Jesus held up a coin, a denarius, a small silver coin and the most common one produced for common currency in the Roman Empire (Luke 20:19-26). “Is it lawful in God’s eyes to pay taxes to Caesar?” A question posed to Jesus, sounds simple enough on the outside but it was filled with latent danger and an underlying current of societal distrust and anger. The Jewish religious leaders were trying to catch Jesus in a trap. If Jesus said “No”, they would bring him up on legal charges of being a revolutionary against the government and have Him imprisoned by the Roman guard but if he said “Yes” the common people would likely riot against Jesus so deep was the sense of oppression and anger against the governing authority. Taking the coin in His hand, Jesus’ answer is both simple and profound, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s.” Like the two sides of a coin, Jesus does not willy-nilly simply throw up the coin and call out heads or tails, either-or, church or state, but instead in His response walks along the edge of the coin maintaining balance, integrity and both earthly and eternal righteousness. In maintaining that balance, not getting lost in temporal and societal debates that come and go with the generations, Jesus allowed the eternal focus of redemption and forgiveness found because of God’s love to be the center of His ministry.
What this intentionally creates for the everyday Christian, for you and me, is a tight rope walk governed by Christian love and Godly wisdom, knowing that in this world we must lovingly and wisely negotiate the sacred and secular, the church and state, in such a manner that does not allow for one to use force or coercion upon the other but seeks to maintain a balance while allowing the Gospel message of God’s love in Christ Jesus to dominate all we say and do.
In an effort for us as Christians to live this life in a thoughtful way, governed by Christian love and wisdom, we must first recognize which relationships we are talking about. I say relationships because they are the basis for all human and divine interactions, if each individual lived alone in the void, there would be no need for government or church or society in a world that is just me, myself and I. But that is not the world we live in, we are surrounded by other people and graciously called by our Creator God who desires relationship with us. We live and work within relationships that are our reality. But there are fundamental differences between some of these relationships that we live within.
The first and most important relationship we have is the sacred relationship between God and us. To visualize this relationship take your fingers and draw a vertical line from the sky to you and back again. This relationship is based solely upon the grace of God alone come to you through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, received in faith by the hearing of the Word and created by the Holy Spirit through baptism. In that faith God makes us into His New Creations who respond to God’s love in love and trust and hope. This relationship is governed by God’s grace alone and it finds us exactly how we are but it doesn’t leave us that way, transforming us by God’s love to become more and more human, how God intended us to be.
That central relationship with Jesus Christ brings us into relationships with other people who also have been saved by Grace. This is our relationship with other Christians, both around the world and here local in your church family. Remember that this is the Church, the people of God surrounded around the Word and Sacraments, who in faith have agreed to speak and hear God’s truth in love together. To illustrate this relationship take your fingers and draw a line in the middle of that first line you drew from left to right and back again. You’ll notice that what we are making is a cross because it is the cross that brings us both into a right relationship with God and into a relationship within the community of faith.
Now as Christians saved by Grace, in a right relationship with God (vertical line) and in a loving community of believers (horizontal line) we are in this world but not of it, but we are still in this world. The Bible characterizes this world as lost in the darkness of sin, ruled by the spiritual powers of sin, death and the devil and the inhabitants apart from Christ as being spiritually blind, dead, lost and enemies of God. But with all of that still part of God’s good creation and is loved by God, “for God so loved the World…” To illustrate this relationship I want you to make the cross, like you did before (vertical and horizontal lines) but now draw a big circle around the cross. That is the world we live within but are not of, a world where the Jesus brings light to the darkness through the Word and we are the bearers of that Word.
As Christians these are the two worlds we live within: The sacred governed by the grace of God and the people of God who in faith come to hear and speak God’s truth in love together. The secular, still part of God’s good creation but lost in sin and the inhabitants blind, dead, enemies of God. It is the line between these two relationships, between the sacred and the secular that Jesus holding that coin began to teach us as Christians how to negotiate within. Because if we fall too hard on one side, we end up with what is called a theocracy, where the religion tries to dominate politics and culture. We have seen the worst of what happens, because power always corrupts, in the abuses of the Roman papacy in the 16th century, in the Crusades, in so-called “Christian” activists groups that go to military funerals with signs that say, “Thank god for Terrorists,” or “Thank God for 9/11.” But we have also seen when we fall too hard on the other side, when governments use Christians as oil for torches lighting the way to Nero’s palace, imprisoning Christians for sedition and trying to force Christians to go against conscience and God’s Word in their personal and business affairs.
In all of the dangers of abuse and going to far, the thoughtful Christian must always approach this kind of conversation, between sacred and secular, with Godly love and wisdom and with an honest evaluation of who they are talking to and what they are trying to accomplish. Because when the Christian talks to the secular world, they are not talking to the redeemed whose hearts and minds have been transformed by the love of God. Instead, they are talking to those who are still lost in their sins, blinded by the deceits of this world, dead in spirit and many times actively enemies against God; but despite all of that, not our enemies, but beloved children of God that Jesus Christ died for. Knowing who are speaking to reminds us that too demand of those who are still unredeemed and that they live and work and grow like those whose priorities are focused upon Jesus Christ is like asking a blind and deaf person to negotiate a territory completely unknown to them or asking the dead to get up and walk.
But this is also why we must understand why it is that we are having these kinds of conversations. When the sacred talks to the secular, is it always simply to bash them over the head with the point that they are blind, deaf and dead, because what good would that do, can the blind makes themselves any less blind or the dead any less dead in the spirit? Rather should not our point, our why in our conversations with the world focus on bringing them to the only One who brings sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and new life to dead? Is it better to yell, “you are blind,” or to call “come and meet the Savior with me”?
This conversation is as old as the world filled with people and there will never be any easy answers in our generation, just like there were no easy answers in the generations before or in the generations after us. But Christians can approach this topic in such a way that will make it easier for the Christians of tomorrow to negotiate between these two relationships standing upon the foundation of Christian love and wisdom that we can actively show today.
But ultimately we must never lose sight of where our ultimate hope lies, not in the power of government, society or human works but only in the grace of God found in Jesus and His redeeming power for all of creation.
The Psalmist of Psalm 146 reminds us:
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
3 Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
7 who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord!