Scripture Readings: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Joseph Andrew Crisci, whom we baptised today, has a Scottish mother, and an Italian father, but he was born and will grow up in Spain. He is also, as his mother reminded me the other day, a citizen of Europe. And today we baptised him in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Scottish, Italian, Spanish, European, Christian- Joseph is a young man who already has many different identities.
We all of us have different, overlapping, identities. But some people feel threatened by the notion of different identities. They say that you cannot have one identity, but also claim to have another. When that happens, the results can be horrific.
Last week, I visited two small rooms in a house in Amsterdam. An hour’s flying time from Inverness Airport, and during the lifetime of my parents, eight people, including two children, hid in those two rooms in order to save their lives. They had to go into hiding simply because they were Jewish. For in a speech at the Concertgebouw concert hall in 1941, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Nazi ruler of the German occupied Netherlands, had stated ‘We do not consider the Jews to be members of the Dutch nation. The Jews for us are not Dutch’. That Jews had been part of Dutch society for centuries made no difference whatsoever. Having a Jewish identity was, the Nazis said, incompatible with being Dutch- or, for that matter, Belgian, French, Danish, or German.
When the six adults and two children were discovered in their hiding place, they were taken to concentration camps, where all except one of them died. One of the children who died was Anne Frank, who, of course, wrote a famous diary about the experience, which her father (the only survivor of what became known as ‘the secret annex’) bravely published afterwards. The Nazis had decided that people like Anne Frank were a threat to racial purity. The master race was threatened by the mere existence of this sixteen year old girl, and so she was murdered, with many, many others, at Bergen-Belsen. Anne Frank was just one of over 100,000 Dutch Jews who did not survive the Holocaust- killed simply because of their Jewish identity.
The Nazi occupiers of World War Two Holland decided you couldn’t be Jewish and Dutch, and so Anne Frank died. The July 1995 genocide of more than 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica was carried out by Bosnian Serbs who didn’t think that Muslims belonged in their country. At this very moment, the Rohingya are being forced from their homes and murdered by people who don’t think Muslims belong in Burma. Around the world there are places where Christians or other faith groups are persecuted because they are minorities in their countries. Across Europe today, politicians who think that other races or nationalities should not live in their country are gaining support. They call it ‘identity politics’, and it is a dangerous, murderous, wicked philosophy.
There’s a question of identity being asked in today’s Gospel reading. This story comes from another place and time when Jews were under occupation. The time is 2,000 years ago, the place is Israel itself, and the occupiers are the Romans. Some religious leaders- called Pharisees- ask Jesus a question which is meant to trick him: is it against the Jewish Law to pay taxes to the pagan Roman Emperor.
Jesus says those who are asking the question are hypocrites. In fact, Matthew the Gospel writer tells us that some of those who the Pharisees sent to ask Jesus this difficult question were ‘members of Herod’s party’. Herod was a Jewish King in the region, but he was merely a puppet ruled only because he acknowledged the Roman Emperor as an overlord. So this is not an innocent question- it’s a trick question.
For they have set up the question in a way which ought to get Jesus into trouble whatever way he answers it. Jesus is an unofficial prophet, not part of the ecclesiastical establishment. But he was a popular preacher with ordinary people. But we know that the ordinary folks of the time were often burdened with heavy taxes. Struggling peasant farmers resented seeing much of their income going to the hated Roman occupiers. Indeed, the Gospels tell us that tax collectors were particularly hated. They collected taxes on behalf of the Romans from their fellow countrymen. They were notoriously corrupt, becoming wealthy by pocketing some of the tax money for themselves. The tax collectors of Jesus’ day were, to use the language of the Second World War, collaborators. In the Gospels, they are usually mentioned in the same breath as prostitutes, drunkards, pagans and ‘outcasts’- proverbial sinners, in other words.
So, reasoned the Pharisees, if Jesus says we should pay taxes to the Romans, he’ll lost supporters. But on the other hand, if he says people shouldn’t pay, he’ll be in trouble with the Romans.
The Romans were the superpower Jesus’ day. Their technology led the world; their military was notoriously ruthless. They ran virtually every part of the known world. To resist them was to invite disaster. Nations which resisted Rome had their cities destroyed, their people taken as slaves, the ringleaders suffering slow, painful, humiliating death by crucifixion. To resist the Romans was to invite terrible retribution.
So the Pharisees think their question will put Jesus in a bind. If he says that it’s right to pay the Roman taxes, he will lost support among his followers. But if he encourages people not to pay, he will guilty of sedition- he’ll look like he’s calling for a revolt against the Romans. It’s a trick question- ‘an evil plan’ as the Gospel writer puts it.
Famously, Jesus gets out of the trap by giving them a very clever answer. He asks for the sort of coin which was used to pay the tax. Someone produces one, and he shows it them, and asks: Whose name is on this coin? Whose face?
As is still the case with British coins today, Roman coins bore the name and the face of the ruler. A typical coin of the period would have portrayed Tiberius, with the inscription ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus’. The coin bore the face and name of the pagan Roman Emperor. And so Jesus replies: pay the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God.
Sometimes, theologians and preachers have treated this saying of Jesus as if God and Caesar are in some way equal. They say that this is a story which reminds Christians that they have duties to the state- pay your taxes, obey the law, say your prayers, go to church. But Jesus is being far more subtle than that.
By all means give back the Emperor his coin, says Jesus. It’s got his name and face on it. And give to God what belongs to God. But- and here’s the rub- if you believe in the God of the Bible, God and Caesar are by no means equal.
Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar- everything really belongs to God. God has created the world, and sustains it in being. ‘The earth belongs unto the Lord, and all that it contains’ says the Psalm. The Emperor may think that the wealth the coin represents belongs to him- but all good things around us are sent from heaven above, as the harvest hymn says. God even created the Emperor Tiberius, though he did not know it. Tiberius seemed to rule the world- but it’s God who really reigns. God and Caesar are not equals. God is infinitely more powerful than any earthly ruler.
I consider myself a Christian, and try to live by the Christian way of life. Like Joseph, I have been baptised. I belong to God in Christ. I try to live my life according to the teachings of the Jesus Christ. And yet, as with Joseph, my Christian identity is not my only identity. At different times in future, Joseph will no doubt say he is Scottish, British, Spanish, Italian or European. And today we have baptised him in the hope that he will also grow up ready to identify himself as a Christian. But these are not mutually exclusive identities.
What is true of Joseph, and is also true of many other people around the world. Because people do live with multiple identities. Most of us know some of them: Scots-Italians, Scots-Asians, Anglo-Scots, just as there are Irish Americans and Canadian Scots. There are people proud to be black and British; Winston Churchill, through his mother, was an Anglo-American. People not only cope, but thrive with multiple identities.
Jesus said, ‘Give to God what belongs to God’. It we take that seriously, we have to say that everything we have belongs to God. The Emperor Tiberius was the most powerful man in the world in Jesus’ day- but he is literally ancient history today? The Roman Empire lasted centuries, and achieved great things- but all that is left of it are ruins and manuscripts. All flesh is as grass, and even the mightiest empire fades away eventually.
Rome’s glory is gone, Tiberius almost forgotten, but today we still baptise people in the name of Jesus Christ. I might describe myself as Scots, British or European, but the identity I received at my baptism is my deepest identity. Like most Christians, I live with that identity along with my other identities. I’m Scottish, British and European, for different purposes. But ultimately, what really matters is that I am Christian.
In our first reading, today, St Paul writes this to the Christians of Thessalonica:
We remember before our God and Father how you put your faith into practice, how your love made you work so hard, and how your hope in our Lord Jesus Christ is firm. Our friends, we know that God loves you and has chosen you to be his own. (1 Thessalonians 1.3-4)
If we have a firm hope in Jesus Christ, we know that we belong to God: an incredibly liberating thing to believe, that we are loved by the Creator of all that is. So our identity as Christians goes much deeper than any other identity we might claim to have. Elsewhere, St Paul writes, ‘For I am certain that nothing can separate us from [God’s] love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below- there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord’. This is the astounding claim that we make- that our identity as Christians means we are loved eternally by God.
Or course Christians live with other identities, as other people do as well. You can be a Scottish Christian, or a Presbyterian Christian, or a Roman Catholic Christian, a gay Christian, a feminist Christian, a socialist Christian, a conservative Christian, a Chinese Christian. There are all kinds of Christians, for the Christian church is a kaleidoscope of humanity in all its diversity and colour. But what you cannot do is put one of other identities before the identity you received in baptism. You can’t put country before God, because God loves people in other countries as well. You can’t put your race before God, because people of all races are as much children of God as anyone else.
Eventually, Jesus was executed after all- charged with blasphemy by his own religious leaders, and suspected of sedition by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. For the message of Jesus was and is a subversive, seditious message- a challenge to a cold-hearted religious orthodoxy, and a cruel, militaristic, enslaving Empire. And so, Jesus did end up on a Roman cross.
In baptism, we symbolically participate in Christ’s death. The waters of death close over us, but we rise from the waters of baptism born anew, just as Jesus rose from the dead at Easter. At Easter, Jesus shows that the powers which sent him to the cross have been overcome. Life takes the place of a deadening religion; love overcomes an evil Empire.
And now the risen Christ invites everyone, without exception, to find a new identity- as citizens of the Kingdom of God. And so we pray that Joseph, and each of us, might find out who we really are- children of God, loved by our Creator, in all the complexity and beauty of our many other identities.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo
 Matthew 5.46; Matthew 11.19; Matthew 18.17,19; Matthew 21.31; Mark 2.16; Luke 7.34; Luke 18.10; Luke 19.12 (Zacchaeus was ‘rich’)