Relationships that matter are costly. They are always costly.
One of the delights of raising children is watching them grow up, mature (hopefully), and move out into life. And one of the most difficult experiences of raising children is leaving them behind, at a University campus, or after a wedding, or after the birth of a first grandchild.
Some of the difficulties related to relationships are imposed by the choices we or those we love make in pursuit of dreams, careers, or opportunities that open to us. While we regret the separation, we embrace it as a part of life, and we do our best to move on.
There are times when our separation from those we have come to love is the result of painful circumstances that no one desired or chose. It is those separations which seem to create the deepest longings and hungers to see our loved ones again. We long for them. Our minds are often preoccupied with our concern for them, and our fervent wish that we could find a way to spend even a few minutes with them.
It is in this light that we read Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica. He was their pastor, their shepherd. With Timothy and Silas he had preached and taught the story of Jesus and the Resurrection in the synagogue. Many of them became believers, and the bonds of friendship and deep, Godly love began to form between them.
But the opposition to their message among other members of the synagogue grew fierce. Eventually a riot occurred, stirring passions among synagogue members as well as the gentile population in Thessalonica. Paul’s life was in danger, and the believers persuaded Paul and Silas (and likely Timothy) to leave for Beroea.
It was a sudden departure, tearing at the heart of the Apostle. The new believers were at risk, and his concern for people he had come to love prompted deep anxiety and uncertainty. When he could stand it no longer, he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to look into the welfare of the new believers.
Paul’s heart must have been pounding as Timothy brought news of the young church. The letter to them was immediate. Paul could hardly contain his joy, and he wrote a letter to encourage them, celebrate them, and to instruct them.
Relationships obviously mattered to Paul. Love for one another is far more than mere sentiment, or a sweet concern that we just all “get along.” He had invested himself so deeply into the welfare of these people that anything threatening their wellbeing, both physical and spiritual, was a source of anguished concern. And their newly developed faith was, in his mind, at risk.
There are three major concerns that revolve around one another in this section of the letter. Paul is obviously concerned for their welfare, particularly in the face of the kind of persecution that he experienced. His departure must have been difficult, both physically and emotionally. His life was in danger. While he was obviously willing to risk everything, including his life, for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in this case, the believers in Thessalonica determined that Paul’s safety was a priority. They insisted that he leave, that he escape what must have seemed almost certain threat to life.
What love and concern! But what of those left behind? What would become of them, all of whom were new believers? What would they face once Paul and his companions were safely out of town? Would the persecution continue for them? How would they respond? Were they sufficiently grounded to endure the opposition and persecution that was likely to continue?
This was a test of the ministry of Paul, of the power of the Gospel, and the tenacity and endurance of a group of new believers. This fledgling church was under threat. Would they persevere? Paul was obviously deeply concerned, enough so that he risked the safety of Timothy, his beloved “son in the faith.” But he had to know!
When Timothy returned, the news was better than Paul had imagined! “I can live now,” he said. The interplay in the text between his concern for them and his delight in their tenacity and faithfulness is sometimes a bit hard to follow. Paul was obviously thrilled that they had stood their ground in the face of persecution. His hard work among them, his intense desire to see them established spiritually, was not in vain. But Paul was also aware that his work among them was not yet completed. He longed to rejoin them, to share in the life of faith with them. He knew that what lay ahead of them would demand the deepest reliance on the Spirit, their tenacious faith in the face of severe and ongoing opposition.
Paul also knew that their love for one another, and for “everyone else” was essential to their faithful endurance. The temptation to become angry and bitter toward those who oppose and persecute us is persistent. The very reason for Paul’s absence from them was this fierce persecution! Who would not be tempted to grow angry, to react, to retaliate? But Paul passionately prayed that they would be consumed and formed by the love of God the Father, and the Lord Jesus. This love, this empowering, transforming love, could ignite a power of loving support and encouragement toward one another. Paul knew it: We need each other! We desperately need one another. Life works best for everyone when we are empowered by the love “caused” by the Lord Jesus toward one another. Its source is not in us. It is in Christ!
But Paul also knew that this love, if it be from the Lord Jesus, demanded that we love everyone, even those who persecute us. (Matthew 5:44-48). In Thessalonica, where the new believers were forming an outpost of the Kingdom of Christ, this was a demonstration of the very heart of the Gospel Paul had so passionately conveyed to them. And it mattered not whether Paul could return to be with them. What mattered was that, in the face of even the most difficult and intense opposition, they live in anticipation of the coming of Christ. After all, their hope lay not in Paul’s return. The whole of Paul’s ministry was to get them ready for Christ’s return. Living in readiness, living in anticipation, living in Godliness, living blameless in holiness. This was the goal. This was the hope. And this was the outcome of faith established in and through the ministry of Paul.