Thought for the week - 6 November
On these Sundays before Advent the new testament reading is from the second letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians. Thessalonica was one of the towns in Macedonia that was visited by Paul, Silas and Timothy during the second of the missionary journeys mentioned in Acts chapters 16-18. It was the capital of the Roman province, an important commercial centre situated on a major highway. Its population included a Jewish community. Paul and his companions spent only a brief period there, but long enough to gain a number of converts from Jewish and Greek attenders at the synagogue and to establish a Church. According to Luke Jewish opposition forced the missionaries to leave, and from there they went on to Athens and to Corinth.
The picture that emerges from the first letter to the Thessalonians is of a Church free from factions, developing in faith and love. The main point of Paul's letters to the Thessalonians is his teaching concerning the future coming or advent of the Lord Jesus, hence the reason for it being chosen on these Sundays before advent.
It would seem that the Thessalonians had not fully understood Paul's teaching about the second coming and the resurrection from the dead, a theme that played a prominent part in Paul's teaching and preaching.
The situation behind the second chapter of the second letter, part of which we have just heard in our New Testament reading, is far from easy to reconstruct. It would seem that there was a group within the Church who, misunderstanding Paul's teaching, believed that they were already living in the last days. Paul, however, had never said that the end had actually arrived.
"As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. "
Other things must happen before the return of the Lord. And this is where it gets difficult. What other things?
"Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? "
Unfortunately, we don't know what Paul told the Christians at Thessalonica whilst he was still with them. Nor does it help that the compilers of the lectionary have missed out verses 6-12 which read:
“And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness."
It's all pretty confusing stuff. No wonder the compilers of the lectionary left those verses out! What is all this talk of the coming rebellion when the lawless one shall be revealed. And who is this lawless one who will be revealed and destroyed by the Lord Jesus? We don’t really know since "Paul is deliberately expressing himself in a way that only the Thessalonians could have understood. Without the explanation he had given them, we shall never know for certain what he meant." (Anthony Harvey)
Speculation about the last days is always dangerous, the happy-hunting ground of many a religious fanatic. We too are living in dangerous times, when evil continues to walk the earth, and needs to be restrained. But we must not be tempted to start interpreting current events as signs that we are living in the last days. Let others do that, if they must. We needn't speculate for we have the good news, the gospel of redemption through our Lord Jesus Christ, and strengthened through the waters of baptism and the food and drink of the Eucharist we can stand with assurance in the sight of our Lord Jesus whenever he might choose to come, or whenever he might call us to him, "because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word."