Toorak Uniting Church

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The proof of the pudding

1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8   Matthew 22: 34 – 46   Psalm 90
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10:15 am, 23 October 2005

I know that nobody in this congregation has any negative feelings towards anybody else. And I am sure that is the same for the congregation our Korean guests have come from. There are never any doubts, suspicions, gossip, negative comment or critical remarks about anybody or anything in this congregation because we are Christians and we love one another.

Right?

That's how it works isn't it? People of faith, busy with the labours of love, filled with hope, worthy of every praise would never let any of that sort of unpleasantness pass their lips would they?

We've moved a long way since the days of Paul and Jesus! It was very different in their day. Even within the Christian Community.

The first letter to the Thessalonians starts positive enough. In the first chapter Paul is full of praise and thanksgiving for the life and witness of this congregation. They hold a very soft spot in his heart, so much is clear, not only because they are his first congregation on the European mainland, and not even because they are one of the first congregations he writes a letter to, but because they are an example to all believers in the way they have taken to the faith and implemented it in their daily lives.

So far so good.

But in chapter 2 suddenly Paul's tone changes and we get the terrible impression that maybe, just maybe, all was not as well as could be with the Thessalonians.

'You know that our coming to you was not in vain', 'you know our appeal does not spring from deceit, impure motives or trickery', 'you know and we have God as our witness that we never came with words of flattery, or a pretext for greed, nor did we seek praise from mortals', 'but we were gentle....'

Would anybody suggest that Paul had come in vain? Could he ever have been involved in deceit, impure motives and trickery? Flattery? Paul?! Seeking the praise of mortals? Out of greed????

Apparently some did, otherwise Paul would not have had to defend himself, would he?

Paul is writing this letter just after his friend Timothy has returned from a visit to Thessalonica. They are staying in Athens at the time and about a year after they've left Thessalonica involuntarily, Timothy has gone back to see how the young fledging congregation is faring.

And they are doing well, according to what we read in the first chapter they are doing extremely well. But there must have been some grumblings too, accusations and concerns about Paul's character and conduct.

From Paul's defence we can perhaps reconstruct some of the things they may have said:
Paul abandoned us, he gave in too easily to pressure, his enthusiasm for the preaching of the gospel was not strong enough to give him courage to stay with us and tough it out when we came under pressure. What kind of apostle is that? Or: His preaching wasn't enthustiastic enough, his message not clear enough, his eloquence could have been a lot better, his presentation rather poor..... Why should we pay attention to this man?
And: He is making it very easy for the gentiles to convert isn't he? Doing away with the food laws and circumcision will surely bring them in in numbers and provide him with some fame, but that is only because he plays tricks with scripture and is only after his own fame and fortune. And perhaps even: He came only for the free meals and hospitality, he's just one of those teachers that try to make a living out of some message or other and the more people they beguile the better they feel and the fatter their purse gets....

We know, from other sources, that all those comments and accusations were doing the rounds about Paul. We know there was a fierce competition between preachers at the time. We also know that some of the conflicts and accusations Paul suffered from his contemporaries in the early Church got very nasty and that trust, unity and love weren't always at the forefront of everybody's mind. And it is very likely that some of that nastiness was going in Thessalonica and had been reported back to Paul by Timothy.

Listen says Paul, remember.......! did not come in vain, I was no coward and did not lack in enthusiasm, I preached the gospel as God had given me to preach it, there was never anything else on my mind. You know that, and God is my witness. It wasn't bums on seats, I am not selling the gospel cheap, I did not come to further my own prospects as a preacher. You know that.

There is pleading here, and an appeal to appreciate the good times they have shared, to trust the integrity Paul displayed when he was around, to remember how he cared for them, how he got involved with them, how he preached the gospel..

How do we know somebody is the genuine article? At the time Paul's letters hadn't been in the Bible for 2000 years and some of what he said must have sounded really questionable. How do we know the difference? How did people in Korea come to trust the message of those missionaries that came to them from Toorak? How would they have known? How do we know who we can trust? Who preaches the real gospel? Whose convictions we should make our own?

'I was like a nurse caring for her own children when I was with you' says Paul, 'determined not only to share the gospel but also my self.' Remember?

A moving image, and a very feminine one at that. There is nowhere else in the Greco Roman literature of the time where we find a man going that far. And although there are some references in the Hebrew scriptures, they are always referring to God and never to (a) man.

Paul, a wet nurse, looking after his own children with even more care than any wet nurse would do after other people's children. They were respected in the ancient world, wet nurses, paid to provide nurture and nourishment to newborn babies and very small children. Trusted and respected as a source of care and love for those who could not or would not breast feed their own children. The rich employed them to make sure their children were fed on the best milk, the poor reverted to them to enable themselves to keep working, slaves shared them because it often meant if they could share their children one or two of them would have more milk and energy to spare for their masters.

A wet nurse, the apostle Paul, bringing into practice that command of Jesus, to love God above all else and the neighbour as oneself, given also in answer to some acrimonious and unpleasant questioning from the side of the Farizees.

The loving of God and the practice of it in daily life, that's what all else hinges upon.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating'. As is the trustworthiness and integrity of a Christian community in the practice of love towards each other. Wet nurses. Nurturing, caring, sharing of their own body and soul with each other.

The message of Paul to those who have been swayed by doubts and suspicion, have indulged in white anting and backbiting while he was away is not one of righteous indignation and condemnation but of gentle pleading for them to remember and come to a different conclusion where he is concerned. He asks them to recall his love and care and the way he preached the gospel among them as credentials for his integrity. And beseeches them to take that into account rather than the malicious accusations that are brought in against him.

The only way we, as a Christian community, can demonstrate we are what we preach here or anywhere else in the world, is by being real. By carrying and spreading light, by practicing love, by being steadfast in hope, by being trusting and trustworthy among each other. And by refraining from any of the malicious and destructive attitudes the rest of the world is subject to. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2005


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