1. Behaving Like Young Children
When I was growing up my Nan was infamous for stating proverbs. One of these was:
Accidents happen even in the best of regulated families.
Perhaps this is familiar to you? It’s a saying that has been around for at least 200 years. You can find it, for example, in Chapter 28 of David Copperfield. My Nan used it as a message of comfort when a literal accident occurred. I am pretty sure she stated it several times when at the age of four I climbed over a park bench and fell onto some crazy paving. I still have a small scar on my lip as a memento. As a child I don’t think I understood the saying but I appreciated the comfort that was intended. This saying is helpful as we hear Paul in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica. The Church, rightly understood as a family, is not perfect, any more than other families or other human organisations. The Church though not perfect has some unique ways to help deal with its imperfections—us.
Whether our church life as a family is the blessing we hope for, often seems to comes down to us behaving like children. We can be as Paul mentions, childlike:
we were like young children among you.
He is referring to the positive, being childlike, we’ll come to that in a moment. But we can be childish which is very different. Childishness includes:
• The temper tantrum.
• The desire to hold on to all the toys.
• The entitlement that comes from thinking we are the centre of the universe.
• The inability to forgive others.
• The lack of wisdom to recognise that selfishness only leads to unhappiness.
We have all seen children do these things—they don’t know any better. We have probably seen adults behave like this at work. We might well, on occasions, have experienced such childishness in the church.
Paul modelled being childlike. There is a world of difference between being childlike and childish. Paul was not a burden to the church. He brought the gospel to Thessalonica, ministering when he could and working to support himself as necessary. He was gentle and trusting. The call is the same today. We are all called to be childlike—accepting, and gentle. First towards God and then to one another.
2. Caring for Others Like a Nursing Mother
Maybe Paul was thinking of the imagery of Psalm 131 as he wrote:
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.
Probably not the imagery we expect from the Apostle Paul. So often we see him as cerebral and remote because he had to speak truth to power in his ministry and his theology programmatically reread Judaism through Jesus’ cross and resurrection. If you claim to have been a nursing mother when you write to a church, they’re going to know the truth of such a claim. Paul must have lived up to this, otherwise the church in Thessalonica would have laughed and thrown away this letter. Instead, they treasured it and kept it for us. How many departed pastors could write to their past church and make Paul’s claims with integrity? Gentleness and grace must have underpinned Paul’s whole approach to bringing the message of Jesus to Thessalonica. A nursing mother feeds her child in the most intimate and love-giving of ways. Paul fed the Thessalonians with Christ. More than this, Paul came with the good news of peace, and he lived and worked this out in their presence.
We aren’t meant to admire Paul. Leaders are to be like Paul. Leading in the way everlasting means living in the way everlasting. You cannot be a leader unless you walk the walk. But this is not just for leaders. All disciples and pilgrims are, by definition, called to walk the walk. In light of Jesus’ love for us, how could we imagine we could be anything other than loving like a mother, as we encourage one another in the faith?
3. Dealing with Others Like a Father
But Paul is not finished with his family metaphors. It is not enough for him to be childlike and to be a mother. He also acted like a father:
For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God
The Book of Proverbs has a lot to say about fathers and mothers teaching their children—the encouraging, comforting and urging—that Paul is speaking of. For example:
My son, keep your father’s command
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
Proverbs 6:20, NIV
A wise son brings joy to his father,
but a foolish son brings grief to his mother.
Proverbs 10:1, NIV
Interestingly, Proverbs seems to firmly intimate that both parents share responsibility for training children in righteousness. This perhaps explains how Paul moves so freely through his metaphors here. Paul was, of course, in some sense a literal father to these young Christians. And this means encouraging them. It means nurturing them that they might achieve the best they can in Christ. Here Paul shows an empathy, based on love that we would all do well to learn from.
Paul knows that as a spiritual father there are times when encouraging is not enough. There are moments when we would do well, like Paul, to spot when we should bring comfort. It takes gentleness to both recognise the need, and then know how to act.
There are other times when neither comfort, nor encouragement is enough. Sometimes we have to work harder and urge. The urging mentioned here is a close as Paul gets to discipline. Paul recognises the gentler path of urging knowing that he needs to be childlike, a mother, and a father, to these faithful people in Thessalonica. Paul knows, as a good leader, that he must lead in his actions. We know that such matters are not the preserve of leaders. We all have a role to play.
And when it’s not that simple we remember forgiveness, grace, and love—these are after all the gospel of Jesus. What he has done for us we should do for others. We should work to enable forgiveness, grace, and love in adversity. To encourage, comfort, and urge others in the everyday life of the family. All this to regulate us as God’s family.
As the body of Christ, we really are the best of regulated families.
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