2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 – 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for November 17, 2013
“Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are…” (2 Thessalonians 3:6)
Moses bedazzled by the burning bush.
The immortal words about love Paul scribbled in First Corinthians.
Alone near the tomb, Mary confused Jesus for a gardener.
Faith burns. Kings cry. Love triumphs. Death defied.
Then there are those that cause me to gulp . . . but not in a good way.
Second Thessalonians 3:6 is a gulper.
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition they received from us.
Who were those believers living “in idleness,” that didn’t conform to the “tradition?”
As a fleeting, intriguing faith and history (and faith in history) lesson, I’m glad for those words from the second letter to the faith community in Thessalonica. Maybe Paul wrote them, maybe he didn’t. Maybe Second Thessalonians is mostly an imitation or homage to First Thessalonians (there are numerous similarities in the two missals), or maybe it can stand on its own. Regardless of who wrote it, or its unique/not unique theology, Second Thessalonians provides readers of every generation since Gutenberg’s Bible* a glimpse of a fellowship of believers experiencing turmoil.
Second Thessalonians was likely written between 70-80 A.D. There are scholars that would argue for earlier than the 70s and there could be credible reasons for dating it decades later. But no scholar—ancient or modern, liberal or conservative—doubted that Second Thessalonians addressed tension about the arrival of Jesus’ “second coming.” By the time it was written, years have come and gone since Jesus’ ministry. The promise of an impending new age was questioned as followers of Jesus died—sometimes by natural means, sometimes as martyrs—and always as a reminder of each person’s mortality.
We will all live eternally in Christ!
But what of those who have now died?
And so, in dim rooms illuminated by sputtering candles, in the bright sunshine of dusty village streets, around a glass of wine and loaf of bread at a neighbor’s home, in whispers at the edge of a crowd at the local synagogue, the early believers of Jesus—who knew people who remembered the people who once met some of Jesus’ disciples—debated the Gospel message. When will yesterday’s promises become today’s reality? Who among us is following the best, right, true path to those promises?
Fingers were pointed. Those believers—those lazy, idle ones—don’t understand.
Harsh judgments were expressed. Those believers—the ones that scorn the correct, accurate traditions—don’t belong.
Thank you, Second Thessalonians, for the history lesson. The early Christian community struggled.
And yet, how terribly seductive for a modern believer to wield this verse (and others) as a proof that my-way-is-the-right-way.
In the hospice where I work, one of our Angel Babies counselors met with a family in the hospital. Angel Babies supports parents during and after the anguish of a child’s death. This family had just experienced the final breaths of their newborn. Abruptly, a member of the family—a Christian pastor—stood and grasped the next moments for an opportunity to “bring people to Jesus.” Through declarations and prayers, the pastor apparently exhorted the grieving family to accept Jesus as their personal savior . . . or to risk never seeing the child again in heaven.
When the counselor shared this story with me, I cringed.
Anger roiled my gut.
Here is the truth: I did not witness those moments and maybe what was conveyed to me didn’t fully and fairly depict what really happened after the baby’s death.
Here is the truth: if even only a tiny bit is accurate, I’m appalled. I have seen and heard “altar calls” when tragedy strikes, as a “believer” (whether official clergy or earnest layperson) tells other “believers” what they must or must not do. If they refuse those admonitions, they will be judged and condemned.
Here is the truth: I am at my worst when I judge another.
And here we are, two thousand years after Second Thessalonians was written, and there has been no second coming of Christ.
Would you like to argue about that? Would you like to tell you that my understanding of faith is right and yours is wrong? Would you like to guilt or goad people into believing your path to heaven, to Jesus, to God, to Buddha, to Allah, to nirvana, to mindfulness, to paradise, to the pearly gates, to Krishna, to hope, to salvation . . . is the only way?
Too often, our fingers point like swords piercing the heart.
Too often, our judgments drown someone who’s only needed a sip of water.
Second Thessalonians’ author worried about believers “living in idleness.” I worry about those that judge others because of the petty idol they worship.
*Johannes Gutenberg’s famous printed Bible symbolically represented the dawn of universal access to scripture. In the thousand years before Gutenberg’s movable type in the 1400s, it was mostly royalty and religious authorities that “owned” God’ word . . for good and bad. In the centuries to follow, everyone would eventually read and interpret the Bible . . . for good and bad!