SJF • Proper 24a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSGBeginning today and for the next four weeks we will be reading portions from the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians. This gives us the opportunity to explore aspects of Saint Paul’s teaching in relation to a specific congregation, as he addressed its needs and concerns, and shared his vision of the gospel.
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
It is important to bear in mind that we are receiving these writings secondhand; that we are in a very real sense reading someone else’s mail. The early church collected these documents and circulated them because of the teaching they contained, and the apostolic authority they expressed. But for us to understand them it is helpful for us to remember that Saint Paul, and in this case his colleagues Silvanus and Timothy, originally intended these letters for the specific congregations to whom they wrote. In fact, this First Letter to the Thessalonians ends with the admonition, “I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of [the brothers and sisters].” We in the present day are hearing letters written nearly two thousand years ago, and to persons other than ourselves — and yet still we find them meaningful.
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So what do these early apostles have to say to this early congregation — and to us? The first thing that is clear in the passage we heard today is that Saint Paul is busting his buttons with pride over this congregation. (Let me add that I know how he feels!) Not only have these people been faithful in spite of persecution but they have spread the word of God far beyond their own little world, and word of them, and of their faith in God, has resounded to such an extent that Paul is hearing echoes of it from every corner of the church. So this congregation of Thessalonians, like the Philippians about whom we’ve heard in the last few weeks, was among Saint Paul’s success stories — unlike the troublesome and troubled Corinthians and Galatians! Paul sums this up in a wonderful phrase: that this congregation is “beloved by God.” God has, he assures them, “chosen you.”
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What a wonderful thing it is to be chosen. And I don’t just mean as in “God’s chosen people.” I mean the more everyday human things, like being chosen by your boss to do a difficult task because only you have the skills to do it. Or think of the joy that blossoms in the heart of a young person at the school party, when the one you’ve been trying to get up the nerve to ask to dance comes up to you and does the asking.
Being chosen is wonderful; and it forms a crucial element in the history of God’s people. But as I said a moment ago, it goes beyond God’s chosen people. In our reading from Isaiah today, God does a very astonishing thing. He chooses Cyrus the king of Babylon to be his agent of deliverance. And he doesn’t only choose him, he anoints him — a privilege normally reserved to the Jewish kings. And God does this to show just how far he will go to save and deliver his original chosen ones, the people of Jacob, the people of Israel.
Now in theological terms this kind of being chosen is called election. That sounds a little cold, a little technical, and certainly I might say, as we approach election day, a little too political! Still, the point is made: God chooses whom he pleases; he elects to select, and his chosen ones belong to him and cannot be taken from him. There is no impeachment from this kind of election!
God’s chosen ones belong to him and to no one else. This truth is what lies behind the incident in our gospel passage today. “Give to the emperor the things thatare the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus is making a fundamental point here: money may belong to Caesar — after all its got his picture on it! But people belong to God — and God’s image is not just stamped on the surface, but goes down deep to the depths of the heart, where the capacity to love finds its resting place. As Saint John would say, “God is love,” and our resemblance to God shines forth most clearly when we draw upon that capacity to set aside our own needs and desires, and give of ourselves for others.
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Now you might well ask, how do we know that God has chosen us? And the answer for us is the same as the answer for the Thessalonians. We know that God has chosen us because we have chosen him. After all, we are here, aren’t we? There are hundreds of other things any of us could be doing on a Sunday morning other than gathering here to be together and to be with God. And yet, here we are.
It was the same with the Thessalonians. When Saint Paul came to them they welcomed him and his message warmly. And what is more important they turned their backs on the countless idols of their culture, the manufactured gods and goddesses of wood and stone that did nothing for them but asked nothing of them. They turned away from these lifeless, empty things, to serve the living and true God. They chose God, and God chose them. And oh, the blessedness and the comfort of that choosing.
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Some years ago a psychologist in Jerusalem undertook an experiment to test how well mothers know their newborn infant children. She selected 46 mothers all of whom had given birth from between five hours and three days before, and all of whom had breast-fed their child. The mothers weren’t told ahead of time that they were going to be tested, so they didn’t have a chance to study up— they were just ordinary mothers chosen at random from the maternity ward. The psychologist blindfolded each mother and then brought her into a room where there were three sleeping infants, to see if she could tell which was hers. And perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that nearly 70 percent of the time the mothers made the correct choice — they could tell which child was theirs simply by feeling the infant’s hand.
Well, what I want to say to you today, is that God does better than 70 percent. God knows his own, and his own know him — 100 percent of the time! The bond that connects us with God is deeper even than the bond between a mother and her child. As the prophet Isaiah said, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Let’s face it, mothers do sadly sometimes neglect their children; it is one of the tragedies of life. But God is different; God will never — “no never, no never forsake!” — those whom he has chosen.
So let us rejoice today, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us rejoice that we have been chosen by God even as we have chosen him. Let us rejoice that God surprises us by choosing us even as he surprised Cyrus of Babylon and equipped him to do great things. Let us rejoice with Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, and the church of the Thessalonians, with whom we share the fellowship in Christ that transcends time and space. Let us rejoice that when all that belongs to Caesar and to Caesar’s world has decayed and rusted and crumbled, we who belong to God will be with God forever, the King of kings and Lord of lords, to whom all glory is most justly due, henceforth and for evermore.+
The story of the psychologist’s experiment with mothers and their newborns is from Craig Brian Larson’s Contemporary Illustrations.