THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD

Sermon delivered on the 19h Sunday after Trinity, the 22nd October 2017 by Bishop Nicholas J G Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 45:1-7     1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10     S. Matthew 22: 15-22

1 Thessalonians 1: 8 “Your faith in God has gone forth everywhere.”

GOD AND CAESAR
The subtle relationship between Church and State has always been a challenge in Christian societies. In England kings and popes used to contend for the privilege of selecting the bishop for a particular See. And questions have always been asked on where the boundaries lie between the sacred and the secular. Is it the monastic cell and the chapel of the monastery that are sacred, but the kitchen and the infirmary that are secular? Or is it the celibate vocation that is sacred, while the calling of a married couple should be considered to be secular? In modern times the doctrine that the Church and the State must remain apart is itself given the aura of a religious truth, and not in the United States of America only. There are many who are certain that a person’s thinking as one that is baptised, born from above into Christ should remain within the context of the four walls of the church or in his private study, but in his position as, say, a parliamentarian, or a scientist, or a judge, his thinking in those contexts should remain untouched by his faith. This division in its strict form could be characterised as a “modern” approach, though having ancient roots. But in the New Testament we may see a different approach being indicated, and in the Old Testament also.

GOD OVERRULES
In the Old Testament lesson today from Isaiah 45, the Persian military man Cyrus is chosen and anointed by the Lord to fulfil the Lord's purpose. Yet neither is he an Israelite, nor does he know or recognise God. So is he a secular or a sacred figure? Prophetically he is sacred, but he very surely was never given any formal religious recognition. The lesson is that God can overrule, and that everything that He has made and ordered is to be regarded as in a real sense "sacred", in its relationship to Him. The Old Testament quite clearly regards the theological domain as extending not only over the state authorities of Israel but even over the state authorities of nations other than Israel, even if those nations themselves do not worship the God of Israel.

STATE INSTITUTIONS DIVINELY RECOGNISED
In the New Testament we see a theologically high view of the State and its common life and its institutions. "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed." So says St. Paul in Romans 13, in a manner quite consistent with the thought of the Old Testament. In a similar manner, St. Peter also says, "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution ... Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil ... Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the Emperor." Our Lord in today's Gospel, by the means of an attempt to entrap Him, had the opportunity to teach on religious and secular matters. His questioners did not want to receive instruction, however. In their attempt to trap Him two mutually opposed groups, Pharisees and Herodians, formed an "unholy alliance" so as to provide that any answer He gave to the question of the lawfulness of paying taxes to Caesar would antagonise one or the other group and then be exploited by that group for His condemnation. Those that were the "disciples of the Pharisees" considered the image of Caesar on the coins to be idolatrous, and the payment of taxes to the Romans to be an act bordering on idolatry. They were also aware of the political leverage of the extreme unpopularity of the tax among the Jews. Those that were the “Herodians”, on the other hand, supported the Herods, the local kings of Edomite heritage that had been installed by the Romans. If Jesus had pronounced that the coins and the payment of taxes with them was idolatrous, the Herodians would have witnessed in court that He was seditiously opposing Caesar. If on the other hand he had pronounced that paying the Roman taxes was in accordance with religious law, those who were "disciples of the Pharisees" would have been given a position to lay charges against him before the religious authorities. But the answer that Jesus actually gave went to the root of the issue. "Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and render to God that which is God's" is a teaching that allows for taxes to be paid and the institutions of the state respected, while honouring God as possessing supreme authority over all. God was the God of Caesar too, as well as of the Jews, though Caesar, like Cyrus the Persian, might well not know Him, in Apostolic times or even in our own. That image on the coin, was after all, the image of a man, the image, as we would say, of the image of God.


THE CHURCH SHOULD SUBMIT TO BUT INTERCEDE FOR THE STATE.
Now, the various stages of our Church building project plans could not have rightly made progress or have been completed without the statutory tests set by the authorities of state being passed. Our very existence is subject to the rightful demands made by the state authorities of any corporate citizen, just like the acquisition by an individual of a driving licence. We might be the better disposed towards those tests and demands when we understand that they are all part and parcel of a system that God Himself has instituted and is in charge of. As St. Paul would say, they exist for our good. That is certainly not to say that state systems operate perfectly or without error. The Roman state system, in the charge of rulers that were not uncommonly weak, cruel or ideologically blinded, could be and was manipulated to condemn Jesus Himself, and after that, to persecute His followers for various periods in succeeding centuries. We should pray that the state system that God has instituted in our own day may not be corrupted by the weak and jealous, and especially, not be ideologically controlled by ways of thought that are antagonistic to the Faith, and that the church will be given the resources and the grace to fulfil the state's requirements. Just as God raised up Cyrus the Persian in Old Testament times to release Israel from the clutches of the Babylonians, so may we pray, truly relying on Him, that God will overrule in State affairs in our day, in order that the Church may continue to survive and be a witness to show the men and women of our time the greatness and the claims of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

In his encouraging words to the church in Thessalonica that we heard in our second lesson today, St. Paul rejoices, not merely that they had become believers and members of the Body of Christ. He rejoices that their belief and membership of Christ were influential in a general sense. “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere ... for they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned from idols, to serve a living and true God....” Their faith in God went forth everywhere. And for us too, we should seek to find the ways in which our faith may go forth everywhere, and not merely be a private inclination. Our faith should “go forth” with us wherever we travel, whether into other countries or regions with their local churches and congregations as St. Paul was principally referring to, or indeed into the areas of our personal and family living, into our private or public service, into the arts with which we are involved, into the fields of our employment, into our research, writings and publications and into the ideas with which we are endowed. It is not by any means always easy to see how this may be done - as Jesus says, often we are to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. But He also said that as we went forward in faith, the gates of hell would not prevail against us. Let your faith and mine, our membership of Christ under the sovereignty of God our Father, go forth to every place that we in spirit, mind and body may be privileged to touch. May it one day be said of us too that, "Their faith in God has gone forth everywhere." Then the places to which we go forth will not be places of loss or degradation of our faith; rather those places will be where our portion of faith has done something to bring the salt and light of which Jesus speaks to bear upon, heal and illuminate the people there, throughout our world.