As we get further and further into this period of lockdown and closed churches, I keep thinking of the incident in Acts 5 where the Apostle Peter was ordered by the governing rulers to stop preaching the Gospel. In response Peter says – “We must obey God rather than human beings! And he goes on and keeps preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I keep asking myself whether we are in that situation. At what point do we, as church, say that we are being denied the right to freedom of worship and that we must obey God rather than human authority. Have you wondered that? Have we given up too easy – too readily?
Well, Jesus was confronted with a similar dilemma today. The story going around was that Jesus was leading an anti-Roman militia aiming to topple the Roman rule and re-establish the Jewish nation under a Davidic Kingship. In other words, re-establishing King David’s throne and rule of Israel rather than Roman rule. And therefore the word had gotten around that Jesus was teaching that it was wrong to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor when the money should be going to God and re-establishing the Temple. So, this time, they really think that they have Jesus in the same way that the FBI were able to get gangster Al Capone not on the charges that they wanted him on but on tax evasion. So they put the question to Jesus – Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
First of all, Jesus knows this is an attempt to trap him. As Matthew says: Jesus was aware of their malice. But I think his answer is the answer which applies to what we are going through at present: Jesus says: Show me the coin used for the tax.” When they showed him the coin he said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose title on the coin?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” At no time does Jesus say that part of his manifesto was for an uprising or rebellion. In fact Jesus resisted any attempts by the people to make him king and even rebuked Peter for resisting arrest when he pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of one of Jesus’ attackers when he was being arrested.
The example Jesus uses is interesting. He gets the people to look at a coin and the image that is imprinted on it. Like our currency, it bears the image of the governing ruler. In their case – the emperor. In our case – the queen. And he says – because the money bears the image of the emperor he says – give to the emperor what belongs to him and give to God what belongs to God. So ownership is determined by image. Their currency bears the emperors image. So we have to ask – what belongs to God. Where is God’s image imprinted?
Well, as we go back to the very beginning of the Bible we read where God has placed his image: Let us create human beings in our own image – in the image of God he created them – male and female he created them. As Christians we must always remember that we belong to God.
No matter what rule we live under – not matter what laws are ruling over us – we belong to God. And no one can take that away from us.
When Jesus was being questioned by Pilate about submitting to his authority, Jesus doesn’t deny his authority: Pilate said. Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus doesn’t deny his authority but says, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.
As Christians we are called to reflect the image of God that we bear and to imitate Christ who saw his submission to Pilate as submission to God. St Peter talks at length about suffering as an example and witness to Christ. Not overcoming suffering but enduring suffering. He says: But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.
And he also says: Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
None of us like what is happening to the church but it’s a question of how do we respond. What is it that will bring glory to God? Well, again, St Peter says: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.
We are not the first generation to suffer because of our faith. And part of our faith is trusting in God’s deliverance. St Paul, in our 2nd reading today urges us, as ones who bear the Image of God to imitate God: He says: And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers.
What example are we showing? Just look again at the fruits of the Spirit which are how we can example imitating Christ and God’s image: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness, & Self-Control. These are challenging qualities to reflect in time like these but these are the qualities that Jesus says have been imprinted on us as the Image of God.
These are fruits which means that they come from being filled with the Holy Spirit. A lemon tree doesn’t produce apples – so a Christian doesn’t produce hate or anger or lack of control. Likewise, a lemon tree that doesn’t produce fruit is just a tree. Our lives are to act like mirrors to reflect God’s presence in the world.
So a constant question we ask ourselves is what image are we reflecting? The image of God? Or our own image? The situation with our churches is extremely challenging. I have cried out to God – why have you abandoned me? I have cried out – take this cup from me. I’m not suggesting in any way that our suffering mirrors Christ’s suffering but Jesus has given us the example of walking the way of the cross. Peter wanted to avoid that – never Lord – this will never happen to you. Jesus rebuked Peter because in his attempt at honouring God by rebelling he was actually bringing dishonour to God. He is told that he does not have in mind the things of God but of man. Even though he really thought he was honouring God by rebelling against an injustice to his Lord Jesus – he was not allowing God to do his will. Which is why Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane says – take this cup from me – but not my will be done but your will be done.
I’ve said it before – I want our churches opened more than anyone. I am really struggling not being able to serve you with the Sacrament and having you here gathered for worship. But I truly believe that God is in control – we must believe that. And God’s will WILL be done. And God’s glory will be revealed. Look at the result Jesus got today when he upheld the authority even though the people felt that the taxes were unfair: They were amazed; and they left him and went away.
It might seem at times like we are weak and simply rolling over to the church closures. Maybe at times it seems like we are being disrespectful to God because we ae not fighting back against the closures. But the greater witness comes by imitating the humility of Christ and allowing God to bring about his will. And if, as part of God’s will, an injustice has been done to us then God’s justice is more satisfying and fulfilling. And if we allow God’s will to be fulfilled in all this then we can be sure of a stronger and more faith-filled church. Maybe this is how God awakens his church and Christians. Maybe this is the new song that the Psalmist speaks about in our Psalm today.
But it means trusting God. It means giving to God what is God’s – as St Paul urges – to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship. We are not in the situation Peter found himself in Acts. Our worship may be redefined but not forbidden. What is being challenged is the peripheral and not the core. We will be back worshipping together. We will be back receiving the body and blood of Christ. Until then God stay strong in your faith – stay strong in your prayer life and be assured that God is with us for he is Emmanuel – God with us.