we have received faithfully from Apostolic Tradition onward. When the Church teaches, He teaches.
He is the content. We can, therefore, have a real relationship of love with the content of our Faith.
This is why it is so shocking to hear any Christian, much less a successor of the Apostles suggest that even the Apostolic Tradition must be jettisoned because it is a “tradition.” The “tradition… giving” is at the very core of our identity. If that is what he really believes, we might ask for him to return his salary, since he is, in effect, arguing for the obliteration of his own job.
When you love, you want more. It costs, but the cost is not counted. When you love, you want others to have what you have. It costs, but the cost is not counted.
Today we tend to confuse “love” with ooey gooey good feelings, like early romantic relationships. However, real love is a choice, not a mere impulse.
I’m pretty sure many of you would agree that those of us who have an unattenuated, uneroded sense of Tradition, are not feelin’ the love right now from “the Church.” The only ooey gooey right now that I hear is in the contemporary jargon of woke apparatchiks who aim to outlast Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Hence, when the object of your love, Holy Church, seems to become difficult, unattractive, challenging, unlikeable, problematic, we choose to love anyway. Sacrificial love, charity, means taking the hits. It costs, but the cost is not counted. We know who the true Content is.
We are both intellective and affective. They come together in the tension of fides quae and fides qua, our willed choice to know and to love. After all, God made us His images, to act like He acts, to know, to will, to love. Catholics who truly love their Faith shouldn’t need weird stuff and controversies to spur them into their catechisms and the constant study of and review of the Faith. We should burn with a desire to know more more more anyway and all the time.
On the other hand, was it Winston Churchill who said “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste”?
We shouldn’t need a crisis to drive us to learn our faith better. BUT! We’ve got one! There’s a faith to learn and love. There’s a Person, to learn and love and give.
Could we co-opt the language of the Left and their sneaky tactics and suggest that we Catholics could form “base-communities” of study and of prayer? Spiritual and corporal works of mercy? Ritualized devotional practices? Oh… wait. We had those. They are called “parishes.” Traditionalists are forbidden those places right now, however. Hmmm. Interesting coincidence.
Our forebears, Paul and the Thessalonians, started with a zero… an empty they filled with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with concrete action with both the faith we can learn and hand on and the faith we personally relate by. They were exemplary to others around them. Will we not do the same? Surely with the hindsight of centuries and the example of the saints, we can find solutions in the present crisis not only to survive but also to thrive, given that the experience of martyrs is the “seed” of the Church, whether that experience is bloody or from our tears and the sweat of hard work.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz