October 19, 2014 –– 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 45:1, 4–6 / 1 Thessalonians 1:1–5b / Matthew 22:15–21
Living in Two Worlds
Christians live in two worlds. As we gather in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (and remember that this happens all around the world), we meet in a specific place. In each place where Christians gather––under the authority of Jesus and his Church––there is another authority, the particular nation state of each locale. Christians live in two worlds.
The two worlds are not equal. The world we see seems to be the most important. Christian Faith holds that the world we cannot see is the most important.
This is a theme throughout Scripture. Early in Genesis we find that Cain built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch (Gen 4:17). This set in motion a growing tension between “the city of Man” and “the city of God.” St Augustine traces the development of this theme in one of his most significant books aptly entitled The City of God. He presents human history as a conflict between the City of Man and the City of God. The City of God is marked by people who forgo earthly pleasure to dedicate themselves to the eternal truths of God, which are revealed fully in the Christian faith. The City of Man, on the other hand, consists of people who have immersed themselves in the cares and pleasures of this present, passing world which is destined for destruction.
St Paul tells the Corinthians explicitly: the present form of this world is passing away (1Cor 7:31). This is an encompassing point of view in all the New Testament. It is the reason why the “upside-down” values of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teachings make any sense at all. Why be meek and forgiving and patient with hardships or even mistreatment if this world is all we have? Or as Jesus told Pilate, My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would fight…. (Jn 18:36).
And yet…. as Christians we do live in “this world”. So how do we keep our moorings? What is a good balance for giving our ultimate allegiance to our Lord while also living in the midst of day-to-day demands and cares?
First, there is not a detailed description of what we are to do and not do in this world. There are a few specifics that all Christians are to obey at all times and in every situation, but even those are more in the context of attitude and character. We are given a “perspective”, which is itself an incredible gift of faith. Do we truly believe that “this world” is not all there is? Faith––that ability to see what is unseen––really makes all the difference. Paul tells the Corinthians that if the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not true, and with it the hope of our own resurrection––certainly something that is beyond “this world”––then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1Cor 15:32). As Christians, our ultimate hope and allegiance is to a world beyond this one.
It is crucial that we understand this. This is the essence of what we say every week in the Creed. This is the context for believing that Jesus comes to us both spiritually and physically in the Eucharist. This is why we concern ourselves with such a thing as sin and salvation while the world around us says (and practices), Live for yourself, and If it feels good, do it.
So, how do we live in this world? The readings for today give us some parameters. The Isaiah text speaks of Cyrus. Cyrus was the Gentile king of Persia at the end of the seventy-year captivity of the Jews. God speaks through Isaiah to let his people know that the actions of a non-Jewish king exercising his reign very much in “this world” was part of what God was doing to fulfill his divine purpose. This is a general truth extending throughout time. As we live in this world with all its frustrations and threats––ISIS, ebola, politicians who are both evil and stupid, government structures (both local and national) which make poor decisions and policies––God is at work, all the time and in all circumstances, to fulfill his ultimate purposes. We need to believe and remember this as we live in this world.
Also, it is right and good for Christians to be involved in this world. We have a witness to give. We have contributions to make (as long as our contribution will be received without a demand that we compromise our greater allegiance). Christians should be among the best of citizens.
But…. there is something higher. Our ultimate allegiance is not “to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands….” Our ultimate allegiance is not to anything rooted in this passing world. This is what Jesus is saying in the Gospel: Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s (Mtt 22:21). There are some things that go beyond the political state and its power––even the best of governments.
Earlier this week, the city of Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., issued a subpoena to a group of pastors demanding copies of sermons that touched on the subjects of “homosexuality, gender identity or Annise Parker, the city’s first openly-lesbian mayor.” This is in flagrant violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the backlash has been strong. But the implication is clear: there are those who want a change in our national state so that Christian convictions are silenced.
A government has the authority to make something legal; a government has no autonomous authority to make something right. Right and wrong belong to God alone. Whenever a government does anything to tell its citizens that it is “wrong” to do right, the Christians who live among that citizenry need to say what Peter told the authorities at the very beginning of the Church: We must obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).
How are we to know where to draw that line? We are not left to the angst of individual conscience. As Christians, we belong to the Church. We have a Tradition of belief and practice that informs us. This is affirmed in today’s reading from the Epistle: Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians…. For we know that our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction….
As Christians, we are called to a Faith having the power of conviction that God has revealed himself through Jesus Christ, and that Jesus continues to speak Truth into the world through the Church he founded. We are called to embrace the tension of living in two worlds. We do that by giving ultimate allegiance to things which belong only to God. This is our Faith.