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Terry York
Dr. Terry W. York

 

 


"Render to Caesar, Render to God" - Terry W. York
Stagg-Tolbert Forum for Biblical Studies
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Louisiana


Emmanuel Baptist Church
Alexandria, LA
October 16, 2010

Lecture 1: Image and The Things that are Caesar's

 

Lecture 2 - Image and The Things that are God’s

 

“Whose image is on the coin? Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God the things that are God’s.”

But a question jumps out of the answer:  What do we have that is not God’s?  We all know that everything belongs to God; Jesus certainly knew it. 

The question can be heard in two ways. There is a rhetorical hearing of the question. There is also a deeply challenging hearing of te question. One response is that “Everything is God’s in one way or another.”  Another response is that “There are some aspects of my life that I am not yet ready to give to God.” Worship is the arena in which we wrestle with our response to the question, “What do we have that is not God’s?” Every Sunday morning we enter the sanctuary where the question waits for us. What do we have that is not God’s?
               
Inasmuch as our theme for today includes the word “patriotism,” we would do well to establish what we mean when we use the word. At its root, the word patriotism simply refers to one’s love for the fatherland. We are called to love God supremely, but we are not called to love God exclusively.  So, we can conclude that there is room in the Christian heart for love of the fatherland; for patriotism. Carrying that thought a bit further, we are to enter into worship wholeheartedly. If we do so, a measure of patriotism has entered the sanctuary and the worship that takes place there.

There is an “ism,” however, that slows us down on this particular path. There is an “ism” that is akin to patriotism, but is best described as its evil twin. I speak of “nationalism.” Somewhere in the migration from patriotism to nationalism, exclusivity and triumphalism enter the picture and the heart.  They would like to enter worship, but when they try, they only kill it. There is no humility before God in either exclusivity or triumphalism.  There is not humility in exclusivity or triumphalism in any forum. Patriotism can be humble before God. Nationalism cannot be. We must remember that the Kingdom of God has no flag.  Its banner is a cross. All peoples and persons find welcome and entrance equally.  (Allow me to refer you to some excellent work done by Rob Hewell on this subject. The title of the final project of his DMin studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary is “The Politics of Leitourgia: Transcending Nationalism in Evangelical Worship in the United States.”)
              
This dark morphing of patriotism into nationalism happens in part, I believe, because of a mis-understanding of what patriotism should look like. In their book, Why Rethink Christianity and Patriotism, Michael Long and Tracy Sadd observe that political conservative patriotism focuses on the traditional displays of pledging allegiance, waving the flag and singing the national anthem with what they describe as an “emphasis on the ‘superior goodness of the American way of life,’” while liberal patriots are often embarrassed by these “gratuitous display(s) of patriotism” and try to do away with any gesture that highlights “American exceptionalism.” (Michael G. Long and Tracy Wenger Sadd. NY: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers, 2007, pp. 1-3). Neither waving the flag nor being embarrassed get at core definition of a love for the fatherland.  Differing understandings about the public and/or private nature of the Kingdom of God adds to the tension.     
          
In his book Translating the Message, African missiologist, theologian, and historian at Yale Divinity School, Lamin Sanneh writes, “…the messianic kingdom is a spiritual kingdom in deep tension with the kingdom of Caesar.” (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989/2000 ISBN: 978-1-57075-804-1.)

Deep tension, indeed, and the conflict is in the hearts and minds of those with citizenship in two kingdoms. The messianic kingdom calls us to actions and reactions that are pure foolishness according to the accepted thought-patterns of the Kingdom of this world. In some cases messianic kingdom actions and reactions might even be seen as “un-American.” You are familiar with the upside-down nature of the gospel. We know it well and it is in worship that we rehearse that upside-down-ness.  Patriotism wants to know its place in the Heaven’s upside-down alignment. Nationalism wants to turn or return things to a logical right-side-up –ness.  Here are Christians whose differing opinions could not be more obviously 180 degrees in opposition to each other.
            
It is in worship that we have our best hope of sorting out exactly whose image is on what.  It is in worship that we find answers to the puzzling question in Jesus’ answer about image. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesars and give to God the things that are Gods? What things are God’s , um…that is to say, What things are not God’s.
          
Consider Jesus’ trial and sentencing. In John 19, verses 10 through 12 we listen in on another of Jesus’ conversations. This time it is not with religious leaders, it is with a political leader. Pilate asks Jesus, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” [causing me to hear echoes of “This church wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our heroes in battle.”] “Don’t you realize I have the power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin. From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free.” (TNIV).

                Patriotism, the love of the fatherland, is a love granted to us by the One who is Love, even as Pilate’s power was granted to him by the One who is Power.  Patriotism is constantly trying to find its place in worship inasmuch as it has a place in the human heart. Nationalism, on the other hand wants to use worship, wants to hang on to and use the things that are God’s.   God has given the nations and the rulers their place. Who blesses who? Who establishes who? Whose image is to be seen in the focus of worship? Patriotism, understood, is humble in worship, present as one of the lesser loves. It hauls down its banners. Nationalism stands and shouts in a house of prayer.  We are to worship no other God. Weare to bow to no image other than Jesus who is the image of the unseen God. May we love other persons, other entities? Yes, but we are to worship God and God alone.  
                 
It is in worship that we realign our hearts and minds toward more Christ-likeness. It is in worship that we are reminded that for all its meekness, the Way of Christ is the way of strength.  Caesar cannot be expected to die daily. Caesar must promote Caesar even in benevolence and mercy. But the patriotic heart of a dual citizenship Christ-follower can be expected to die daily and to keep its legitimate loves in proper perspective. I quote Rob Hewell, “By faithfulness in worship, the Church declares its singular allegiance to God. In worshiping faithfully, the Church also withholds devotion from all others. By faithfulness in worship, the Church denies the right to any other entity to establish or even define its communal self.” Well said, Rob. As I understand worship and patriotism, patriotism would also say, “Amen.”
          
During the afternoon of September 11, 2001, I received a phone call from my pastor, Dr. Scott Walker. Our church, like thousands of others, was going to have a special prayer meeting that night. Scott was crafting a service that called for both spontaneous prayers from within the congregations and two or three prepared prayers of specific focus. He asked if I would prepare a “Prayer of Christian Response.” With reluctance, I said I would.
          
I am going to read the prayer for you. I want you to determine if it is patriotic, nationalistic, or neither. Evaluate, too, its appropriateness in worship. Indeed, it was composed for a prayer meeting, but it was composed worshipfully…at least that was my intention. I certainly would not have hesitated to pray it in the context of worship. Listen to the prayer. Is it patriotic, nationalistic, appropriate as worship or none of the above?

                                    PRAYER OF CHRISTIAN RESPONSE

Father, our deepest prayers have no words, yet you hear them. Our deepest shock leaves us cold and empty, yet you fill our souls with the warmth of your presence. You are our strength and refuge in the time of trouble. You are, in fact, our only strength and refuge, even in times of supposed peace.

Holy Comforter, minister to those who lost loved ones today. Comfort those who don’t yet know, but fear they have lost loved ones today. Hold in your arms those who are injured. Lie down, dear Lord, lie down beside those who are still trapped.

Blessed Prince of Peace, help us with our response to violence. Dear Jesus, remind us, even though we don’t want to hear it, remind us of your love for everyone, indeed, for each one involved in any way, in today’s dark tragedy. Help our response to be tempered by the fact that you died for the sins of each human being, even those sins committed just today. As it begins to dawn on us just how deep and wide your love is, as it begins to dawn on us just how heavy and dark your burden of sin was on that day, on that cross, dear Jesus, help us to respond in ways that bow before your cross, ways that honor your love for all people; even though at this moment we seem incapable of allowing that love to flow through us. 

Tonight, dear Lord, it is difficult to be a Christ-follower. It is difficult for us to model our response to sin and violence after your example of unconditional love. Help us, dear Lord, to remember what you taught us about turning the other cheek. Help us to remember to Whom vengeance belongs. Lord, terrorists have collapsed our buildings. Don’t let them collapse our Christianity. When our hearts shout “punish,” let us respond with your heart that says, “forgive.” We need your help.

Dear God, help us not to respond to terrorism by becoming terrorists. Help us not to respond to violence by becoming violent. Do not let an assassin turn us into assassins. Rather, help us to use this costly opportunity to show the world that a country that boasts of being Christian, can, in fact, be Christ-like. Help us to, around this world, turn hearts to Jesus’ love by turning a cheek in Jesus’ name.

It is, after all,in Jesus’ name we pray,
Amen. (Terry W. York 11SEP01)

What belongs to God?  One of the things that belongs to God is my heart; a heart which acknowledges the imprint of God, and is, therefore open to the teachings of the gospel, even the hard teachings. Oh, I know that the prayer you just heard may have some theological holes in it, holes through which the dust of the towers may have entered. I know. I know that a case could be made that the individual is to turn the cheek, but a nation can’t. But then I remember that in our country, the people are the government. We are Caesar, and the dust billows and blocks the sun.  Even with holes acknowledged, I suggest that patriotism entered our sanctuary that evening and fell on its knees in prayer. Nationalism was present that evening and stood tall, scandalized and in shock. Jesus laid down beside, stood beside, and knelt beside all who were wounded that evening. He felt all the pain, all the confusion, he knew the fear.            

What things are God’s? Whose image appears?               

One of the things on which God’s image appears is my heart. I give it to God when I open my heart and life open beyond any exclusionary allegiance or images. We can agree, even in the heat of attack and reprisal, that God loves the innocent Afghanis and Iraqis. God loves Muslims. They are all our neighbors according to Jesus who died for them.  But, does God love the 9-11 hijackers? Worship tells us we have to say yes, though the words have the taste of vinegar and wine and gall mixed together. Does God love the 9-11 hijackers? Nationalism says “No,” patriotism isn’t sure, Jesus says yes, and worship works to realign, once again, a dual citizenship into a singular heart and mind. The Kingdom of God is at hand with all its demands. Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.               
                                
Was my Prayer of Christian Response a patriotic prayer, or was it un-American?  I would like to think that it is a worshipful prayer in that the image of the fatherland bows before the heavenly Father. I would like to think that it is patriotic in that my love for my fatherland is easily seen, to the point that I pray for our country.  I would like to think that “turn the other cheek,” even if it some would question its corporate, national, application, suggests a patriotism that has bowed in worship; that it  implies a Christian worship influenced desire to meet the hijackers’ mercilessness and gross injustice with whatever mercy and justice our Christian patriotism can muster.
                                
There were two patriotic responses to my prayer that evening. In my initial drafting of this paper, I wrote, “There were two responses to my prayer that evening, one patriotic, the other nationalistic. Over the course of preparation, I changed the sentence to how it now reads, “There were two patriotic responses to my prayer that evening.  One of the responses came from an elderly man who was a Pearl Harbor survivor. He got his angry face up into my surprised face and said that my prayer  was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. Just a few months earlier, he had complimented me deeply on a sermon preached in that same sanctuary.  I know the man. He is not a nationalist. He is patriotic. He loves his country, but I know that he loves God more. His patriotism had come to church and found there a great struggle. Don’t we all find great struggle in worship? Don’t we all find great struggle in the teachings of the gospel? Such struggle is the honest heart of the dual-citizen Chrsit-follower and their worship.
                                
The other patriotic response came from a fellow Baylor professor who is a former Air Force officer. The words that emerged from his struggle were, “I’ve never met a Marine who failed to impress me.” His use of the word Marine sounded his patriotism. As I think back on it now, I hear the phrase, “never failed to impress me,” as a complement, yes, but a complement that confessed his patriotism being brought to bow before God.
                                
Christian worship need not fear patriotism. It is in the heart of the one who worships in spirit and in truth. Patriotism will not ask for a place on the throne, or, if it should, it will be easily dissuaded. Patriotism will not want its image prominent on the platform any more than you or I want our picture up there. Tendencies toward Nationalism are unmasked in the same way any other of our incipient idolatries are unmasked in worship. Thank God for mercy and forgiveness. Patriotism will look at the coin in its hand and will see not only Caesar’s image, but the circumference of a nail-scar as well.  We worship a Christ who died for his executioners and the Caesar whose orders they followed.
                                
Patriotism, that legitimate love for fatherland that corrects and holds its Caesar accountable; patriotism, is a redeeming love for the fatherland. God does the redeeming, we do the praying. God does the redeeming we do the voting. God does the redeeming; we do the marching, if we can. God and Caesar, both, call us to law abiding living. However, our Christian worship must open our eyes and train our gaze toward the proper discernment of images.  In the context of Christian worship, let us put the things that bear Caesar’s image into the offering plate alongside the things that bear our image, knowing that in doing so, we give to God the things that are God’s.

 

Terry W. York