Many people whom we consider to be close to us are physically very far from us. Long before e-mail, phone calls, texting and twitter, the Apostle Paul found ways to stay in touch with those whom he loved.
Today’s reading, the First Letter to the Thessalonians 1:1-5, contains the earliest words of the New Testament. Paul may have written to other churches before but this letter is the first that we know.
Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica is usually dated as being in the year 50. A year later, Paul wants the Christians of Thessalonica to know that he has been praying for them and has been thanking God for all of them and has also been “constantly mindful” of their faith, love and hope.
From our vantage point, more than nineteen and a half centuries later, we may not appreciate the importance of these opening sentences are, as the first statements of the faith, in writing. For instance, God is called “Father.” This is an imitation of Jesus’ manner of speaking of God, as “Father.” Addressing God as “Father” was not frequently done, even by Jewish people. There are only 20 occasions in the Old Testament, where God is addressed as “Father.”
We are so accustomed to speaking of Jesus as “Lord” and “Christ” (Messiah) that we may not realize that this passage is the first witness that these names were commonly applied to Jesus by the early Christians.
The letter is addressed to “the church of the Thessalonians who belong to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus’ name is attached to that of the Father. He is not only a historical figure but Paul is affirming his faith that Jesus, along with the Father, is acting in the lives of the Christians. The joining of the Father and Jesus is a dramatic testimony to the belief in the close relationship of Jesus with the Father.
What do we want for those whom we love? Paul desires for “grace and peace” for the believers. “Grace” is important, as St. Thomas Aquinas affirms, because grace is the source of all good. Grace is God’s action in our lives. Elsewhere Paul attests, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10). “Peace,” according to Thomas, is the settling of all our desires. This is what Paul desired for the people of Thessalonica and this si what we should desire for those we love.
Paul keeps thanking God for the Christians of Thessalonica. Thomas reflects that Paul’s thanksgiving is directed to God, recognizing that all the good which the Christians have if from God, as the Letter of James states: “Every good giving and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (Js 1:17).
Thomas points out that Paul’s thanksgiving is sincere because it is continual, and so Paul gives thanks “always,” as he does in the Letter to the Romans, “I remember you constantly” (Rom 1:9).Paul’s thanksgiving is also universal, “We keep thanking God for all of you.”
In this letter, Paul joins faith, hope and charity together, as he does in the First Letter to the Corinthians, “Faith, hope and love remain, these three” (1 Cor 13:13). Thomas notices that Paul mentions faith first because it is the basis of receiving what is hoped for: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for…” (Heb 11:1).
Thomas insists, however, that faith alone is not enough: “This is not enough, unless one has works and effort.” For this reason, Paul adds “you are proving your faith and laboring in love,” as the Letter of James affirms: “faith without works is dead” (Js 2:26).
Their labor for Christ would be of little value if it were not continuous, as Jesus spoke of “those who believe only for a time and fall away in time of trial” (Lk 8:13).
Thomas notices that Paul remembers their faith expressed in these works and efforts. Paul recalls their love, as he will later in the same letter: “On the subject of mutual charity you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess 4:9).
Paul affirms that the Thessalonians have been constant in their hope, as he also tells the Romans, “Rejoice in hope” (Rom 12:12). Thomas notices that Paul speaks of their “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thomas thinks this can be understood as either their hope in Christ or the hope that Christ gives them. St. Peter declares that God “gave us new birth in a living hope through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pt 1:3).
Paul addresses the believers as “beloved of God.” Thomas points out that God loves all those to whom He has given nature. This love, however, is especially to those to whom He calls to eternal life.
Paul states that they are “chosen.” Thomas explains that Paul knows that they are God’s elect, not because they have merited it but because “You have been chosen by God gratuitously.” According to Thomas, Paul experienced this when he preached to them, “God gave them the grace of fruitfully hearing His word preached, or God gave Paul the grace of abundantly preaching to them.”
Paul reminds them that his preaching was not with words but with “power,” similarly to his words to the Corinthians: “My message my proclamation were not with persuasive wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power (1 Cor 2:4); “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor 4:20).
Thomas asserts that the authentication of Paul’s preaching was with “the power of signs.” Thomas recalls various passages of the New Testament. Mark states: “…the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (Mk 16:20). The Acts of the Apostles declares: “While Peter was still speaking these things, the holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word” (Acts 10:44). The Letter to the Hebrews affirms, “God added His testimony by signs, wonders, various acts of power and distribution of the gifts of the holy Spirit according to His will” (Heb 2:4).
Paul adds that his preaching was carried out “in the holy Spirit.” Thomas recalls the words of the Gospel: “It will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:20).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
An English translation from the Latin text for the First Letter to the Thessalonians are available at the website http://dhspriory.org/Thomas/