A Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity
November 12, 2023 at Holy Communion
Haggai 2:4–9, Philippians 3:17–21, Matthew 22:15–22
“They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
There’s nothing in the city quite like Remembrance Day in a small Canadian town. I remember the struggle that my suburban public school teachers had to convince our classroom that it mattered to stand respectfully at Remembrance Day services. It seemed so far away from us. None of our parents and few of our grandparents had served in the military. Many of our grandparents were not Canadians. But here, in the company of so many people whose grandparents, parents, or even spouses served in the terrible wars of the last century, things seem nearer.
I must commend you. You who are of a generation closer to those wars: you keep Remembrance Day with great dignity. You do honour to your country by remembering its struggles well.
Our readings are about the home country: the home country on earth, but especially the home country in heaven.
Every Christian is a dual citizen. We are citizens here on earth. From the moment of our birth, we are members of a community which has claims on us. In many countries, every boy who is born owes a year of military service when we reaches adulthood. Before it is certain that he will be tall or short, gregarious or quiet, it is certain that he will bear arms. There is no use pretending that we are not members of a society from day one.
But, as our Epistle says, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). We may be born into a society that demands things of us, but what does God demand of us? Sometimes, what God demands of us goes directly against the way of the world—I’m not talking here about military service, but against the habits of our world, just as common in Paul’s day as now, to live as if “our god is our belly,” and to “glory in the things that should cause us shame” (v 19).
Navigating the relationship between being a good citizen and a faithful servant of God is notoriously difficult. Even if being a good citizen on earth and a good citizen in heaven often mean the same thing, they do not always mean the same thing. This is a problem so difficult that the Pharisees once tried to use it to trip up Jesus. That’s what he get in our Gospel reading. Effectively, they ask him to pick a side: Caesar or God? “If you support paying taxes,“ they say, “then you support God’s pagan enemies and aren’t a genuine prophet, but if you oppose paying taxes, then you’re in trouble with Caesar.“ Christians today still get skewered with the same criticism: either you’re a hypocritical conformist to state power, or you’re a anti-social wierdo who doesn’t want to have anything to do with society. It’s a no-win question, a set-up.
And yet Jesus finds a way through. He points out that the coin used for the tax has Caesar’s image: surely a sign that it belongs to Caesar and should be given back to him. But then he shifts the whole conversation by asking us to give to God what belongs to God. Well, what belongs to God? Surely whatever has his image stamped on it. And what is that except the human person, made in the image and likeness of the Creator? Jesus says, “Give Caesar his due as far as it goes, but your whole soul you owe to God.”
Our citizenship on earth and our citizenship in heaven are on different levels. Living as participants in our country, faithful servants of his Majesty the King, is for a time. “The age of man is three score years and ten“: seventy years, maybe eighty, and then our service to our county ends. Yet to the Lord even a thousand years are like a day, for so it is in that true empire on high where the sun never sets because the Lord is its light—that is where we will serve for ever. In the here-and-now, we give our bodies for the good of our neighbour, we shoulder the burden of our place in society, but hereafter we belong to the Lord alone. We give Caesar our denarius now, but God will one day open the treasure stores of our heart and take it all for his own.
So when it’s an issue of conflict between what God demands and what our country does, the answer has to be the one given by St Peter: in Acts 5: “We must obey God rather than men” (v 29). But we are fortunate that, because of the sacrifices of our ancestors to build a free society, we rarely have to make such a decision. The lesson for us is simply to live in the present as people mindful of our destiny. We live and serve where we are in a way that shows what it means to be a heavenly citizen.
Our Old Testament reading describes this. It begins with an encouragement to labour diligently for the welfare of our community on earth. “Be strong,“ it says, ”all you people of the Land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you. … My Spirit remains in your midst” (Haggai 2:4–5). And yet, almost in the same breath that the Lord tells the people to work hard on earth, he also says, “In a little while I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations” (v 6–7). There is no kingdom on earth which will survive when God rolls up carpet.
And yet this is a reason not to despair or to retreat into isolation, but to care for the earthly city. Why? Because the same God who will shake the nations is among us now. “Work, for I am with you.” Even while all things are passing away, we live and serve in our communities as the vanguard of a new regime. When we put our shoulder to the wheel in service of our communities, this is not earthly futility, but an embassy from a kingdom which is still to come; it is the moving image in time of the eternal kingdom of the Father. The kingdom of God is among us, and we bring that kingdom with us into all the places we serve alongside our neighbours.
I hope that our children will be able to say of us what the Book of Hebrews says of our ancestors of faith: “they declare plainly that they seek a homeland … a better country, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:14, 16). I pray that our service to King and country, to neighbour and foreigner, would show our earnest desire to build a city as much as possible like our true homeland in heaven.