Paul: I’ve become all family relations to all people…

I read the first letter that St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church this morning (NRSV). And one thing struck me as a subject for a blog musing. I noticed the metaphors that St. Paul used to describe his relationship to the Thessalonian “believers.” What struck me moreover was his switching of relational metaphors. He goes from calling them “brothers and sisters” (literally, brothers — Greek used the masculine to refer to the whole group of male and female) to calling them his children to calling them his parents (!). At the end of the letter he uses “beloved” as frequently as he had been using “brothers and sisters” earlier in the letter.
I think it’s clear that Paul loved these people — at least he wanted that expressed as frequently as possible.
I suppose the use of these different metaphors can more fully relate the kind of pastoral love he felt for them.
First, “brothers and sisters”

“brothers and sisters beloved by God…” (1:4)
“You yourselves know, brothers and sisters…” (2:1)
“You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters…” (2:9)
“For you, brothers and sisters…” (2:14)
“As for us, brothers and sisters,” (2:17a)
“For this reason, brothers and sisters…” (3:7)
“Finally, brothers and sisters…” (4:1)
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters…” (4:13a)
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters…” (5:1a)
“But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters…” (5:12)

Clearly this is the default expression of Paul’s in this letter. He wants them to know that they are equally children of the same God through the same Lord, Jesus.

Then, “a nurse.”

“we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” (2:5b-8)

As opposed to a kind of person who flatters or seeks to use people as a means to selfish profit (material or psychological), Paul and his companions were “gentle…like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” They wanted to share their very selves like a mother gives of herself in the process of nursing and nurturing babies. The image is of loving self-sacrifice (the kind that all mothers know well) as opposed to leaching self-aggrandizement.

And then, “like a father”

“As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (2:11-12)

Paul and his companions not only embodied the (traditionally considered) female in their leadership but also the male. They sought to be both nursing mom and admonishing father. The father would traditionally instruct the children in Torah (which means “teaching”). Teaching requires a stricter more disciplined discourse. So Paul is saying that they were like Fathers in their teaching capacity toward Thessalonika.

But then this threw me for a loop. Paul compares himself and his companions to orphans — presumably the children of this congregation “being separated.”

“for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face.” (2:17)

It’s one thing to be a brother (makes sense theologically) and father and mother (what parent can honestly say they do not act as both father and mother (in Paul’s use of these pictures) towards their children?). But then to be a child to them as well? That seems a little strange. I don’t know what Paul exactly meant in this metaphor and can only speculate. But from the context we know that they themselves “longed…to see [the Thessalonians] face to face” and this suggests a kind of need for the congregations, a kind of loneliness and isolation that one feels when separated from home, from parents. I can recall feeling this way in a small way when I was left accidentally at Walden Pond by my parents when I was 11. Regardless, in some way Paul felt like a child to the Thessalonian church. To go out on a limb, perhaps it is the case that the parenting relationship of pastor to church is a two way enterprise and Paul is giving us this insight. The church is the pastor’s parent and the pastor is the church’s parent. This is because we are all equal partakers of the Spirit and thus as brother and sisters we can be mothers and fathers to one another in an egalitarian way (Patriarchy watch out).

Regardless of the metaphor, the relationship is one of love, given and received. Now in a brotherly, sisterly way, now in a motherly way, now in a fatherly way, now in a childlike way. None of these metaphors are held exclusively to pastor or exclusively to church. And so when we read Paul calling the church “beloved” in chapter five —

“But you, beloved…” (5:4)
“And we urge you, beloved…” (5:14)
“Beloved, pray for us.” (5:25)

— we could go out on a limb and think about the more intimate love picture that this word draws to our minds and consider yet one more familial relation Paul might be invoking — or more likely we can take this to be a summary of the kinds of ways that Paul and his companions feel toward the Thessalonikan church. They are the “agapetos” — the one’s who’ve received God’s agape, who radiate that agape to one another and will more and more as the Spirit stirs them on, and who receive and give that agape to Paul and companions.
Love is the binding force of the church and it is love which manifests itself in a fatherly, motherly, sisterly, brotherly, parently, and childly way.
And as all of this comes to a close at the end of chapter 5, Paul wants this love to be communicated in a real way and calls on them to “Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss” (5:26). In this letter there is a lot of love. A love which is a response to the love of God — and God’s love cannot be tied to one perspective of lover and loved, of parent or child or brother or sister. God’s love is reflected in part in all these relations and they all point like colors to the source which is the light of God’s abundance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s