There's a little line in this Sunday's Epistle lesson (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8) that takes me right back to my first-year seminary paper that attempted (poorly) to answer the question, "Was Paul a misogynist?" Paul-lovers and Paul-haters have kicked around different passages from his letters to bolster their case either that Paul's anti-women attitude continues to infect the church or that Paul's egalitarian approach to gender has a place in the feminist theology of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Unfortunately, as I scoured the New Testament for verses that might support my fledgling argument that Paul, indeed, does not hate women, I missed 1 Thessalonians 2:7, where Paul writes, "But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children."
In physically evocative language, Paul takes on the role of a nursing mother. Filled with Christian love for the people in Thessalonica, Paul envisions himself taking them to his breast and nourishing them. Of course, in the literal sense, Paul couldn't do that. But I think he wanted to.
As I often reminded my wife when one of our infants filled the house with hungry screams at 2am, I cannot breastfeed them. But, really, secretly, I was jealous of the intimacy that she had with our kids in those moments. I could hold them and love them and snuggle with them and play with them and change their diapers and even feed them a bottle, but, when it was time for a meal, I could not make them stop screaming. They knew where the real source of their sustenance was.
What does it mean for Paul to care for the Thessalonians so much that he longs to nurse them? What does it mean for us to care so much for each other that we would seek opportunities to sustain them in physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational ways? This is a powerful image--too powerful to let it stay in the realm of metaphor. Love isn't just a feeling or an emotion or a longing. Love is real, tangible, and concrete. No, we might not be nursing mothers, but our support for one another can show up in ways just as vivid, physical, and intimate.