Wednesday, September 09, 2015

August 16, 2015 One of These Is Not the Same

August 16, 2015
Matthew 22:15-22

How many of you remember the children’s game one of these is not the same?  A picture is shown and the object of the game is to spot which one of the items is different.

In the picture above, we can certainly say that these are very different; one is certainly not the same as the other.

After traveling, people often ask your favorite place to visit, but rarely ask about your least favorite place.  This morning, I want to tell you about my least favorite place to visit while I was on sabbatical – the Pantheon in Paris.  Actually, I had forgotten there was a Pantheon in Paris.  I remembered there was one in Rome, but the one in Paris had slipped from my memory.

The history of the Pantheon is one that is very interesting.  King Louis the XV, in 1744, promised to rebuild what was a church in ruins if he recovered from a serious illness.  He did, and work began on the church in 1758 and finished in 1790.  In 1791, in the French Revolution, the church was turned into a mausoleum for French heroes, and people such as Voltaire, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Marie Curie are buried there.

Two times it was converted back to a church and then back to a secular building.  It’s a beautiful building, and really is an amazing example of great architecture.  But the French government transformed the Pantheon into a monument to man rather than God.  Every country has plenty of buildings dedicated to secular and governmental purposes, which is fine, but it’s the taking of a religious building and changing its purpose that I find very troublesome.  And even though many of the religious paintings on the walls of the Pantheon remain, the following picture especially represents why I didn’t like it.

La Convention Nationale is the name of that sculpture.  It is a monument to man, and glorifies man to the exclusion of God.  It also sits where the altar originally sat when the Pantheon was a church.  The altar – a testament to the glory of God – was removed, and this statue was put in its place.  Besides being a rather poor piece of art, what it represents is troublesome to me, because it reminds us that what Caesar wants, Caesar gets. 

Our Scripture text this morning contains one of the most famous stories about Jesus, and one of his most famous lines, and it is also one that is almost universally misunderstood and misrepresented, which makes it a text to return to on a regular basis, as it reminds us who is truly in control of our destiny.

Here’s a hint – it’s not Caesar.

Our Scripture text for this morning is one very familiar to us all, and contains one of the most famous – an misunderstood – sayings of Jesus.  Matthew 22:15-22 –

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.
16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.
17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?
19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius,
 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

I am grateful for the country in which we live.  I am grateful for our freedom.  Governments, as much as we are sometimes frustrated by them, are a necessity in this violent and dangerous world, and the Scriptures remind us that governments are one of the ways in which God establishes order in our world.
But let us also remember that there are many ways in which the kingdom of God is very different from the kingdoms of this world, and that we are not to make an idol of or worship our country or government.

When Jesus said to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, he wasn’t telling us there is a neat and easy division between the two.  Caesar claimed to be God.  Caesar demanded your heart, soul, mind, and life.  It was a capital offense for anyone other than Caesar to use titles such as Lord or Son of Man, which Jesus used for himself.  Caesar and Jesus were in direct competition with one another.  While Caesar said that he was Lord, so did Jesus.  While Caesar claimed that he was God, so did Jesus.  Both Jesus and Caesar made the same claim for themselves and the same claims upon people, but one was most definitely not the same.  The kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar (as representative of all earthly kingdoms) are vastly different, so let’s look at the ways in which we are called to acknowledge the kingdom of God as having true sovereignty over our lives.

Recognize who is the ultimate authority in life.
On December 2, 1804, Napoleon was crowned as emperor.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Napoleon crowned himself as emperor.  For many years prior to Napoleon, the emperor was crowned by the pope, a tradition that Napoleon absolutely rejected.  When it came time for the crown to be placed upon his head, Napoleon seized the crown, placing it on his own head, and declared that his power was not inherited from anyone, but derived from himself and from his accomplishments.

Setting aside the question of whether or not the church should have been involved in the crowing of emperors (they should not have been, in my opinion), the actions of Napoleon reflected his rejection of the true authority in life and in this world, which is God.

I am not an anti-government crusader, and I am not against government.  We are all, at times, frustrated by the actions and policies of our government, but government remains a needed institution for humanity.  Scripture acknowledges, in fact, the need for government and its role in God’s design for humanity.  Government provides us with security and a combination of services for which I am very grateful.  But I do not worship government; I worship God, and I recognize him as the ultimate authority for my life.

Recognize true power.
There is obviously a need for order in a society.  People can’t drive however they might wish to drive (although some certainly seem to do so).  We can’t take what doesn’t belong to us.  We can’t mistreat people.

It can be difficult to know where the line of compulsive power must end, but I do know this, when the church seeks to use coercive power upon people it is an admission of defeat.  Jesus never coerced anyone.  Listen to the manner in which Paul speaks of Jesus in the second chapter of Philippians, verses one through eleven, paying particular attention to the highlighted verses, in which Paul beautifully describes the manner of Jesus –

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,
then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,
not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing  by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,  he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
That’s not how Caesar operates, but it is the way in which Jesus operated.  Jesus demonstrated a power far different and far greater than that of Caesar.  It would certainly not be said of Caesar that he did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing  by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,  he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Caesar believed he was God, and he was anything but humble.  And he certainly would never be found upon a cross, as he inflicted that terrible end on scores of people, including Jesus.  Try withholding taxes from Caesar, and his actions were anything but gentle.  Try opposing the rule and authority of Caesar, and find yourself wanted and hunted to the ends of the earth.

As I told you my least favorite place to visit, I should tell you my favorite.  My favorite place that we visited on my sabbatical was the catacombs.  Tanya and I traveled just outside of the city of Rome to a beautiful, park-like area. 

After dealing with the crowds and chaos of the city, it was a beautiful, quiet place to visit.  We walked around the grounds, admiring their beauty, and soaked up the peace and quiet.  But the beauty of the grounds mask the reason why people visit there.  The catacombs were a burial place, and also the place where many of the early Christians went to worship.  The worshipped in such a place because the Roman soldiers would not venture into those tunnels.  The tunnels that form the catacombs were carved out of the volcanic rock and were filled with shelves where the bodies were place after death.  Imagine being under such intense persecution that it was necessary to climb underground, among dead bodies, to be able to worship.  Could we do such a thing, if it became necessary? 

Of the many fascinating elements of the catacombs was the fact that there were no symbols of death there, although a few bodies still remain.  There were, however, many symbols of life.  The worship of the early Christians transformed the catacombs from a place of death to a place of life!

We visited the catcombs the day after visiting the Vatican.  I wondered, with all the power represented in the Vatican, which church was more powerful – the church that grew to such power that it placed the crown on the head of the emperor, or the church of the catacombs?  I am not being critical of the Vatican, or the Catholic Church, but I would say that the church of the catacombs possessed a power that was far superior to the grand, imperial church.  It was a power that did not depend upon wielding the sword of the empire through the emperor or through vast wealth.

It was a power born in the catacombs, under intense persecution.  There are millions of our brothers and sisters in faith who live even today under terrible persecution.  If I claim to be persecuted, in my comfortable chair in my comfortable home in my comfortable life, God forgive me.  God forgive me for confusing persecution with disagreement.  God forgive me if I can’t stand a bit of ridicule and respond in grace and love.  Some say there is religious persecution in our country.  There is no persecution of Christianity in our country, of that I am convinced.  There may be many who disagree with us, but disagreement is not persecution.  Do not confuse those two things.  Neither is ridicule persecution, and if we are ridiculed we should rejoice, as commanded by Jesus (Matthew 5:11-12 – Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.)

As we processed through the tour of the catacombs, I noticed there was a group of Asian pilgrims just behind us.  As I was in the back of our group I could hear them as they traveled down the narrow passageways and into each room.  Near the end of the tour, they were in a room where there was a centuries-old altar, which marked the location of worship services conducted many centuries ago.  The group gathered in a circle and began to pray.  They prayed in their native language but when they were finished they began to sing in English.  They sang Alleluia, which echoed beautifully down through the stone corridors.  It was very moving, to think that this was what it must have been like all those centuries ago, Christian worshippers praying and singing deep in the bowels of the catacombs.  Caesar sought to put an end to the new faith of Christianity, but it is still with us, circling the globe and attracting billions of followers.  And where is Caesar?  His kingdom, once thought to be invincible and immortal, faded long ago.

One of these is not the same – both Caesar and Jesus make a claim upon us, and neither will accept the presence of a rival.  May we choose this day – and all days – that Jesus, and not Caesar, will be our Lord.

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