Sermon - Sunday, 22 October 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 22 October.

Scripture: Romans 13: 1-7 / Matthew 22: 15-22

Text: Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s      

(Matthew 22: 21)


Did you know the opening ceremony of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is one of only two formal state occasions remaining in Scottish public life?

And have you ever noticed the different ways in which the relationship between church and state is carefully choreographed?

Although she has attended on three separate occasions during her reign, the Queen is typically represented at the Assembly by someone rejoicing in the title of Lord High Commissioner.

As the ordinary commissioners, the ministers, elders and deacons, gather in the Assembly Hall, the trumpeters announce the arrival of the Queen’s Lord High Commissioner who is welcomed, not into the main debating chamber itself, but to the Throne Gallery overlooking the chamber.

It is from the Throne Gallery that the Purse Bearer reaches over and hands down a letter to the Principal Clerk introducing the Lord High Commissioner and asking that she or he be welcomed and treated as though the Queen herself was present.

The Lord High Commissioner being introduced and welcomed, the Purse Bearer then stretches over and hands down a second letter, this time from the Queen, in which the Monarch reaffirms the ancient promise to uphold the Presbyterian system of church government in Scotland.

And then, and only then, will the Moderator address the Lord High Commissioner and invite him or her to address the Assembly – and the Lord High will do so from the Gallery, that is, overlooking but outside of the main body of the kirk.

Colourful pageantry, fanfares, men in tights, a Purse bearer and lots of pomp and ceremony – if at one level it is pure theatre (and it is) it is important not to lose sight of the significance of the symbolism.

Welcomed to the Church of Scotland’s supreme court but not part of it, able to address the Assembly but only when invited to do so, promising to uphold the Presbyterian system of church government but not entitled to vote in any of its debates, acknowledging that the church is able to create its own laws free of any interference from the state; the opening ceremony of our church’s General Assembly reveals something of what it looks like to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

Church and state – and for Martin Luther, the man at the heart of the Reformation, the movement which would in time give birth to the Church of Scotland, the relationship between the two spheres of influence had suffered a long and troubled history, one which over many centuries had brought princes and popes into conflict with one another.

In the 11th and 12th century of Luther’s Germany, what was known as the Investiture Controversy concerned who had the authority to make senior church appointments including to the papacy.

It led to 50 years warfare over the extent to which kings and princes could and should involve themselves in the running of church affairs.

As Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Pope Gregory VII fought it out, the Concordat of Worms (1122) finally settled the matter in favour of the Papacy.

Yet it was a settlement that continued to be fraught, not least in Luther’s day when in 1517 Pope Leo gave the French king Francis a free hand in choosing bishops – in return for his support in curtailing the powers of a general church council.

Ecclesiastical power and authority over and against the power and authority of the state – in an article entitled On Secular Authority and How Far One Should be Obedient to it, published on New Year’s Day 1523, Luther began to articulate his doctrine of two kingdoms.

Drawing upon Paul’s letter to the Romans where the apostle urged obedience to the civil authorities because they were ordained by God, Luther came to the view that the civil authorities enjoyed a legitimate role in public life and should be respected.

However he sought to place limits on that role, claiming that while it extended to life and property and what is external upon earth, the authority of the state did not extend to the spiritual domain and an individual’s conscience - over the soul God can and will let no one rule but Him.

If, as at least one historian has concluded, there is an unmissable sense that Luther would really rather have nothing to do with the messy business of earthly matters and battles[1] his attempt to disentangle private life and responsibility from public life and obligation might have looked good on paper but struggled to work in practice.

Luther would probably be the first to acknowledge this, his plea in mitigation being that questions of Christian loyalty and obedience to the state have been hotly disputed from New Testament times.

If the apostle Paul’s encouragement that everyone must submit to the civil authority because it has been established by God sounds somewhat surprising, it is in fact consistent with other New Testament teaching that obedience must be given to, and prayers offered for, the civil power.[2]

Mindful of the often rebellious nature of the Jewish community in ancient Palestine, was Paul trying to differentiate the Christian community and establish their reputation as good and loyal citizens in Roman eyes?

Perhaps, but as Paul had himself experienced when he had been charged by the Jewish authorities and had appealed to Caesar to be tried as a Roman citizen, the state provided protection and justice for the  individual as well as a range of services which any person could never provide for themselves.

So could a person enjoy everything the state provided but refuse all responsibility towards it?

And was the civil authority an instrument in the hand of God bringing order and preventing chaos?

If these were some of the questions in Paul’s mind leading him to the view that the authorities which exist have been established by God and so should be obeyed, it would be difficult to draw such blind and uncritical obedience from the tax trap set for Jesus by the Pharisees.

If Jesus affirmed payment of the tax, he risked losing respect from the common people who understandably objected to paying anything to the occupying Roman power.

On the other hand if he said the tax should not be paid, he would be guilty of challenging Caesar’s authority and could be reported to the Romans for sedition.

Jesus’ response was as simple as it is profound.

The coin bore the image of Caesar – the Greek word is eikon - and so it was right and proper to pay such tax as was appropriate to the Emperor.

However, human beings bear the eikon, the image, of God and so their way of life, their values and priorities, must honour God.

In responding as he did, Jesus neither offered an affirmation of Roman rule nor established a pecking order of religious and political obligations.

Rather he invited his hearers, then or now, to explore the question of ultimate belonging, and in the words of this commentator, to be honest about whose empire they serve, whose economy they trade in, whose benevolence they depend on, and whose salvation they seek. [3]

Or to put that in other words, whether in the social, political, cultural, economic or religious realm of life we still bear the image of God, we belong to God, and our loyalties do not switch when we leave church and go back to the business of everyday life.

So this morning, as you hear of Jesus taking a coin, and learn of the apostle Paul’s view that having been appointed by God, any civic authority demands our allegiance, Desmond Tutu’s famous comment bears reflection – when people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I wonder which Bible they are reading.

And therein lies the challenge, the challenge to each one of us as Christian women and men, the collective challenge to all of us as a congregation and a church – or better perhaps – the opportunity – to embed the Christian values of compassion, generosity, hospitality, forgiveness and reconciliation in our private lives, in our home and family life as well as in our common life.

Homelessness, the use and threatened use of nuclear weapons, global warming and environmental concerns, a world of hunger, poverty and preventable disease: from New Testament times through Luther’s Reformation to the present day the question of the relationship between church and state, between faith and politics is as urgent as it is pressing.

What kind of life does our faith commit us to living?

What kind of church does the gospel commit us to being?

And in all the challenges and opportunities facing us today, what does it mean to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] Peter Standford, Martin Luther; Catholic Dissident Hodder and Stoughton, Great Britain, 2017, p286

[2] 1 Timothy 2: 1,2; 1 Peter 2: 13-17

[3] Stanley Saunders Preaching the Gospel of Matthew Westminister John Knox Press, Louisville, 2010, p227