An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Allegiance to Jesus

A sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 & 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 by Andrew Woff

Last Sunday afternoon, I had the privilege of attending the ordination service of the Baptist Union of Victoria. On that occasion 4 young men briefly told the story of the way God had led them to commit themselves to serve God through pastoral ministry. We heard their affirmation of faith, and of call, and we laid hands on them and prayed for them as they commenced the living out of their ordination. It was a powerfully moving service.

On reflection later, it seemed to me that the inspiration lay not in our creating an elite class of Christian ministers. All Christians – not just pastors – are ordained to ministry at their baptism.

The power of the service for me lay in the purity and integrity of 4 people, who had identified the passion that lay at the core of their being and responded whole-heartedly to it. Their call to this form of ministry was not a flight of fancy or ego trip or one of a competing number of possibilities, but a deep, thoughtful, considered and thoroughly tested conviction that had the effect of centring and focusing their whole being. They had sensed God’s deep stirring in their lives and had said “Yes”.

When I read this evening’s lectionary readings this week, my mind was drawn back to last Sunday’s ordination service. In particular, our 2 NT stories seemed to offer a staggering contrast between 2 responses to the gracious call of God. In our first reading, we meet a group of people who pretend to approach Jesus on a quest for truth, but are actually motivated by self-serving prejudice and deception. In our second, Paul talks about how grateful he is to God for the whole-hearted and faithful integrity of the Thessalonian church.

I’d like this evening to sketch out each picture a little, and then to invite us to reflect on our own response to God’s call within our lives. In the reading from Matthew, we discover some people – identified as Pharisees and Herodians – coming to Jesus with one of the great issues of practical ethics of Jesus’ day. You see, ever since the year 6, when Judea became a Roman province, the Roman occupying power had levied on all Jews a census tax. It was only to be paid in Roman currency – which bore the head of the Roman Emperor and the caption:

Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.

Stirred by hatred of the Roman occupying force – and of the tax’s implied idolatry – the census tax became the basis for the nationalistic zealot movement – which some decades after Jesus led to the revolt that led to the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70. This was no small issue. And yet, Matthew tells us that there is more going on here than a group of questioners seeking Jesus’ assistance with a puzzling ethical dilemma.

Firstly, Matthew tells us that the Pharisees are the initiators of this – and we know that they are already plotting to have Jesus destroyed. Secondly, we are told that the question was a plot to entrap him in his own words. How this was to happen becomes clear when we realise that the questioners were a mixed group of Pharisees and Herodians. Pharisees were popular with the people because they objected in principle to the census tax, although they did not take the step of some Zealots in refusing to pay it. Herodians were the group of Jews who were overt supporters of the Roman regime.

So here’s the scenario. If Jesus says that the census tax should be paid, he alienates the vast number of Jewish nationalists. If he says that the tax should not be paid, then he is vulnerable to Roman arrest. And finally, to turn the screws a bit more, the questioners come with a lot of oily words about what a teacher of Godly integrity he is and that he does not play political or social games in his teaching. Of course, Matthew tells us, that Jesus is quite the master of this malicious deception. From the beginning, he sees its hypocrisy. He asks for one of the Roman coins with which the tax is paid. It’s a subtle point that Jesus does not carry such a coin, but even though the scene takes place in the Temple, a coin – with its idolatrous citation – is brought to him. Implication: that for all the Pharisees words of objection to Roman occupation, they and even the Jewish Temple fully participate in the Roman financial system.

So, having seen through the plot, and having revealed the compromise in the Pharisees own position, Jesus simply affirms that you might as well pay the Roman coin to the Roman Emperor, and give to God God’s rightful place in your life. The Herodians cannot argue with that, and the Pharisees realise that Jesus has simply confirmed their own behaviour.

So what are we to make of this story? I do not think Jesus is trying to outline a theological position about the separation of church and state, as some have suggested. Jesus’ sayings here have much more to do with his response to a context of conflict than a dispassionate saying about church and state. However, this is a story about human deceptiveness, and how God sees through it, and how Jesus calls us back to offer our primary allegiance to God.

In a sense, I find it a desperately sad story. At best Jesus is seen as a clever negotiator in tricky dilemmas. At worst, we see a picture of how we humans can operate when we are unsettled by a revelation of God’s truth. In stead of facing ourselves in the light of God’s grace and truth, we can run away and hide into a world of closed-hearted self-justification. We give ourselves over to prejudice, narrowness, self-deception. And like these questioners of Jesus, we can so delude ourselves that we end up playing a role that is a million miles from the truth. We can actually approach Jesus as if we were genuine seekers of his truth, when in fact our hearts are serving the very opposite purpose.

It is very possible for religious people to become enslaved by hidden agendas, closed heartedness, and deception. We convince ourselves that we are seeking and serving God, when in fact, we are holding God away. However, Paul’s opening words to the Thessalonians indicate that human beings can also find themselves living in deep integrity with God’s presence among them.

Paul starts with his gratitude to God for the Thessalonian church, and comes out with a formula that sounds like its come straight off the sermon manuscript of an evangelical preacher. He affirms 3 things:
their work of faith;
their labour of love;
their steadfastness of hope.

Work, labour and steadfastness sound like a pretty dour and dutiful combination to me, but Paul makes it clear that they arise not from religious duty, but from a genuine experience of encounter with God that has transformed the focus of their lives. Despite the threat of great persecution, these people had turned from their old way of life to embrace the joy of Jesus. And so their example of joyful and practical faith had spread all over the place.

It is a picture of a community of faith that knows the hard road of Christian discipleship, but has chosen it because they have grasped the much greater joy of choosing life and love and fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

So here are 2 pictures of human response to the revelation of God. One seeks to avoid the truth, and becomes self-protective, deceptive, and murky. It is a pathway to dis-integrity – where the machinations of the conscious mind seek to over-rule the truth that stirs in the spirit. The other is open to the truth, hears God’s invitation of love, and discovers the transformation of faith, love and hope. It is the pathway to peace as the inner spirit and the conscious mind move in the same direction.

Now, I know that this sermon could end with a simple moral exhortation to be like the Thessalonians and not the Pharisees. But then we might just succumb to the temptation to convince ourselves that we are, like the Thessalonians, the good guys and fall into the Pharisees trap of justifying ourselves. Far better, I think, to acknowledge that both are possibilities we all find within ourselves. And to remind ourselves that our faith is about grace – that God comes to meet us in the truth of who we are. God is far less threatened by the darkness in our lives than we are!

You see, we human beings are very complex – made up of many needs and desires and drives and fears. We may have given our allegiance to Jesus, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting and needing a great many things. And sometimes, in a desire for religious respectability – er… just like the Pharisees – we pretend that there is no darkness and no fragmentation within us. I am aware just how muddied the waters in my own life are. There is no doubt that I love Jesus and want to give myself utterly to him. But that’s not all there is.

I have known in my life what it is to be terribly afraid – to live with a sense of private hellish terror – and I know I’d prefer anything to having to go into that kind of place. I have known in my life some passages of lonely suffering – and I know how I crave, how I need personal relationship of warmth and comfort. I have known long passages of my life when I was ashamed of how totally incompetent and inadequate I was – and I know how tempting recognition can be for me.

Now, it’s not that security and comfort and recognition are wrong. But I can so easily become attached to them. I can actually find myself turning a little away from the search-light of Jesus’ love in order to make sure that I can keep the security and comfort and recognition I need. Except that my peace and integrity and happiness are only to be found as I turn away from the idols that hold me captive, and relinquish my allegiance to Jesus. So, I suspect the invitation within these two passages is not to lay a guilt trip on us. There is abundant grace for us, and forgiveness wherever we fail. But let us be on a journey of opening ourselves to the love of God, where ultimately our truth and our joy are to be found.

And let us allow that encounter with God to transform us from the inside out, so that we are less captive to the self-centredness that can imprison us, and more open to the integrity in Christ that sets us free.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.