The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Exodus.
Remember, the Book of Exodus details the marvelous events that changed the people of Israel forever. God intervened in history in an extraordinary way, defeating the false and fallen gods of Egypt and bringing the Israelites from cruel slavery to freedom as God’s own chosen people.
God’s choice of the Israelites was to make of them a people different from the other nations. The nations would see the Israelite’s unique way of life and the curiosity this experience of difference would evoke would them become a kind of bridge, a route of access to coming to know the God of the Israelites. God intended the Israelites to become for the world his invitation to knowing who he is and what he desires for humanity.
We receive a glimpse of the radical difference, the unique way of life, that God chose the Israelites to bear into the world. Their God, the God of the Israelites, is not merely a God of a particular place or of a particular culture, but the One, True God- the God of every place and every people. And the One, True God demands that his people treat others with a reverence and respect that recognizes one should treat others as they would desire to be treated.
What is true of the Israelites as a people is also true of the Church. Remember, the Church proclaims the great story of the Israelites, not for the sake of historical interest, but because Israel foreshadows and anticipates the Church. The Church is the continuation of the story of Israel and the Old Testament’s descriptions and insights about Israel are for us Christians reference points to help us to understand our own identity and mission.
God chose all the baptized in Christ and through Christ made all the baptized his very own people. He chose us as his people so that we could be, like the Israelites, unique, and through our unique way of life, lead others to God in Christ.
Our way of life should look like what is described in today’s first scripture- and that is the lesson. Consider today’s scripture from the Book of Exodus If our way of life as Christians is a mere imitation of the values of the culture around us, if our practice of faith is mediocre, if our witness to the faith is thin, then we will fail in the purpose that God in Christ chose us for and fail in our mission as well.
In the Church’s second scripture, the apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonians, one of the earliest communities of Christians. He praises these Christians for their witness. They are a model of what a community of Christians should be.
Why is the witness of these Christians so extraordinary? Why have they become a model for Christians everywhere?
St. Paul tells us- because they abandoned the worship of idols.
Idolatry, the worship of false and fallen gods is the capital sin of the Bible. Remember, the first of God’s great commandments is a condemnation of idolatry.
Now, idolatry is not just the worship of mythological beings. Idolatry happens when anything worldly becomes our ultimate and primary concern. Examples of worldly idolatry are things like the rapacious desire for wealth, pleasure, power and honors. But idols can also be things like the need to be right all the time or the need to have things our way or the need to feel secure all the time, or even an unwillingness to ever forgive. These attitudes are idols.
Idols make false promises to us, insisting that if we serve them and give them priority, then we will find purpose, meaning and fulfillment. But that’s all a lie. All that idols can deliver is our destruction- and this is why God opposes any and all idols. God’s joy is that humanity would flourish, not be destroyed.
Christians are as susceptible to idolatry as anyone else. Just because we give intellectual or cultural assent to the content of the Christian faith does not free us from power and influence of false and fallen gods. Christian faith is not just ideas in our minds or a cultural expression. Christian faith is a new way of life, a way of life that begins when we do what the ancient Thessalonian Christians did- abandon the worship of false and fallen gods.
Christ is his Gospel distills all the commandments of the Law of Moses, commandments which were concerned with every aspect of life, from eating to drinking, to what one should or should wear or touch, to where one should live and how one should conduct their business- Christ distills all these commandments to love of God and love of neighbor.
Now remember, by love, Christ does not mean something sentimental, but love is for Christ an expression of that for which we would literally give up our lives, that which would be our priority and our greatest concern. Christ is saying that God and neighbor should be our greatest love and worthy of our greatest sacrifices.
Further, for Christ, love is not about our emotions, but our will. Love is not simply what we feel, but is an action and it is expressed in what we are willing to do- thus if we love God, truly, we will worship him. And if we love our neighbor we will serve him.
This worship and service happens for us Christians in the Mass and in what are called the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We Christians don’t make up our worship- God in Christ gives it to us in the Mass. We Christians don’t decide how our neighbor should be treated, God in Christ tells us in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Love of God and of neighbor are not abstractions of the mind or vague public policy decisions, but acts of our own will that are expressed in worship and in service.
Worship and Service. God in Christ commands both of his disciples. If we love God in Christ, then we will do what he commands us to do.