There is a strange line in today’s first reading. Paul, in an almost off-handed manner, references how the Thessalonians have been instructed by God in fraternal charity. It is almost like God is teaching Sunday school in Thessalonica (for which I imagine there would have been a lengthy waiting list!). In all seriousness though, what is Paul referencing? When did God hold a fraternal charity seminar in Thessalonica? In today’s reflection I wish to explore three possible answers to that question, because — as disciples — we should all long to sit in the school of charity. For if we have not love, we are nothing.
First, Paul is pointing the Thessalonian church to the Word of God in its written form. He is affirming that the Old Testament (the only Testament written at that point) is truly the Word of God. This affirmation seems important since, according to the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, the majority of the Thessalonian church at this time was converted gentiles. These were new Christians who were likely in the confusing situation of being told they weren’t Jews (or at least that they were a different kind of Jew) but that they should accept Jewish scripture. So Paul reminds them, and reminds us, that the Lord teaches us about charity in the pages of the Old Testament.
The second likely source of their instruction is the Word of God in its oral form. It is commonly held that 1 Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament. This means that Paul’s audience likely never read the Gospels as we know them. They might have had collections of Jesus’ teachings, works, and sayings, but the most common way they learned about Jesus — His ministry, death, and resurrection — was through preaching. They listened to Paul preach Christ, and Him crucified. They likely heard the testimony of eye witnesses. They allowed God to instruct them in charity, not only by reading His word as we saw above, but by listening to other disciples recount their encounters with the One who is Love.
Finally, there is one other classroom in this school of fraternal charity to which Paul is referring. The simplest way to express it is grace. God’s paying it forward gift that is poured out upon us. The inheritance given to us by our older brother. This grace was obviously experienced in the Thessalonian’s charity. The instruction in that charity also came with the grace that they encountered at the Eucharistic table. The remembrance and representation of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection is the classroom of fraternal charity. It was on that cross that our Savior brother gave himself for us and to us out of love. It is from that cross that we learn how we should love one another, and it is through that Eucharistic table that we encounter the grace that flows from the cross.
So actually, yeah, God does offer a Sunday school class. Every Sunday, we gather as a family. We read the Word of God. We hear a disciple recount what his prayer and encounter with the Lord has put on his heart. Then we turn our focus to the family meal. We recall, remember and stand once more in the presence of that great act of love. So this Sunday, when you go to Mass, don’t go to be entertained or to just fulfill an obligation, go to be educated. Go to learn to love.