1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
When they crucified Jesus, Herod put a placard on the cross in three languages that read, “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.” Imagine walking past the cross on your way to Jerusalem, your business on your mind. Perhaps you’re going to sell livestock, or perhaps buy some property. In any case, you may have a bag of coins secreted on your person. But wherever it is, you better believe that you know exactly where it is, and exactly how much those coins in there are worth. You know the faces on the coins and the words. Most of them probably say, “Tiberius Caesar Divi Augustus Filius Agustus” on one side, with the head of Tiberius Caesar, and “Pontifex Maximus” on the other side, with the head of Livia, the Roman goddess of peace. Tiberius is the emperor of Rome, and his soldiers have stuck all these men on these crosses. You’re a little creeped out that you have come this way, past all the dying men on crosses, and you look up—there’s the sign. “King of the Jews.” There might be a flash in your mind—you might simultaneously think, “We have no king but God,” and “Our king is the emperor, just like everyone else’s king.” So, which one is more real? Who is your king? Certainly not the crazy man on the cross, put to death to mock and terrify all those who dared to believe in something other than Rome.
Jesus, however, is an ambiguous case. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s, he says. What does he mean? A lot depends on the flavor of Jesus you prefer: if you like the radical, revolutionary, anti-capitalist Jesus, you’ll note that Jesus has no money on him, and thus needs to ask for a coin. You’ll note that the Torah does not allow images to be made, and so the coin itself, emblazoned with an image, is an affront against God, and you’ll come to the conclusion soon enough that Jesus here is castigating the whole system, confronting empire, speaking truth to power, and so on. However, if you’re a dyed in the wool Protestant like me, you’ll see Jesus striking a moderate pose: the civil authority has its own importance, God ordained, and fully deserving of respect, but not as much as God. I take comfort in knowing that Justin Martyr, one of the earliest theologians of the church, argued that Christians were actually very faithful taxpayers and shouldn’t be considered a bother to anyone, which lends a bit of credence to the latter interpretation, which is also part of the Book of Concord and thus something that I’m supposed to use to guide my teaching and preaching. Of course, this moderate stance didn’t help Justin much, since he earned the name Martyr. Paying taxes will not save us, nor any other good work for that matter.
In times like these the question of faithfulness to God and faithfulness to the state arises naturally. What do we owe our nation, and what do we owe God? I’d like to simply put something forward to consider—that we, as citizens, owe our state our best effort to make it good. And the only way we can know if it is doing good is to know what good is. And so, we must always judge our country against those norms. Throughout the New Testament, there is a running theme in Peter, Paul, and the rest: they want everyone to know they respect the state and honor it, but they love and serve God. They acknowledge the authority of the Emperor, but they only serve one Lord—the King of the Jews. Paul on trial insists on his rights as a Roman citizen, and all the privileges that affords him. But he always considers his trials an opportunity to testify about the one true Lord: the crucified King of the Jews. He never holds the emperor as a god, and he never worships Rome or the idea of Rome.
The Pharisees, when they come to confront Jesus, aren’t actually really interested in an ethical theory of church and state. They simply are looking for a way to trap him, and I suspect they don’t care if they trap him as a radical who suggests breaking empire, so they can then turn him over to the empire’s authorities, or to trap him in their own complicity with an occupying army. They just want him gone. But Jesus, seeing through their attempt, instead puts the focus where it should be—on God. The distinction is clear, I think, and simple. The state has a role that is right and good, and the laws of a nation are to be honored and obeyed.
But—and it’s a big but. If the choice to obey the state or obey God, Scripture, and the Book of Concord for that matter, are clear: we must obey God. The old bishop, Hilary of Pointiers said, “We owe God the body, the soul, the will—that is to say, the whole person. Once we have become totally impoverished, however, there is nothing
more that we can owe Caesar. Or, as Tertullian put it, the coin that bears Caesar’s image belongs to Caesar, but the entire person, who bears God’s image, belongs to God. The state has its proper role, but God reigns above every ruler and nation, every king and every judge.
This year, as you’ll hear in a few minutes from Susannah, our stewardship campaign will have Sanctuary as its theme. That’s going to be our fall and winter focus, because we will take another approach to it for our Advent worship. The Statue of Liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” but I happen to think Christ’s invitation both precedes and supersedes that poem. If that poem is an accurate reflection of the spirit of our nation, well and good: but if it is not, still God’s people have that spirit. After all, God has invited us, yearning to be free from all that weighs us down, into God’s church.
Whatever your heart trusts is an idol—idol smash!
Reverend John Flack
(the above is a working draft of what was used on Sunday)
 Both this quote from Hilary and the next from Tertullian are actually Ulrich Luz’s summaries of them, found in his commentary on Matthew.