Like a Mother

Rev. Dr. David D. M. King

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25A
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

In this second week of our exploration of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, we come to its second chapter. This is the oldest book in the New Testament, the earliest of Paul’s surviving letters. We noted last week that this is a very upbeat letter. Paul is quite happy with the Thessalonians. He showers them with praise and repeatedly gives thanks to God for them.

But that doesn’t mean that everything is good in the church in Thessalonica. They have their own struggles. But they are struggles that Paul is happy to bear with them.

Paul identifies himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. He thinks he has a special mission from God to evangelize the nations, to bring non-Jewish people into the fold of God by means of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. And in particular, it is important to Paul that these Gentiles are brought into God’s family as Gentiles. It is contrary to his mission if they become Jews in order to follow Jesus.

This is not what the Book of Acts tells us. In Acts, Paul is portrayed as entering a new town, preaching to the Jewish synagogue, convincing some people while ticking off the majority, and then reluctantly taking his message to the Gentiles. He tries first to convince Jews, but when that fails, he reaches out to the people who are left, the Gentiles.

But that is not at all consistent with Paul’s own account of himself. Paul is very clear that he is not out there trying to bring the gospel to Jews. He is the Apostle to the Gentiles. That is his mission. Peter and James can spend their time with Jews if they want to, but Paul is sent to non-Jews. Paul is sent to the Gentiles.

And that is true of his ministry in Thessalonica, too. He goes there to bring the gospel to Gentiles. And in fact, last week we heard Paul praising the new Thessalonian Christians because they had turned to God from idols. That is to say, they stopped participating in the general religious practice of the city and saved all of their devotion for the God of Israel. They didn’t participate in worship of the god Dionysus, or any of the other traditional Greek or Roman gods. They didn’t participate in the worship of the Roman emperor and his family as gods.

It is difficult for us to understand just how anti-social this would have seemed in the ancient world. Everyone participated in worship of the ancient gods. All of the holidays and festivals of the city were built around this. And everyone participated in the worship of the emperor. Not to do so would be considered disloyal or even treasonous. The only exception to these rules was for the Jews. They were considered an outside population, and instead of worshiping the emperor, they made sacrifices for the emperor in the temple in Jerusalem.

But remember, Paul’s new Christian community in Thessalonica is not made up of Jews; it’s made up of Gentiles. These are people who grew up worshipping the traditional gods and the emperors. All of their families worship the traditional gods. All of their business associates worship the traditional gods. All of their patrons and employers worship the traditional gods. And now they are quitting all of that practice and culture in order to worship a Jewish insurrectionist who was executed by Rome.

In order to think of a comparable situation, we’d have to imagine that a group of people in our society, people from our own families, stopped participating in the regular religious and community practices and joined a cult. We’d have to imagine that they refused to acknowledge God in any way, refused to take part in anything related to Christmas or Easter, right down to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. We’d have to imagine that they also refused to participate in any kind of civic activity. They refused to take any part in the pledge of allegiance or the national anthem. They refused to do anything related to the Fourth of July, or Veterans Day, or Memorial Day. They refused to take part in elections. And then we’d have to imagine that they all joined a cult that believed that Osama bin Laden had been raised from the dead, that he was actually the Son of God, and that he was going to return from heaven soon with an army of angels in order to overthrow every human government and institute a worldwide theocracy with himself as emperor. That is how out of step these early Gentile churches would have seemed to their friends, families, and neighbors. That is how dangerous and disloyal they might have seemed.

So, while Paul is very proud of his little church in Thessalonica, and while he is impressed with all they have accomplished, he is under no illusions that their situation is easy. He knows how precarious their position is. He knows that they have lost friends and family over their decision to follow Jesus. He knows that they have become culturally and economically isolated. He knows that they could very easily become targets of persecution. He himself has endured persecution for his work, and he will soon endure much more.

And so, in his letter of encouragement to the Thessalonians, Paul offers them a new family to take the place of the family they have lost. It happens in verse 7. The New Revised Standard Version puts it this way: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Like a nursing mother caring for her own children. Paul tells the Christians in Thessalonica that he is their mother, that he sustains them with his own milk.

Maybe you’re thinking that back in the ancient world that kind of gender-bending metaphor was actually pretty normal. It wasn’t. It wasn’t completely unheard of for men to use female images to describe themselves, but it was very rare. When they did, it was often in the negative sense, to demonstrate their own weakness. Moses once complained to God that God had forced him to be a mother to the Hebrew people, that God had forced Moses to give birth to them. Pagan philosophers occasionally used female imagery for themselves, but it was not normal.

And actually, Paul is probably referring to himself here not only as a mother, but also as an infant. Our best and oldest manuscripts of the New Testament disagree about the wording here. Some say that Paul was “gentle” among them. The Greek word is νήπιοι. But other sources have a word that is only one letter different: ἤπιοι. It means infant. In some of our best manuscripts, one scribe has one of these words, and then another scribe has come through later and changed it to the other. Infant may very well be the better reading, even though a lot of translators have avoided it because it seems to create a mixed metaphor.

After all, how can Paul describe himself as an infant and then six words later describe himself as a nursing mother? Well, this is how. Let me share another translation, this one from Jennifer McNeel. Starting at verse 5, it reads:

5 For we never came with flattering words (just as you know), nor with a motive of greed (as God is witness), 6 nor seeking honor from human beings, whether from you or from others 7 (though we could have insisted on our own importance as apostles of Christ), but we were infants in your midst. Like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children, 8 in the same way, longing for you, we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our very selves, because you had become beloved to us.

Paul says that he and Silas and Timothy could have thrown their weight around when they were establishing the church in Thessalonica. They could have demanded deference, on account of being apostles. They could have demanded money for their work. But they didn’t. Instead, they acted like infants. That is, they claimed no special status whatsoever. They didn’t demand any special deference for there position as apostles. Instead, they were unassuming. They set an example of humility for Christian ministers.

He then shifts to the image of a mother, saying, “We were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our very selves, because you had become beloved to us.” Again, he’s referring to nursing here—giving his very self—but also to a strong family relationship. As the mother of the Thessalonian church, Paul is there to nurture them. But he is also a source for their identity. He knows that they have lost family and friends, and so he creates a new family for them, becoming their mother and tying each one of them to each other in a new kin group.

Paul’s writings, and the rest of the Bible, come to us from a very patriarchal context. And our faith has been filtered through centuries of male-dominated perspectives. Paul often gets a pretty bad rap for being unusually sexist, and we can discuss some of those more problematic texts at another time. But we do know several things for certain about Paul. We know that he worked with women in his ministry, that he had a number of female associates. At least one of them he called a deacon, and another he referred to as an apostle. The closest thing he had to a creed was, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for of you are one in Christ Jesus. We know that here in 1 Thessalonians, and in fact in at least two other places, he characterizes himself as a mother of the churches.

Our traditional prayers and liturgies overwhelmingly describe God with male imagery, too. Although, there are plenty of examples in the Bible when God is described with female attributes: as a mother in labor, as a nursing mother, as a bakerwoman, as a woman searching for a coin, as a mother hen, a mother bear, and a mother eagle. But few of those images make it into our prayers and songs.

It is a major failing in our tradition. We know that God is as much female as male; after all, both women and men are made in God’s image. We know that leaders can be both female and male. But we always seem to hear more about Sampson and David than we do about Deborah and Jael. Because in the writing of the Bible, and also in its interpretation of the last few millennia, women’s stories have been suppressed, women’s voices have been silenced, women’s contributions have been minimized. And our faith is the poorer for it. How much richer our faith would be if we knew more of the stories of Junia, Phoebe, and Mary Magdalene.

Even here we are still exploring the story of a man: Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. But it is worth noting, and even celebrating, that when it comes to describing his model of leadership within the Thessalonian church, the image that he uses is a female image. The image that he uses is of a nursing mother.

We have come a long way since Paul in terms of gender equality, but we still have a long way to go. There are still a number of glass ceilings to be broken, and even more work to do until thinking about women in leadership seems completely unremarkable because it is so common.

But the Spirit of God is moving in the churches. The Spirit of God is teaching us that the best way to do things is not always the male way. As the hymn this morning reminded us, God empowers us, like a mothering Spirit, feeding and sustaining us from her own heart. And we are called to partner with God, as midwives of justice, birthing new systems, lighting new lights.

O God, change our hearts. Help us to hear the voices of women, to lift up the gifts of women, to welcome the leadership of women, because if we cannot hear you speaking through a woman’s voice, we cannot truly know you.

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