The Revd Margaret Legg
What is she like? I don’t know if you ever said this about your parents, but this refrain of my children still rings in my ears as I remember asking them once again to ‘Close the kitchen door please to keep the cooking smell in’ or ‘Turn the music down – more!’
Our readings today show us something of what God is like. So do the jihadists currently establishing the Islamic State (IS). They reveal a God who condones unprovoked military action, has a blatant disregard for human life, persecutes and murders the innocent and causes untold suffering.
ISIL’s tactics continue to send shockwaves throughout the world, acting in the name of God. Paul too sent out shockwaves, almost 2000 years earlier, on his 2nd missionary journey. The shock was not in his tactics, but in his way of life and so of the Christian converts.
These new Christian converts in Thessalonica also shocked. Pagan rites were the glue for the economic, social and political structures of the town. Theatres with readings, music and dancing were attached to shrines; fairs and meals (when unusually meat was eaten)were tacked on to pagan festivals, so by boycotting them the butchery trade suffered and of course by rejecting the idols and worshipping the one true God they rejected the Roman Emperor, the God Caesar Tiberius. This was godlessness on a big scale. So they too were being persecuted.
They were ostracised by their neighbours, stoned as they walked in the streets, derided and mocked. Yet they are praised by Paul (and this is not one of his most common traits!) for the way they are living out their faith: remaining steadfast, carrying on with their work and maintaining an attitude of love. This is how they revealed God in their daily lives. This is what God is like.
Like IS, Paul was fired by religious zeal, intent on building the Kingdom of God, but whereas IS uses force and issues threats and ultimatums, Paul invited, convinced by argument and example. Whereas IS exterminates opposition, Paul lived among the people, was self sufficient through his own labour as a tent maker and cared for and about them. The Thessalonicans imitated him and in just a few years – Paul writes about 6 years after his visit, they have become exemplary throughout the region.
This model of faith, hope and love is one that holds good for us today. The Christian understanding of God does not rest on hate, coercion and dogma, but on love, choice and conviction (although it’s taken centuries to work through to this – remember the Crusades).
It may spur us to go the extra mile for one another. My mother was eternally grateful to her friend Muriel, who came out in the early hours of the morning to sit with her when she found my father had died in his sleep. She was, my mother would say, a true Christian. It rests on treating each other with respect, even when we are annoyed and frustrated. It reins us in when we feel like giving vent to our annoyance and frustration by acting inappropriately. We all have our tipping points – even the Earl of Grantham!
When we feel our blood boil and we want to lash out, faith helps us to see our behaviour as through the eyes of God. We know we are accountable, we will be judged. The 10 commandments are useful here – inscribed on the wall behind me, at the East end. They remind us of the need for restraint over our emotions: because murder, theft, adultery, defamation and covetousness all begin with emotions that get out of control.
But what about when it is our very faith that is under attack? How do we reveal God in our lives then? Jesus in our Gospel helps us. His very purpose, his raisin d’etre, is under attack. The loaded question is aimed at finding out what he’s up to. Is he going to lead another tax revolt, like Judas the Galilean, a Jewish leader who led an armed resistance to the poll tax imposed by Quirinius, Governor of Syria around 6 AD. The revolt was crushed brutally by the Romans.
How does he respond? Will he have a hissy fit, act like a vandal, strike someone?
First, with penetrating insight, he makes a request which challenges the integrity of his questioners. Priests were defiled if they carried a coin into the Temple, but they just happen to have one to hand! When Jesus looks at the coin, he is really under attack again. The coin bears the image of a head and around it an inscription (a design that we still follow today) which read:
‘Tiberius Caesar, August Son of Divine Augustus, High Priest’.
So the inscription declares Tiberius to be the Son of God. Jesus knows that he, not Caesar, is the divine image, and Jesus, not Caesar, is the Son of God. So he responds by addressing the bigger picture, by speaking in the context of God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
Pay your taxes, he responds. Give the dirty coins, the filthy lucre, to Caesar. His claims are nothing to Jesus. Because Jesus embodies the one true God, and Jesus reveals God’s face not in the trick questions of the Pharisees, or in the claims of Caesar or through the intimidation and force used by IS, but in self-giving love.
The question for us is: How do we each reveal the face of God in our lives?