21st Sunday After Pentecost
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who loves the world. Amen
The Pharisees are trying to get Jesus in trouble.
His existence questions their authority,
his teaching has outwitted them
as well as exposed things about them
that they would have rather left in the dark,
and the people love him.
So they set out to trap him
by asking him a question with no right answer:
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?
If Jesus says no, it is not lawful to pay the taxes to the emperor
he will have made a treasonous statement
and be subject to punishment by the Romans.
If he says it is lawful to pay the tax,
he will offend his own people,
even contradicting his own teaching on loyalty to God coming first.
Either way there’s no right answer.
Of course Jesus finds a way to thread through the middle,
asking to see the coin used for the tax
and asking his questioners to name whose image is on the coin
- the emperor’s they must respond-
there you go he tells them
‘give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s’
An answer which evades the trap of the Pharisees
but does little to provide clear guidance
for how a person of faith can or should live
in a world where others beside God claim authority over people’s lives.
And we’d like a clear answer
because this is something we’re still living with today,
we still struggle with the question of
how do we balance our lives of faith with the demands of the world?
whether that is in taxes or time or even loyalty.
And looking at Jesus’ past teachings,
he’s been pretty clear about where our loyalty and trust ought to lie,
who knows what we need and will provide it,
you cannot serve God and wealth
Jesus tells us in the sermon on the mount
and goes on the say “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them…But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matt 6:25-26, 33-34)
Now this is the ideal,
but Jesus is well aware
that he is not living in an ideal world
but one that is full of the brokenness of sin-
it’s the whole reason he came into the world after all
Jesus’ coming has inaugurated the kingdom of God
this way of life that he is inviting others into,
but he also knows that it has not yet fully come,
and so there are times when decisions must be made a
bout what belongs to the world and what belongs to God
and when to give each.
We see Jesus make some of these decisions in his life
he frequently defies convention in who he associates with,
tax collectors, sinners, gentiles,
he heals on the sabbath and cast out demons
but there are also times when he holds back
because the time is not right to take a stand,
like with this question about taxes,
though when the right time comes
he will not hold back,
he will choose to follow the way of God,
he will go to Jerusalem and the cross
for the sake of God,
for the sake of the world.
Because even as broken as the world is,
God still loves the world,
God made the world,
called it good,
stuck with it even after sin entered
and people turned away from their creator,
God loved the world so much
God sent his Son Jesus into the world to save the world,
and even now when the way of God is not the only way in the world,
God still chooses to work through worldly things,
So a life of faith is not as simple as a one or the other choice,
either God or the world.
a life of faith is one that must find a way
when at all possible
to integrate living a life of faith,
living the kingdom way
into living in the world,
because that is how the fullness of the kingdom will come into being,
God knows it’s not something that can be forced
that a way of life centered on love of God and neighbor
must grow and develop
and while it’s developing
God lets us determine how much we give to the emperor
and how much we give to God,
how much we let God work in us
even despite the worldly consequences.
We see this in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians,
how he lauds the community for receiving the gospel
for becoming “imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
God worked with and through Paul and Silvanus, and Timothy
to bring the good news of the kingdom of God to the Thessalonians,
and it seems as though,
with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit
they embraced the message and lifestyle fully,
so fully that others took notice,
in positive and negative ways
but for the Thessalonians
the positives outweighed the negatives.
For Other communities Paul worked with
it was not so straightforward,
we hear in his letters to the Corinthians
Paul’s frustration over some of their worldly decisions,
but Paul doesn’t give up on them,
and neither does God,
just as God does not give up on us
when we choose the emperor over God,
rather God continues to reach out to us,
to send the Holy Spirit to work in our lives,
to call us to the kingdom way of life,
all because God loves us and the world. Amen