1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
My specific text for today is 1 Thessalonians 2: 7 – “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Can you imagine Paul, with all his strength and tenacity, feeling like a caring mother or a gentle nurse he “gives birth” to many churches along his journey? Is that too much of a stretch? There are a number of images of God caring for creation and creatures and people in such a fashion. But Paul? Yes. Addressing that text in the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury wrote:
O St. Paul, where is he who was called the nurse of the faithful, caressing his sons? Who is that affectionate mother who declares everywhere that she is in labour for her sons? Sweet nurse, sweet mother, who are the sons you are in labour with, and nurse, but that whom by teach the faith of Christ you bear and instruct? [Quoted by Beverly Roberts Gaventa]
As we have been supporting Commissioned Pastor Tobias Caskey to be come an ordained minister, for years he has had the permission of our Session to run a ministry he called “Solutions By-The-Sea.” Included in that ministry have been church services and ministries to 170 men and family members. This year Tobias and I talked about the possibility of that group to apply to become what is called a “1001 Worshipping Community.” The group gained that status, and just in the last couple of months our Presbytery named it as a New Church Development; it will be called the New Corinthians Worshipping Community. I told Tobias I felt like a midwife, as the church Westminster By-The-Sea was, in a matter of speaking, giving birth to a new infant church.
Professor Beverly Roberts Gaventa served at Princeton Theological Seminary and now is Distinguished Professor of New Testament interpretation at Baylor University. In response to the words of Anselm that I just shared, she wrote:
“For over half my life, I have been engaged in studying and teaching the many letters of Paul. In that time I have heard of Paul called many things—many, many things. I have never heard anyone speak of Paul as ‘Mother.’” But she started digging, especially in this text, and she wrote an entire book called Our Mother St. Paul, describing the many ways he gently taught, or nursed along, young Christians and young congregations. [Beverly, Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother St. Paul: excerpted in the “Princeton Seminary Bulletin (Vol XVII, 1, 1996, 29-44.
Today, I brought a receiving blanket to show to the children, telling them about the welcome nurses or midwives give to newborns for their comfort and warmth, as they wrap them lovingly into soft warmth. The babies are usually nursed, by breast or by bottle, by the mother as part of the bond she will build with her child. But for a while, most rooms for babies have subdued lighting, soft music or white noise, pastel colors, and comforting characters. That kind of care is an attempt to give babies a sense of security. We have four grandsons between the ages of 8 and 5, and they are active boys all day long. But at bedtime, they love to cuddle with mom, or with dad, as a story is read to them; and in the morning they love to curl up under a blanket as they wake up. In other words, they still yearn for the gentleness that was introduced to them when they were babies, even without an actual memory of their early days. At the other end of life, people may get the comfort of gentle Hospice nurses. Each time I have visited a congregation member in a Hospice room in Port Orange, or Edgewater, I have noticed several things: aromatherapy; soft music; pictures of loved ones; herbal teas (if they enjoy that,) or ice cream if they prefer that. In between the beginning of life and the end of life, there are loud noises, news stories, sometimes conflict, often worries about money, maybe safety issues, and relationships with family members and friends. It is a harsh world between the beginning and the end. Even hospitals can be harsh with monitors and buzzers that flash and sound. But nurses- female and male; doctors: female and male; and chaplains: female and male, attempt to attend to and sooth patients in distress. When we are in the world, we may have to fend for ourselves as adults. Some have a partner; some don’t. For those who have a partner, is that person caring and attentive, or not? Some children have two parents present; some don’t. But even if they do, are they caring; are the attentive? Seeking shelter from life’s storms is a natural thing to do.
Paul the apostle is forced to defend himself from accusations of being too autocratic, so he gives some self-disclosure statements to let them in on his life. He reminds them that he had “been shamefully treated in Philippi.” [verse 2] He says, “we had courage in our God in spite of great opposition.” Sometimes just hearing what a parent, a spouse, or a boss has gone through the days before our encounter with them helps us appreciate all they are doing on our behalf. Paul chooses to tell the Thessalonians about his toils and strife so they can understand, as the saying goes “where he’s coming from.” Paul was accused of creating his message to please people. There are many preachers around today who do the same, seeing a congregation as an audience to please for the sake of attendance, numbers, and offerings. But Paul speaks up against that charge. “We speak the message of the gospel “not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” [verse 4]. How do you make important decisions? To always include a desire to please God, rather than exclude God from the equation, will bode well for you in life. Again, Paul believes he must defend himself from murmurings or charges, saying “As you know, and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery; [which sometimes happens in some churches, businesses, or homes] or with pretext for greed [which also leads to roads that seem to glitter like gold but turn into a mirage as one gets closer.] nor did we seek praise from mortals. [verse 5] Although it is quite natural to seek praise or approval, Paul is claiming his motivation was not because of that, but to preach the gospel. Motives matter. In a town in which Mary Ann and I once lived, we had recently moved into our home. We didn’t yet know many neighbors, but a young couple with a child stopped by, welcomed us, and invited us to dinner that weekend. “How nice!” we thought. It was going very well until they took us into a room after the meal and began telling us about their business, which was a multi-level marketing scheme. “As a young pastor,” they said to me, “you can’t make much money. Wouldn’t you like to get rich?” they asked with eagerness. Well that was the last time we had dinner with them. See, we thought their motive was friendship, but instead we were potentially part of their financial plan. Paul had to make clear that his motives were pure; to teach the gospel, start churches, and welcome young believers in Christ and to share the gospel with them.
Think back, if you can, to times that you read Bible stories to your children or your grandchildren. That was a time that you brought God’s message to them! Mary Ann and I offer lessons to boys and girls in our Sunday morning Sunday School Zoom class. One family sent a picture of their boys, sitting at their TV screen listening us teach and telling us stories back! That picture is on our church Facebook page this week. Sometimes the way to spread the gospel safely is to use the technology at hand. If you have led a youth group over the years, you may not know the people you influenced in their life. My father was a busy businessman, but he still made time to teach young adults in Sunday School classes. I just watched him come home from a week in the office, and on Saturdays he would pull out his Bible and his Sunday School material to prepare. He didn’t have to say “yes,” to the request to teach. But his doing so affected many, and it caused me to testify to his wonderful devotion in those years. What examples come to your mind? As our children were growing, they were part of a church Children’s Choir that taught them not only the songs like “Jesus Loves Me,” not only the hymns, but also stories in musicals based on the life of Jonah, the life of Zerubbabel, and the lives of Timothy, Silas, and Paul to name a few. Some of my worship friends have joined me in making Bible Stories come to life by volunteering in our Vacation Bible School during summers. They too have made an impact in the lives of young Christians. Well done.
So this week, think about opportunities to gently offer the Bible to others, with a devotional or with words. Think back on the times that might have slipped from your mind, and recall those who you too have mentored, people of any age. The church needs her volunteers who step up to feed, or sing, or teach, or serve. You join a great crowd of witnesses who have done the same before you.
Listen to how God speaks to us through the Bible in the book of Hosea:
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” [11:3-4]
Have you ever thought of God like that? What a comfort; go and do likewise.
Let us pray:
O God: although you are strong, you are also tender. Sometimes we need your strength, and other times we need your tenderness. Offer us what we need in these times of noise and chaos, in the name of Jesus who we know had times of joy and times of weeping. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 25, 2020