On this Sunday, when we celebrate the saints’ of our lives, I thought it would be a good exercise to look back to a practice many of our loved ones past knew that, generally speaking, we don’t. The art of letter writing is all but forgotten. In a world filled with tweets, snapchats, instant messages, pings, pokes, emails, skypes, zooms, and whatsapp, the art of letter writing is a lost form. I can remember in grad school – some 10 years ago – that I used to loathe when a professor would require us to write our final exam essays by hand. Forget studying for the exam, I’d have to start doing hand exercises a few weeks prior to the exam just to ensure I had the stamina in my hand to hold a pen and write a couple hundred words without my hand cramping. I can type in excess of 80 words per minute, and after an hour or two have a fully legible sermon. But I can’t write for 10 minutes without my hand hurting so bad my writing wouldn’t pass for a doctor’s signature.
But it’s not just the ability to write with a pen that has dwindled, it’s the form of letter writing. The salutation and greeting, followed by the response to the last letter, followed by the meat of the letter where-in a new idea is introduced, followed by a concluding synopsis and parting farewell. We just don’t write like that anymore. I mean, in today’s digital world, who has time for all the fluff?
Today, our letters sound more like this: “Yoooo! OMG! Nats Won! ROTFC!” (That’s, Rolling on the Floor Cheering” for those who aren’t hip on modern day lingo. And yes, I made it up.)
Sure, that short exchange may be enough for you to understand this momentary glimpse of my life, but that’s not what letter writing is about. Digital communication is so quick, it can encompass fleeting moments, even seconds of experience. Not letter writing. Letter writing isn’t about a momentary glimpse; it’s about a bigger picture that has to encompass the time between the last letter and the next – that could be days, weeks, months, or even years.
Because we have lost the art form of letter writing, we also have to work extra hard to read and understand letters. Paul, in the Biblical text, isn’t using digital shorthand, or writing in contemporary fashion, nor is he writing about fleeting moments in the life of the church. To understand how what he says is applicable to our call to faithfulness today, we must first transport ourselves into a by-gone era where letter writing was the only form of distance communication. How we understand letter writing will affect how we understand the Biblical text.
Ancient letter writing was a bit different than more modern letter writing. The opening line of the text didn’t just name who the letter was being addressed to, it named those who were authoring the text. “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. To the church of Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” … This letter is being address to the church of Thessalonica, from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.
As a side note, the 1st letter to the Thessalonians is uniformly agreed upon by scholars as being authored by Paul, himself. However, the authorship of 2nd Thessalonians receives great criticism. Most scholars critique the changes of the letter, and use those differences to claim that Paul is not the author of this letter. Scholars suggest it was written by a contemporary of Paul, perhaps even writing after Paul’s death, as a continuance of Paul’s apostolic leadership. One example of a difference in writing style is found at the end, where the author writes, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.” … Only, this isn’t the way Paul writes. In no other letter does Paul end this way. Scholars suggest this tactic is a way for an imposter to authenticate their writing, even though the tactic is based on a lie. The tactic of making false statements that seek to convince others you are better than you are is not a modern phenomena – people have been using untruths for centuries to give themselves more power than they are due. The authorship debate might also play into the tone of the letter. More on that in a minute.
After the opening salutation, there’s a word of grace and peace in verse 2. This was normal among ancient letters, especially Paul’s letters. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Then, in traditional letter form, verses 3 and 4 pick up on a past conversation between the letter writer and the recipient. “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.”
These two verses are reflecting back to comments made by Paul in the first letter to the Thessalonians. In the first letter, Paul offered an emphasis on faith, hope, and love. For example, in regards to faith, 1 Thessalonians 2:10 says, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.” Again, in reference to love, 1 Thessalonians 4:9 offers, “Concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another … we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more.” In regards to hope, we see multiple times in 1 Thessalonians this phrase, “Encourage one another and build up each other.” Paul offers that in the midst of their community, there are already signs of hope. He offers in 1 Thessalonians 1:19, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!”
So here, at the start of 2 Thessalonians, the author is reflecting back on the guidance of the previous letter and saying, well done! “We give thanks that your faith is abundantly growing, and the love of every one is increasing.” The author is offering appreciation that the community took the prior instruction to heart, and is living more faithfully following the previous writing.
Verse 4 says the community has even remained faithful in the face of adversity. They have remained steadfast in faith in the midst of persecutions and afflictions. There is nothing in the text that tells us what kind of adversity they are facing … nothing tells us how they were being persecuted. However, verses 5-10 seem to be adding a caveat to this understanding of endurance.
Admittedly these verses are often expunged from sermons. In fact, in the Revised Common Lectionary, these verses are not included. The lectionary text skips from verse 4 to verse 11, as if it’s best to just skip over these six verses.
It is understandable for some scholars to critique this text as being avoidable because of the question of authorship. It is quite possible that the author of this letter – if not Paul – has an agenda that doesn’t match Paul’s. Verse 9 says, “These [afflicters] will suffer punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might.” 1st Thessalonians, which is unquestionably Paul’s writing, offers nothing that comes close to this kind of hell-fire and brimstone understanding of God’s vengeance against unfaithful people. Are these words simply ignorable because, some 1500 years after the Biblical canon was formed, we discredited the authorship of the letter?
I want to move past the skepticism of authorship, and address this text in a different way. The text is in the Biblical canon, and regardless of authorship, this is included in the text of our faith.
I could be wrong, but I think these verses are uncomfortable because, in our digital age, we’ve forgotten, this is a letter. This text is a letter written from a person with apostolic leadership to a community they helped create. Even if this letter isn’t actually written by Paul, it is understood in the Biblical canon to carry the same weight as any of Paul’s authentically written letters, and is still in the form of a letter from a leader to their community.
Again, this is a letter (did I mention that?). It is written to the church of Thessalonica, who, as a people, are hailed as being a people of great faith. When we grasp the concept of letter writing, we do not take verses 5-10 apart from verses 3-4 and 11-12 as if they offer a word of condemnation to the unfaithful. This text isn’t being written to a people who lack faith. This letter wasn’t written to a greater community of persecuting and afflicting sinners … it’s written to a people who have been afflicted and persecuted, but who have shown great faith in the midst of their affliction. Perhaps instead of asking what this text says about the unfaithful (because it isn’t written to or about the unfaithful), we should be asking what this text has to say about faithful believers (because that’s who it is written to and about, faithful believers).
Think of this is a more applicable and modern way – if my child comes home having been hit by another child at the school, how do I, in faithfulness to the gospel of Christ, respond? Do I tell my child that the next time this happens, my child should respond by hitting the child back? Do I tell my child that is their job to ensure this child doesn’t get away with their afflictions? Do I tell my child to be the judge and jury, and to respond with aggressive conviction?
Or, do I tell my child to be completely passive? Should I tell them to just ignore the issue and let it go? Do I tell my child to act as if nothing happened, allowing this aggressor free reign to continue hitting other children?
Or, do I tell my child that I’m sorry they got hit, that I’m grateful they are ok, that they did the right thing by not hitting the child back? Do I tell them that I anticipate the child who did the hitting will be addressed by the teacher or principal? Do I trust that those who have the authority to address the issue will address the issue, and that the child will be dealt with appropriately?
Apply this line of thinking to any kind of affliction, be it abuse, theft, hate crime, or other. Only, instead of leaving the response in the hands of people of power who have prejudice and bias that affect the outcome, we leave the response in the hands of the eternal and just God, who responds with perfect justice and mercy.
The text offers to the Thessalonians that God will deal with what God needs to deal with. Anyone who stands in the way of more God’s faithful people – anyone who stands in the way of God’s people living out their call to make God’s goodness known in the world – anyone who stands opposed to God’s love being made known in the world will be held accountable by God. That is God’s role in all of this, to be the judge. It is indeed just of God to deal with any who afflicts the faithful.
But this subtext in verses 5-10 is not an invitation to the faithful to respond with judgement. This caveat is little more than an explanation of the persecution and affliction defined in verse 4. That is not the point of the letter, but is a clarifying statement.
The letter is addressing those who have been afflicted; who, in response to the goodness of God, have responded to such affliction in faithfulness. “In the midst of such affliction, the writer declares to the Thessalonians that God’s justice is dependable, that God will deal harshly with those who treat them harshly, while giving relief to those who have been afflicted.”[i] The text is not inviting the Thessalonians to respond with power or anger to the afflicters; the author is not inviting them to respond with hatred to any who seek to do them harm; in fact, the author praises them for just the opposite: “we give thanks for the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”
To end this opening greeting and response, we turn back to verses 11 and 12, which bookend this opening statement by returning to the theme of thanksgiving. “We will always pray for you for this purpose: that God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” “In the end, this text encourages faithfulness and offers assurance that God will not forget such steadfastness.”[ii] This text is a commendation of the people of faith for their diligence and steadfastness to God.
On this day, as we celebrate the remembrance of All Saint’s Day, this text invites us to not just give thanks for our call to steadfastness in the faith today, but to reflect on each and every person of faith who has impacted our faithfulness. As we hear the commendation of 2nd Thessalonians, we offer commendation to all who instilled in us this same faith: a faith that rejects the resounding horns of judgement and aggression, horns that we have been so quick to blow from the pews of gold and silver adorned sanctuaries. We offer commendation to all who have instilled in us this faith that acknowledges our call as individuals and as communities to be steadfast in our love for one another, in our call to faithfulness, and in our hopeful response to God’s power through our work of faith. We give thanks to all who led us to live so as to glorify the name of Christ, that through us, because of the witness and guidance of the saints, the love of God may be known by all.
And as we remember the saints of the past, we are also called to hear the words of the author to a greater faithfulness in our world today. In the midst of times of affliction, where the gospel of Christ is being used as a weapon against the marginalized, the refugee, and the poor, we must ask, will future apostolic leaders look back to us and speak the same words the author spoke to the Thessalonians? Will we be praised for maintaining our faithfulness in times of affliction? We will be hailed as saints for standing up for the loving gospel of God, as witnessed in the selfless sacrifice of Christ, as we lived into a mission that claimed God’s love was designed for all people?
Imagine that letter:
“Pastor Thomas. To the church of Washington Street United Methodist in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I must always give thanks to God for you, siblings of faith, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” Thanks be to God. Amen.