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The Rev. Samuel Edwards: Sermon for Trinity 23

November 23, 2006

From the Rev. Samuel Edwards of the Anglican Church of the Holy Comforter in Alabama, here is a sermon on the relationship between our heavenly and earthly citizenships–perhaps a timely one for Thanksgiving Day:

Sermon on the Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity (2006)

Our citizenship is in heaven; from whence we also look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. [Philippians 3:20]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

As it happens, this year the church’s lectionary summons us to think about the relationship between our earthly citizenship and our heavenly citizenship in the time between a general election and Thanksgiving Day.
Who is Caesar? In the day in which Jesus answered the Pharisees’ trick question about the tribute money, it was the Roman emperor, Tiberius, who was styled Princeps,or First Citizen, since the Romans didn’t like the idea of kings, though they invested the Imperator with kinglike powers. At other times in history, it was a feudal lord, or a king, or a parliament, or a president, or a bishop. Opinions differ whether, in our system, it is the people or the law that is supposed to be Caesar, but there is no doubt that something occupies the place of supreme worldly power, even when we cannot always agree on its exact nature. This will be so until the final curtain comes down and everything comes under the direct rule of Jesus Christ the King. In the meantime, what he has to say to the Pharisees in this morning’s gospel he says also to us, and we need to understand it so that we can frame our behavior accordingly.
The first thing to note about the questioners is that they are not really interested in the question they ask except as a means to an end. Their real motivation is to get rid of Jesus by any means necessary. (This is underlined by the fact that the Pharisees are willing to co-operate with the “Herodians.” The Herodians are those who benefit from and advocate a policy of collaboration with the Roman occupiers. Normally, the patriotic Pharisees would have nothing to do with them because of this. This unlikely alliance foreshadows the later collaboration between Pilate and Herod in the judicial murder of Jesus. There is nothing like a mutual personal animosity to bring together people who would ordinarily have nothing to do with each other, except perhaps on the battlefield.) The questioners’ concern is not with the truth, but with maneuvering Jesus into saying something that will subject him to a charge either of sedition or of blasphemy.

This is the reason for the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t question, “Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar or not?” (This question is on the same order as that other famous question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”) If Jesus says “yes,” he will become a target of the resistance as an apologist for collaboration with the pagan occupiers: The Zealots will do him in and the Pharisees won’t even have to get blood on their hands. If on the other hand he says “no,” he will walk into the crosshairs of the occupiers themselves.

The problem for his malicious questioners turns out to be that Jesus won’t play by their rules. Unlike them, he is not interested in power, but in the truth. He responds to their question by asking to see the legal tender for paying the imperial tribute, which is a coin with the emperor’s profile stamped upon it. Someone has such an item (probably one of the Herodian collaborators rather than one of the nationalistic Pharisees, who would not have been caught dead with a graven image in their possession). Holding up the coin, Jesus then asks a question of his questioners: “Whose image and inscription is this?” They respond with the obvious answer: “Caesar’s.” To this Jesus says, “Very well, then: Give Caesar what belongs to him and give God what belongs to him.”

What Jesus has done is to direct their attention back to two of the most fundamental teachings of their faith (and ours) about the rights of the Creator and the nature of man: Namely, (1) that what someone creates belongs to him and (2) that man is made in the image of God. Because they have already affirmed the first by their recognition that the tribute coin bears the image of Caesar and therefore belongs to him, they also must understand that because they bear the image of God they belong finally to him. Paul expresses this to the Christians at Philippi as he writes that “our citizenship is in heaven,” and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews as well says that “here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” [13:14]

Jesus’ interrogators literally are dumbfounded: There is really no way they can respond to this counter-question without exposing their malicious, power-driven agenda to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. They have been boxed in by the truth. “When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left him, and went their way.” Since they cannot get him to incriminate himself, the only route left open to them for getting rid of Jesus leads through suborning perjury and treason.

On the basis of what Jesus here teaches us, it really is very clear what the relationship is to be between our earthly and heavenly citizenship. The primary citizenship is the heavenly one, but that does not exempt us from the just demands of the earthly. As long as Caesar’s laws are not in conflict with God’s – as long as they are consonant with his commandments and respect God’s image and inscription which is stamped on every human being – they are to be observed as a matter of conscience. Even when there is a possible conflict, the burden of proof is on the person who has the doubt about Caesar’s laws, not on Caesar himself. But when a genuine conflict does exist between the will of Caesar and the will of God and a choice must be made, then clearly the obligation of the Christian conscience is to follow the will of God without regard to the consequences. As Peter said to the Council, “We must obey God rather than men.” [Acts 5:29] If suffering for us ensues as a result, then we, with the apostles, may rejoice to be counted worthy to endure dishonor for the Name of Christ. [cf. Acts 5:41]

Jesus proclaims the principle: Obey Caesar, but God first. His behavior, even unto death, shows the way. In every generation his disciples have followed it. We may think of such as Sir Thomas More, who went to the block as “the King’s good servant, but God’s first,” but we need not go so far back in distance or in time. We may also think of Pastor Fred Shuttlesworth refusing in the name of God to let bombs and death threats drive him from his flock in Birmingham and his mission to more closely conform his city to the standards of the kingdom of God. We may think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who wrote the words on the back of today’s bulletin) going to the gallows because not only would he not submit to the Beast who claimed Caesar’s seat (Adolf Hitler) but actively sought its downfall. I think of a twenty-one-year-old German college student named Sophie Scholl, who with her brother and friends sought with words to awake the conscience of a nation against that same Beast, who not only refused a chance to deny the truth, but told it forcefully in the Beast’s own court, and who in the name of freedom, conscience, and God went to the guillotine still able to say, “The sun still shines.”

So will it – no, so will he – shine to us and through us if we will render to God the things that are God’s – “our selves, our souls and bodies.”

There’s a lot to think about in this sermon; there is also much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving Day, and to all who read this, please know I wish each and everyone a blessed Thanksgiving.

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