Lectionary Commentaries for October 16, 2011
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22

Clayton Schmit

We think of the last days of Jesus’ final week as being full of vexation.

Indeed, they were: betrayal, arrest, torture, and crucifixion. But the first two days of the week were also filled with difficulty. In Matthew’s version of the week, Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly on Monday and proceeds to the temple to cleanse it of abuse. Tuesday is particularly full.

Jesus returns to Jerusalem for a series of pronouncements and confrontations by religious leaders. On this day, Jesus curses the fig tree, is questioned about his authority, offers three parables that each conclude with dire warnings for those who assume they are comfortably within God’s favor.

Then he is challenged on whether to pay taxes to Caesar, is questioned about the resurrection of the dead, challenged about the greatest commandment, and engaged in discussion about the nature of the messiah.

Finally, Jesus engages in a long discourse (23:1-25:46) in which he denounces religious leaders, laments over Jerusalem, foretells destruction of the temple, gives his disciples a list of signs concerning the end times, offers additional parables, and tells of the final judgment. Tuesday was a big day. 

It seems one of the chief accomplishments of the day was to put the religious leaders in their place. Jesus overwhelms his verbal adversaries and denounces temple leadership so thoroughly that by the next day, Wednesday of Holy Week, the leaders began plotting to arrest and kill this bothersome prophet.

The pericope for this day lies within Tuesday’s busy agenda. Here we have the failed attempt by the Pharisees and Herodians to trap Jesus on what appears to be a political issue: whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. We might imagine the smugness with which they employ this trap. The Pharisees are against the Roman occupation government, so they bring along the Herodians, people obliged to Rome for keeping Herod in puppet power.

Together, it ought to be easy to catch Jesus up. Note the false flattery of their opening remarks: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth . . . ” (22:16). Their own insincerity is palpable. Then, they spring the trap: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

By this time in the day, Jesus is well warmed up for this treacherous game of chess. He sees through their sarcasm to the malice that lies beneath and brands them hypocrites.  This is why: Jesus seems to carry no coins. The Pharisees dare not carry Roman coins, for they bear the blasphemous image of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription proclaims him divine. Yet, when Jesus asks for a Roman coin, they readily provide it. There, in the sacred space of the temple, the Pharisees possess the idolatrous image. 

The Pharisees are thinking two moves ahead in this game. If Jesus says that it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he alienates the people who hate the Roman occupation and its Caesar. If he says it is unlawful to pay taxes, the people will be pleased, but Jesus will then be liable for arrest by the Romans.

A clever gambit. But, not clever enough. Jesus asks them whose inscription is on the coin. Caesar, they answer. Then render to the emperor what is due him, he says, and to God what belongs to God. Checkmate.

But this is not just a game; and the teaching reaches far beyond those who first heard it.  It reaches even to our time. As much as we might like to determine Jesus’ attitude about taxes today, or the way governments do their business, our narrative makes it clear that Jesus has greater concerns in mind.

Governments are necessary, taxes may be necessary, and every country has a Caesar of sorts to contend with. So, render unto that Caesar whatever is due. But, don’t mess around with the things that belong to God.

Whom do we belong to? Sometimes it seems like we belong to Caesar. Taxes, legal restrictions on our freedoms, imprisonment if you engage in civil disobedience.  Or, perhaps, we feel that our job owns us. Or our families. Sometimes, we even feel owned by our material possessions. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it: “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

But to whom do we really belong? Take a look at any person. Whose inscription is on him or her? Each is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). There can be no doubt, then, what Jesus means here. Give yourselves to God because it is to him that you belong. 

It is God who claims us, who made us in his own image. We do not belong to anything or to anyone else. We don’t even belong to ourselves. We belong to God in all our being, with all our talents, interests, time, and wealth. “We give thee but thine own, whatever the gift my be. All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.”1

The consequences of belonging to God are remarkable. First, it means that God will not forsake us. The Pharisees and the other religious leaders that Jesus denounces were notoriously bad at caring for the people. They forsook their responsibilities and the people God gave into their care. They deserved condemnation. But, God does not forsake his own. By Friday of Holy Week, Jesus made that clear in the boldest way possible.

Second, it means that because we belong to God, we belong to the people of God, the body of Christ. We are baptized into this fellowship and can only lose our membership by turning our backs on God. If there is any alienation, it is our own doing. And, if we return, God is there, as always. 

Third, it means that we give to God that which belongs to God’s: that is, we give ourselves. We take the sacred trust and invest it in lives of worship. Sometimes, that worship occurs privately, in devotion. Sometimes, in church with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And the rest of the time, it occurs in the sphere of daily work and service. All of this is worship. Ultimately, giving ourselves to God means that we give ourselves to the world.    

1William W. How, 1823-1897.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 45:1-7

Fred Gaiser

“I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

Strong words! But are they good news or bad news? It’s clear, I think, that for Second Isaiah, this announcement is meant as good news — but it will take some work for us and our hearers to determine how and why this is true.

This is an important text for Second Isaiah. It actually runs from 44:24 through 45:8, and it seems to mark the center of this section of the book (chapters 40-55). Note how its significance is emphasized by a hymnic inclusio (“Sing, O heavens,” in 44:23; “Shower, O heavens,” in 45:8).

The hymns surround two parallel “Thus says the Lord” passages (44:24-28 and 45:1-7), of which the second is our text. This structural context is important, not only because it marks the grandeur of the text, but also because it points quite clearly to what God is up to in Cyrus. The first half of the “Thus says the Lord” parallelism (44:24-28) is nothing more than a lengthy and powerful self-introduction of Yahweh, needed perhaps to set up the incredible claims of 45:1-7. Because “I am the Lord who…” (44:24-28), I can do this remarkable Cyrus thing (45:1-7) — even if you Israelites might think it’s not the way for a proper God to act (deliverance through a “heathen”?!), which seems to be the implied objection to which God responds with the “woe” warnings that immediately follow our text (45:9-13).

The elaborate structure of this lengthy unit (44:23-45:8) centers in the announcement that, through Cyrus, God will fulfill the divine “purpose” to rebuild Jerusalem (44:28). That rebuilding project functions, I think, both literally and metaphorically for our prophet. God means actually to rebuild the city, but God means also to rebuild everything that has been broken, to bring salvation beyond the holy hill to “all the ends of the earth” (45:22).

“Purpose” is a big word for Second Isaiah (do a word search on khafats). In the well-known 55:10-11, God promises to accomplish God’s “purpose” through God’s effective “word; and, surprisingly, God “wills” (same Hebrew term as “purpose”) to do this through the suffering of God’s servant (53:10). This will make us rethink everything about how God works and who God is. In our text, God’s work of liberation sounds like a move of raw power (a power that captive peoples — including people captive to sin — still long for), but in the broader context of Second Isaiah, God’s purpose can and will be brought about only through the suffering of God’s servant (representing God’s people) and God’s own self, on behalf of others.

Our text permits no question about who can do such incredible things: “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (45:6). Second Isaiah’s monotheism (not so much a doctrine here as a homiletical claim and promise) flies in the face of the perspective of the world in which he lives, where the various (poly)theistic claims can run to tolerance (“You have your god[s], we have ours”) or to holy war (“My god can beat up your god”). Not much has changed! Isaiah’s claim means to be good news because it insists that the God is the God of liberation (the one who brought you out of Egypt), the God of love (Isaiah 43:4).

Such love will eventually move us (and God?) toward Bonhoeffer’s realization that “only the suffering God can help,”1 without giving up on the notion that God continues to work in unexpected ways to liberate real people from real tyrants in the real world of the present. If it’s divine work, it’s God’s work, says our prophet — even when it needs to have a hard edge (“I make weal and create woe”).

Isaiah’s good news might be paraphrased thus: “Whom would you rather have in charge of even the dark realities of the real world: gods created by human hands and human culture (including those we create today), or the God who loves you and who will give himself to you and for you in whatever way it takes to set you free?” Isaiah (and the Old Testament world) will not resort to atheism to explain the hard realities (“S– Happens!”), but neither will he yield to a simplistic formula of “If it happened, God did it.”

There is only one God, but that God works through the forces of creation and through the agency of human beings (like Cyrus). Because they are real, both God’s natural world and God’s human world might revert to the chaos God seeks to overcome though God’s continual work of liberation, but liberation and redemption remain always God’s “purpose.” Sometimes getting to God’s goal will entail “woe” and “darkness” (not least, the woe and darkness of Good Friday) but “weal” and “light” remain the goal (not least, the light of Easter’s dawn).

On a Sunday when the Gospel reading includes the “render unto Caesar” line (Matthew 22:21), our text reminds us that God has worked and will work through “Caesar” (or Cyrus). Whether or however we talk about God’s “two kingdoms,” that can never mean there is one “kingdom” where God rules (church) and one that God leaves to Caesar (politics).

Cyrus is a remarkably active divine agent in our text. He is called to be the means of God’s deliverance. But Second Isaiah (and God) refuses to allow him to be merely a pawn. Cyrus, too–though he did not know God (45:4)–was meant to come to know that he was called by God (45:3).

And, as Paul will come to say, how would Cyrus or any politician come to know without a preacher (Romans 10:14)? Second Isaiah was such a preacher, providing a model that present preachers will want to follow: proclaiming God’s word and work in such a way that it becomes known to all, that all might understand themselves to be called to the work of liberation and light–as a “vocation,” whatever their “job” might be.

1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed., ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 361.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

We are entering this Sunday right into the midst of an ongoing argument between Moses and God about the shape of God’s relationship with the newly formed people of Israel.

This reading from Exodus 33 follows (both in the Bible and in the lectionary) the story of the Golden Calf and can be understood fully only in light of that story, and of the larger story of Exodus.

After bringing the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God had initiated a special relationship with them, calling them from all the peoples of the earth to be God’s “treasured possession,” to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6). God had given them the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), and instructions on building the tabernacle (Exodus 25-31).

God had even promised to dwell in the midst of the Israelites; and the tabernacle was to be a visible sign of that abiding presence of God (Exodus 25:8; 29:45-46). The tabernacle was a sort of portable Mt. Sinai. Just as God’s glory rested on the mountain in a cloud, so would God’s glory fill the tabernacle (Exodus 24:16; 40:34-35). God would be present with the people in a real and material way as they traveled through the wilderness.

The problem, of course, is that by the time we get to Exodus 33, the people have stumbled, badly. By worshiping the Golden Calf, they have betrayed their relationship with God, and have hurt and angered God. So, right after that betrayal, God changes his mind about the shape of that relationship:

The LORD said to Moses, “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Exodus 33:1-3, emphasis added)

The LORD will send an angel, but will not go himself. The LORD will not abandon the people — he will be true to the covenant made with them at Sinai — but he will not be present with them in the way originally planned. The LORD’s abiding, dwelling presence will not go with the Israelites as they journey through the wilderness.

And it’s for their own good, says the LORD. The holiness of the LORD is such that it cannot abide with sin. (That, in a nutshell, is much of the theology of Leviticus.) Because the people are sinful (“stiff-necked”, stubborn), God’s holiness would consume them on the way. So God will be present with them in a less-direct way, through a divine messenger, an angel.

That’s where our reading for today comes in. Moses, to put it mildly, is not satisfied with this new arrangement. And Moses has chutzpah, there’s no doubt about it. He’s not afraid to use the LORD’s own words against him. Eugene Peterson’s translation catches the tone of the exchange well:

“Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.”1

Moses is persuasive. The LORD concedes a bit. The NRSV translates verse 14: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” But that’s more than the Hebrew says. There’s no “with you” in the Hebrew. That’s why Moses isn’t willing to let the argument end. That’s why he keeps pushing God about the matter, like a dog worrying a bone. Moses insists that God be explicit with God’s promises:

“If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?” (Exodus 33: 15-16a, emphasis added)

Finally, God concedes fully: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.'” (Exodus 33:17)

It’s no small thing to persuade the Creator of the universe to change his mind, so Moses pushes his luck just a bit further. “Show me your glory. Please.” God will not, however, for Moses’ own sake, fulfill that request fully. Moses can see only God’s back, not God’s face, “For no one shall see me and live.”

Commentators have long puzzled over this passage, especially because just a few verses earlier, it says that, “the LORD used to speak with Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11; cf. Deuteronomy 34:10).

One can explain this seeming contradiction, of course, by appealing to different sources or traditions. But the text as we have it now speaks to a central, paradoxical theme in Exodus and in Scripture as a whole that is worth exploring; that is, that the Creator of the whole universe, whose glory fills the heavens, deigns to abide with finite human beings.

That God chooses to abide with human beings is an astonishing thing indeed. That God chooses to be in relationship with human beings means that God makes himself vulnerable to the pain that ensues when that relationship is betrayed. But it also means that authentic communication is made possible, communication “face to face,” and Moses is the model for us of that sort of authentic divine-human communication.

That is, Moses models prayer for us, prayer that is not afraid to hold God to God’s promises, prayer that is not afraid to appeal to God’s love for God’s people, even over and against God’s holiness. Moses, through this audacious prayer, succeeds in securing God’s promise that God will indeed abide with the Israelites throughout their long wilderness wandering.

Moses, in other words, wins the argument.

But that’s not the end of the conversation. There is this other matter about seeing God’s glory. The fact that Moses’ request is not granted reminds Moses, and us, that God is still God. For all his chutzpah, even Moses cannot presume too much. Even Moses cannot know or comprehend God completely. He cannot see God fully; he can see only God’s back, the “afterglow of the effulgence of His presence,” as Robert Alter describes it.2

And yet, it is enough. At this beginning of the wilderness journey, God has appeared in cloud and fire on Mt. Sinai, speaking to all the people “face to face” (as Moses says later in Deuteronomy 5:4). God has given instructions for the tabernacle, which will remind the people in a concrete way of God’s abiding presence. And even in the face of betrayal, God has renewed God’s promise to be with the Israelites on the long journey that still lies ahead. It is enough. It is more than enough.

1Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003), Exodus 33:12-13. On the last sentence, where Moses emphasizes that Israel is God’s people, compare Exodus 32:7, 11.
2Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 506.


Commentary on Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 96 is one of five psalms in Book Four of the Psalter that are classified as Enthronement Psalms, psalms that celebrate the reign of God as king over all creation.

God as king is a prevalent theme in Christian worship. We offer prayers to God the king; hymns about God as king ring in our ears: “Come Thou Almighty King,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “O Worship the King,” and “All Glory, Laud, and Honor, to Thee Redeemer King.” What exactly do we mean when we sing the words of the hymns and pronounce the benedictive words, “O God, our redeemer and king”? 

The major lectionary reading for this Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost does not actually contain the words, “God is king.” That pronouncement comes in verse 10. Thus we may read verses 1-9 of Psalm 96 as introductory words, words inviting all nations and all peoples to look in wonder at the God of Israel (verses 3, 7). In verse 1, the whole earth is called to “sing a new song.” The phrase “new song” occurs as well in Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 98:1; 144:9; and 149:1. Samuel Terrien, in The Psalms:  Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary, maintains that in each instance the phrase “new song” does not indicate a song sung to a tune that has never been heard before, but rather refers to the beginning of a new era, a new epoch in history (p. 924). 

In the case of Psalm 96, the “new song” refers to the reign of God, rather than a king of the line of David, as sovereign over Israel and the whole earth. Some historical and canonical background is helpful at this point.

The Historical Background: In the Ancient Near East, people gained protection, livelihood, prosperity, and justice by giving allegiance to the king who ruled over a particular city or district. Being subject to the ruler guaranteed safety and way of life. If you traveled outside your own city or district, you were immediately at the mercy of a different ruler, one who may not look favorably upon you. Such was life for the people of Old Testament times. 

When the Israelites left Egypt under the leadership of Moses and settled in the Promised Land, one of the first issues that surfaced was that of leadership. In the book of Judges, we read about the struggles of the newly-settled Israelites to claim the land. The book closes with the words, “In that day, there was no king in Israel; everyone person did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

In 1 Samuel 8, the people come to Samuel and demand, “Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations” (verse 5). When Samuel prayed to God, God answered with these words: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (verse 7). Samuel anointed Saul and then David, and we read in the book of Kings about the reigns of the kings of the Davidic dynasty. They were a rather mixed bag of the good and the bad:  Solomon, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Josiah. 

When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the Hebrew people captive, such a protected and guaranteed life disappeared. Israel no longer had their own king — their own protector. They were subjects of a foreign king. And even when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, they were still subjects of foreign rulers — the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Try to imagine the fear, the questions, the searching. Who would protect the Hebrew people, guarantee their livelihood and survival as individuals and as a people, and who would administer justice?

The Canonical Background: The book of Psalms relates the story of the life of ancient Israel from the time of the kingship of David (Books 1 and 2: Psalms 1-72); through the reign of Solomon, the divided kingdom, and the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon (Book 3:  Psalms 73-89); to the exile in Babylon (Book 4: Psalms 90-106); and finally the return from exile to rebuild Jerusalem (Book 5: Psalms 107-150). 

Five Enthronement Psalms appear in a cluster in the middle of Book 4, whose setting — according to the canonical background outlined above — is the exile in Babylon. Davidic kingship was no more; a foreign king reigned as sovereign. What did that mean for the exiled Israelites? Would they simply be absorbed into the vast Babylonian empire? Or could they find a way to maintain their identity as the people of Yahweh, their God? Recall the words of 1 Samuel 8, in which God says to Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” In these new circumstances, it seems, the only option was to accept God as king; not a human being. 

Why? An interesting aspect of the Enthronement Psalms is their incorporation of what scholars call “creation language.” Verse 5 of Psalm 96 says, “For all the gods of the people are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.” In Psalm 95:4, we read, “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” And Psalm 97:6 says, “The heavens proclaim his righteousness.” God the creation has full claim to the throne as sovereign over all.

How? Without a human king to guarantee protection, livelihood, prosperity, and justice for the people of Israel, how would such care be provided? How does God — the God of the heavens and the earth — reign in the midst of this messiness called the present reality? The answer is what some scholars describe as a “democratization” of kingship, when the people of God join together to bring about the reign of God on the earth — what Jesus continually referred to as “the kingdom of God.”

Each person must consciously strive to be fully human, human in the way that God created them to be — in rightness and faithfulness to the human community. Each person much strive to create a world in which all are cared for, provided for, lifted up, satisfied, and have an opportunity to be all that God created them to be. 

And how does the kingdom of God come about? By each of us who acknowledge God as sovereign in our lives becoming the arms and legs and voice and conscience of God in our world. We are the arms and legs and voice and conscience of God on this earth — the embodiment of the kingdom of God.

A daunting task?  Yes. Can it be any other way? No. God is in control over this place we call home, this earth. But God has being and substance in those of us who proclaim God as sovereign in our lives. 

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Holly Hearon

This is the first of four weeks dedicated to 1 Thessalonians.

The way in which the lectionary has divided up the letter presents a challenge to the preacher: the texts for the first three weeks really belong to a single extended passage describing Paul’s time with the Thessalonians, while the fourth week takes an apocalyptic turn. How to shape three distinct sermons out of the single passage and also build a link to the fourth week? Several re-readings later, I am leaning towards a sermon series constructed around the theme of God’s word. In this first sermon I will focus on “receiving the word.”

“Receiving the word”

When did we ‘receive the word?’ This question has lots of scope for good storytelling: camp experiences, quiet moments on a hillside, a time of crisis, an unexpected encounter. It also raises a question: do we receive the word once? Or over and over again? I actually don’t remember when I ‘received the word’. I grew up in the church so I suppose I would say that I receive it over and over again.

This isn’t everyone’s experience. I know people who remember clearly the day and the moment when they ‘received the word’. I also know people who have been prevented from ‘receiving the word’ because of how it was presented to them, or even used against them. This leads me to further questions: What makes it possible for us to receive the word? What makes it difficult? What makes the difference? Or who makes the difference?

We receive the ‘word’ through and from others

The first ten verses of the letter tell a story of how the word was received by the Thessalonians. The simple story is that Paul came to Thessalonica (the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia) where he proclaimed the word of God among the Thessalonians, some of whom received it with joy. The simple version of the story places the emphasis on good preaching: we hear ‘the word’ proclaimed by a dynamic preacher and we respond. While it is true that many people have responded to ‘the word’ in this way, I find myself wondering if that is really all there is to it.

Wading through the verses, a more complex story emerges. I notice, for example, that this is not just a story about Paul; it involves Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. This is reflected in Paul’s use of ‘we’ language throughout the letter. This immediately dispels the image of Paul the mega-pastor/evangelist.

When we receive the ‘word’ it is often as the result of encounters with many individuals. Some of these encounters may have been brief and resulted simply in the planting of a seed of an idea, while other encounters have resulted in enduring relationships. Regardless, every encounter is, in its own way, significant. Who were the people who have planted, watered, weeded, and tended the seed(s) that have led us to ‘receive the word’?

We receive the word through the Holy Spirit

The Thessalonians also received the word “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” These three are not separate, but related. In the letters of Paul, ‘power’ is associated almost always with God; for example, it is exhibited in God’s act of creation (Romans 1:20), in God’s raising of Jesus from the dead (1 Corinthians 6:14), in the performance of ‘deeds of power’ or miracles (1 Corinthians 12:10).

‘The word’ that we receive does not stand on its own; it is accompanied by the power of God which is manifested in life-giving ways — sometimes within the pattern of creation, sometimes outside the pattern of creation. Some would also assign God’s power to acts of destruction (such as hurricanes, or AIDS), but in the New Testament God’s power is only ever spoken of in relation to acts which result in the (re)generation of life. Does our experience of God’s life-giving power open the way for us to receive God’s word? Or, when we receive God’s word, do we become alert to God’s life-giving power? Do we discover this for ourselves, or does someone help us to see what we perhaps did not see before?

Paul speaks more often of the ‘Spirit’ than the Holy Spirit. Like the breath of God which first gave life to humankind, the Holy Spirit renews our spirits, setting us apart (Romans 15:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:4), reminding us who and whose we are (1 Corinthians 12:3), and, with the confidence that that brings, giving us joy (Romans 14:17 [1 Thessalonians 1:6]). The Holy Spirit confirms in our hearts and minds that what we have received is ‘the word of God’; it offers us assurance and thereby enables us to receive the ‘word’ with conviction, even when we encounter obstacles or doubts (1:6).

I am loath to use the word persecution. It can and does happen, but I suspect that when we claim it for ourselves it is because one door has been shut to us and we lack the creativity to seek another. How do we come to know the Holy Spirit in our lives? Is it a warm fuzzy feeling? Is it reflected back to us when we encounter it in another person? Is it a certainty that gives us stability? Or a breath of fresh air that invites us to let go?

What we receive is not ours alone

The ‘receiving of the word’ by the Thessalonians is made evident by their ‘work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope’. Just as the Holy Spirit confirms the ‘receiving of the word’ in us, so we demonstrate to others that we have ‘received the word’ through our work of faith and labor of love (1:7). I think this public demonstration serves a double function, because it opens up to scrutiny our actions, attitudes and behaviors.

It can be tempting, when we receive the ‘word’, to think that we have received a special revelation, understood only by God and ourselves, and we allow this to become a justification for all we do and think. But the Holy Spirit moves in others as well as ourselves. The community of faith becomes both a source of confirmation and correction. It can point out to us the idols we have not yet left behind or the ways in which we have created new ones. Who in our community of faith has helped us to correct us? To confirm us?  In what ways do we serve as a confirmation or a corrective to the community?