I Recognize that Face -- A Lectionary Reflection
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
I recognize that face!
I’ll be watching a TV show or a movie and I’ll recognize a face. I may not know the name to put to it, but I know I’ve seen that person somewhere before. The same thing happens in the rest of life. We see a face and notice something familiar. It may not be the person we think it is, but we recognize something familiar. In this digital age we can make connections with people we’ve never met, but putting a face to a name is important. It’s true that on Facebook we can create facial identities that have nothing to do with our own realities, but most of us want to give a face to our identity. That visage speaks to a sense of intimacy we find important. There is something about the face, of knowing a person, and presence in each of these three lectionary texts. Each in its own way invites us to truly know God – and each other – in an intimate fashion.
We continue our journey through Exodus with Moses’ face to back encounter with the LORD, while Paul reminds the Thessalonians in this first chapter of the first letter that they know Paul and his companions intimately and therefore they know the truth of their message, for they’ve been together face to face. Finally we have that famous text of Matthew where the discussion of God, Caesar, and taxes comes up. Taxes may be the linchpin of the conversation, but the question of the face emerges in important ways in the conversation.
By the 33rd chapter of Exodus, Moses has had several divine encounters or theophanies – from the Burning Bush to the giving of the Law on the Mount of Sinai. Food and drink have been provided, as well as a pillar of fire/clouds to lead them. You would think Moses wouldn’t have too many questions left about the identity of God, but the question continues to linger. Moses is in conversation with Yahweh and is concerned about the direction of this journey. He’s been told by God “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight,” but Moses, needs more convincing. So, he tells God, well, if this is true then reveal to me your ways, “so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.” It should be noted that in the following chapter there’s another giving of the Law, this time written out on stone tablets.
The giving of the tablets isn’t part of our passage, so we stay with the story before us, and we find that God makes another promise to be present with them. In fact, God says that “my presence will go with you and I will give you rest.” But Moses continues to press – if your presence doesn’t go with us, then don’t take us any further. Is Moses not listening? Does he need more convincing? Or is he making a confession? We won’t go without you? I think at least at this point, it’s more of the second. He’s not sure. There’s doubt, despite what he’s seen and experienced – how will I know? Does that sound familiar to our own experience? Doubt is seemingly always present, and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe Moses’ questions are permission to push the conversation with God.
Yahweh answers Moses’ request by saying I’ll do what you ask because “I know you by name.” What a blessing it is for someone to know your name, especially if you’re child and an adult remembers not just your face, but your actual name.
Finally, in a scene reminiscent of the scene in the movie Jerry Maguire, where Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character demands of Tom Cruise’s character: “Show me the money.” Here it’s “show me your Glory.” Show me a physical or tangible manifestation of your presence. I need more. Instead of God’s glory, God says that God will reveal God’s goodness, which will pass by Moses and will proclaim the name “The LORD” (Yahweh). I’ll be gracious to you, God says. I’ll try to honor your request, but you don’t know what you’re asking. If you see my face, you’ll die. No one can see my face and live. It’s just not possible. But, God tells Moses, I’ll let you see me from the back. So, stand on this rock and when I pass by I’ll place you in the cleft of the rock, and I’ll cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by so that you might see my back. There is in this theophany much anthropomorphism. We can’t see God’s face, but we can see God’s back and God can cover us with God’s hand. But the point is made – you might see the face of God, but God has been revealed and so the journey can continue. God’s presence is revealed. The people, whom God knows by name, are not alone.
In the Thessalonian letter, it is Paul and his companions who are known by name and by sight. This is the opening of the letter and Paul builds a bridge to the Thessalonians by reminding them of the intimate nature of their relationship. Therefore, he says to them: You know what kind of people we are – right? You know that we came with the gospel message, not just with words but with power (dunamis) and the Holy Spirit. Our words are not hollow, but come with support from the power of the Holy Spirit who worked in your midst. And they didn’t come to Thessalonica half-heartedly, but full conviction. Is this a contrast with Moses, who seemed to need a lot more convincing? But, you know what kind of people we’ve proven to be. Because you know us and you have seen God’s power and Spirit active in our lives, you can trust us and imitate us as well. There may be problems in Thessalonica, but it’s nothing when compared to what he’s experienced elsewhere. In this opening there is a sense of joy and shared commitment to the gospel. In fact, they have proven to be an inspiration to believers throughout Macedonia and Achaia (Greece). It’s wonderful that wherever the story of this church is told, Paul has no need to retell it. Their faith is strong. They have turned from idols to the living and true God and they are patiently waiting or the one to come whom God has raised from the dead – Jesus who rescues us from the wrath to come. There is an apocalyptic flavor here, but the point is that this church has grown in faith because it has trusted the ones who had brought the gospel to them. They were eager to imitate and follow Paul’s example, and so their reputation was strong among the churches. If only this were true of all the churches – then and now!
Finally, we come to the gospel. I had intended to preach this text, but alas I’m not preaching this Sunday. I had entitled the sermon “Tax Time.” Isn’t that a fitting title for a sermon in this day and age when American politicians are fighting over whether the wealthy should pay more taxes? But the point here isn’t really taxes, but discipleship. We’re told that the Pharisees, whose confrontations with Jesus have become problematic, have decided to entrap him. Therefore they send some of their students together with some Herodians (Jewish collaborators with the Romans). They raise the problematic question of taxes, which no one wanted to pay back then – nor do we want to pay them now. Hoping to get Jesus to support one side or the other – the pro-tax or the anti-tax – position, Jesus was not going to be taken in. After a bit of flattery, they put him to the test: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” There is a lot happening in this text that we don’t have time or space to dissect, but questions are raised here about allegiance. To pay the tax would seem to give support to the overlordship of Rome. The tax was designed as tribute to the emperor, a sign of allegiance. To not pay the tax was to be in rebellion. In this case Jesus decides not to fight that battle and so asks: Whose face is on the coin required to pay the tax? They answer: It’s Caesar’s. The coins used to pay the tax would have carried images and words that celebrated the personage of the emperor, even highlighting the possible divinity of the emperor. So, paying the tax could be seen as giving allegiance to a power other than God, but as I said, to not pay it would have serious repercussions. I doubt that we can develop a coherent tax policy – either pro or against taxes – from this passage, but we are reminded that whatever might be owed to Caesar stands below what is owed to God. And in our day and age, when national flags sit on our altars and fly over our churches, I wonder what Jesus would say about this situation. So, whose face beckons us – Caesar’s or Jesus’?
I know that face. If it be the face of God, which as Moses learned cannot be seen by the human eye, and then the nature of that revelation may be different. You may have to see the presence in ways other than the face, though in the message of incarnation we are reminded that God is seen in the face of Jesus. Still the presence is known. We can see that presence in the faces of those who bring us the message, the ones who have been our exemplars and whom we can imitate. And then there are the faces that represent for us conflicting allegiances. The issue isn’t paying taxes. The issue is allegiance. Living in the world as we do, we will need to recognize the value of order, but we can also recognize that none of this order is in itself primary. The question is: how will we know when it is God and when it is not?