I Thessalonians 1:1-10
Our scriptures today are about God using what we would consider unlikely agents to do his will: two pagan emperors and a young, struggling church congregation.
The first emperor we read about this morning from the prophet Isaiah is Cyrus the Great – head of the Persian Empire as it conquered many other nations of Asia and the middle east, creating what was one of the largest empires in history. One of the rival empires that Cyrus subdued was Babylon, and because of that, the Jews who were in captivity in Babylon were allowed to go home to Judea and eventually rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. By causing those things, Cyrus was seen as a servant of God, and in our reading this morning is even called the Lord’s anointed one, which in other languages is “messiah” or “christ”. Not only is Cyrus one of the first persons to be given the title of messiah and christ, one of his other titles was “king of kings” or in Persian “shah en shah”. So here we have someone walking around being called king of kings, messiah, and christ, centuries before the one usually associated with these titles, doing things shunned by the one usually associated with these titles. The Iranian tribes whom Cyrus was leading had gone through a religious revolution from the worship of many gods to the worship of one God – Ahura Mazda (Good Lord). Unfortunately, the worship of this good lord preached by Zarathushtra soon devolved into a belief in two opposing gods – a good one and an evil one. Apparently, neither of these two gods were the same one whom we recognize today as the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the universe. As Isaiah records God saying to Cyrus: “I call you by your name…though you do not know me. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.” So here we have Cyrus the Great Shah of Iran, being used to build an empire that will be an instrument for spreading the knowledge of God, all the while never recognizing or realizing the fact.
Then we skip five hundred years to the second emperor we read about this morning in the gospel story – Caesar (probably Tiberius Caesar). The caesars were also given a title normally associated with Jesus, namely that of “savior”. Unlike Cyrus’s titles, this one was not given to the Roman Emperors by scriptural authority, but rather by some of their own people, who sometimes worshiped them as gods. The Roman Empire did do many good things for most of the people it controlled, and some of the emperors were good rulers as well as good people, but many of the emperors took the worship offered to them as savior of the world a little too seriously, and scripture has little good to say about them. In the gospel story today, the question about paying taxes to the empire is answered by Jesus in a saying that is used a lot now as a defense of the separation of church and state: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s”. Some people go further and interpret the saying to mean that if they give the taxman his due and give God Sunday morning, then everything else is all theirs to do with as they wish.
But what we need to remember is that even though it was the emperor’s image stamped on the coin, the truth is that since we are all made in God’s image (including the emperor), it was really God’s image on the coin. So when Jesus told them to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, he was really telling them that everything belongs to God, so everything – even the most crooked governments – belong to God, and so can be used by God to carry out his purposes (so God can use the Caesars just like he used Cyrus). It also means that since we are all made in the image of God – God’s image is stamped on us like the emperor’s image was stamped on the coin – then every part of our lives belongs to God, not just Sunday mornings. Every business deal, every family function, every interaction with other people or with nature: all belong to God, and therefor we should be careful how we treat the people and the world around us. We should treat them as the holy and beautiful things that they are, and we should treat them all, and ourselves, as God’s property.
The third specially chosen agents of God’s will that we heard about today are the Thessalonian Christians – our second reading was part of a letter from Paul addressed to them. It is not as odd to think of a church congregation carrying out God’s work as it is pagan emperors, but this church is not like the ones with which were are familiar now – with money and program committees. The church was new – only a few decades old at the most – not enough time to build up a bank account or an enrollment of rich members, and of course there were no denominational headquarters to give support. Instead, our reading mentions that they had only recently given up idolatry to become Christians, and they might have been the only church for miles around. If one reads the rest of the letter of Paul to them, as well as the other letter that follows, one hears about their struggles. They were being persecuted, although the letters do not say by whom. But even in the midst of persecution, their faith and joy was an example to others in the region, who were strengthened by the example. In almost every way, this young endangered church had less means to be an agent of God’s will than either Cyrus or Caesar, but the one thing they had was willingness, which is more valuable than the armies of Rome and Persia put together. The Thessalonian church wanted to do God’s will, and so was given the joy of doing it, while the emperors wanted to impose their wills on the world around them, and so were never really satisfied with what they accomplished.
So we don’t ever need to worry about being either unworthy or too weak to do God’s work – we just need to be willing. If we think we are unworthy, remember that if God can use emperors bent on having their way, then God can use us. If we think we are too weak, then remember that if God can use the young, inexperienced, endangered Thessalonian church, then God can use us. We must also be careful to never become proud or smug about being instruments of God’s will; we need to remember all the times throughout history when Christians have spread their own fear and hatred, rather than spreading God’s love and peace. Whenever that happens, God can raise up pagans to do his work, and will eventually even turn the hatred of us so-called Christians into something that can be used for good. We don’t always see how God does these things, but we don’t need to worry about it – God’s love will prevail, no matter how bad we mess things up. Saving the world is God’s job. All we need to do is be willing instruments and agents of God. It doesn’t matter how high or low is or rank, income, or education, or whether we are emperors or slaves – we all have the same status in the kingdom of God. We are Children of God and heirs to the throne of the only empire that will last. May we willingly spread the love, joy, and peace that are the foundations of that empire, and may we give all others and ourselves the respect that our common dignity as heirs to the throne deserves. AMEN