Field Guide to Thessalonica, USA

Have you used the “n” word recently?  How about breast feeding?  Do you have any particularly strong feelings about nursing mothers?  We’ll come back to that in a bit.

My wife and I recently joined my parents, brother and sisters (and their spouses) on an epic trip to Alaska.  It was incredible from start to finish.  One thing that helped us get the most out of the experience was knowledgeable people who informed us about wherever we were and whatever we were looking at.  We would have enjoyed the trip without them, but they enhanced the trip immeasurably.

I want to provide that kind of service for you as we look at a passage from a letter written by the Apostle Paul and his associates, Silas and Timothy.  The letter was written to the church he helped get started in the town known at that time as Thessalonica, called Thessaloniki today.  In the event that you stumble upon a time machine and venture back to 51 C.E. or so in that region, I want you to be prepared! 

The city named after a former Emperor’s sister was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of its day because of the strong trade routes due to the Via Egnatia, an ancient Roman Empire freeway that paved the way for global commerce.  People from all over the ancient world lived there, and they brought their traditions with them.  As a Roman city of import, they were also dependent on Rome for financial support.  In terms of religion, the two biggest influences were Greek Mythology and it’s Roman Mythology counterpart.  Above all, the reigning Caesar demanded to be acknowledged as divine, demanding worship in one way or another (a few decades later, Domitian would demand that his subjects refer to him as Lord and God).  Emperors, holding the power to sustain or end life, saw themselves as the saviors of the world – they held salvation in their hands.  They believed that their rule was Good News, and were quite evangelical about it.

Enter Paul and company.  Paul, Silas, and Timothy had started a church in nearby Philippi, and were hanging out in that city, funded by a wealthy woman referred to as Lydia.  She was a very successful business woman, selling rare, expensive purple fabrics to royalty.  She was compelled by the Good News she heard from Paul, decided to be led by the example and teaching of Jesus, realizing that his path led to doing life with God.  Through a very interesting number of events, Paul was eventually asked by the city officials to leave the city, which he did.  Where did he go?  Thessalonica.  What did he do?  He started letting people know about the Good News of Jesus.  What happened?  Like Lydia, people understood that it really was good news and embraced this new way of life and faith.  Like before, however, things eventually went south, which prompted the letter. 

Have you ever bought something you really wanted and needed, but then discovered related costs afterwards that you had not thought about?  Maybe you bought your first car but you didn’t consider what insurance might run.  Or gas or oil changes or tires or fuzzy dice or fragrant deodorizing hanging trees you hang from the rearview mirror?  Or have you ever fallen in love and entered into a relationship you want and need but then realize that being in that relationship is going to change the dynamics of every other relationship in some way?  That’s what happened to the Thessalonians when they embraced the Good News Jesus shared about the nature of God and the implications for living.  They no longer maintained their relationship with the other religions, and didn’t make any offerings to them, either.  This strained their relationships with those whom they used to worship.  Furthermore, they didn’t get the same business deals they got before because they switched religions – the new faith cost them in real terms.  Some people even treated them harshly for not worshiping the Emperor as commanded, fearful that Rome might withdraw support.  Paul and company had to leave the city, and the new Jesus followers were on their own.

After some period of time, Paul got word that the new believers were still being harassed and wrote them the letters we now call 1st and 2nd Thessalonians.  He tells them to hold on to the hope that God is still with them, at work right where they are bringing about the salvation he alone can bring, and that one day, should they die soon, they will be welcomed into heaven.  As for living in the midst of people with very different beliefs and practices?  Paul and company reminded them of their posture when they first arrived in the diverse city:

You yourselves know, dear brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure. You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition. So you can see we were not preaching with any deceit or impure motives or trickery.

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else.

As apostles of Christ we certainly had a right to make some demands of you, but instead we were like children among you. Or we were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too. – 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (NLT)

As you can clearly see, the “n” word now comes  into play.  Not the “n” word you might be thinking of but rather a Greek word which biblical interpreters continue to debate about:

It should be noted that interpretations of v. 7 vary because the manuscript evidence is divided. A single Greek letter, ν (n), is added to the Greek word ἤπιοι (ēpioi, “gentle”) in some manuscripts of 1 Thessalonians but not in others. So scholars wonder if Paul actually wrote “we were gentle” or “we were infants [νήπιοι nēpioi]” (see the NRSV note to v. 7). In the latter case, Paul would be saying that “the apostles were not `heavies,’ making much of themselves through various demands (v. 7a), but were as unassuming among the Thessalonians as infants.” – Abraham Smith, New Interpreters Bible, The First Letter to the Thessalonians

The “n” word Paul used, nēpioi, is both informative and instructive.  Essentially, Paul was saying that even though they believed they were proclaiming the truth and had God behind them, they chose to proceed with humble strength.  They chose the posture of an infant, or perhaps a nursing mother.  Have you thought much about infants and nursing mothers?  I know when I picture an infant or nursing mother in my mind, I naturally think “warrior”, “cage fighter”, and “threat”.  Okay, that’s not quite right, is it?  The posture Paul was saying he took with them was vulnerability.  They were very confident in what they believed, but they chose to take an approach that would create the least amount of hostility from their audience. Instead of shouting from street corners that people were going to hell, they walked alongside in vulnerability, placing their trust in God to open doors and hearts to change lives.  Infants rely on others to survive – so did Paul and company.  Nursing mothers are the very picture of nurturing out of love.  Paul was writing this to them to remind them that this is the way of Jesus, who took the peaceful route all the way to his torturous death.  They are not only bearers of the Good News, they are heralds.  As such, they need to be very thoughtful in their approach.  The way of Jesus is the way of peace, the way of the cross. 

So, there you have it.  Just in case you travel back in time and take heat for not practicing the popular religion in Thessalonica, you know what to do.  Go vulnerable.  Choose to nurture like a nursing mother.

Oh, and one more thing.  We live in ancient Thessalonica today, right here and now.  Worship is happening all around us.  It may not be Greek or Roman gods or Emperors, but there is plenty of worship going on.  And it isn’t necessarily happening in a sanctuary.  Because worship is really about what we praise, what we value, what we say is worth our allegiance.  Strip away religious lingo, and that’s what it’s really all about.  We are saying we value God, that the reason we praise God is because God is worth it, that God has our allegiance, which means we are choosing to have our lives led by the God of Jesus over every other god.  We are exclusive in that sense, choosing this Way over every other way.  Truly living this way will get noticed in a world that celebrates bravado, self-absorption, greed, and winning at all costs (each of these is exclusive, by the way). 

You who follow in the footsteps of Jesus are bearers and heralds of Christ.  You are anointed with the very Spirit of God to be and proclaim Good News wherever you go.  How should you proceed?  With a megaphone to voice judgment?  With harsh, inflammatory words that demean others?  Nope.  Think vulnerable infant.  Think nurturing, nursing mother.  Think Jesus.

Following Jesus will mean saying no to worshiping as others worship (think about that awhile).  There will be pushback because the Way of Jesus is countercultural and counterintuitive.  Important side note: if you are pretty much just like everybody else in a culture that does not really worship God, perhaps you aren’t worshiping God, either. 

Who do you worship?  If God, then what is your posture? How are you behaving in a world of other-god worshippers?

Denali National Park and all the glaciers we saw were stunning.  But they were much more so because helpful guides pointed things out that we might otherwise may have missed.  When we choose to listen to those who study Jesus, we are receiving wisdom from field guides who want us to see what we otherwise might miss.  Once informed, we are blessed to get to do the same for others, all with the humble posture of an infant or nursing mother.