Caesar and the Kingdom of God

A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 19 October 2014.  

Today’s solemn mass was adorned by the music of Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe and Benjamin Britten’s Jubilate Deo in C.  As a preacher, I felt further blessed by the happy coincidence in which the hymn choices wonderfully complemented the point I was trying to make in this sermon.  They were “Praise to the living God” (Leoni), “Sing praise to God who reigns above” (Mit Freuden zart), “Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face” (Nyack), and “Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun” (Duke Street).

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in Christ hast revealed thy glory among the nations: Preserve the works of thy mercy, that thy Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of thy Name; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

“Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen:

It’s fashionable these days for Christianity’s detractors to regard God as if he were just another Caesar: a tyrant making demands on all of our lives, demands oriented towards his own mysterious end rather than our good.  This is the idea that creates the audience for people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who rightly observe that such a notion of God is untenable.

But before we get too self-righteous about this, and congratulate ourselves for knowing that God is not in fact another Caesar, we need to stop and recognize that we Christians often get this wrong too.  We quibble with God about how much of ourselves we are willing to offer him.  We have a nagging suspicion that this isn’t quite the right question.  We have a feeling that whatever the answer, God wants more than we can manage.  It is easy to make our religious decisions based on the fear that might never have enough.  Enough of what?  We’re not quite sure, but we seem to think it’s limited, whatever it is.  And so we tend to operate with God according to the same principles of tribute and conquest which characterize the relationship between conquered peoples and Caesar: “I’ll give you this much but no more.”  “Look after my family and then I’ll fight for you.”  “I’ll do just enough to appear loyal but murmur against you in my heart.”

How many times have you and I treated God like Caesar? — offering tribute, currying favor, mounting impressive displays of religious patriotism, all while our heart is far from true?  We know God is not like Caesar, and yet sometimes we cannot help falling into the trap of treating him as if he were.  When we catch ourselves, we repent, and return to the commandment first to love Him.

But how is God actually different from Caesar?  We still speak of the Kingdom of God after all, and we use unapologetically imperial language about its expansiveness and its might.

Caesar, like the Kingdom of God, offers peace; but at a different cost, for a different purpose.  Caesar gives peace, so that he might then take more than peace.  Caesar gives peace, and takes wealth, takes authority, takes pride.  God gives peace, so that he might establish more than peace, forgiving sin, restoring us to wholeness, and reconciling heaven and earth.  The price of Caesar’s peace is blood and tears, to feed the ego of an emperor.  The price of God’s peace is his own blood and tears, to feed us.

Caesar, like the kingdom of God, offers justice; but in a different way and for a different end.  Caesar’s justice comes at the point of Caesar’s spear, and works to keep the spear in Caesar’s hand.  God’s justice too, comes at the point of Caesar’s spear, lodged in the side of his Son; it works to take the spears from every hand forever, and finally beat them into plough shares.

Caesar, like the Kingdom of God, offers glory.  Caesar’s glory is for Ceasar’s subjects, who honor themselves with crumbs from his table.  God’s glory is for God’s friends, whom He enrolls by baptism into the body of his Son.  We become co-heirs with him, and are given to eat from the royal table itself.

God indeed has a kingdom, but it is not like Caesar’s!

How then do we respond?  How do we render to God what is God’s?  How ought we to operate in relation to God?  First we have to recognize that the kingdom of God operates on an entirely different economy than the kingdom of Caesar.  With Caesar, the treasures of a people were surrendered to the legions as a token of defeat.  We read in the psalms that the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart.  Where Caesar demands humiliation, God prizes humility.  When our Lord goes to the cross by Caesar’s order, the king of kings submits to the authority of a human tyrant.  His humility changes the nature of sacrifice.  As he goes to offer his life a ransom for many, He goes willingly, accepting the shame, meeting it head on.  His is not the sacrifice of a conquered people forced into submission.  His humility changes his sacrifice and death into a gift which he freely offers.  He gives his life, according to Caesar’s justice, but for God’s kingdom and glory.

As Our Lord’s humility changes the nature of sacrifice into gift, so does his resurrection change the nature of gift.  Caesar cannot give without requiring something in return.  In Caesar’s economy, you and I cannot receive without giving up something of our own: whether that be money, or freedom, or dignity.  The resurrection of Our Lord breaks the power of Caesar’s economy.  Christ gave up his life, was anointed for burial, and sealed in the tomb.  It appeared to the disciples, to the legions, to Pilate, and to everyone that his sacrifice, the gift of his life, cost him that life.  But on the third day, the Son of God took up his life again, without taking back the gift he gave in surrendering it.  His resurrection changes the nature of gift: no longer a loss to the one who gives, gift becomes a higher kind of possession.

Our Lord’s resurrection changes the nature of gift into a higher kind of possession.  In the same way, his attitude of thanks changes the nature of possession.  Caesar has no use for thanks, apart from an anemic kind of courtly politeness.  Caesar cannot defend a city with thanks, he cannot intimidate his enemies with gratitude.  He cannot even build monuments to his gods with thankful hearts alone, but requires the more substantive contributions of armies and gold and stone and expertise, the whole economy of this world marshaled to his service.  One of the most frequent things we see Our Lord doing in his earthly ministry is eliciting thanks to God from those he heals, and in giving thanks himself in teaching and in prayer.  Likewise in his resurrection appearances we see him constantly giving thanks at the breaking of bread.  In doing so he is orienting his own heart to the Father in heaven, and lifting the hearts of those around him to the God and Father of all.  Far from an anemic courtly gesture, in the Kingdom of God, thanks transforms possession into abiding joy in the very presence of God.

How ought we render to God what is God’s?  The outline here is that of Our Lord himself: humility, sacrifice, and gift, transformed by the Resurrection into a higher kind of possession, with thanksgiving, that joy may abound.  This the economy of Love, which renders everything to God, and receives everything back again, transfigured.

Our God is not another Caesar, no matter how easy or comfortable it is for us to relate to him as such.  We must not be afraid of answering God’s call, whatever it may be, offering our whole lives to his service.  It always requires sacrifice, even to the point of death.  Caesar’s kingdom cannot survive death.  But the kingdom of God is planted even in the gates of hell, and grows and flourishes according to the love of Him who gave himself for us.  Let us respond in kind, that our citizenship might be found in his kingdom, and we too become partakers of eternal life.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.