OUR reading from Malachi warns that each person’s experience of the Lord’s return in glory will reflect the state of his or her heart. The Lord will come to the “arrogant” and “all evildoers” as the burning of stubble in an oven, but to those who revere his name as the “sun of righteousness” as rising with “healing in his wings”. As Elizabeth Achtemeier explains, “the last, decisive assize waits just outside time’s door,” and will weigh “that love and trust of God, or lack of them, present in the human heart” (Interpretation Bible Commentary: Nahum to Malachi).
Our Gospel reading reminds us that we live in the “between times”. In Hans Urs von Balthasar’s words, “Spread out before us here we have Jesus’ view of world history that will take place after him.” The promise of the destruction of the Temple is but a prelude: “As long as it stands, it is the Father’s house that must be kept clean for the sake of prayer.” But the real temple with which Jesus is concerned is “the ‘temple of his body’, which is the Church” (Light of the Word).
Jesus makes three predictions regarding the Church and earthly history: that “many will come in my name” to lead his followers astray; that “kingdom will rise against kingdom” with intensifying violence; and that his Church will face persecution and hatred “because of my name”. As Balthasar explains, the claims of the Gospel stand in contradiction to the false gods of every age and are, therefore, a constant source of scandal. Jesus’s teaching, and his person, were “unbearable already” during his earthly life. As the years pass, “his audacity in claiming to be the Truth faces an ever more infuriated response from world history.”
Jesus’s words here are a call to recognise the reality of spiritual conflict. In the words of our collect, he “was revealed to destroy the works of the devil, and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life”. This conflict is not undertaken with the violence of this world, but requires us to put on the “whole armour of God” (cf. Ephesians 6.10-17). This entails a peaceable reliance on the Lord — both to inspire our witness (Luke 21.15), and to protect us for eternity (Luke 21.16-19).
Mahatma Gandhi remarked that people with military experience were often the best practitioners of non-violent resistance; for they had learnt the virtues of self-discipline, courage, and endurance. Jesus demands these same virtues from his disciples. They must not be distracted by false teaching, but remain faithful to their Master, even when the battle is at its fiercest or seems impossible; they must “not be terrified”, but stand firm amid the convulsions of contending empires; and they must bear witness, even when family and friends betray them or hand them over to be killed.
It is a sobering set of battle orders. Jesus’s disciples, however, enter into this struggle knowing that the ultimate victory has already been won — and that, as members of his Body, they are resisting not by their own strength but in his grace and power.
Our epistle presents us with another exhortation to self-discipline: “We command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness.” Beverly Roberts Gaventa writes that this passage is less about the assertion of a “work ethic”, and more about the corrosive effect of a lack of spiritual discipline and focus in the Church.
Paul’s words in verse 6 are better rendered as “living in disorder” than “living in idleness”. As Gaventa explains, “although the refusal to work appears to be one of the leading problems with these believers, the word suggests something other than sloth; it suggests a sense of insubordination that results in disorderliness.” As a result of this indiscipline, those whom Paul criticises as “busybodies” are failing to do their own work, and instead busying themselves with the work of other people (Interpretation Bible Commentary: First and Second Thessalonians).
The first-century Didache warns its readers that when Christians are idle they “make Christ into a cheap trade”. This brings us to the heart of the spiritual issue with the “busybodies” in Thessalonica — and explains why Paul takes their idleness and indiscipline so seriously. The life of a disciple requires courage, endurance, and self-sacrifice. God’s grace is not earned, but neither is it “cheap”.