Sermon for October 17th, 2021

Loving God, increase in us your gift of faith, that forsaking what lives behind and reaching out to what is before, we may run the way of your commandments and win the crown of everlasting joy, Amen 

If my records are correct (and I know a couple of people who can put me right on this) today marks the fiftieth anniversary of services being held in this Anglican Church of the Epiphany. This is a milestone and if circumstances had been different we might have shared some sheet cake. As it is let us give thanks today for this occasion. Let us thank God that members of our congregation founded this building which has been our spiritual home for these many years. It is a moment to celebrate and give thanks for all those who have gone before us, being grateful for their service, their support and time which enabled this congregation to develop and grow. And it is a moment to give thanks for the present congregation, both at home and in church today as we mark this moment. And it is an occasion to look to the future of this congregation; that it may continue to thrive and grow in the years that lie ahead. 

The first reading relates to Paul who visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey. It was a major city at the time on an important sea route. Those who followed the way of Christ would have faced questions, rejection and even persecution for worshipping God, so no question they would have suffered greatly for their faithfulness. 

Paul reminds them that God has loved and chosen them, also that the gospel came to them by power, assurance and the Holy Spirit. By turning to God good things have happened, they hope for Jesus Christ and accept the misfortunes of life (that come through living their faith) with the joy of the Holy Spirit. 

The faithful of Thessalonica are, says Paul, worthy of praise for turning their lives to the living and true God. Paul sees their strengths as having great hope, in the second coming of Christ. Secondly, he praises them for their labour of love, in caring not just for one another but also for the whole Macedonian community. And lastly that their work of faith is inspirational in that they worked with diligence as they proclaim the gospel. 

As Paul makes clear, God chooses those who God loves. And as with any human relationship when we are loved and chosen, we have responsibilities, we have to go above and beyond for each other. Paul assures the Thessalonians that being chosen gave them power, assurance and the Holy Spirit. If God loves and chooses us, we receive the same gifts (assistance). Paul also suggests that the strengths of the Christians in Thessalonica are (in order) hope, love and faith. They look for the coming again of Christ which is their hope. They demonstrate their love for one another in the community. They are an inspiration to others in their faithfulness to God in sharing the gospel.

The gospel passage today concerns Jesus being asked by religious leaders whether taxes ought to be paid to Caesar. The last few weeks of Jesus’ life, as portrayed by Matthew consist of a series of encounters between Jesus and various religious groups who felt threatened by Jesus. The Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians (who feature in our narrative today), all are mentioned over the weeks.

The Pharisees are clear in their intentions, as the first line of the gospel tells us: ‘The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said’. So a group of Pharisee disciples, together with Herodians (who followed Herod) challenged Jesus about the payment of taxes. So they ask: should they pay taxes to Caesar or not? Jesus knew this to be a trick and called it as such. For if he said no, this was challenging the Roman authorities who taxed everyone in occupied Palestine during this period. If he said yes this might be considered a lack of support for the religious leadership of Israel. Jesus knew he had to answer carefully and so gave a reply that closed down this line of questioning. By asking them to show him a coin, which had the image of Caesar Jesus answered: ‘Give ... to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. The passage concludes by saying that the leaders went away ‘amazed’.

There is a surprise in this passage because the Pharisees and Herodians rarely agreed on anything, with the first group opposed to the Roman Empire and the latter group working with it. Of course, what united them was their opposition to Jesus and his message. There is no doubt they aimed to catch Jesus out. Both groups knew that there was no option but to pay taxes. Jesus asks them to produce a coin (which carried the image of Caesar) but also was the method by which taxes were paid. The very image of Caesar was a reminder that the nation was under Roman rule and of the requirement to pay taxes. Jesus is very clear: it was necessary to pay tax to Caesar, but also offer what is due to God. In our own lives, there is no difference. For the people in the time of Jesus, taxes were a requirement (as they are today) whereas what we give to God is part of our calling and commitment to be followers of Christ. 

Therefore as followers of Christ, we are called to give generously to God to support the work of the Church through our offerings but we also must pay our taxes and other bills. We have to obey laws every bit as much as we should obey God. We may not agree with having to pay tax, we may not want to obey the speed limit when we are in a hurry, but such issues serve for good order and the common good, and in the case of speed limits to keep other people, as well as ourselves safe!

The point is this: what we think on particular issues is between us, our conscience and God. However, as those who follow Christ, we have a responsibility to care for the world, its people, our nation and our city. The Christian faith urges us to be concerned for the common good, to live lives that mean that we and our own families aren’t the only concern that we have. We are called to bear witness to those who struggle day by day to feed their families, to have adequate shelter, education and health care. For if we only really think about ourselves we tend to be selfish and self-serving and fundamental to Christian teaching is that God did not give us life on earth for us to be the only ones that matter.

Today as we celebrate the first 50 years of Epiphany, let us give thanks for the faith, hope and love of those who have gone before us, for the faith, hope and love of our present congregation, and for the faith, hope and love of those who will carry our church forward for the next 50 years and beyond. 

A Prayer for 50 years 

Gracious and Loving God,
We are your Church, called to this place, the Church of the Epiphany.
We thank you for all that has been our past over the last 50 years. We thank you for what is the present, and we entrust to you the future.
Release your gifts from amongst your people, that we may serve you and each other, in love and service, with honour and thanksgiving.
Enable us to be your Church and make us always worthy of our calling.
We make this prayer, in the name, and for the sake of your son,
Jesus Christ, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen