Click the link above to see the two short talks I am giving this Sunday about the rôle of Caiaphas in the death of Jesus. The first talk (slides 1 to 11) is based on John 11:45-53, where Jesus is seen as a threat to the privileged status of the religious ruling classes in their cosy relationship with Rome. The second talk (slides 12 to 17) comes from Matthew 26:47, 57-66 where at the trial Jesus’ confession of deity (‘Son of Man’) leads to a display of misplaced religious zeal. So it all religious zeal wrong, or is there a better way?
The talks are necessarily short, coming as part of all age worship, and on a Sunday when we are holding our AGM after the service. I am well aware there is much more that could be said.
Many of us will have heard all sorts of stories about baptism. A friend of mine, when he was an Anglican curate, really did baptise the wrong end of a baby! Me, I just worry about the baby grabbing the radio microphone – or, worse, my glasses. Or there’s the story of the minister telling the congregation before a baptism, “The water isn’t anything special or magic, it’s the same water we’ll use later for making the coffee.”
But what, in all seriousness, shall we say about baptism today on Holly’s big day? Early in the baptismal service, I read two passages from the New Testament. The second was from Acts chapter 2. I prefaced it with these words:
‘On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection. Those who heard the message asked what they should do. Peter told them:’ (Methodist Worship Book, p89)
And then I read what he said:
‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ (Acts 2:38-39)
I want to say this is all about anticipating the future. We anticipate future events. For example, later in the year we shall be conscious that Christmas is coming, and will make our plans. We shall ask people what presents they would like, buy special food, make arrangements to see family and so on – all because we are anticipating a future event. We want to get ready.
When Peter preaches ‘the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection’ he’s using that to make people think of the future. The resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the future, when God will raise everyone from the dead and he will reign unopposed over all creation. And what Peter calls his hearers to do is anticipate that future. In what ways?
Last Sunday morning I asked people how good their French was. It’s similar with the word ‘repent’. ‘Re’ means ‘again’ and ‘pent’ is from penser, ‘to think’ – like our word ‘pensive’. So to repent is to think again, and that’s what the New Testament Greek word translated here means, too. When Peter calls the crowd to repent, he’s telling them ‘think again’ – about the way you live your life, and change where needed.
I used to preach at a church that was on the ‘wrong’ side of a dual carriageway from the direction in which I lived. Every time I took a service there, I drove beyond it on my side of the road, to the next traffic light junction, where drivers were permitted to do a u-turn from the filter lane.
Repentance is like a u-turn. When we encounter Jesus, he makes us think again about the way we live our lives, and we do a u-turn in our lifestyle.
What does that have to do with anticipating the future? I think the point is this: when God raises us all from the dead, judges us and reigns without opposition, we need to be in line with his will. We need to start now – by doing a u-turn.
Last month, every class from Broomfield Primary School came here during the week to look at our building and ask me questions. One of the things I showed them was the font. They were intrigued by our small, portable font, in contrast to the large stone font at St Mary’s.
We talked about what it meant. They knew we put water in the font, but not necessarily why. So I asked them what we use water for in everyday life. Some said for drinking, and I could have made something of that answer. But I concentrated on those who said that water was for cleaning ourselves. I tried to explain that the water in baptism is a symbol of God cleaning us from sin.
That’s what the symbolism of pouring water on Holly has been about today. It has been to show that God wants to clean us from every sin. Have you ever felt dirty inside after doing something wrong? God wants to remove that from us.
And it’s done, says Peter, ‘in the name of Jesus’, because these gifts come to us from God through Jesus, and especially his death on the Cross, where he died for our sins, in our place. That’s why we need faith in Jesus – to receive this cleansing from all our sins that are a barrier between ourselves and God.
What does this have to do with the future? It means that at the Last Judgment, God will – amazingly –deliver a verdict not that we are guilty but that we are in the right with him, all through Jesus.
And that leads onto the third element:
I guess everybody knows that the central message of the Christian faith is about forgiveness. But what is forgiveness? Some people think it is pretending that a bad event didn’t happen. Others think it means excusing people’s actions, by explaining away their conduct. Others think it is about suppressing our anger when we have been wronged.
I don’t think it’s any of these things. True forgiveness looks the person in the wrong squarely in the eye, knowing where the blame lies, not excusing their actions, nor pretending we are not angry. But then, despite laying the blame where it rightly belongs, the one who forgives refuses to pass sentence on the wrongdoer.
And that is what God does for us in Jesus. He knows our actions are wrong, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. He knows we are blameworthy, but he refuses to sentence us to what we deserve, which is life and eternity without him. He discards the sentence and invites us into his family, which we do but handing our lives over to him.
Again, this is about anticipating the future. Trust your life to Jesus Christ and follow him, and you need have no fear of God’s verdict on you, either now or in the future. He knows where we are in the wrong, but he refuses to pass sentence. In fact, the Greek word used for ‘forgive’ in the New Testament means ‘to set free’. We are like prisoners, expecting to be sentenced for our crimes. But instead, the Judge sets us free by forgiving us.
Our call, then, is to receive that by giving ourselves over to Jesus Christ, and then to set others free as we forgive what they have done to us.
The Holy Spirit
So far we’ve had two commands – ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized’, plus one promise ‘the forgiveness of sins’. 2-1 to commands, then. But finally, we have an equaliser from promises: all who repent, are baptized and receive the forgiveness of sins receive God’s own presence in their lives – the Holy Spirit. Why?
At the secondary school we attended in north London, my sister and I had an English teacher who worshipped at a high Anglican church in central London. My sister once asked him why he went there. “I’m just a terrible sinner and I need to feel forgiven,” he replied.
“Don’t you feel that God can change you?” my sister enquired.
“No,” he said.
But the Good News is that change is possible. It isn’t just that God forgives us and cleanses us. As the saying goes, God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are.
And that’s why Peter promises the Holy Spirit to those who become disciples of Jesus. So that not only may God forgive us in Jesus Christ, he may also start the long work of making us be more like Jesus Christ. In that sense, God is anticipating us for heaven. The Holy Spirit fits us for the life of God’s kingdom, where everything will conform to his will.
Two thoughts as I close. Firstly, I don’t want our regular churchgoers here to think this doesn’t apply to any of them. Remember that Peter addressed these words to devout religious Jews in Jerusalem for a major feast. Sometimes, those who have been involved in religion all their lives need to hear the call to conversion as much as anybody.
Secondly, what does any of this have to do with one-year-old Holly? She can’t repent, she can’t understand her baptism yet as washing her clean of sin, she can’t appreciate the forgiveness of sins, let alone the power of the Holy Spirit to live a new life.
But today, Ruth and Mike make the promises for her, on the basis of their own faith. They do so, because they aspire to Holly making this kind of commitment for herself, when she is old enough to do so. Today, we promise to pray and prepare so that becoming a disciple of Jesus one day seems the most natural thing in the world for Holly.
There is one line from an early school report of mine that I remember: ‘David takes simple things and makes them complicated.’
You may recognise that trait in me even today! And I have to say there is an element of it sneaking into this sermon. The Vision of the Sheep and Goats, as George Beasley-Murray called it (first complication there – it’s not really a parable!) seems to be a piece of teaching by Jesus that is very simple. Do good to the poor and you’ll receive eternal life; ignore the poor and you’ll burn in Hell.
Simple, isn’t it? No.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to find the get-out clause that means we don’t have to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. But there are questions of detail that readers of this vision have asked. And as we explore them, we fill out more of the meaning.
In particular, we need to think about who ‘the nations’ are that are gathered before Jesus, the Son of Man at the judgment. And we also need to think about who ‘the least of these’ are, who may receive acts of mercy. In considering these two groups in the story, I hope we’ll answer some questions that have troubled sensitive Christians about this passage.
Who are ‘the nations’ in the story? Are they everyone in history? Are they people who have never heard the Gospel, given the surprised ‘Lord, when was it we saw you …?’ responses? Do they represent Christians, or possibly the Jewish people? And why does the question matter?
It matters, because it ties into the question of salvation. Are we saved by good works? What is the relationship between good works and salvation by faith in Christ? Does God have a different way of judging those who have never heard of Jesus – would that explain the surprise?
I’m not going to bore you with academic arguments, except to say that this story comes at the end of the fifth and final block of Jesus’ teaching that we find in Matthew’s Gospel. The first block was the Sermon on the Mount, and that set a theme for teaching about discipleship. All the teaching blocks are about discipleship in one way or another. This final block in chapters 24 and 25 focusses on questions about the end of all things. It fittingly climaxes here with a story about the Last Judgment.
So I do not think we can avoid the idea that Jesus is aiming this passage at those who claim to be his disciples. It fleshes out the statement in the Sermon on the Mount that not everyone who calls him ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of his Father. Obedience to the will of God is central and critical to Christian discipleship.
However, that raises the question I mentioned a moment ago. How does that thought sit with the teaching elsewhere in the New Testament that says we are justified in the sight of God not by our good works but by our faith in Jesus Christ? Doesn’t the sheep and goats story suggest that we are justified by good deeds?
To which I would reply that justification simply isn’t the issue here. The issue is one of identity: what does a disciple look like? And Jesus tells us here that a true disciple looks like someone who has compassion for the poor and needy – not just the deserving poor, but even the undeserving poor, because there is no hint that those in prison are in there for anything other than just reasons.
If we want to know whether we are progressing in discipleship, then the first test is not what dramatic spiritual experiences we have had. Nor is it whether we can muster a high score in a test of biblical and theological knowledge. Disciples are known by their actions for the sake of those in need. In his First Letter, John says that we cannot say the love of God lives in us if we see someone in need and fail to act. Such actions are the signs of true faith.
In that sense, it is connected to the question of justification, even though that is not Jesus’ particular concern here. It is rather like what Paul says in Galatians that faith works by love, and what James says in his Letter, when he maintains that those who are justified by faith show they truly are by their compassionate deeds of mercy.
So whether we care for people such as the hungry, thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners is a test of true faith. Has God broken our hearts with the things that break his heart? And are we heartbroken enough to do something about it? This is a simple test of disciples’ obedience.
Nevertheless, we can probably extend this in a certain way to another question that is not Jesus’ primary concern in this passage. The question I have in mind is also one I mentioned earlier: how does God judge those who have never heard the Gospel? Some would argue that unless one actually hears the Gospel and responds, one is destined to damnation. It is a view that those who recognise other aspects of God’s character such as his mercy (as well as his judgment) find problematical.
And I suspect that the ‘Lord, when did we see you …?’ questions do give us a glimpse of how God would regard such people. Is it not the case that in Scripture God judges people according to how they respond to whatever light from him they receive? In Genesis, the priest Melchizedek appears out of nowhere and Abraham makes an offering to him – and God approves. Joshua is pleased to use the help of the Jericho prostitute Rahab. Isaiah 45 calls the pagan king Cyrus God’s anointed.
So might it just be that here in Matthew 25, we get an indirect view of how God will treat those who know that mercy to the poor and the weak is what matters? I can’t be certain, but I think it’s possible.
The Least Of These
So the judgment of the nations makes us realise that compassion for the needy, whether they are ‘deserving’ or not, is a valid test of discipleship. It may also show a way in which God judges those who have never heard the Gospel.
But what about those described as ‘the least of these’ in the passage – namely, those who are hungry, thirsty, aliens, naked, sick or prisoners? Who are they? Some would argue they stand for anyone who is poor and in need in the world. Other say this expression ‘the least of these’ is similar to other terms Matthew uses in his Gospel to describe oppressed Christians or Christian missionaries facing hardship. There are some similarities of language, but they are not conclusive. In any case, if God only judges people on how they treat the Church, doesn’t that make God’s people into some narrow-minded sect, where it’s only what we receive (and not others) that counts?
So I suspect that the vulnerable people in need in this story, whom Jesus labels ‘the least of these’, stand for anyone in the world who may be suffering these or similar conditions. God does not simply call us to look after our own. Let’s assume, then, that God gives us a brief that covers the whole world in demonstrating his love to those in need.
But does the passage make an even larger claim than that? Some Christians think so. The first time I ever heard Tony Campolo speak, he told a story about a trip he paid to the Dominican Republic, where he witnessed terrible poverty. As he was about to board his plane back to the USA, a mother tried to give him her child. The child would stand a far better chance in terms of health, education and prospects in the States. Campolo felt he couldn’t. But as his plane accelerated down the runway, he could see the mother and child still there. On the basis of this passage, he had an awful realisation: he hadn’t left a child in the Dominican Republic, he had left Jesus there. ‘Just as you did [not do] to the least of these, you did [not do it] to me.’
Similarly, the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has invoked the old Latin phrase ubi Christi, ibi ecclesia: ‘where Christ is, there is the Church’ from this text. He takes it to mean that if whatever we do to the poor we do to Christ, then Christ is present in the poor.
So does this teach that Christ lives in the poor? Does Christ perhaps even live in everyone, rather like the Quaker belief that there is an inner light within all people?
No, I don’t think the passage means that. It is a very heightened metaphorical way of speaking that Jewish people employed. ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ would be of the same order. ‘Just as you did to the least of these, it is as if you did it to me’ might be a paraphrase that brings this out.
This, I think, would be more consistent with the rest of Scripture, which sees the Spirit of God as being directly involved in the creation of humankind but who only resides within people when they become disciples of Jesus. The idea that the divine is resident in all people is closer to the mystical beliefs of some New Age philosophies than Christianity. If we all have God within, there’s very little need for salvation.
Nevertheless, we still have incredibly strong reasons for serving all who are in need with the love of Christ. We do not do it simply as robots obeying a command programmed by our Master. We do so, because when he, as the agent of God’s creation, and in partnership with the Holy Spirit, made the human race, he made them ‘in the image of God’. Our lives and relationships are meant to mirror something about God, and God’s love.
There is no greater dignity anything in all creation has than to be made in God’s image. When the image-bearers of God are made to suffer, that is an attempt to obscure the image of God, and it is an affront to the God who made people with such a high status. Affording dignity, respect and healing to those who are suffering is about making the image of God more visible in creation.
So – it’s a clear test of discipleship whether we meet the practical needs of the poor and struggling. It may even be an indicator of how God judges those who have no genuine opportunity to hear the Gospel.
Not only that, we have an imperative to do so, because all people are made in the image of God, however much it has been damaged by sin. That means our call to love and serve those in need cannot just be a paternalistic ‘doing good’ to those who passively, but gratefully, receive all the good things we have to give. It must also mean that in affirming their special dignity we give power back to those who have become powerless.
We may have had to take some complex diversions to arrive at these conclusions. You may well think that school teacher was right to say I am the sort of person who makes simple things complicated. At the end, however, we do come back to some simple challenges. We may not be able to meet all the needs that a satellite television and broadband Internet world flashes before our eyes. But we can ask ourselves this: what time, money and possessions have I given up in order to practise God’s love for the poor?
My status as a disciple requires positive evidence in response to this question. So does my commitment to God’s revelation in Scripture. If I want to be a biblical disciple, then, I will know that I have responded to those who are suffering, and I continue to care for the suffering.
Can I answer yes?
Mark’s favourite word at present is ‘Why?’ We had heard that all children go through a ‘Why?’ phase. Mark’s, however, is different from what other parents have generally told us. It isn’t a case of ‘Why must I do that?’ or ‘Why not?’ It’s more academic. He deploys ‘Why?’ to ask questions about the world. And when we’ve answered why one thing happens, he asks why that is so. Relentlessly he pushes back our logic, sucking our brains dry. On Friday afternoon in the car, he wouldn’t stop in his quest to know more about speed cameras. I am convinced that one day soon, we’ll have to explain the Big Bang to him. And questions are at the heart of our Lectionary Gospel reading today. The Pharisees send a lawyer to ask Jesus a question. Jesus asks the Pharisees a question. Furthermore, it’s the climax to a series of questions between Jesus and his critics. Questions – and how we handle them – are vital in spiritual growth.
So today I want as much to explore the use of questions in general as I do the particular questions in this exchange.
People Questioning Jesus
There are all sorts of reasons, good and bad, for asking Jesus or God a question. The Virgin Mary asked a question of the Archangel Gabriel when he turned up with his world-shattering news of her pregnancy. However, it was a question allied to a spirit of obedience to God. When we question out of a desire to pursue our faith and discipleship further, that is a good thing.
Job questioned God as a result of his suffering. He didn’t get an answer to this question about why he as an innocent person suffered. He only learned that, yes, innocent people do suffer. And although he receives a kind of rebuke from God, he is nevertheless rewarded for a faith that is not contradicted by asking hard questions.
Even the lawyer in this story might have had good intentions. In Mark’s account of this story (which is most likely Matthew’s source), Jesus commends him for not being far from the kingdom of God. Yet in Matthew, he is just out to test Jesus on behalf of the Pharisees (verses 34-45). Was he a stooge of the Pharisees? We don’t know.
What we do know is that the Pharisees had unholy reasons for questioning Jesus. Matthew is only interested in noting this sense of conflict, where the Pharisees not only think they can put one over Jesus, they are keen to succeed where their rivals the Sadducees failed (verse 34). Their motives are not good. This is all about pride and putting one over their opponents.
When I first studied Theology, it was among Anglican ordinands. I had more theological knowledge than some of them, due to my Local Preacher training. There were two occasions during early lectures when I asked questions of the tutors, less to learn and more to show off. Once it was when a New Testament lecturer was giving an outline of Luke’s Gospel, and I made sure everyone knew I realised that Luke gave a special place to women. The other was in an Old Testament class, where the tutor recommended a particular Bible atlas and I said, “Oh, the one you edited?” They were unworthy moments and I am ashamed of them.
If we are not careful, we might ask questions that are less to do with wanting to draw nearer to Christ and more to do with pride. They might involve puffing up ourselves and putting others down. Before we question Jesus, it is worth questioning ourselves. What are our motives? Do I ask out of humility, a desire to learn and if necessary a spirit of repentance? If so, I am asking a question in such a way that spiritual growth has a real chance to happen.
But if I want to show off in front of others, or if I am deluded enough to think that with my intellect I can impress God, then the chances of growth are less than zero. Indeed, to have such concerns is to show no interest in growing in grace.
What, then, of the actual question here? The lawyer asks for one ‘greatest commandment’, but Jesus gives him two. Jesus won’t be confined by our questions. Sometimes we ask the wrong questions.
Let me make brief observations about each of his two ‘great commandments’. With regard to the first commandment, I find it interesting to read this passage in a week when we have heard about the first atheist advertising ever to appear on London buses. One of its most prominent supporters and financial backers is – surprise, surprise – Richard Dawkins. In supporting the campaign, he was stupid enough to say this:
“This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think – and thinking is anathema to religion.”
Thinking is anathema to religion? What he surely means is, you haven’t thought unless you’ve come to the same conclusions as me. Sixth Form arrogance. Against that background, I read Jesus saying that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The word ‘mind’ is additional to the original (although the Hebrew will have implied that the total person is involved in loving God). I cannot find God by thinking, but I can dedicate my thinking to God as an act of loving worship. Be trusting of God, but the Sunday School song never said, ‘Jesus wants me for a zombie’.
The second commandment is about love of neighbour. One of the problems with the atheist bus campaign – along with religious advertising, too – is that it reduces everything to slogans. That’s exactly what Jesus doesn’t do. The proof of his ‘campaign’ to love God is not a slogan. Proof comes in love of neighbour.
In early September, the American ministry journal Leadership has this poll on its website:
When it comes to evidences of true worship at your church, which of the following do you pay most attention to?
- People singing enthusiastically.
- People praying fervently.
- People fully attentive to the sermon.
- People coming for confession or prayer afterward.
- People committing or recommitting themselves to Christ.
- People serving others during the week.
- People so captivated that they invite others to join them at church.
Other: click here to let us know what indicates to you that people are worshiping
Much as I like enthusiastic singing, fervent prayer and close attention to the sermon, I can’t understand any measurement of true Christian love that is less than a measurement of action that happens afterwards. People who put their faith into practice after church – they can ask questions.
Jesus Questioning People
In my early years as a Christian, a popular slogan was ‘Jesus is the answer’. There was a famous song with that title by the gospel singer Andraé Crouch. It’s a comforting song about the hope troubled people can find in Christ, and of course I believe that.
However, I have come to believe also that it is just as true to say that ‘Jesus is the question’. He didn’t always spoon-feed his listeners. He told parables that would only make sense to the spiritually curious and committed.
And in this passage, Jesus questions his critics. He throws in a theological conundrum. It’s a little biblical hand-grenade that is meant to blow apart their preconceived ideas, their limited vision and their prejudices. In summary, it’s this: if the Messiah is the son of David (as was commonly accepted), how can David call one of his own descendants ‘Lord’ (verses 41-45)? The problem was that in Jewish tradition a father could not call his son ‘Lord’. Yet here was Scripture saying just that. And if it were true, what possible grounds could there be for denying the Lordship of the Messiah? And if Jesus were the Messiah, what would that mean for the Pharisees’ treatment of him?
To change the metaphor, it’s checkmate to Jesus (verse 46).
And Jesus is still about the business of asking questions as a means of either eliciting spiritual growth or letting people confirm the hardness of their hearts. Sometimes, we are seeking his guidance and he doesn’t appear to be answering. That may be because he is making us wait for an answer, but is it also possible we are not hearing what he is saying? So set are we on receiving an answer that will make everything fit into place that we miss what he is saying. Instead of giving us an answer, Jesus replies with a question.
Not only that, it’s something Jesus calls his followers to do, too. Take the rôle of the minister, for example. One traditional expectation of a minister is that this is the person who will dream the big dreams, see the great visions and impart them to the congregation. One Anglican rector friend told me he believed his job was to be like Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets of stone.
But what if that isn’t the minister’s calling? Suppose instead the minister invites people to engage their situation with a holy imagination? That may be more effective, because it will help call forth what God is already doing in the midst of the congregation.
Or take the rather modern preoccupation that the exposition of Scripture in a sermon or Bible Study group is meant to be a way of reading answers off the page to today’s dilemmas, or coming up with a set of biblical principles on how to make life work. Is that right? Might it not be more faithful to the Bible if instead the minister preaches the great story of Scripture to the people, saying, this is ‘the story we find ourselves in‘. If that is the case, then how do we see our world? [Source for last 3 paragraphs]
If we allow Jesus to question us, he might shake up some of our cherished beliefs and practices. Those moments when we sense a discomfort, that something doesn’t quite fit – those are times when we might well need to be especially attentive to the voice of Christ. Is he asking us a question that will take us on a journey into deeper biblical faithfulness and away from those human traditions which have become unhelpful?
I believe Jesus is asking us big questions about our fitness for mission in today’s world. Do our structures, traditions, practices and even some of our cherished doctrines which we clam to have ‘received’ fit with a biblical reflection on where we are today? I for one am not sure they do, and I believe Jesus may be asking us awkward questions.
But then that’s just the sort of thing that might preoccupy me as a minister. For others, it might be other questions. He might be asking many people about their place, situation and calling in life. The spiritual writer Frederick Buechner observed that our call is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. If some of us are misfits on those grounds, then is Jesus asking us challenging questions about where we might best serve him? Has Jesus given us a passion for something that we are not using? If not, then what questions might he be asking us?
The alternative to Jesus asking us questions is simply for him to give us pre-packaged answers. But if he does that, then that is the end of the conversation. Orders have been given from on high, and that’s it. Now he has a perfect right to do that. He is Lord. But I suspect he often asks us questions instead of giving us answers, precisely so that he can engage us. Questions properly given and received promote conversation. Jesus asks us questions so that he can stimulate a combination of prayer and action.
And come to think of it, aren’t prayer and action the very things that drive us to ask the best questions of him? Will prayer and action be the reasons we have a relationship of questioning faith with our questioning Lord?
I can’t read this passage without remembering someone else’s assessment of Jesus’ teaching here. A certain Mrs M Thatcher once commented that Jesus ‘got it about right’ when he taught we should ‘render unto Caesar’. I suppose she thought Jesus would be grateful to receive her endorsement.
I can’t say I turned to her for scholarly help in preparing for today’s sermon – can’t think why – but I do want to say that there is more to this passage than just isolating Jesus’ ‘Render unto Caesar’ saying. I think we have to talk about the opponents and Jesus before we consider Caesar and God. Which means there are four elements to our thoughts today.
What a motley crew the opposition was. An unholy alliance between two parties that thought little of each other. The working-class Pharisees and the ruling-class Herodians. Perhaps their distaste for each other is why the Pharisees send their disciples along to do the dirty work in partnership with people they detested as religious compromisers. Their common cause is hatred of Jesus. For the Pharisees, he is undermining their view of pure faith. For the Herodians, his teaching about the kingdom of God threatens their privileged place in society, next to the hated Romans. For very different reasons, Jesus has to go. Principles will be put aside for the sake of this common cause.
So they become unscrupulous and cynical in their approach to Jesus: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” (Verse 16) Like they truly acknowledge Jesus as a true teacher. And in saying he shows no deference and has no partiality, they are saying, “Go on Jesus, be bold, be careless – incriminate yourself.”
What does this have to do with us? It provides a warning against those times when we are more concerned to scheme for our own purposes than to seek the will of Christ. It happens from time to time in large-scale and small ways in church life. Sometimes we opt for politicking to get our own way, rather than prayer to find God’s way. Just occasionally, it’s more sinister.
That’s what happened to me in my first appointment. I’ve talked before about running into a serious problem with unsuitable children’s workers. In today’s climate, with plenty of ‘Safe From Harm’ procedures in place, it never would have got into the pickle it was. But sixteen years ago, things were different. Of the three troublesome people, one was known to be a Freemason. I’m always suspicious of Freemasonry in the church – not just because of the secrecy concerns, but because there are so-called ‘Christian degrees’ of Freemasonry that say the Cross of Christ was a mistake. This Freemason was clearly in league with one of the church organists, whom I also believed to be a mason. They were caught having private meetings before church committees, where they were discussing tactics. Socially, they had little in common as people, but it wasn’t their claimed Christianity that united them. It was their membership of the Lodge.
At that level of seriousness, this is the kind of problem I’ve only encountered rarely in church life. But it does exist. And even if none of us plumbs the depths of those Freemasons, let all of us examine our hearts that we avoid manipulation for our own causes in favour of an over-riding concern to walk in the ways of Jesus.
Oh, the irony. Jesus is sincere. He does teach the way of God in accordance with truth. He does show deference to no one and regard nobody with partiality. He is all the things his opponents say about him so insincerely, so slyly, so cynically.
But there’s a shock coming for his inquisitors. Instead of holding nothing back with regard to Caesar, he shows no deference to them! This is one of those times when we would say someone lets fire with both barrels. He has his opponents in his sights, and shoots. He is aware of their malice and labels them ‘hypocrites’ (verse 18).
And I wonder whether this is why some of us are reticent to get close to Jesus. We know he doesn’t merely teach the truth, he is the truth – pure truth, the truth of God. We know he is unbiased. And we know we are so very different. Instead of truth, we have our subtle manipulations of the facts. We are good at ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. We know how to present ourselves in the best light, rather than the true light. Unlike Jesus, we are biased – mostly in favour of ourselves. Sometimes we favour ourselves so much that it is even at the expense of those we love. Deep down, we know that a close encounter with Jesus would expose our deceit. So we come just near enough to about be considered Christians, but come no further in case his light exposes our darkness.
However, surely we are called to come closer to him – just not in the self-serving way his opponents do in this story. I’m not saying he’ll ignore our sins, but I am saying he’ll treat them in a different way from those he calls hypocrites here. The hypocrites are those who want to catch Jesus out or use him for their own ends. We approach him, I trust, for different reasons. And yes, as we draw nearer to the light of the world, more of that light will shine into our darkness. But it will not be accompanied by condemnation of our motives. Jesus will expose our darkness to evoke our repentance and thus make us more like him.
Might we dare come closer in prayer, Bible reading and other spiritual disciplines? As Paul says in Romans, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance – not his anger.
So let’s get around to the substance of Jesus’ reply to his critics. Little do we realise how extraordinary this exchange is, when Jesus asks them to show him a coin, and they produce a Roman one with Caesar’s image on it. To Jews, that image of Caesar was idolatrous. More specifically, this story seems to happen in the Temple (21:23). What a place to bring the image of an idol! These were the same people who had protested to Rome about Pontius Pilate setting up idolatrous images in the Temple – and which made Pilate so politically weak a few days later when they demanded Jesus’ execution!
Hence when Jesus tells them to ‘render unto Caesar’, it’s a bit more than saying, ‘pay your taxes’. As the late Professor F F Bruce pointed out, he is saying that for a Jew it is appropriate to get rid of a coin with an offensive human image on it.
If we only interpret this passage as a call to be law-abiding citizens (and I’m sure that’s why Margaret Thatcher liked it), we miss the power of what Jesus said. Stop bringing your idols to worship, he says. Throw away your idols. It’s a radical call to evaluate how serious we are about true worship. No wonder his enemies were wrong-footed by his answer. It puts them on the spot.
And it confronts us, too. What thrills our heart more than Jesus? Is that our idol? What do we spend most of our time daydreaming about? Could that be our idol? The recent financial crises have exposed a lot of contemporary idolatry, but there is more to idol-worship than money. Who or what do we love most? If the answer isn’t Jesus, then we’re in idol territory.
What needs relegating in our lives, because we have promoted it above Christ? What needs disposing of, because it is as unclean in the sight of God as taking into the Jewish Temple the image of a Roman emperor who claimed deity? Will we let the Holy Spirit show us?
What might it mean, then, to ‘render to God the things that are God’s’? Surely we can’t say that some things belong to Caesar and other things belong to God. That would imply that not everything in the world belongs to God, and that conclusion makes no sense from a Christian perspective.
It comes back to the question of image. Caesar’s image and inscription may have been on the coin, but what is on us? We are made in the image of God. The image of God is upon us. He has inscribed himself upon us. [So C H Giblin.] We owe him everything – our lives, our very selves.
This is the point at which Jesus’ opponents walk away (verse 22). Devout as the Pharisees are and respectable pillars of society as the Herodians are, they cannot stomach Jesus’ radical call for total commitment to God and his kingdom. This isn’t religion on their terms: this is faith and discipleship on God’s terms. It’s the point at which the rich young ruler also walked away. He couldn’t take the ‘giving to God what was God’s’ in his case.
There is a story told from the Soviet occupation of the former Czechoslovakia in 1968. A Russian soldier entered a church building during worship, brandishing a weapon. ‘Leave now if you’re not prepared to die for your faith,’ he shouted. Some of the worshippers left, others stayed. Then the soldier laid down his gun. ‘I am a Christian, too,’ he announced, ‘And I knew I would only be safe with those who were willing to lay down their lives for Christ.’
So who are we like? Jesus’ enemies were devoutly religious and well read on the one hand. And they were the sort of people who made society run smoothly and who would be top of your list as dinner guests on the other hand. Yet, when it came to the crunch, religion and respectability were found wanting for one fundamental reason. They had not given over their hearts and affections to God and his kingdom, only to a picture of God and the religious life they had devised for themselves, and which suited their own inclinations and circumstances. Religious externals, however Christian or even Methodist they look, do not wash with Jesus. They mean nothing without the heart.
Maybe the Soviet soldier is the model Jesus calls us to emulate. Not that I suggest we burst into church next Sunday with an AK-47! But he was sold out to Christ and the kingdom of God. And that is what Jesus calls us to when he says we need to render to God the things that are God’s.
For what belongs to God, if not our entire lives? We are made in the image of God. The image has been disfigured by sin, but Jesus is the perfect image of God, and salvation is about remaking that image of God in us.
So if we’re strictly honest, the model to follow isn’t even that member of the Russian army. It’s Jesus himself. As the perfect image of God, he models what it is to ‘render unto God the things that are God’s’. If we want to know what true faith is, it’s to imitate him. Whatever the word ‘Christian’ means to many today, it originally meant ‘little Christ’. True ‘rendering unto God’ involves growing into little Christs under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Today’s Caesars can have their pathetic taxes, but God can have his little Christs.
Are we included?
‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (verse 24)
That’s an obvious verse to pick for this circuit service on the theme of worship. But sometimes, however much I like to be obscure, obvious is OK!
There are several valid ways you can read this verse. Worshipping in spirit and truth can be about the fact that you can worship God anywhere. That’s true, and in the context, the woman has just raised the question of physical locations for worship.
You can also read the ‘spirit’ aspect as being about the need for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to worship. That has some merit, too, because there is much in John’s Gospel about the ministry of the Spirit.
Worshipping in ‘truth’ can be about the importance of basing our worship on the truth of God, rather than our own preferences or fantasies. That, too, would be valid.
But I want to offer a different – if complementary – approach to Jesus’ teaching that we are to worship in spirit and in truth. I think it also means our worship is to be Christ-centred. Why? The work of the Spirit in John’s Gospel is to point to Christ. And Jesus himself is the way, the truth and the life in John. Spirit and truth both focus on Christ. I’m going to use Christ as our framework for worship.
My sister is an Occupational Therapist. At the end of her college training in 1988, she had to take a final elective placement. With the support of her college Christian Union, she went out with a missionary society to Gahini Hospital in Rwanda.
One of her most interesting cultural experiences (apart from African driving!) was Sunday morning worship in the hospital’s Anglican church. People were not called to worship by the ringing of bells, but by drums. All well and good.
But when worship began, it was the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Seventeenth century England, transposed to twentieth century Africa. Crazy.
Why is that crazy? Jesus is the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us. He took on human flesh, and lived in his context as a first century Jew. Might it be that when it comes to worship, our worship has to live in the cultural forms in which we live, and of the people we desire to reach with the Gospel?
Can I bring that insight to the worship wars that often rip apart our churches? We need to drop the nonsense talk that hymns and choral music are somehow morally superior. And those who argue for contemporary music need to quit the notion that others are fuddy-duddies. The issue is this: who has God called us to reach?
The American pastor Rick Warren, who planted Saddleback Church in California, has a useful approach to this. He says that if you are going to plant a church, then the way you decide the musical style of the worship is this: find out what the most popular radio station in the area is, and model the musical aspect of your worship on that style of music.
So never mind what we like: incarnation demands we live in the culture of the people where God has placed us on mission. And that will shape our worship – from music to other elements, too.
In my last appointment, I was part of a team that put on a weekly Wednesday lunch-time prayer and worship event entitled Medway Celebrate. At one team meeting, I remember the founder of the event say he had asked all visiting worship leaders to put a particular emphasis on ‘celebration’ in the tone they set.
Inwardly, I winced. What about people suffering pain or troubles? How would they cope with relentless joy and happiness? And at first glance, anchoring our worship to the Cross of Christ would support my reaction. In worship, the Cross leads us to confession of sin. It puts us in touch with the pain of the world, and so it also informs our intercession. And the central act of Christian worship, Holy Communion, is directly linked to the Cross: ‘This is my body … this is my blood.’
Not only that, something like one third of Israel’s hymn book, the Psalms, are the so-called ‘Psalms of Lament’, where the psalmists bring their pain and complaints to God in worship. So surely it’s right that worship is not persistently happy-clappy.
There must be room in worship to express pain. But – it’s only half the story. Even when the Cross shows us our need to confess, we don’t stop there: we receive forgiveness. When we intercede about the pain of the world, we do so expecting that God will answer. When by faith we take the tokens of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament, we are renewed.
I was once at a Good Friday united service at the Baptist Church in my home town. Our own minister was preaching. He had chosen a song that was popular at the time: ‘I get so excited, Lord, every time I realise I’m forgiven‘. As a congregation, we sang it in the most drab way. Michael stopped us and berated us. How could we not be excited that God had forgiven us in Christ?
As we come to the foot of the Cross in worship, yes we bring our pain at the sin that put Christ there. We also bring the pain of the world. But we come for healing and restoration. Making the Cross central to worship is a matter of joy as well as pain.
I referred to Holy Communion a moment ago when talking about the Cross and worship. But it’s the Resurrection that makes sense of the sacrament.
‘What? Isn’t the Lord’s Supper about the death of Christ?’ you may object.
Yes, but it’s OK to stop there if you only believe communion is a symbolic memorial of a past event. If it’s remotely more than that, you need the Resurrection to explain it. How many memorial services have you attended where the deceased was present? How many funeral wakes have you been to where the one you were remembering served you the food? Jesus is alive! And our worship is filled with hope. Whatever discourages or depresses us, Jesus is risen from the dead and there is a new world coming.
So my friend who wanted celebratory worship had a point. Just so long as it wasn’t escapism, celebration is the proper tone for those who know the Christian hope. We experience suffering and we witness suffering, but in the Resurrection we know it won’t have the final word and our worship is an act of defiance based on Christian hope. In the words of Steve Winwood, we’re ‘talking back to the night‘. But we talk back to the night because the dawn is coming.
And when the dawn comes, God will no longer feel distant or remote. God will always be close. Thus if Resurrection characterises worship in spirit and truth, our worship will have a sense of intimacy with God. We cannot use hymns about the majesty of God to make him distant, even if we also avoid songs that make Jesus sound like a boyfriend.
If there’s one curse in all the worship wars that occur in church, it’s the way we use sophisticated arguments to hide the fact that what we’re really campaigning for is ‘what we like’. The Ascension of Jesus puts paid to that.
Why? Because the Ascension is the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. It is the confirmation that Jesus is King over all creation, including the Church. When we treat worship as what pleases us, worship becomes idolatry, for we worship ourselves. When we recognise the kingship of the ascended Christ, I cannot ask what pleases me. I can only ask, what pleases you, Lord?
It also means we must stop treating worship as spiritual escapism. When a steward prays in the vestry before the service about us ‘turning aside from the world for an hour’, I cringe. When we sing an old chorus like ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus‘ with its line about ‘The things of earth will grow strangely dim’, I wonder what some people are thinking when they sing those words.
If worship is in spirit and in truth – if that means it’s Christ-centred – and if that includes the Ascension – then worship cannot be used to escape from the world. It can only be used in preparation to face the world. For the king of the Church is on the throne of creation.
There is a church building in Germany, which has over the exit doors these words: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. Worshipping the ascended Christ thrusts us into the world. It’s why the Roman Catholic Mass is called the Mass – after the Latin ‘Eta misse est’: ‘Get out!’ Our feeble version is, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’: perhaps that should be ‘Go in boldness to love and serve the Lord’! The test of worship isn’t Hymns And Psalms versus Mission Praise versus Songs Of Fellowship. It’s whether we continue to worship by our lifestyles in the world where Christ reigns.
Archbishop William Temple wrote a classic devotional commentary on John’s Gospel. I can do no better in concluding this sermon than quoting some of his most potent words on this very verse:
For worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to HIs purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. Yes – worship in spirit and truth is the way to the solution of perplexity and to the liberation from sin. [p 65]
May we worship like that.
Here’s another one for those with ears to hear. It follows on from the last one.
There had been a terrible stink in the house. And no, it wasn’t me. It emanated from the bathroom and was accompanied by tap water that tasted metallic.
Eventually we called in the handyman. Although I hadn’t seen anything in the water tank, when he lifted the lid he was greeted by a stench to shame a skunk. There, lying in the water, was a dead squirrel attended by a harem of maggots.
‘Again, Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean’.”‘ (Mark 7:14-15)
Going off at a tangent from a post by Pete Phillips, Fresh Expressions is a joint initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to support ‘new ways of being church’. In a strangely modernist way they have identified twelve categories of new expressions of church!
But the thing is this: the historic denominations are increasingly interested in new forms of church. Is it for creative reasons? Is it desperate? Is it the Holy Spirit? What seems to be being swept under the carpet is the huge potential for clashes of values.
For example, won’t we have to start facing some sacred cows such as entrenched doctrines of ordination? Don’t existing ones play the power card in a way that postmoderns and Jesus-followers should be highly suspicious of? You don’t need to go the whole ontological way that the Anglicans do, just take the Methodist view that although ordination confers no separate priesthood, nevertheless it is ‘representative’ (which is pretty close to specialised priesthood) and it confers presidency at the sacraments on the grounds of ‘good order’. That may have been a pragmatic way of restricting presidency to the presbyters in years gone by without officially conceding a sacerdotal approach, but how does it read now? Let’s play reader-response in the 21st century with it. Who can keep good order? Normally only presbyters? What does that say about everybody else?
(Of course Methodism now allows ‘extended communion’ where authorised people can take communion into homes. It started out as something for the sick, but the Big Bad Rule Book can be interpreted to allow this for home groups. Nevertheless it’s only seen as delegated from the presiding minister at a Sunday service, and the people still need to be authorised.)
How far we have come from a Last Supper modelled on the Jewish Passover that was celebrated in the family. And how far we have come from a Saviour who took a towel and a bowl of water.
Although you can’t say the emerging church is all of one mind on every issue (it’s a ‘conversation’, it likes to think) nevertheless it’s pretty clear that it embraces an understandable postmodern suspicion of the link between truth and power, and it is deeply attracted to the radical picture of Jesus in the Gospels.
So this post is really to ask whether the emerging churches and the historic denominations can fully embrace each other. Either there will be compromise of principles on one side or the other (you can bet that those who still perceive themselves as powerful will expect the others to conform to them). Or there will be persistent conflict: the romance will break up. Or the new wine will break the old wineskins.
Someone please tell me I’ve got it wrong, and why. But my spiritual gift of pessimism comes into play on this issue.
I’ve just emailed my last-ever column to the Medway Messenger. If you want to see the article, it will be published in the edition on Friday 17th and subsequently in the ‘Messenger’ section of my main website.
I’ve been writing for them for four years now, and it’s been very fulfilling. Ever since I did a creative writing course in 2003 at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity that was run in conjunction with the Association of Christian Writers I’ve felt very affirmed in my desire to write. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I am a writer'”, is one of the most powerful things I remember being said at the course.
So to lay it down now in preparation for moving is quite emotional. I’m laying it down, not knowing whether I’ll be able to take it up in another form in the new place. It’s a sort of death without knowing whether there will be a resurrection. Then again, Jesus said that if we wanted to save our lives we would lose them, but if we lost our lives for his sake and the Gospel’s we would save them, and I hope that will be true. It certainly feels like a mini-bereavement.
Perhaps that’s over the top and I need to hear the Gospel as proclaimed decades ago by the Pretenders: ‘It is time for you to stop all of your sobbing …’