“When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!” (1 Thessalonians 5:3)
I don’t often depart from the Gospel text in my weekly newsletters but this verse from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians caught my eye and I’ve been wrestling with it ever since. Paul’s warning seems so relevant to us today.
While Paul’s two letters to the church in Thessalonica are found at the back of our Bible, hiding behind the Gospels and most of the other letters, this may have been the first letter Paul wrote, and he may have published it within ten years of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That would make it the oldest part of our New Testament.
Interestingly, the main issue we find Paul dealing with at this early stage in the life of the church is the question of why Jesus had not already come back. People had been waiting for justice to come. Most specifically, they’d been waiting for the fall of the Great Satan (Rome) and for an end to the Occupation. Nothing had happened. The Romans seemed more powerful than ever. Good people continued to suffer. Indeed, with Caligula becoming Emperor only a few years after the birth of the church, things must have seemed bloodier and more chaotic than ever!
What hadn’t clicked with me until now about these words of Saint Paul is that he is parodying the Empire. When Paul refers to those who say, “There is peace and security” (1 Thessalonians 5:3) he is alluding to the Roman slogan – pax et securitas – that neatly expressed Rome’s arrogant self-perception as protector of the people and guardian of the peace.
For Paul’s contemporaries, their perception of Rome’s role in the world would have depended entirely on where they stood in the social order. If you were a Roman patrician, owning slaves and living a life of refinement, you had reason to give thanks for role of the army and administration in keeping the wheels of imperialism turning. If, on the other hand, you were a slave who could be raped or killed at will, or if you had raised an objection to Roman rule and consequently found yourself on a cross lining the via Appia, you had less reason to appreciate the Pax Romana.
My mind goes to the words of our Australian Prime Minister, responding to the violence of the Gaza uprising on October 7th. He referred to the ‘unprovoked attack’ by Hamas militants, as if the people of Gaza had been experiencing nothing but pax et securitas up to that point. You have to be standing at a very specific place in the world order to see things that way.
Gaza was blockaded by the Israeli military in 2005 at which point restrictions were placed on all goods going in and out of Gaza, including food. Dov Weisglass, then a senior advisor to the Prime Minister, explained that Israel’s policy towards Gaza was designed “to put the Palestinians on a diet,” In addition to the enforced diet, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have made a series of military incursions into Gaza:
- Operation Cast Lead in 2008 (killing 1,387 residents, including 320 children)
- Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 (killing 1,391, including 759 civilians)
- Operation Protective Edge in 2014 (killing 1,598 residents and destroying the homes of 108,000 people)
I am no fan of Hamas, but they are in government in Gaza, and no sensible person could describe their attack as ‘unprovoked’. Our Prime Minister knows better. We can only assume that he was reading a script given him by his Emperor. Was it coincidence that Joe Biden and numerous of other Western political leaders used exactly the same term when they described the October 7 attack?
Paul warns those who see only pax et securitas that they are in for a nasty shock. When judgement hits, it will happen without warning, like a woman entering labour. The metaphor is a powerful one, used more than once by Saint Paul (Romans 8:22), indicating that, despite the blood and pain we endure in the short term, something good is on its way. A new age of justice and peace will eventually emerge.
Forgive me if I’m sounding apocalyptic. I’m not suggesting that the current events we are experiencing in the Middle East are the beginning of Armageddon. I pray they are not. The point Paul makes in the fifth chapter of this letter to the Thessalonians is, whether Christ’s return is imminent or not, our responsibilities are the same.
- We stay sober and alert (verse 6)
- We arm ourselves with faith, hope and love (verse 8)
- We encourage one another and build each other up (verse 11)
Interestingly, the Greek word Paul uses for ‘encourage’ here is ‘παρακαλεῖτε’ which literally refers to someone you ‘call alongside’ you. It’s the same word used in the sixteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, referring to the Holy Spirit as the one who stands alongside us as our ‘comforter’, ‘counsellor’ or ‘advocate’.
I think that leaves us with a powerful image of how we best endure these difficult days. Whether we are on the edge of Armageddon or not, our response must be the same. We remain sober and alert. We wrap ourselves in the armour of faith, hope and love, and we stand alongside one another – advocating, comforting, counselling and supporting each other – until the Kingdom comes.
Our Sunday Eucharist
Our Sunday Eucharist last weekend was a struggle (for me, at any rate). The satellite at Binacrombi didn’t seem to be functioning too well and I had enormous trouble getting my video feed to work. The positive side of that was that it created a space for Rob Gilland to talk to John Jegasothy about his background and ministry.
John told us about his life as a Methodist priest in Sri Lanka and about how his human-rights advocacy work for the Tamil community there put the lives of his whole family in such danger that they had to leave the country. Sri Lanka’s loss was Australia’s gain. Though John has now retired as a minister in the Uniting Church, he continues to work with the Tamil community in Australia, doing advocacy work for Asylum-seekers and refugees. I’m hoping that John will be a regular on our Sunday Eucharist panel and I encourage you to get to know him and pray for his work. The replay from last Sunday is a good starting point. 😊
This Sunday I hope to have Sam Madden and Father Ola with me for our Sunday Eucharist. Karyn is unfortunately taken up with family responsibilities this weekend and can’t join us. Tune in to www.thesundayeucharist.com from midday on Sunday and you’ll hopefully find a surprise guest in Karyn’s place. Of course, you can also join us through Facebook , YouTube, Twitter, LinkedInor Streamyard.
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- Saturday, November 18th – Boxing from 2 pm @ Balmain PCYC
- Sunday, November 19th – Our Eucharist at noon via thesundayeucharist.com (or through Facebook , YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn or Streamyard).
- Tuesday, November 21st – Boxing from 6 pm @ Balmain PCYC
- Thursday, November 23rd – Boxing from 6 pm @ Balmain PCYC
- Friday to Sunday, November 24 to 26 –@ Binacrombi. Please join me.
The big event for me this last week was our webinar with Brother Peter Bray. We were joined by two of my favourite activist priests – Father Mark Battison and Rev. Dr Stephen Sizer. It was a formidable array and I felt that the time was very valuable. I urge you to watch the replay below if you haven’t already done so.
Unfortunately, few people joined us live for the broadcast. I’m not sure if it’s possible to organise a time for events like this that better suit everybody. It’s been suggested that moving things forward to 7.30 pm (Sydney time) might help but, of course, we need to take account of how that affects both our participants and audience who are connecting from other parts of the world. All suggestions are welcome.
And I hate to end on a negative note but, if you received my mid-week email, I was promoting a Free Gaza rally on Saturday, November 18, at which I was intending to speak. That rally has unfortunately been cancelled, and apparently for political reasons. If the reports I hear are correct, the fact that the rally had been organised by the Aussie Cossack didn’t sit well with some other Palestinian advocacy groups who were boycotting the event. I find this deeply disappointing. If we can’t put aside ideological differences for the sake of the people of Gaza, how can we succeed?
I come back to the exhortation of Saint Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:11 – that we need to stand alongside one another if we are to confront the principalities and powers. These are tough times, and there may be darker days ahead. Even so, as Paul would remind us, these are but the birth pangs of a better tomorrow.
May the Lord bless and strengthen you for the work to which you have been called.
Your brother in the Good Fight,