A sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 & Matthew 22:15-22 by Nathan Nettleton
In a few weeks time we will be running another of our “Ancient Wisdom for Tomorrow’s Worship” workshops. The main purpose of those workshops is to share some of the unique fruits of our worship journey with other churches who might wish to learn from and perhaps even imitate some of what we do. Now, it has to be acknowledged that not all instances of churches imitating one another are positive or healthy. There are many many examples of churches uncritically trying to imitate the patterns and practices of the big and “successful” churches in the desperate hope that it will help turn them into big and successful churches, and frequently the results are truly awful. Many of the things that those big churches can do can only be done because they have got endless resources, and when you try to mimic them without the resources, it often just looks and bit sad and desperate.
Nevertheless, imitation itself is unavoidable. The tendency to observe and imitate is one of the things that makes us human. It is hard-wired into our brains and is quite inescapable, both for communities and for each of us as individuals. And in the reading we heard tonight from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, the Apostle points to the positive role of imitation in the practice of Christian discipleship. He says of the Thessalonians, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord, … and you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” This letter is generally considered to be the earliest piece of writing in the New Testament, so the images it offers of how to go about following Jesus are at the foundation of all subsequent traditions of Christian discipleship. And here we have Paul commending them for having “become imitators of us and of the Lord.” You see, we are incapable of choosing to give up all imitating, but we are able to choose who and what we will imitate. So how do we do that?
I want you to jump across with me to the other reading we heard, the one from the gospel according to Matthew, and to look for a moment at this story which at first glance doesn’t seem to be saying anything about imitation at all. But bear with me and I think we might be able to make a useful connection.
The Pharisees in this story are trying to set Jesus up for a fall. They come to him with what they think is the perfect trick question. It is a simple yes-no question, and either answer will get Jesus in trouble. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus says “Yes, pay your taxes to the emperor,” then his credibility is shot with the ordinary Hebrew people who bitterly resented the military occupation of their homeland by the forces of the Roman Caesar. They are hoping Jesus is going to be their great liberator, and they’ll give up on him pretty fast if he starts appearing in commercials for the Roman taxation office. But if Jesus says “No, don’t pay taxes to the emperor,” then the might of Rome is going to come down on his head, and when the might of Rome comes down on your head, there’s not usually much head left. It seems like the perfect trap.
“Show me the coin used for the tax,” says Jesus, and they produce the coin. Whoops. Their perfect trap is already starting to fall apart. This is taking place inside the temple precinct, and you’re not allowed to produce a Roman coin in there. That’s why they had all those money changers. Why not? Because the Roman coin has an image of Caesar on it and an inscription that proclaimed him to be a god, so to zealous Jews, this was a blasphemous graven image. You don’t produce one of those in the Temple. And Jesus is right onto them. “Whose image is this on the coin, and whose title?” What is this blasphemous image you have brought in here? Whose is it, and what does it say?
“Caesar’s,” they guiltily mumble. “Well,” says Jesus, “if this blasphemous image belongs to Caesar, then you take it and give it to Caesar. But the things that belong to God, you make sure you give them to God.” Now, as impressive as this is as a rhetorical Houdini act, that’s not what I want to focus on. What I want to draw your attention to is something that I think is deliberately implied in what Jesus says. Let me reword his answer just slightly in order to make explicit what I think would, to his hearers, have been clearly implicit. “If this thing bears the image of Caesar, you take it and give it to Caesar. But whatever bears the image of God, that you must give to God.”
And what bears the image of God? You do. We do. “Let us create humankind in our own image,” said God, “in our own likeness. … And so in the image of God they were created. Male and female they were created.” Anything that only bears the image of Caesar, Caesar can have, but what bears the image of God belongs to God, and let’s make sure we are are not short-changing God.
Now, what I want you to consider with me for a moment is the relationship between an image and imitation, because I think the one can very helpfully inform our practice of the other. If we are created in the image of God, then the more fully and completely we reflect the image of God, the more fully we will be realising our own potential and the closer we will be drawing to being all that we were created to be. All of us know the hunger to find and achieve our ancient destiny, to discover and embrace our true purpose, the goal of our being. And if we were truly created in the image of God, then it is all bound up with the image of God, and so surely the only meaningful pathway towards it is bound up with imitating God and the ways of God.
I don’t know if you saw the bizarre news story from the Philippines this week about the young man who is so obsessed with Superman that he has undergone a series of cosmetic surgery procedures in order to make himself look like Superman. Unfortunately, the standard image of Superman does not look like a Filipino, and so the surgical changes have been fairly drastic and there is probably a danger that this bloke will end up looking more like Michael Jackson than Clark Kent. Fortunately, imitating God is not about altering your physical appearance. There is, of course, some risk of people seeing it this way, because God has taken the risk of coming among us as a human being. Back in my early twenties, I was often jokingly asked if I was trying to look like Jesus with my bare feet and my long hair and beard. But while Jesus is certainly our primary insight into what God is like, and therefore the one we are to imitate as we seek to live into the image of God in which we were created, cosmetic surgery and bad eighties hairstyles are not the way to go about it.
Jesus is our primary insight into both what God is like, and into what fully realised humanity is like. It is a common mistake among Christians to think that we can’t imitate the sorts of things that Jesus did, because Jesus had all this divine power and so could do things that are impossible for other human beings. But if you have been following the lectionary readings over recent weeks, you’ll remember that just two or three weeks ago we heard the famous hymn from the letter to the Philippians where it says that Christ did not regard equality with God as something to be grabbed at, but emptied himself when he was born as a human. He emptied himself of all those things that would make him something other than human. As the old Wesleyan hymn put it, “emptied himself of all but love.” The things he did that look so extraordinary to us were not extraordinary because only a god could do them, they were extraordinary because we are so not used to seeing anyone who is anywhere near close to realising the fullness of their human potential. When we do see it, it startles and bewilders us. It seems like something unimaginable, miraculous, or maybe just weird. For as we’ve seen, the fullness of our human potential is, in fact, the fullness of the image of God.
So if we are to grow and live into the image of God, we begin by imitating Jesus. It is no accident that the term “following Jesus” is the primary metaphor for discipleship. We follow his example. We follow his patterns of relating and responding and reacting. We imitate him in his imitation of the absolute unshakeable love and grace of his Father. Just how challenging this can be is not glossed over in these passages of scripture. The encounter with the Pharisees is clearly a facing of hostility and bitterness and vengefulness. And the Thessalonians reading spoke of the persecution that was already threatening them and the wrath that was still to come. We might not be dealing with the kind of explicit and official persecution that they faced, but we surely know the wrath that is unleashed when we question the right of Caesar to keep strangers from crossing our borders, or to sacrifice our children in foreign wars, or even to keep mercilessly taxing the poor through unregulated poker machines.
But it is precisely in the face of such hostility that we find it so difficult to choose to imitate Jesus. It is alway much more tempting to imitate the hostility we are being subjected to; to lash out and reject and condemn and despise in retaliation. But even when faced with the perfect lose-lose trap question, Jesus doesn’t resort to reciprocating the hatred. His words are strong and unflinchingly honest, but rather than condemning his attackers to hell, he is calling them too to recognise the image of God in which they were created and to embrace that new pathway of love and mercy and generous acceptance. He is calling them to imitate him in refusing to be part of the problem that is tearing the world apart and instead become part of the solution that is radical and resolute borderless love. And he is similarly calling us, calling us to imitate him in responding the same way to our detractors and attackers. Ultimately he is calling us to imitate him in refusing to cooperate with the forces of death, but to love everything to life, even in the face of suffering and pain and despair.
I know that in this congregation, that vision is not altogether foreign, but has been glimpsed often, and is taking root and bringing life among you. One of the things I love and am proud of about this church, is what some of you have described as “we do pain well”. We are a people who are learning not to flee from suffering and pain, but to expect to find God in them, bringing new life. And so I know that together we are discovering, ever more fully, that it is not the might of Caesar that will bring liberty and life, but the ways of suffering love, of sacrificially absorbing hostility and pain, and trusting that even the fires of hell will leave a seedbed from which resurrection life and love will grow for all the world.