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Pentecost 21

Sunday, 22 October 2023
Revd Janet Spence

Even in the face of hatred, despite the best efforts of all the Caesars of this world, we do and must continue to love our neighbour, across all humanity across the world.

Pentecost 21

It won’t surprise most of you to know that I have been giving much thought to our Eucharistic services since my ordination to the priesthood almost four weeks ago. Being priested has focused my attention on several different areas of ministry, and of course, given that presiding at the Eucharist is reserved to the Order of Priests, and that we gather in this Cathedral daily to celebrate the Eucharist, this is a significant new aspect of my ministry with and amongst all of you. And what a privilege that is.

So, I’ve spent time reading, speaking, praying, pondering the words which are so familiar, and yet some of which I had never before spoken aloud. And, I have sought to understand more deeply what it means to preside, and what we are collectively doing when we gather round the altar table, those here physically and those joining online; when we, together, celebrate Communion.

All this has helped ensure that I can step forward to preside with confidence, with love, and with care. And whilst it may not be clear why I am saying this in relation to today’s Gospel, I hope that in the next few minutes the link with the Eucharist will become clear.

Today’s Gospel follows on immediately from the challenging parable of the Wedding Feast which Esther opened up so powerfully last Sunday, offering insight into the nature of God who stands with the persecuted and the marginalised, with those living in terror, those who are oppressed.

And in today’s Gospel, hot on the heels of that parable, the Pharisees react as those who are threatened so often do, with an attempt to remove Jesus’ powerful voice of truth, seeking allies wherever they lie. And so we have the unlikely alliance of the Pharisees (scrupulous observers of Mosaic Law) and the Herodians (collaborators with the Roman occupiers which required the same Mosaic Law to be compromised). But they agree on one thing – their hostility towards Jesus.

Some may be tempted to think that Jesus’ response to their challenge regarding the payment of taxes – ‘Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’ - is an instruction to keep religion and politics separate. Or maybe Jesus doesn’t really care about mundane things like taxes … Or is he suggesting the law is the law so don’t question it? Jesus’ responses to challenge are never facile; they are deep, complex and multi layered.

The man I imagine Jesus to have been, when engaged in manipulative conversations, when facing serious challenge, and we can be sure the Pharisees and the Herodians are serious in their desire to trap him. His way is to take time to consider how to respond.

So perhaps needing some time for reflection, or to create some breathing space in this encounter, Jesus asks for a coin – which in itself is interesting. The Pharisees are not permitted to use coins bearing a blasphemous human image, particularly within the Holy Temple which is where they are.

Nevertheless they quickly provide Jesus with the coin bearing the image of, most probably, Caesar Augustus, stepfather to Roman Emperor at the time, Tiberius Caesar with an inscription round its edge proclaiming Caesar Augustus divine.

And at this point I imagine Jesus taking time, looking at this coin, looking, and reading the inscription. And in this looking, and reading, I wonder what Jesus was thinking.

For he was looking at the image of a tyrannical Roman leader; perhaps the man he had in his mind’s eye when telling last week’s shocking parable of the wedding feast; looking at this coin, was he thinking about the demand of the census tax referred to, which had already led to revolt and crucifixion of Jewish people who refused to pay;

looking at the image of this man was he anticipating the accusations to be made against him at his trial? Accusations of leading a rebellion against the Roman Empire?

What might he feel as he looks, and reads this coin? Fear? Distress? Anger?

We can’t know, but in his response we see where his thoughts, when assailed by a threat or disturbance, turn; his thoughts turn to God.

‘Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’. And I imagine him laying that coin and that issue aside, and placing God at the centre of this discourse. He does not become embroiled in an argument about the brutality and compromises of living under Roman rule. He turns the focus to the source of all life … to God. ‘and give to God the things that are God’s’.

I think this passage is not about taxes, or how we should or shouldn’t separate politics and faith. Rather this teaching speaks to the Pharisees, and to us, about our relationship with God.

I can imagine Jesus saying ‘give to God the things that are God’s’ then looking at those who stand around him, and asking...

‘and you ... whose image do you bear? Who do you belong to?’

recalling the opening of Genesis, when God the Creator says ‘Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness’ (Gen 1:26).

God is inscribed on all the people of the world; we belong to God, and thereby to one another.

But what does that mean, to belong to God?

Firstly, God’s promise is that we will never be cut off from God.

And, we belong to the people of God, to the Body of Christ. We are always part of one another; when we harm another we harm ourselves, our care for others, is also care for ourselves.

The Gospels are run through with this fundamental Christian teaching: love God, and love our neighbour. Even in the face of hatred, despite the best efforts of all the Caesars of this world, we do and must continue to love our neighbour, across all humanity across the world. To proclaim that God is love, that we live in the image of that love, that love is the path to the Kingdom of God.

And how then does all this relate to our Eucharist celebration?

Part of the reading I have been doing is of Louis Weil, an American Episcopal priest and teacher of liturgical and sacramental studies, wrote that the body of Christ, named when the bread is placed in our open palms, does not refer only to the consecrated wafer.

In his very accessible book, Liturgical Sense, he writes,

‘We need to hear again the words of Saint Augustine to his people at Hippo: “You are the bread on the altar; behold your mystery.” The consecrated gifts,’ Weil says, ‘are to us as a mirror, the Body of Christ as mirror to the Body of Christ.’

And if a mirror, whose image do we see in that bread? Our own, and simultaneously the image of God, in whose image we are made.

The ‘Amen’ we speak aloud is a naming of our desire and hope and trust that we are the body of Christ. Our Amen is spoken in that moment as we regard ourselves in the ‘mirror’ of the consecrated host, and recognise God within us, and beside us, as we gather, the family of God, round the altar.

So, when the time comes for communion today, I encourage you all, no matter how you have ended up being here today, no matter what your religious background, to come forward. All are welcome to receive the bread and wine of communion, and if you would prefer not to receive, then come forward for a blessing. For at this altar, we can meet God anew every time.


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