Last week we read the first chapter of Pauls letter to the Thessalonians. We heard how they were one of the first congregations Paul got involved with on the European mainland and how successful his mission had been there: many had turned to faith and had become a shining example of Christian love, faith and hope in their own community as well as to others. We saw how the beginning of the letter is absolutely glowing with warm words of praise and thanksgiving.
The letter was probably written from Athens, about a year after Paul had had to leave Thessalonica involuntarily. Probably due to opposition either from within the congregation or from the outside, we dont know. His friend Timothy, who was with him on his first visit to Thessalonica has just returned from a second visit there and has obviously brought good reports about how things are going.
At the beginning of chapter 2 the glowing tones suddenly change. Not all is praise and thanksgiving apparently. It looks like Paul needs to defend himself against concerns and accusations that have been raised against his conduct and character, although it is not entirely clear what those concerns and accusations were.
It was probably something Timothy had reported back on.
And it is very well possible that there were ill feelings around. Pauls message was not uncontested and there were some very firm disagreements on key issues between him and some others in the early Christian Community.
And not only that, backbiting and white-anting, jealousy and miscommunication went on in congregations then as it does now.
What then does the text suggest people may have said about Paul?
That he had abandoned them by leaving and had not stood up to whatever pressure had been exerted? That he had perhaps had his own safety and comfort more at heart than the life of the congregation by giving in to whatever difficulty had compelled him to go? We know from other letters that there were some who felt he sold the gospel short, cheating and playing tricks with the word of God, playing around with the sacred letter of the law to make life easier on new converts. Giving up on the requirements of Jewish food and ritual laws was by some seen as an all too easy way to become popular and boost the numbers. Others may have been jealous of his success, his education, his back ground.
In defence Paul reminds them of his visit:
"After wed suffered and been maltreated in Philippi we came to you" he says, "and instead of being cautious and put down by what wed been through, we declared the gospel with enthusiasm and courage, in spite of the fact we found opposition and persecution too. There was no deceit or trickery, you know that, our message stems from God and we are not trying to please anybody but Him. There was no flattery, or greed, nor did we seek praise from people. Remember? Kind and gentle like a nurse I was with you, caring and sharing not only of the gospel but from ourselves."
There is pleading in Pauls tone here, a passionate appeal, defending what they surely know to be the truth: His integrity as a teacher, his love and care for their community, his trustworthiness as a friend and brother in Christ. The image he uses an image of exceptional intimacy and strength. It was not common for a man to use the image of a wet nurse for himself, and it testifies of a relationship that was very intimate with a very high level of involvement and care.
Wet nurses were regarded very highly at the time because they often meant the difference between life and death in a world where child mortality was rampant. They often looked after more than one child at the time and were considered and respected as amazing sources of nurture and nourishment.
Paul using this image indicates he felt deep care, commitment, nurture and nourishment were part of the preaching of the gospel. It must have hurt Paul to have heard that some were suspicious of his motives and negative about his efforts. But: in his defence against those voices Paul stays gentle and loving. Remember? Surely, you must have noticed how I worked among you, what I did, how I loved you? Its pleading we hear, not anger, and trust that they will surely come to the right conclusions.
Has a lot changed? Not really. Suspicious thoughts, negativity, jealousy, critical comments, malicious gossip, derogatory remarks, feelings of abandonment and doubt are part of the life of any community, even the Christian Community.
Pauls reaction to that is not anger, but an appeal to recall the positive evidence of good times past, kindly and gently, while showing himself to be trustworthy and full of integrity all the time.
It seems to me that, wherever we work together, even across cultures as sister Churches, that is the only way things will work out for us too. Gentleness and kindness countering negativity and doubt.
Be trustworthy as a way to help others trust us. Be kind and loving and full of care to enable others to take us seriously in our attempt to live out the gospel. Be attentive to God and his commands but at the same time deeply and intimately involved in the care for each other to show we practice what we preach. And trust, that even where communication is sometimes difficult and accidents happen, we will be able to hold on to each other because we share that deep and committed involvement in the gospel and the life of Christ that calls us to wet nurse each other. Amen.