Sunday, October 18, 2020
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
"God and Empire, Then and Now"
Kahu Dennis Barger
Being a Christian is not the same as being Christian. Being a Christian means you identify with the teachings of Jesus and use this term as a way of describing yourself in relation to others’ religion. Being a Christian means you are committed to the values taught by Jesus and are a citizen in the Kingdom of God. In the same way, if you say, “I am a Republican,” or “I am a Democrat” it describes WHAT you are, but not necessarily WHO you are.
On the other hand, Being Christian describes WHOSE we are. It means not only our thoughts but our behavior (our very being) is consistent with the teachings of Christ. You are a new creation, the old “you” is finished and gone. The spirit of living God, the spirit of Christ is living your life with you. Spatial analogies are not helpful here because 1+1=1, not 2. Being Christian means we are united with God’s Spirit.
A popular church song simply describes it as “We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord…”
The tricksters that confronted Jesus in this story were trying to get Jesus into trouble with the Roman authorities by refusing to recognize their legitimacy, or to alienate patriotic Jews because Jesus would not condemn the occupation by Rome.
When confronted with whether to pay taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus wisely discerned their treachery and responded, “Give to the empire what belongs to the emperor, and to God what belongs to God.” His answer avoided the trap of self-incrimination for treason on the one hand or blasphemy on the other.
WHY BRING THAT UP?
BECAUSE: Like most scriptures we think we know the meaning of, many will assume it’s just about Jesus support for paying government taxes. But when we look deeper we discover insights which often go unspoken. Some people will use this scripture reference to support the justification for the separation of religion and politics or church and state. It really is not that. When you consider his statement the next questions are “What does belong to the empire?” and “What belongs to God?” If you say “because everything was created by God, everything belongs to God” that also includes the government.
BECAUSE: Jesus’ answer shows us what the real issue is here. Where is our primary allegiance--to the empire or God?
BECAUSE: Society has lots of answers to the questions of WHO or WHAT we are. What is the most important relationship in our lives? It is our kuleana (responsibility) to decide. The answer we give identifies WHOSE we are.
BECAUSE: Ultimately, trying to find fulfillment outside of God only leads to frustration and emptiness.
So then, the trick question put to Jesus is “Are you a Jewish Roman (citizen) or a Roman Jew?” For us today it translates to “Are you a Christian American or an American Christian?”
There is a big difference here because each term describes your primary and your secondary loyalties. Jesus asks, “Where is your primary allegiance?” Your primary loyalty influences the way you live your life. If you turn it around; the way you think, feel, and act indicates your real allegiance/loyalty.
Our culture provides us with many other options to model our lives on. One image that is promoted in the media is the tough, rugged, individualist, who is dependent on no one. If we choose to create our own path to happiness by pursuing success, power, and fame instead of the goals of humility, love, and service, such efforts result in lives empty of meaning or purpose and an anchor on reality. And none of us is truly “self-made”. We do not come into this world with anything and we leave what we accumulated behind when we die.
If you choose to model your life after Jesus it will require a change of your priorities. Love and service are the marks of Jesus’ life. He distilled the ten commandments down to only two: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. If you place the wellbeing of others above or at least even with yours, you are not likely to obtain wealth, power, and prestige.
Choosing the Jesus model of living is only the first step and much easier than the second. LIVING THE JESUS MODEL IS MUCH MORE CHALLENGING.
His model was difficult for Jesus’ enemies to attack because HE WAS THE KINGDOM. He declared that it was within our grasp. Because he did not claim to be a king, he warned his disciples not to call him the messiah (the religious term for king). Let’s take a moment unpack the “Kingdom of God/Heaven.
One of the best ways to understand and translate what Jesus was all about is to use a new term which steers clear of another appealing trap. It is expecting that one person is going to solve our most challenging problems: a king, a general, an emperor, or a president. If we replace “kingdom” for “kin-dom” we more accurately communicate the essence of Jesus’ message: God’s reign or “new society” radically departs from the model Caesar’s military empire.
The Kin-dom Jesus envisioned was a shared community of equals who serve each other. We are united in a kin-group not by blood but IN COMMON LOYALTY TO THE LORD JESUS.
Even though he said his Kingdom was not OF this world, his Kin-dom was coming into the world. It is not coming in some other reality or purely spiritual plain.
In the political context of his day and the literary context of the story the term kingdom was easily understood, though not as well now.
So, not only can we use better translations of Jesus’ message, TO BE CHRISTIAN our action demonstrates the new reality of our partnership with the Spirit of God. Being Christian is more than deciding to live as Jesus lived. It is modeling a new way of living and relating to one another.
Implanting this new model is more than pulling a few weeds to make room in the field of our lives. If the seed of the Kin-dom is to grow in us it needs good soil. We have to aerate and feed our spirits to provide the ideal growing environment for the seed. It means taking an inventory of our lives and turning them over to the God of our understanding. It will require new knowledge and a trans-mutation of our will. And that is not something everyone can do on their own.
Surrendering our wills to God requires inner change – not just in form or conformity, but in substance. The gives us many examples of how our spirit must be animated (or reprogramed) by a power greater than ourselves. As we practice becoming a person who can make external adjustments to our behavior we become better at it. Practice.
When we become willing to use our minds to accept the risk of doing things differently our hearts open and undergo spiritual change. Deciding and taking the initiative to love someone unconditionally is the only way to establish a new habit. Offering forgiveness is the first step to forgiving.
The more we yield our spirits to the power of God’s Spirit the more we are trans-mutated into the person we were created to become.
We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord,
and we pray that all unity may one day be restored,
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
E pule kakou.
Give us what we need, O God, to take the first step toward becoming the human being you intended for us to be, and the second step, and every step there after until we are one with you.