How many UK fans do we have here today?
How many U of L fans? The U of L fans are much more excited this morning! If you are a UK fan just forget about football season and think about basketball season.
How many West Virginia fans do we have? A few, actually. Thank you to those few who root for my Mountaineers.
How many fans of the Buffaloes are here this morning? Almost everyone is wondering, who? It’s my alma mater – the Milligan Buffaloes. Milligan such a small school they don’t have a football team. I'm pleased that Lora could actually find a picture of them for our slides this morning.
What if I said we don’t have much choice in the teams we root for? Would you believe me? If you grew up in Alabama you would probably be an Auburn or Alabama fan. Chris is an Auburn fan – can you believe it? He even has an Auburn tag on the front of his car! If you grew up in California, you would probably be a fan of USC or UCLA. If you grew up in West Virginia you would be a fan of West Virginia University or Marshall. If you grew up in North Carolina, well, you still would know better than to be a fan of Duke or North Carolina!
We aren’t as independent in our thinking as we believe, which is the basic assumption I’m making in a new series of sermons that begin today. The series is called Think Again, and it will take us through historical events that shape how we think and even what we believe, especially in relation to our faith.
Our thinking is shaped by many factors. Tanya’s grandmother lived through the Great Depression. I remember her picking the mold off of bread rather than throwing it away. She would chide us for being wasteful, and she was correct. She lived in a time when no one could afford to be wasteful; I grew up in a generation that had so much we didn’t think twice about throwing things away. My mom disliked the decade of the 60’s. She didn’t like the protests and the upheaval in society. To me, it was normal. Our historical setting, along with many other factors, shape our thinking, even about God.
This morning we begin with a message titled Which Kingdom?
It comes from an event that took place 1,700 years ago today. Constantine, one of the rivals for the leadership of the Roman Empire, was camped with his army outside the city of Rome. The night before what has become known as The Battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine had a vision, and in the vision he sees the cross and the words in this sign conquer.
Constantine was not a Christian, but believed the vision to be a sign from Christ. He commanded that his army emblazon their shields with the Chi Rho symbol, which are the first two letters from the Greek word for Christ. Constantine and his army defeat Maxentius and he eventually becomes the Roman Emperor. Because he sees his victory as provided by God, Constantine converts to Christianity.
Upon his conversion, the course of Christianity was radically altered. In fact, this event so changed the course of Christian history I would venture to say that Constantine’s conversion is the most significant event in Christian history since the conversion of Paul, and it affects how we think today. It affects how we view our world, how we view the role of the church, and even how we view the upcoming election.
Constantine’s conversion certainly had some positive results. Prior to his reign, Christians were heavily persecuted by the Romans and were put to death in some of the most heinous ways imaginable. Constantine not only declared Christianity to be legal, he showered the faith with money, prestige, and power. Churches that had been destroyed were rebuilt, personal property of the faithful that had been confiscated was returned, and the emperor worked to bring unity to the Christian faith.
There were, though, some negative effects. Christianity, once the victim of the sword, now wielded the power of the sword through the emperor. Wars were now waged in the name of God, and wars become holy endeavors, such as the Crusades. One of the most powerful accusations skeptics make about Christianity is the amount of violence that has been done in the name of Christ. Before Constantine, that wasn’t possible. Constantine gave the church military power and we struggle today with the consequences of how that power has been used over the centuries. His conversion also brought about an entangling of church and state that remains with us to this day. Before Constantine, it was counter-cultural to be a Christian. After Constantine, being a Christian was a way to get ahead in government and business. Being a Christian became the thing to do. Before Constantine, becoming a Christian would end a political career; after Constantine, being Christian was a benefit to one’s political career (and it still it). Though Americans have always recognized the importance of the separation of church and state, the two are still very much tangled together in complicated ways. People of faith differ, for instance, as to whether the government is a tool to carry out the mission and purpose of the church, which is a question that did not face the church prior to Constantine. People now seek to understand the best way to bring their faith to bear on the political system, which could never happen before Constantine.
Today’s Scripture lesson, when read in light of its time rather than ours, gives us a much different perspective. When we read this passage we do so through the lens of a post-Constantine world. To us, we hear Jesus saying there is a comfortable relationship between faith and the government. Give to God what belongs to God, and give the government what belongs to the government. A closer reading of the passage shows us this is not at all what Jesus was saying.
Jesus is actually presenting us with a choice – choose which kingdom will have dominion over your life. He does this through the question of whether or not the Jewish people should pay the tax owed to the emperor. Those who asked Jesus the question saw it as an opportunity to trap him – if he said they should pay the tax he would lose credibility with his own people. To support the tax would be seen as an act of accommodation with the Romans, whose occupation of their country was deeply despised. If Jesus said they should not pay the tax, he would be arrested for sedition. Either way he answered, it appeared he was trapped.
In answering the question, Jesus first proves his brilliance in a couple of ways. First, his answer allows him to avoid the trap they had set, while at the same time exposing their hypocrisy, as noted by Mark. But Jesus’ answer also has a much deeper and important meaning: his answer is actually setting up the greater question of where we will give our loyalty – to God or to an earthly kingdom? As the Emperor claimed to be God, it was a choice between which God one would serve. The truth is, both God and the emperor demand complete allegiance. The emperor controlled every facet of people’s lives. He owned the land – as evidence by his troops – he owned the economy, and he owned the people. God made the same claim – all belonged to him. It wasn’t a matter of giving part of their lives to God and another part to the emperor; it was a matter of choosing which would receive their ultimate allegiance; only one could be chosen, not both. As Dorothy Day said, If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar (http://ecojustice.net/Coffin/Credo-Description.htm). And, I would add, Caesar would be very unhappy about that.
I think this leaves us to ask what it means for us today. What does it mean for we who live in a democracy – what are we to do with the question of rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God?
I have just a few points to make about what this passage means in our day and age.
First, I think we should be grateful to live in freedom, and not under persecution, as did so many of our forbearers and as many of our brothers and sisters around the world still do. I bristle when I hear suggestions that we are persecuted for our faith in this country. I’m not saying our faith doesn’t present us with some dilemmas – it should – but when we think of the persecution of the early followers of Jesus we don’t really know persecution. They were used as human torches to light the garden of the Emperor, they were victims of the gladiators in the Coliseum, and faced death in many other horrific ways.
Second, we can disagree on political issues. Did you know the early Christians were considered to be atheists and unpatriotic? They were considered so because they did not support the belief that the Emperor was divine and they did not worship the Roman gods. In today’s political arena either of those names would be a harsh charge, but some use those names if they disagree. Jesus lived in a day when disagreement with the government got you nailed to a cross. We can do so freely. It’s part of who we are, and it’s a great blessing that we can agree or disagree. We should give thanks for the privilege of being allowed to disagree, and we should never claim that someone with a different point of view is less spiritual or less serious about their faith. The disciples had differing points of view. One of them was a Zealot, a person who was dedicated to the overthrow of Rome by any means necessary. Another worked for the Romans. Paul used his Roman citizenship as an aid to his ministry at various times, but Peter would have nothing to do with the Roman authorities.
Third, our faith may lead us to different political positions, and both sides can have a legitimate point. I really tire of the reuse of the question What Would Jesus Do to How Would Jesus Vote and other slogans. Maybe the more important question is What would Jesus have me do? (Rev. Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, 69). The gospel can never be adequately expressed by boundaries of politics and positions, and when we seek to tie it to our own views we reduce it down to something far less than God intended it to be. There are people on all sides of the political aisle who are very serious about their faith, but no one side is always entirely correct.
Fourth, the church becomes less powerful when it depends upon earthly power to further its purposes. I agree with what Chuck Colson once said – the early church had very little power but tremendous influence; the modern church has tremendous power but very little influence. I believe that the reason that some of our world has largely abandoned the Christian faith is because of the abuse of earthly power on the part of the church, especially in Europe. I believe you should vote – and vote your conscience – but if we think we will usher in God’s kingdom through the ballot box we are greatly mistaken.
Fifth, we are called to be about the work of God’s kingdom. The question that comes from Constantine is this – did the empire become more Christian or did Christianity become more like the empire? We live in an earthly kingdom, and the issues in that kingdom are important, but as people of God we are about God’s kingdom, which is more righteous, more just, and more free than any earthly kingdom.
God’s kingdom has outlasted many great empires and many great powers, and will continue. The kingdom of God is greater than a vote, greater than a ballot box, greater than any weapon, greater than an army that has ruled the earth, and greater than any kingdom the earth has witnessed. The kingdom of God will not rise or fall based on laws that are passed, the kingdom of God will not rise or fall based on who wins – or loses an election, and the kingdom of God will prevail regardless of how difficult or challenging thing appear to be. If we believe differently, we need to think again.