1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Let us pray. In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today I want us to take a look at both our Gospel reading and our reading from Paul's first letter to the Church at Thessalonica. The reason is because, whilst on first glance they may seem to be on about completely different things - They are in fact pointing us to the same thing.
Let's begin with the Thessalonian church. Paul in this opening section of the letter is heavy on the praise for the Thessalonians - he speaks of their "work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." He praises their faith by declaring "the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." Paul continues his praise - declaring that the Thessalonians became imitators of the Lord and examples to all the believers in their part of the world. Not only that but that their faith was renowned everywhere.
The Thessalonians had the fever. They were alive in their faith and they were clearly living it out. So much so that the people around them were talking about them - talking about the faith on display, talking about the transformation in their lives - how they had turned away from their former lifestyles to a new life in the Lord Jesus. People spoke of how they had welcomed Paul, and his companions, of the hospitality they had received. The faith of these Christians was so evident that Paul didn't need to tell anyone about it - they already knew. They had seen this faith lived out, or they had heard of it from others.
Whilst I was reading this passage and preparing to preach this week, it brought to mind one of the questions that the bishop posed to us at Synod, and in his pastoral letter. What are we doing for our community? The Thessalonian church was so alive with their faith that they became renowned, for their hospitality, love and care for one and other. They became a beacon of hope in the community, they were the light in the darkness.
I wonder brothers and sisters, if people speak of our church community in the same way? Are we renowned for our faith? Why not? The Thessalonians suffered persecution for their faith, yet persevered in it and boldly lived it out as those who believed it wholeheartedly. We live in a western liberal democracy, without fear of persecution, and yet I hear people ask the question - what is an Anglican? How can it be? Is it perhaps my brothers and sisters that we have lost some of the fire? Can it be that we are people who intellectually 'believe' but have not placed our whole heart into it?
Last week Fr Clyde talked to us about the importance of being dressed right for the wedding banquet - by placing Jesus at the centre of our lives as both Saviour and Lord. We need to not just be people who intellectually assent to the Christian faith - we need to be people who have an active faith - a faith that is alive and is evidenced by how we interact with each other and the world - a faith that says Jesus is not just my saviour, but he is my Lord and my King! This is the kind of faith that St James in his letter calls us to have when he warns us that a faith without works is dead - mere intellectual assent or religious adherence won't do - for even the demons believe, and shudder. The Thessalonians had a faith that was more than mere belief - they had given themselves completely over to God.
And this is the kind of faith that Jesus calls us to in our Gospel reading from Matthew today. When we look at this interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians we often focus on the question of what is a Christian's obligation to the state. But Jesus points us to a deeper question here, a question which rather than focussing on what our obligations to the state are, and whether we should honour them, focusses instead on what our obligation to God is, and how we are called to honour that.
The Pharisees and the Herodians that we come across in this story would have been bitter enemies - think republicans vs loyalist - the Herodians were those who had cast their lot in with Rome, and so were fans of the Emperor and of his local lacky Herod Antipas. whereas the Pharisees were aghast at paying the taxes to the Romans - the emperor claimed for himself divinity, and the coin that was used to pay the taxes included this claim that the emperor was in fact divine. This sort of Blasphemy was abhorrent to the pharisees. It seems though they had a common enemy - Jesus. They collude together to try and trap him - if he says pay the tax the Pharisess can accuse him of joining the heresy of the Romans. If he says don't pay the tax the Herodians have cause to accuse him of sedition againts Rome.
So what does Jesus do? Whose image is this on the coin, he says... Caesar's … well give to Caesar what is Caesar's … and give to God what is God's... The question about the image that Jesus poses here is important - not only because it enables him to turn the plotting of the Herodians and Pharisees on its head, but because Jesus is pointing us to the deeper truth. The coin is made bearing Caeser's image, and so it belongs to Caesar... Genesis 1:26 says Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image,… and verse 27 says So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
We are made in the image of God. We were made to belong to God - to be in relationship with God. When we sin we are separated from Him. When we seek to live selfishly, when we focus on what we want at the expense of others, when we refuse to give all of ourselves over to God - when we give ourselves instead over to the idols of this world, in pursuit of money, of accolades, of praise from others, we go against the very reason we were created.
You see Jesus is pointing us to our reason for being. We were made to be in perfect communion with God - and so great is God's love for us that Jesus was willing to take the consequence for our sin on the cross. Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of Lords died for us! He died so we could live!
All we need do is put our faith in his redeeming work. Faith is what saves us - but faith in the scriptural sense is a verb, it is active - it is something that sees action in our hearts and in our lives. If we truly have placed all of our faith - all of our hearts and minds - if we have truly given ourselves over to Christ. If we have truly recognised that Jesus is not just our saviour but also our Lord, and if we truly believe and accept that we were made in the image of God, to be in relationship with Him. Then we are called to be Christians just like those at the Church at Thessalonica.
We are called to be Christians who love and care for each other and for the wider community, who despite difficulties and hardship live our faith out boldly and joyfully in service to one and other. We are called to be people who give of our time and of our treasure sacrificially. We are called to be people who are renowned throughout the land for our faith, hope and love!
My brothers and sisters It is so easy for us to fall into a comfortable rhythm of religious observance and intellectual assent without truly giving our whole selves over to God. We can so easily fall into the trap that Satan sets for us - that trap where we believe that we can just cruise along - after all we're 'good' people, and we believe. The question we need to ask ourselves regularly is have I handed myself over to God? Has my life been transformed? Is my faith active, and real? or have I fallen into the trap of merely following the religious observance.
I pray that we as a community of faith will see an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a revival of faith, so that we each would be willing everyday to commit ourselves anew to the Lord. I pray that we as a community would be so full of faith that we would become renowned throughout the land - so that no one ever asks again the question 'what is an Anglican?'. I pray that as we all recommit ourselves to God - willingly handing ourselves over to Him, that we would be a beacon of light amongst the darkness and fallen-ness of the world.
Above all I pray that you would join me in praying these things for us and recommitting ourselves in real and active faith to the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
The Lord be with you.