Today we start Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.
Through clues in the Bible, this letter can be fairly dated to late A.D. 50 or early A.D. 51 and is most likely the oldest book in the New Testament.
We know from Acts 17 that Paul has success in converting a few Jews and many pagans while in Thessalonica, this success caused the leaders to unite against Paul and run him out of town. He is most likely writing back to them a short time later. Paul had to leave town quickly and left his young congregation without leadership or instruction. His purpose in writing is to encourage them. Thus, unlike Paul’s other letters this letter is more pastoral. It has a “you are doing a good job keep it up” sense as opposed to a “this is the mistake you need to fix” sense. Being the earliest writing it offers some unique clues to early Christianity.
First, we see that we should pray for one another:
We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
This passage also shows us that prayers should speak to God of the past (“give thanks” / “remembering”), present (work of faith / labor of love) and future (always / steadfastness). We also see the three great Christian virtues Faith, Hope and Love mentioned in this passage. Notice also Paul proud of their work, their labor, and their steadfastness.
Next, we know that at this point there was no Bible. So how did these Christians learn the Gospel? We know that Paul taught them but look at what Paul says they did:
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
They taught by example. They learned by doing! They didn’t read how to baptize, they saw Paul baptize and they copied him. They didn’t argue about faith v. works, they lived their faith by their works. They saw how Paul lived and they copied him (and the Lord), instinctively knowing (and inspired by the Holy Spirit) that this is what they must do. This is a sacred tradition. The passing on of the Gospel by teaching and doing is what the Jesus commissioned the Apostles to do. By following the example of those who came before us the truth of the faith is transmitted organically.
For example, remember in Acts 19 when Paul met some converts that had never heard of the Holy Spirit. These were Christian disciples yet they didn’t know anything about the Holy Spirit. Remember that immediately clued Paul in that they had only been baptized by John and had not received Christian baptism. Paul knew this because Jesus said to baptize, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. So Paul immediately baptizes them. The tradition of how baptism is done is important because it protects the essential truth of the Trinity and ensures that each new convert is explicitly told of this mystery at the time of their baptism.
This is the great history and tradition of the Church. Today, we read the Bible and debate the meaning of verses of scripture. Reading the Bible is important and debating the meaning of scripture can be helpful but until the last 100 years or so most of the western world was illiterate. Today, about half the world remains illiterate. How does one pass on the truth of faith without altering it? This is what the work of the Church has been for 2,000 years. Tradition and Sacraments are its tools. Baptism teaches the Trinity, confirmation ensures every convert is known to the Bishop, Marriage teaches the Trinity (husband and wife become one flesh and produce a new creation mirrors Father, Son and Holy Spirit), confession teaches repentance, the anointing of the sick teaches our utter and total dependence on God, and most importantly the Eucharist, the summit of the Christian faith, imparts the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of the Lord.
The Mass is tradition, established at the Last Supper in the upper room, we see it reenacted on the road to Emmaus, we see Paul tell us of it, and find it recorded as early as the first century in a work called “the didache” and again in the early 100’s in the First Apology of Justyn Martyr. From the beginning the scriptures were read at Mass. Every mass has a reading from the Old Testament, from the Psalms, from the New Testament and from one of four Gospels. An illiterate world learned the Gospel because Jesus established the tradition of having it read and explained to them at Mass.
Other traditions of the Church protect other great truths. Catholics bless themselves with Holy Water upon entering a Church; this reminds us of our Jewish roots of ritual purity and our baptism. We kneel before entering the pew to remind us we are in the presence of God. We have palms on Palm Sunday, Lent reminds of the Exodus, Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, and prepares us for the joy of the resurrection.
Tradition also protects doctrine. Things that have been traditionally taught cannot be changed. Could a Pope or Bishop now change something that has been taught since the days of Peter and Paul? Of course not. That is why things like the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the necessity of baptism, traditional marriage, the prohibition against divorce, the sinfulness of sexual acts outside of marriage, and the prohibitions against the ordination of women cannot change. The world moves on but the Church, through tradition, stays firmly rooted in the teaching of the Apostles.
This has been the way of the Church since Paul went to Thessalonia.