If you have a Bible, on your phone or one of the traditional codex versions, take a look at the second to last verse in II Thessalonians. It’s verse 17 of chapter 3. You’ll want to see the context for these lines, but what I want to draw your attention to is this strange statement: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.” This begs us to play literary detectives for a few moments. Why would Paul write these lines? Does he have some sort of fetish with wanting people to recognize his handwriting? Is he looking for the respect that some graffiti artists or taggers want when they sign things? What’s going on?
When my family and I lived on the prairies we would often see trains going through town. I sort of enjoyed seeing the spray-painted signatures and cartoons on the boxcars. I assume they drive the railroad companies crazy, but to me they floated by like notes from interesting places, places where trains stop. Most of the graffiti in small prairie towns is just variations of the theme of male genitalia. In that environment boxcar graffiti is refreshing. Is Paul after something like that? “This is the mark in every letter of mine”–notice how many I’ve written and how they show up in amazingly far-flung places.
If we continue our literary detective work through the whole letter we would eventually come to the beginning of chapter 2. Here’s the last phrase in the first verse of that chapter: “we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.” There it is! That’s an important clue.
So here’s what we think happened: the church in Thessalonica received a letter claiming to be from Paul. It said that Jesus had already returned. It freaked them out. Like when you were a kid and your parents left you in Costco. Or maybe like that time you were going to meet someone super awesome in the lobby and when you got there you were told she came by earlier and left. For the believers in Thessalonica it was like that—but bigger.
We don’t know exactly how the letters in our Bible titled ‘I’ and ‘II’ Thessalonians relate, but if they were both written to the same community in the sequence we see, we can see why people would have been so confused. In I Thessalonians Paul addresses the church’s worry that Jesus would never come again. They were suffering some kind of persecution and some of them were holding out waiting for Jesus to come in power and glory. So in response Paul said essentially that Jesus’ return would be a surprise. Their role wasn’t to predict it but to be prepared. But don’t worry, Paul reassures them, when Jesus does return in power and glory he will bring with him those who have died.
Do not “grieve as others do who have no hope.”
Paul is not saying that because Christ will return someday they should not grieve at all. Thomas Lynch, the poet and undertaker, is right when he says that mourning the dead is like “romance in reverse.” Lynch says, “If you love, you grieve . . . there are no exceptions.” If we think that death is just an inconvenience or something to hide then we think the same thing about life. Paul does not deny that. His anticipation of Jesus’ return in power and glory doesn’t deny that either, but it gives us hope.
“If you love, you grieve,” but not without hope.
That is what the Thessalonians had understood from Paul and then they got this letter claiming to be from him that said something like this:
Grace and peace to you, thanks for the care package. By the way, Jesus has come again and gone. He showed up last week just after the chariot race. He has a new haircut and some more respectable clothes. He looks a lot more distinguished. Those embarrassing wounds seem to have healed nicely. I’m glad he’s got all that suffering behind him. It’s nice to have this eschatological stuff finally straightened out. I’ll be through northern Greece again when the weather warms up.
See you then, Paul.
P.S. I’m writing from the beach. It’s lovely.
The believers in Thessalonica were devastated. Jesus had returned apparently, but without power and without glory. The great reckoning they had hoped for hadn’t happened.
Jesus’ power really was no match for sin and destruction.
So much for that.
So much for peace.
So much for flourishing.
So much for life anew.
Paul needs to restore hope. This is why he chides his readers for being so easily rattled. And it’s why he walks through this stuff in this second letter about the “rebellion” and the “lawless one.” He’s reminding the Thessalonians of something they apparently already know. The other things need to come first.
We have not shortage of theories about what Paul might have had in mind here. Is he thinking of something in the distant future? Is he referring to one specific person? Is he referring to some kind of general opposition to Jesus? Or is Paul, perhaps, referring in a coded way to emperors his audience knew? I haven’t found an indisputable answer to those questions. Who or what we think Paul is referring to in this paragraph depends on assumptions about when this letter was written and where it was written. Here’s what I want to point out though: the biblical writers grappled mightily with the reality of violence and evil. That’s simple, I know. Yet we sometimes miss it: the biblical writers, and their communities, grappled mightily with the reality of violence and evil. And they found hope.
Let’s think about the hope that Paul is trying to pass on to this ancient church. He doesn’t question the reality of violent entities and people bent on destruction. On this peace Sunday we should be wary of a pacifism that comes too easily from an armchair. Though violence and terrorism should always sadden us and though they may well frighten us, they should not surprise us. They should not shake or alarm us as though our commitment to peace had somehow blinded us to the fact that the ordered world is stalked by the lawless. That is the sort of ignorance that prompted some pacifist Christians to give up their commitment to peace after the terrorist attacks in the US back on the first year of this century.
I can remember a seminary professor of mine shaking her head and saying, “Where have these people been, these former pacifists? In what universe have they been living? People around the world have experienced unspeakable violence. Did we not know? Have we not been listening to Jesus’ call to love our enemies in a Sept. 11 world for millennia? Have our heads been buried in the sand?” She was frustrated by a cheap love of peace.
Early Christians, Paul’s readers probably included, knew the threat of violence. They knew not only the threat of social marginalization and emotional trauma, very real problems, but they also knew the brutish threat of violence that put life itself in question.
Why did they and why do we value peace so much? The most prominent reason is simply the example of Jesus. Jesus makes us skeptical of the idea that peace can be achieved through violence. Then there is the fact that in Genesis 9 God reminds Noah and his descendants that shedding the blood of human creatures is forbidden precisely because they were created in God’s image. Then there is also the fact that we value the lives of others because God loves them. God’s love bestows a great worth on all human life, a worth greater than just about anything else.
This link between God and human creatures is central to our claim that every human life has deep significance. It’s no surprise, then, that Paul connects the lawless one with the one who exalts himself above God. Killing is easier to contemplate when we put ourselves in the place of God. When we elevate ourselves in that way the things we value takes precedence over God’s love for other people. When we put ourselves at the center of the cosmos things we like—things like the honor of our nation, our own sense of security or our economic prosperity—can appear more valuable than the lives of others.
Our commitment to peace, then, does not depend on a rosy-eyed view of the world. Our commitment to peace does not require us to believe that every problem can be solved with increased awareness and sensitivity training. Just as there are many reasons for seeking peace and shunning violence, so we know there also many reasons for being skeptical of both. One of the most prominent critiques of a Jesus-centered peace ethic is that it might sometimes mean other people suffer because of our convictions. The reality, though, is that this is no different from those who would rather go to war. Neither perspective gets us around the reality that our choices cannot put an end to suffering.
In what, then, is our hope? Why do we retain our skepticism of violence? Why do we refrain from celebrating war?
We find our hope simply in Paul’s proclamation that when the lawless one is revealed for what it is Jesus will destroy it with his breath. He will not rally us for a holy war. He will not look for a ‘realistic’ solution.
He will destroy it with his breath,
the very breath breathed into his dead body by the Spirit of God,
the very breath that startled the disciples,
the very breath that showed them the world didn’t work as they thought,
the very breath that proved dead doesn’t mean gone forever,
the very breath that sparks in us a hope for the future,
the very breath that makes our own death seem a little less final,
the very breath that make us love life with newlywed passion.
He will destroy it with his breath.
We’ll close with Paul’s words to the ancient urban church of Thessalonica: “Now,” Paul says, “may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word. . . . Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you.” Paul signs off in his own hand. This is the real message. This is the gospel.
Peace be with you, Amen.