No aspect of our lives is off limits for God

Stephen Adam, 22 October 2017

1 Thessalonians 1: 1–10; Matthew 22: 15–22

Our gospel reading this morning points us to one of the most controversial questions we face as Christians – the relationship between our faith and the public realm. In an increasingly secular age, do we as Christians have any special insights to offer, or a privileged vantage point with a right to be heard, as some would argue the Anglican Church has with its position as the established church of this country? Or are we just one of many voices in an increasingly fractured and fractious marketplace? Or is faith purely a private matter, like belonging to the golf club, and we should keep our heads down? Or, when faced with the intractable and desperate situations we see and read about daily, should we be honest and recognise that our faith offers no easy answers – and so we resort to bland generalisations, pious platitudes and hand-wringing?

Jesus’ saying about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s is one of the most quoted and well-known bits of the Bible, but it is also among the most misunderstood. A bit of context first. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, with all that will await him there with his arrest, trial and execution. It’s a time of steadily increasing confrontations with the religious leadership, and these clashes will result in Jesus’ total rejection and his elimination.

So his enemies come up with a trick question designed to trap Jesus. If he says it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he’ll be branded as a collaborator; if he says it’s not lawful he’ll be condemned as a revolutionary. As so often, Jesus doesn’t answer the question but throws it back, taking it to a new level, and making the questioners think for themselves. Rather, both Caesar and God have claims upon us.

In history this relationship has been very differently understood and has caused tensions. Some have regarded the secular sphere as absolute with a totalitarian state, and religion simply a private matter. Others have seen Jesus as supporting a strict separation between the two realms; still others have used it to argue that God’s sphere is absolute, leading to theocracy, as in Calvin’s Geneva in the 16th century.

We must hold on to the fact that Jesus was a Jew, steeped in the Jewish understanding of God. The Old Testament prophets made no distinction between the sacred and secular realms: the worship of God and the right ordering of society went hand in hand. God overarched all. As Psalm 24: 1 expresses it:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it.

The implication of this understanding is that ultimately everything comes under the sovereignty of God. If we regard God as the ultimate creator of all things, then nothing – no aspect of our lives – is off limits for God.

In an outrageous act of love he has created us, brought us, hugged us into being and made us for relationship with one another, and given us in trust this beautiful but at times deeply challenging and perplexing world to inhabit.

And so Jesus takes the Roman coin. It bears Caesar’s image and, so yes, we have obligations to the state. But humans bear another image, that of God. As Genesis 1: 26 puts it, ‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”’. And Isaiah (43: 1) speaks of how God has created us, and ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’.

So we have that higher calling or loyalty, if you like. As Christians we shouldn’t be making rigid divisions of our lives between the sacred and secular – the sacred something we do on Sundays and the secular for the rest of the week. Rather, we need to ensure that the secular finds its proper place within the overriding claims of the sacred.

And this is where it becomes hard and costly work! You see, there was nothing bland or obvious about Jesus or his teachings about the kingdom of God.

Years ago Archbishop William Temple wrote of how some sorts of theology gave you the impression that Jesus went to Jerusalem to deliver a course of lectures on the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man – motherhood and apple pie we might call it – and met with an unfortunate miscarriage of justice.

Who could possibly disagree with his message of love and reconciliation? In fact, of course, plenty of people!

Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom was explosive, radical and unsettling. He didn’t want then, and he doesn’t want now, just admirers, but followers.

Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom was explosive, radical and unsettling. He didn’t want then, and he doesn’t want now, just admirers, but followers.

Just listen to his manifesto, as in Luke 4: 18–19 he proclaims from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are not so much a list of rules to follow, but tell us what sort of lives result when God is in charge – lives characterised by dependence on God’s goodness, lives that show forgiveness, single-mindedness, a restless seeking after justice, patience under attack, and so on.

Jesus’ teaching cannot but deliver a sharp social and political message, challenging all sorts of things in our present world. As Rowan Williams has put it: ‘It is when the Church is most clearly committed to the work of transforming the earth in which it lives that heaven becomes most clear’.

There is much more that could be said about how we might bring a distinctive Christian perspective to the pressing moral, environmental and ethical issues of our day, and here I would simply signpost you to the excellent series of ‘Space in the City’ talks going on at the moment reflecting on the Common Good.

I’d like to end by making a slightly different point. As week by week we say the creed, we affirm our understanding of God as ‘the creator of all things visible and invisible’. Beyond being a piece of theological dogma that we might struggle to get our heads round, it is also a fact of deeply practical meaning.

It holds before us the possibility of our lives being fully integrated, that no aspect is off limits, and that out of the confused and partial picture of our lives and of the wider world around us, God can somehow bring some sort of wholeness.

Out of the confused and partial picture of our lives and of the wider world around us, God can somehow bring some sort of wholeness.

In our theology the creating God belongs alongside the forgiving God, endlessly renewing and redeeming his creation. And so if we want to find our wholeness, our completeness, our identity, all that makes us fully human, a Christian understanding would be that we find that when we let God’s love penetrate our inner being, healing the hurt, the pain, the brokenness and bruising that each one of us has carried – or will carry – in one way or another at times in our lives. As a tangible expression of this, later on in the service today there will be an opportunity – if you would like – to receive the laying on of hands in healing.

A prayer in conclusion as we reflect on the transforming power of God in our lives and in the world around us:

O God
who set before us the great hope
that your kingdom shall come on earth
and taught us to pray for its coming:
give us grace to discern the signs of its dawning
and to work for the perfect day
when the whole world shall reflect your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.