In this morning’s Epistle, Saint Paul addresses the Christians of the early Church at Thessalonica, a town on the Aegean Sea, on the eastern shore of modern day Greece. Paul refers to “Macedonia” which was the Roman name for the province in which Thessalonica was located, and to “Achaia,” which was the province to the South. Paul founded the Church there in the year 51 AD, among predominately non-Jewish people. But, having upset the members of the synagogue, he was forced to flee, going on to Athens and Corinth. Today’s letter was written from Corinth to bolster the faith of the Thessalonians, and to give them some instruction about the Second Coming of Christ.
This first Epistle was one of particularly high praise from Saint Paul, who was justifiably proud of the way in which the Thessalonians were keeping the Faith—they had become “a pattern to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” Paul was praising them not for any particularly noteworthy achievements, but, rather, for their day in and day out practice of the basics of the Catholic Faith. Instead of serving the idols of the pagan world, the Thessalonians had turned “to serve the living and true God.” Paul doesn’t say anything about them engaging in any great missionary activity, or in any notable work of charity—they were simply living the Faith. A bit later, Paul wrote a second Epistle, again praising them for their simple adherence to the Gospel; but that time in midst of persecution.
The Thessalonians are a valuable example to us, even now in the twenty-first century. Most of us can look back to a time when we were younger, and when we had expectations of doing great things. As children we looked forward, perhaps, to being president, or to being a movie star, or maybe an astronaut, or football player. Those with religious zeal may have looked forward to duplicating the exploits of Saint Francis Xavier, or of Mother Cabrini, or one of the many other Saints who made a “big mark” in the Catholic Church. Yet, when we look back, very few of us can really point to any such great achievements in the lives we actually lived.
Saint Paul and his Thessalonians are offering us something of a “second chance.” That is to say that doing “great and notable things” may not be anywhere near as important as “being a pattern to the believers” around us—being a good example may be quite as important as doing many of the great things for which people are often remembered.
Particularly in the modern world, where few people know God, and even fewer people see any merit in doing His will, there is a great deal to be said for the value of living a life centered on God. One doesn’t have to be particularly outspoken or forcefully influential to have a good impact on friends and family and co‑workers. One doesn’t have to force other people to do God’s will—it is enough that they see you doing God’s will yourself—and that they see you doing it even when you don’t think anyone is looking.
I’ve mentioned to some of you before that, in the last century, the French Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard wrote a brief phrase which, I believe, explains the need for good example. He said that “to be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist.” Indeed, that may be the only way in which we can convince others that life with God is not only theoretically possible—but that someone is actually doing it—us!
If there is any question about this idea of Christian witness through good example, the Gospel ought to put it to rest. Our Lord today likens the Kingdom of Heaven to two very humble things. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed ... the Kingdom of Heaven is like a bit of leaven, buried in three measures of flour.” The mustard seed is something very tiny—not even the size of those little black seeds you see on a Kaiser roll—yet, in spite of its small size, it grows up and influences even the birds of the air. The leaven is little more than a pinch of dough containing yeast, yet it leavens the entire loaf, and that loaf produces a new generation of yeast to leaven the next generation of bread. Our Lord is suggesting that humble Christians can have the same sort of effect, changing the world around us.
It may be too late to become president, or to become a movie star. We may not no longer be young enough to lead a mission to China or to India. We may, in fact, have spent a lot of time giving bad example. But, we have the good example of Paul’s Thessalonians—we too can become a good example, a “pattern” to those around us, a witness to God’s will simply by doing our best to live the Catholic Faith—a living mystery, which would make no sense at all if God did not exist.