The Twenty-Third Sunday After Trinity
Isaiah 64, Psalm 33, Philippians 3:17-21, St. Matthew 22:15-22
Where We Stand
For a time in the 12th century, Thomas Becket wore two rings. King Henry II made his closest chum and long-time partner in drinking, hunting and other manly pursuits Chancellor of England.
Henry was merely formalizing a relationship already in place. The chancellor was the king’s top counselor, and Thomas already filled that role. Henry valued his shrewdness, a quality he needed especially in his jousting with the church.
The king wanted to fill the royal coffers so he could prosecute a war in France to take back territories the English crown had once held. He derived all of his revenues from taxes on landowners. The church held vast expanses of land but the bishops refused to pay taxes. Church property, they said, was exempt.
Henry tapped Thomas to advise him in his wrangling with the obstinate bishops. And then, from the royal perspective, a most propitious thing happened: The Archbishop of Canterbury died. In a flash of inspiration, the king determined to see his crony Thomas installed in the top church post in the realm.
Thomas got his second ring and the king got his man at the head of the church in England. No one could thwart Henry’s desires now.
A conflict of interest? Exponentially. Thomas was now the highest-ranking servant in the realms of both God and king, church and state. And ere long, all hell broke loose o’er England.
When it did, the strangest thing happened. The archbishop got religion. He fell to his knees and prayed . . . and he saw his duty clearly. His first loyalty must be to God. He soon collided with the king, and Henry trumped up a charge of embezzlement against Thomas, who in his role of chancellor had been overseer of the royal treasury.
In the end, the king grumbled loudly, and perhaps drunkenly, in the presence of four of his barons that he would be better off with Thomas dead. They fulfilled that royal wish . . . and Henry closed this sad chapter by stripping them of their estates. Each of them died in a monastery, impoverished.
This nasty business in medieval England differs only in the particulars from other dalliances involving civil and ecclesiastical authorities. The state always wins. It wins because sinful men love the things of the kingdom of man more than those of the kingdom of God.
We heard of such as these in our reading this morning from Philippians, the ones “whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is their shame – who set their mind on earthly things” (3:19).
St. Paul contrasts these enemies of the cross of Christ with Christians: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (3:20).
Yet still today, some insist that the cure for our ills is a merger of church and state. God is not numbered among them.
As far back as Mt. Sinai He weighed in on the matter. Even in a nation that bowed to Him as their King, God instituted a divided hierarchy. He installed His prophet Moses at the head of the civil administration and Moses’ brother Aaron as high priest over the religious authority.
In that theocracy, the division was far less crisp than in 21st-century America, but it was real and it was God-ordained.
In our gospel lesson for today, we hear our Lord Jesus enunciating this principle in response to another of the Pharisees’ tedious attempts to trip him up. This time, they go in cahoots with the Herodians, who represent the civil government, and pose the question about paying taxes to Caesar.
Zealous Jews maintained that using Roman coins, which bore the image of Caesar, who claimed to be a god, amounted to idolatry. Will Jesus denounce Caesar to uphold Jewish law, inflaming the Herodians and inviting a charge of treason? Or will He deny that law to appease the Herodians and their Roman masters and arouse pious Jews to assail Him?
Either way, He indicts Himself. At last they have set the perfect trap. He will not wriggle free this time.
“And He said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”
Oh. He has confounded them again.
When our Lord returns, we will have a pure theocracy without tension between loving God and loving our neighbor. Our perfected faith in our Creator will inform all decisions regarding life in community. We will not even conceive of treating our fellow subjects in a way that does not honor our King.
Until that glorious day, we must have a secular government alongside the church to co-exist in the kingdom of man. We live cheek-by-jowl with non-Christians who do not subscribe to our code. The body politic must have a structure to administer and adjudicate our civil affairs. And so, “Render to Caesar . . . render to God . . .”
In our present circumstances, of course, keeping our balance with one foot in each realm grows more difficult by the day. The kingdom of man appears to be bulldozing the kingdom of God off of our shores. The moral decay we see around us causes us to weep.
And we have an enemy and this enemy does not rest. He plays dirty, you say? No news there. He plays dirty to tempt us to adopt his rules, to set our minds on earthly things and take our eye off of the realm of our eternal citizenship. The temptation to engage with him on his ground tugs at us relentlessly.
I confess I found myself succumbing to it. I was parsing out every item in the news and fretting over each new sign of rot. I had allowed the enemy to make me a captive of my grievances and the stimulation I received from entertaining them. Had I replaced the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with those of Greta, Bill, Megyn and Sean?
So I turned off the news and turned to the Scriptures to understand the temper of the times. And I saw anew : God is sovereign over time and tide, history and philosophy, men and governments. As the psalmist sang, better is one day in His courts than a thousand elsewhere (84:10).
Because He is above all things, God is worthy of worship. And because He is our King, His courts are our battleground. We must take our stand in the precincts of our all-powerful Sovereign, under His protection, and not on the foreign soil of the secularists.
We have tried the latter strategy. We need not look back so far as the 12th century to see the error of trying to merge church and state. Late in the 20th century we saw the Moral Majority and likeminded groups bid to make a political party their vehicle for instilling a renewed biblical ethic in the nation.
They leapt into the arms of secular conservatives – many of whom can be found in church – and congregations marched in lockstep to the polls in return for a pile of promises — such as an end to abortion. Well . . . it has been 44 years since the Supreme Court’s monstrous Roe v. Wade decision. Do you see an end in sight?
Politics is the art of compromise. The secularists – those rooted in the shifting values of this age – tack more nimbly on the sea of politics than do Christians whose consciences are bound by the cords of God’s everlasting, unalterable truth.
Our national moral malaise is a matter not of bad politics but of bad faith. Our materialism – the word describes setting our minds on earthly things – has left us prey to the predations of our enemy. A government that opposes God’s law is not the root of a godless culture but the fruit of it.
Our enemy the devil knows that the kingdom of man is passing away and on this shifting sand he is making his last stand. Desperate, he fights ferociously. And he makes pawns of non-Christian rulers, who inhabit the delusion that their pathetic victories are durable when in fact they are constructed of wisps of smoke.
Can he prevail? In the end, no, but look at the short-term damage he has wrought. He has induced a nation built on a foundation of Christian ideals to re-interpret or even abandon our fundamental religious text, the Bible. And if we have no recourse to divine truth, we can hardly stand on a man-made foundation constructed upon it called the Constitution.
The truth of both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man is now an open question, subject to debate at every turn and to revision at the whim of the majority in the heat of the moment. We answer to no authority outside of us, greater than ourselves, established in either an eternal divine perfection or an original national ethos.
In neither realm do we as a nation look to the ideals that saved us and sustained us. In their place we allow our ever-evolving appetites and ambitions to govern us. We are “children, tossed to and fro and carried about on every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). In more prosaic language, “We are the change we seek.”
When the enemy has corroded our trust in our holy writ and the law contained within it, he has in the same flick of his wrist crushed the national law code that was built upon it. The Ten Commandments still hang in the chamber of the Supreme Court . . . but only until someone figures out what to replace them with to cover up that faded spot on the wall.
The enemy is “more cunning than any beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1) and he does not abandon a strategy that has served him well from his beginning. When he undercuts a citizen’s commitment to transcendence — to locating his significance and purpose in something outside himself, more powerful than himself, more worthy than himself — he empties him as well of devotion to a shared community ethos.
One who has lost his faith in God will soon find himself incapable of allegiance to the once-Christian state.
We are becoming what C. S. Lewis called “men without chests.” The chest is the place where the thoughts that descend from the mind and the yearnings that well up from the gut find synthesis in things like love for God and love for country.
Men without chests look up worshipfully to their speculations they think so high and noble and simultaneously bow down to their base cravings which they contend make them “only human” . . . and seem to have no conception of how twisted and absurd they look.
The enemy knows the creature’s need for order and structure. He tempted Adam and Eve and got them evicted from the garden God gave them. Outside it, they and their offspring to this day have wandered, trying to set our own boundaries and impose our own order.
Israel would pay no heed to God’s prophets and God used their enemies to afflict them, to herd them into bondage outside the land He gave them, under the rule of godless men. Today, our enemy pushes the lie that we do not need the church God mandated in any institutional sense. Each is free to speak to God according to his own understanding without human oversight and correction.
The God-ordained structure called the church crumbles and the enemy roams at will among those who amble hither and yon without the discipline that gives cohesion. And those who find no need for the walls of the church have determined that the state can draw the lines of our morality according to our national consensus. By the time they awaken to the grim reality that the consensus does not exist, we will have anarchy.
The Christian citizen sees both church and state tumbling down and he wants to seize the weapon nearest at hand and engage the enemy on the spot. The enemy sees our distress and urges us to take up his carnal weapons and to engage on his soil. He knows that a Christian is a citizen and a Christian citizen is subject to the governing authorities.
If the enemy can make us hate the ones we must obey, he can undermine our citizenship both on earth and in heaven . . . for in loathing our national leaders rather than praying for them we rebel against our rulers in both kingdoms.
Our enemy would have us forget that we contend not against flesh and blood but “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And from the prince of the power of the air a smug smile descends to blanket our land.
He has no power in the kingdom of God on high, the church triumphant, but he roams to and fro upon the earth, kicking over garbage bins on his playground, the secular sphere. The contested territory is the church militant, where God has given His people for a brief season the privilege of contesting for our faith, of winning more souls to His cause.
Where then do we take our stand? In the kingdom of heaven on this earth. On the victory that the One who ushered in that kingdom has already won. On the promise of His return in glory to make all things new. This is our turf.
Our weapon is not politics but evangelism and discipleship. We fight with the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17). This is how the kingdom of God advances.
How is He with us? In the word He has given and the sacraments He has commanded – in baptism for the remission of sins; in Holy Communion, where we partake of the consecrated bread and wine according to His promise that He will be in us and we in Him.
He has equipped us with all the spiritual gifts needed to form ourselves into His church. But we must be careful to define our mission in His terms and not our own. Our weapon is not politics but evangelism and discipleship — but those are only weapons.
The main thing is worship.
And worship is where we make our stand. If we do not worship in spirit and in truth – meaning in the power of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the Living Word – we will have nothing of value to say to the pagans we evangelize or to the immature Christians we disciple.
In worship we receive God’s grace by God’s appointed means; in worship we renew our covenant commitment to our Lord and Savior; in worship we ascend into the heavenly places to join our voices to those of angels and departed saints in choruses of praise to God; in worship we find our foretaste of glory divine.
In worship, we celebrate not what we will do . . . but what God has done.
This is where the war to end all wars will be won. We will prevail with Him by standing our ground with Him where we meet with Him – at His table in His church. When the people of God render to God the worship due God, He will claim His victory and we will have our reward, the glory of His eternal presence. Amen.