First: a pop quiz to see if you have been paying attention. Don’t worry, there are only two questions, they are multiple choice, and you get to score yourself. So the first question: In our second reading this afternoon St Paul describes his time among the Thessalonians. Did St. Paul say he was a) forthright with them? Or b) gentle with them? Or c) firm with them? Or d) honest with them?
The correct answer is B, “gentle with them”.
OK, you did great with that. This one is a little more tricky. Second question: Paul uses an image to describe his being gentle. Did he say he was a) gentle as a summer’s breeze? Or b) gentle as the dew in the morning? Or c) gentle as a butterfly? Or d) none of the above?
The correct answer is D, “none of the above”, because St. Paul said that he was “gentle among you as a nursing mother cares for her children.” Paul uses the image of a mother nursing her infant to describe himself and his behavior.
Now I don’t know about you, but I find that rather surprising. It is a beautiful image, but somehow I don’t naturally associate that picture of a nursing mother with St. Paul. Being a Paulist, I very much like Paul, but I think of him as bold, forthright, decisive, fearless, passionate, brave, and many other wonderful qualities, but not usually as “gentle”. I mean this is the guy who boasted in his letter to the Galatians that he took on St. Peter, and publically withstood him directly to his face when Paul thought Peter was not accepting the gentiles fully, and he made Peter change. This is a guy who got quite worked up in controversy, who when arguing against those who preached on the need for circumcision for salvation, stated “Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12) That’s kind of harsh. He just doesn’t come across as particularly “gentle”.
Anyway, gentle is what Paul says he and his co-workers Timothy and Silvanus, were. Even so, a nursing mother is not an image that jumps to mind for St. Paul. Fr. Bob Scott, whom many of you know, is certainly a very gentle person, yet I would never think of describing him as being like a mother nursing her infant. Or Fr. Jim Wiesner, or Fr. Steven Bell, and most certainly not myself. St. Paul is freer at gender-bending than I am.
Still, it is a beautiful image, because the mother feeds the infant at her breast not with something outside her, but literally with her own self, her own body. And perhaps this is the point that St. Paul was trying to get at, because he continues, “we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.”
St. Paul wanted to give them his very self, his own substance, to nourish and feed them. This beautiful image of a mother nursing her infant is a very Eucharistic image. Just as the mother feeds the infant with her own body, so Jesus, in His love for us, gives you and me His own Body to eat, His own Blood to drink, His very self to nourish and feed us.
In just a few minutes, right here at this table, Jesus will nourish – or nurse – us with His own self, His very Body and Blood. I think this is what St. Paul is trying to get at. Paul is using a Eucharistic image in comparing himself to a mother nursing her infant.
St. Paul is therefore an example of the good priest or minister. He is in it to serve, to benefit the people he is called to, to give of himself.
St. Paul is very different from the Pharisees Jesus condemns in the Gospel today. Jesus criticizes, indeed condemns, the Pharisees as ministers, because they are in it - not to serve, not to benefit the people they are called to minister to - but rather the Pharisees are in it for themselves, for their own benefit and glorification and gain. That is what all this widening their phylacteries and lengthening their tassels is about, for these were signs of power and importance. “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi’.” complains Jesus That is all about public respect and signs of honor. The Pharisees were in it for the money and the honor and the power. In short, they were in it for themselves.
That is the opposite of the ministry of Jesus, who came to serve, not to be served. It is how He taught us to be. “The greatest among you must be your servant.” Jesus declares in today’s Gospel. And this is what St. Paul did.
St. Paul is therefore an example for us.
All of us by our Baptism are called to be a Royal Priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to the Father, through His Son Jesus, in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, and like St. Paul, we must not only do our particular responsibilities, but share “our very selves as well.” We must give not just our time and our money and our talents, as important as those are to the mission of the Gospel, but ultimately we must give ourselves as well.
To authentically receive Eucharist, we must become what we eat. We in turn must become Bread for the World; we must become Blood poured out for the World, to respond to all the deep hungers of people by giving ourselves for them.
To truly be Christian we must be gentle, as a mother nursing her infant, giving ourselves to others in love for the sake of Christ.
Maybe St. Paul didn’t pick such a bad image after all. AMEN.