Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians is quite remarkable even in its relative brevity. Its format and tone quickly swing back and forth like a pendulum, finally ending with a message of comfort even for those whom Paul would rebuke.
Paul balances his two correctives with three gushing statements of encouragement. He knows his theological statements about the end times and about work and idleness aren’t going to change Thessalonian hearts alone. Paul is compelled as their leader to intervene, but he must allow God’s grace and his own affection (itself an outpouring of God’s love) to be the final words for his flock.
As I read the epistle and write this meditation, I confess I don’t always take the same approach with the people I love most in my life. In the heat of the moment, I often let judgment and accusation have the final word, at least for the time being. It sometimes isn’t till I am convicted of the undeserved grace and mercy I’ve received from God that I am humbled (i.e., humiliated) to the point of gratuitously pouring out love and affection after the fact as (often embarrassing) gestures of reconciliation.
Would that I could more often operate like Paul does with the Thessalonians when I am in conflict. Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not just trying to reduce Paul’s epistle to some pragmatic statement about learning from his leadership methods. The thing that ruled the day for Paul was the eternal conviction of God’s own love for him in Jesus Christ, which he reciprocated to others as a natural byproduct.
I haven’t taken part very much in the rite our Book of Common Prayer calls “The Reconciliation of a Penitent” (or confession), but there is a very powerful thing that happens in this brief service. After the penitent makes a confession to the priest and the priest absolves, the priest then says, “Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.” I love this gesture. It has stuck with me since the first time I heard it.
Confession is a vulnerable exercise, so the priest has perceived authority over the one making the confession. But after the priest offers counsel, direction, comfort, and, finally, absolution, the priest then turns the table and ends with loving humility: I’m a sinner too in just as much need of absolution.
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians is like this. Remember that film Spies Like Us with Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd? Well, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy are sinners like us. I’m a sinner, too. Because I’ve been absolved by the blood of the Lamb, when God brings me to my senses, I can’t help but offer love and begin to pull my weight for my fellow sinners. And even when I get it wrong, I know God’s final word for me is one of eternal comfort, grace, mercy, peace, assurance, and absolution.