Monday, October 20, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22, for Reformation 2, "Church and State in the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. As we continue in our Reformation month, today we consider the relationship between church and state. How does a Christian live at once governed by God, and faith in His Word, and at the same time living under a government that rules Christian and non-Christian citizens alike? How do we face the interactions and overlap in our lives, between church and state? How does God’s Word guide and inform our responsibilities to both?

Jesus and His apostles address these questions. In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in a question about taxes. First they flatter Jesus by admiring His truthful teaching about God’s way, and that He shows no favoritism. He won’t give in to anyone’s opinion. Then they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If “yes”, that will be unpopular with the common people; if “no”, then they can accuse Him of stirring up rebellion. Ironically, though they claim to know He’s not fooled by appearances, that’s just what they hope to do by pretending to want a sincere answer. But Jesus is not fooled or swayed by their appearances.

With a single, memorable line, He silences them and settles the matter. They show Jesus a coin, He has them identify Caesar’s image and inscription on it, and He answers, “Therefore render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus describes two duties—one to government, and a higher duty to God. Don’t neglect duty to government; but even worse is to neglect our duty to God. Instead of falling into their trap, Jesus upheld both duties and showed how they had failed in their greater duty to God, by rejecting Him. Even though they themselves said He was “true and teach[es] the way of God truthfully.

Their question about taxes sat at the crossroads of their religious identity and the unwelcome presence of foreign Roman rule. Many questions of American life today sit at that same intersection between church and state, and are guided by Jesus’ same principle of two duties. The Lutheran Hour Ministries put out a good movie two years ago, using the analogy of a busy intersection to describe the frequently crossing paths of church and state. It discussed how our Constitution wisely established a traffic signal or stop light, in the First Amendment, to safely negotiate those crossings and avoid collisions.

Let’s consider our constitution for a moment, because our government, the USA, is our “Caesar.” Did you know that the only mention of the word freedom in the text of the Constitution is in the First Amendment? It reads in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Thankfully and wisely, our Constitution places limits on our government. It does not allow our government, the power to create a state enforced religion; it does not allow itself the power to prohibit the free exercise of religion; and the Constitution does not allow government the power to abridge the freedom of speech, etc.

You should study it yourself if you need convincing, but our Founding Fathers—who were not all Christian, by the way—had great foresight about the relationship between our new American government and God. They stated this principle in the Declaration of Independence, before the writing of the Constitution. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Though the Constitution never mentions God, and it’s not a document about God—freedom of religion and freedom of speech were the first liberties to be enshrined in our Bill of Rights. They recognized that God stood over certain rights that they were bound to recognize. Unalienable rights: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness—are from our God—not from the government. That’s a big difference; because without God granting these rights, who is to say that government is not the highest authority that can give or take away our rights? That is a frightening thought, and the founders knew it, and so built these protections into our Constitution.

But how does a Christian in America, answer to the higher authority of God, and render obedience to Him, when we run into conflict with “Caesar”, our government? The simple answer is that God’s authority overrides for the Christian whatever any government may prohibit, command, or allow. The apostles of Jesus gave a clear direction about what to do when they confessed that “We must obey God, rather than men.” If the government allows same-sex marriage or abortion—it is not therefore allowed to the Christian, who must obey God’s clear Word. If the government commands us to violate our faith by participating in something that is contrary to our faith and conscience—doing something unethical—we must civilly disobey. If the government tries to prohibit what we are free to do—namely preach and teach the Word of God—we must also disobey.

Am I just inventing hypothetical or abstract examples? Sadly they all happening in current events in America. Most recently, in an unfolding story in Houston, Texas, the mayor’s office has subpoenaed the speeches and pastoral communications of five pastors. They exercised their free speech to stand against a new city ordinance opening public restrooms to people of both sexes. Though the outcome is still uncertain, it’s alarming that the government wants to silence free speech from pulpits, or cannot bear criticism and opposition. The Founders envisioned churches and people of faith forming the moral conscience of America. We see what happens when that voice is silenced. Do you believe that the government should dictate what churches can or cannot say, and define what speech is political, or simply Biblical?

Fortunately we have a constitution and bill of rights that protects those freedoms—but they are being tested and eroded every day. A former president warned that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” And your duty as Christian citizens is to make use of your freedoms—the free exercise of your religion, the freedom of your speech, and your right to vote so that your voice is heard, just as much as those who hold different beliefs and opinions. As Christians, we should also remember that those who have no voice or who cannot speak for themselves, have a claim on our voice to speak up for them as well. Our duty to God includes a duty to our neighbor, including the unborn, the aged, the defenseless, and the infirm.

Under the best of circumstances, Christians shouldn’t have to choose between rendering to Caesar or rendering to God. Under the best of circumstances, freedom of religion is protected, and we can carry out duty to God and government in good conscience. But in countries around the world, and increasingly in our own, we don’t live under the best of circumstances, and conflicts often do arise. Christians cannot afford to remain silent or avoid participating in the discussion as life in our nation is reshaped. Often we feel or hear pressure from the media, politicians, or maybe even from fellow Christians, that we should just “keep our faith to Sunday morning”. But you tell me—isn’t silence or hiding our faith rendering to Caesar what belongs to God? Neither Jesus nor His apostles were silenced by anyone’s opinions.

One of the most common arguments I read or hear, is that Jesus never said anything about abortion, or homosexuality, or some other hot topic. And while undoubtedly not all issues come up in Jesus’ teaching, this argument artificially limits what Jesus said. It fails on a number of levels. First of all, Jesus never mentioned a variety of other sinful behaviors, incest, spousal abuse, drug abuse, etc, but this doesn’t mean He approved of them. That’s called an argument from silence. Also, Jesus did speak broadly against all forms of sexual immorality and taking of innocent life, not just those specific examples He thought to name. Secondly, we can’t separate Jesus words from all the rest of Scripture, as He repeatedly, explicitly upheld the authority of all God’s Word. Paul’s letters or what Moses writes in the Old Testament, are all God’s inspired Word. And finally, while there are categories of Old Testament laws that became obsolete after Jesus fulfilled the law, and are no longer applicable to Christians, these examples were not.

From the time of Jesus, Christians have understood which laws of the Old Testament are still binding and which are not, in a simple and straightforward way. Those laws that are repeated and reaffirmed in the New Testament for us to follow, are still binding on Christians, as for example, the forbidding of homosexuality. They are “moral laws” that we still must obey. The laws that Christians no longer must obey, are also defined in the New Testament: Old Testament ceremonial and worship laws, food laws, laws concerning Old Testament Israel’s unique government and criminal penalties, etc. These are not repeated or expanded universally to all people in the New Testament, or they are declared complete, and no longer binding.

The government and laws have changed through time, from Israel, who had its law direct from God, to Rome or America whose laws have mixed origins. But there is an overarching truth that covers all of time, and that is that all governments and all citizens are finally answerable to God alone. Jesus said it simply when He said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” God is not “running for office”—He already stands as King and Sovereign over all, whether we acknowledge Him or not. And just before His death, Jesus acknowledged this Kingship, though He clarified that His kingdom was not of this world.

What kind of rule does He extend? It is a reign of grace and peace. He showed His reign when He submitted to tyrants and injustice on the cross, and unseated the powers of sin and death. He rose from the dead to usher in an eternal kingdom that is now, but not yet. A kingdom that stands and grows forever. Our present, earthly government is a part of this sinful, temporary world that will one day pass away. But Jesus’ kingdom was prophesied by Isaiah in these famous words (ch 9), “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom,  to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

The role that our earthly government and our participation in it as citizens plays in God’s eternal plan is significant, and we cannot ignore our duty to taxes or to strive for a just government—but we have an even higher calling and duty, and that is to belong to our God and the everlasting kingdom of His Son. The kingdoms of men can never give us salvation, and their plans often come to nothing. But the kingdom of God’s Son brings us salvation full and free, and His plans never fail. He is the God in whom we trust. In His kingdom we live by faith and by the forgiveness that He freely grants to all who trust in Him. Render yourself to God, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. The relation of church and state or politics and faith can often be a tense or controversial one. What particular issues are most concerning to you? Do you consistently apply a Christian, Biblical worldview to your life and voting? How does it inform you?
  2. In Matthew 22:15-22, how did the Pharisees hope to catch Jesus in His words? How did His answer outwit them? What two duties does Jesus describe? Which is higher?
  3. Do you think a traffic intersection is a good analogy for the relation of church and state? The first amendment of the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” How does our government (our “Caesar”) protect our religious freedoms from interference? Why is it so important that the Founding Fathers of the USA recognized that government was beneath the authority of God?
  4. What must a Christian do when their duty to government conflicts with their duty to God? Acts 4:19-20; 5:29; Daniel 3:12-18.
  5. How can a Christian in good conscience exercise their freedoms and privileges as an American citizen? Whose interest are we to look out for, besides our own? Philippians 2:4; Proverbs 31:8-9; Matthew 25:35-40
  6. A common argument says that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality or abortion or ____, so Christians should have nothing to say about them either. Does this mean that Jesus approved of all the sins that He didn’t mention by name? What about those things that are named as sin in other Bible passages? See what Jesus said about sexual immorality in general, as well as the taking of innocent life: Matthew 5:27-32; 15:19; John 8:11; Matthew 5:21-26.
  7. The simple way Christians understand which Old Testament laws are still binding on Christians today is whether or not the New Testament repeats and reaffirms them for Christians—as Jesus does with the moral law in the Sermon on the Mount, and as the apostles do in their letters. At the same time, Jesus and the apostles also show which laws have been fulfilled and are no longer applicable, such as ceremonial, sacrificial, food, and OT governmental laws. How is Jesus’ kingship eternal and overarching? Isaiah 9:6-7; John 18:36-37.

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