We Stand on Guard for Thee: When Discipleship and Patriotism Collide

Series: Red Letters: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?

 “Stand on Guard for Thee: When Discipleship & Patriotism Collide” // Matthew 22:15-22

Sunday, March 3, 2013 @ Jericho Ridge Community Church

Series: Red Letters: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?


Good morning everyone!  You may be seated.  Thank you for your singing this morning.  Now, you may be wondering “Why in the world did we just sing O Canada at church? Is this turning into some kind of jingoistic God and country kind of place?  Did I miss something?”  Before we answer that question I want you to ponder for a moment what do you think is the prevailing idea behind a national anthem?  [Q&A]  (To express vision, solidarity). At its best, a national is a snapshot of the values, aspirations and ideals that a people group hold.  At its worst, it’s propaganda. 


There are a few other tools that nations use to drum up a kind of patriotism but perhaps the other well-known one is the pledge of allegiance to the flag.  Now, if I asked you to say the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, how many of you could do it with reasonable confidence?  Hands up.  OK, not bad – for a country you don’t live in.  Now, what if I asked you pledge of allegiance to Canada’s flag?  Does anybody know it?  It is a bit of a trick question because technically, we do not have an official one.  But growing up, we said what is commonly accepted as the Canadian pledge of allegiance in school every day.  “To my flag, and the country it represents.  I pledge respect and loyalty.  Wave with pride from sea to sea and within your folds, keep us ever united.  Be a symbol of love, freedom and justice. God keep our flag.  God protect our Canada.”  As pledges of allegiance go, it’s not bad at all. I like it. 


But here’s where it gets a bit weird – right after we said this, we were also required growing up to say a pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag.  Perhaps you’ve seen it.  You might ask “what is the Christian flag and why do you even need one?  It’s not like Christianity has a  country”  Regardless, we said our daily pledge allegiance which goes like this… “I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag, and to the Saviour, for whose kingdom it stands. One Saviour, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe”


Now, here’s where it gets really weird and frankly, a little bit troubling.  If you grew up south of the 49th parallel, that pledge to the Christian flag may have sounded a little bit familiar.  Why?  Well, let me put up the pledge of allegiance to the American flag side by side the pledge of allegiance to the Christian one (this is last pledge of allegiance this morning, I promise) and you’ll see why it may have rang a bell.  Look at the striking similarities – the way the Christian pledge basically parrots the American one. 

Friends, we live in a day and time when religion gets co-opted by politics and politics by religion all of the time.  In the US, the flag is hung in the sanctuaries of churches and the phrase “in God we trust” is printed on the money.  This can be very confusing sometimes.  Some people I know south of the border won’t pay taxes because some of that money goes to things they don’t agree with, specifically funding the military.  Another friend opposes things like the provision of health care for the poor because some of that money will likely go to fund abortions.  And sometimes I think we as Canadians get kind of smug and say to ourselves ‘well, we’re much more sophisticated than that up here’ to which I might reply ‘really?! Have you watched the news lately?’


But regardless of your political views, the deeper and more compelling question is does the Bible give us any guidance around the issue of how we as Christians relate to the state?  And here the answer is yes.  One of the early Christian leaders Paul in the book of Romans in chapter 13 writes extensively about the roles and functions of government that are ordained by God.  And he reminds us that as citizens, we have both rights but also responsibilities.  But this morning we want to explore if Jesus said anything about the role of the state and our place in it.    


Last weekend, we started a series that will take us into and beyond Easter called the Red Letters.  In this teaching series, we are going to explore the hard sayings of Jesus and we’re going to ask the challenging question: What if Jesus really meant what he said?  We’re calling this series Red Letters, which comes from the notion that in many versions of the Bible, it is common to print the words of Jesus in red.  I would invite you to listen to the audio online from last week if you want to catch up on that concept. 


And the question we want to drive at today is “Did Jesus say anything about how we are people of faith relates to the state and government?”  Jesus did say a lot about kingdoms and on this topic, I want to acknowledge that much of my thinking has been shaped by a recent book I read entitled Red Letter Revolution by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo as well as early Anabaptist writings.  One of the things both of these influences highlight is that fact that much of Jesus’ teaching was about the kingdom of God.  In many ways, this was the primary theme of His ministry.  And this word kingdom is the same word as was used in the ancient world for “empire”.  Remember, when He walked the earth 2,000 years ago, Jesus was living among the most extensive empire that had existed in history to that point, the ancient Roman Empire.  And into the middle of this historical setting, Jesus stands and proclaims the existence of another empire or kingdom: the kingdom of God which is not earthly. 

This is dangerous stuff which can get you killed!  But all throughout his life and ministry, Jesus continuously subverts notions of power and authority.  He turns it on its head in many ways.  Why?  Because Jesus understands that the ultimate thing you give to an empire is your allegiance.  You pledge your respect, loyalty, fidelity.  And you promise to live out of the values of the kingdom you belong to.  Jesus fully anticipates that there might be times and places where the values of the kingdom of God might come into sharp conflict with the values of the place that issues your passport or birth certificate. They might both demand something of you that conflicts deeply with each other and the question is what do you do when discipleship (your allegiance to the kingdom of God) and patriotism (your allegiance to your country) collide?  How do you prioritize or reconcile conflicting demands?


Turn with me to Matthew 22 in your Bibles or on your phone in YouVersion.com.  This is one place among several where Jesus engages the question of allegiance and He does it in a way that might be surprising for us to wrestle with.  I am reading beginning in Verse 15 [2 slides].


You may remember from our conversation about mustard seed faith last week that when Jesus is asked a question, He almost never answers it in the way you think He might, and here is no exception.  Jesus is asked by the religious leaders of his day a straight up Yes or No question on paying taxes.  And they think that they have Him on the ropes with this one!  The Roman empire of that day farmed out the task of tax collection to independent contractors and gave them the support of the Roman military machine to carry out their work.  But, if you remember the story of Zachaeus, the problem was that they were also allowed to charge a little or in most every case, a LOT more than Rome required in order to cover their expenses.  Tax collectors took full advantage of this situation to line their pockets and so if you don’t loose any love for the IRS or the Canada Revenue Agency, imagine how much more hated and despised income tax would be if it was basically an amount determined by the whim of a greedy local tax collector who could pry whatever amount he wanted from your hands because if you didn’t pay it, you would suffer the consequences. 


So the Pharisees come along with some supporters of Herod, the local ruler set in place by Rome and they set up what they thing is a brilliant gotcha operation against Jesus.  If He says ‘yes, you should pay taxes to Cesar” this is going to immediately tank his popularity with the crowds.  If Jesus says “No” then they are immediately going to have him arrested and thrown in jail for suggesting treason against the Roman empire. 

In the book I referenced earlier, author and activist Shane Claiborne suggests about this passage that Jesus “subverts the question, going deeper to challenge its basic assumptions.  He doesn’t dodge the questions, He transcends them.  He forces His listeners, taxpayers and tax collectors, to ponder. To what exactly does Caesar have a right? What has Caesar’s image and what has God’s image? What is Caesar’s and what is God’s?...  Once we’ve given to God what is God’s, there isn’t a lot left over for Caesar.” (p.186)  


We are used to our coins, the lowly penny now being pushed aside, being stamped with the image of a monarch or sovereign.  This was the case in the ancient Roman world as well.  Except that their coins were stamped not only with the image of the ruling Caesar, but they were sometimes also stamped with the inscription “Caesar, son of god”.  You can see how deeply problematic this would be for Jewish people and for the early Christians who proclaim and believe Jesus’ claim to be the only Son of God Almighty.  Stamped indelibly on your currency you have a completing claim.  And it seems to be that Jesus is saying something like “Caesar can have his silly metals; after all he can keep making more of them even if they aren’t worth a dime. But coins have no life in them. Human life is branded with the image of God, and Caesar does not own that” (ibid).


So when it comes to giving to Caesar that which belongs to him, Jesus it talking about so much more than paying your taxes. 

  • As good citizens we are called to pay our taxes, honour those in authority, obey the rule of law (Romans 13)

But we are also called as citizens of the kingdom of heaven to Recognizing that nationalism can easily (and quickly) become idolatry


Again, I hate to pick on our friends and neighbours to the south, but in 2003, in his State of the Union address, then President George W. Bush crystalized this danger for me when he declared “There’s power, power wonder working power in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people” (ibid, 172).  For those who know the original words to that old hymn – there is power, power, wonder working power in the precious blood of the lamb” that being the work of redemption brought about by the work of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, replacing the image with nationalism or American exceptionalism is not only horrible theology, it can be downright dangerous.  Baptizing everything your country does in God-talk or a notion of divine authority has been used to perpetuate all manners of historical evils and it needs to be actively resisted and challenged where it appears.


The Bible clearly teaches that We live in a world of derived authority.  Not ultimate authority.  The nation who has the highest GDP or biggest military or most expansive geographical holdings is still operating under and within a framework.  In the Old Testament in the book of Daniel, God actively challenges and in fact deposes the most power king in the world, Nebuchadnezzar, who gets this wrong.  And God only returns his kingdom to him after he acknowledges and comes to live again under the authority of God.  In Daniel 4 we are reminded that ““The Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses.” (Daniel 4:32).  Authority isn’t taken by 50 per cent plus 1, it is granted by God.  All authority is ultimately derived from God’s authority. 


Which is where we come again to the question of what is belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.  This is why it’s weird and inappropriate in my thinking to have the symbolism of Christian and American flags at the front of churches.  We run the risk of communicating that both are equal in their claims on my life, which simply isn’t true.  Where the ideals, aspirations and actions of the place that issues my passport or birth certificate come into conflict with the values and vision of the kingdom of God, I pledge allegiance to Jesus every single time.  The citizenship of believers is in heaven, and God’s Kingdom demands absolute allegiance, loyalty, & fidelity.  We should consider ourselves incredibly fortunate that we live in a place and in an era where the stark conflicts between those two are few and far between because this has not been the case for most of history or indeed for many of our brothers and sisters in the global church today.  Many live in places where bad laws need to be actively resisted or changed by good people.  I thank the Lord that you and I live in a place where we have the political and civil liberty to critically assess where patriotism stops and idolatry begins and to make an alternative choices.  This might require us to live with the consequences of our choices – if you practice civil disobedience, get ready to be thrown in jail.  But better this than unflinching allegiance to the state who is not ultimately in charge of my life and my destiny. 


For the final word on this, the Bible takes us to the book of Revelation, which is a vision of how human history will wrap up.  And here we learn that ultimately, God’s Kingdom will come, (as we pray in the Lord’s prayer) and His will Will ultimately be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15b  ESV)


One day, the ultimate question that you and I will be asked is not our citizenship, but our identity.  And for those who are in Christ, by which I mean they have given their lives over to the rule and reign and submitted to the authority of God and His Son Jesus, you have been given a new identity.  It doesn’t come with a passport or an ID card exchange, but it does come with a change in where you get your ultimate priorities and marching orders from in your day to day life.  The gospel gives us new identities which trump and minimalize any ethnic or denominational or national identities that we may have held in the past.  This affects the daily to day decision of my life.  How I spend my time… my national identity might suggest that I worship at the shrine of the NHL, but what if helping my neighbour conflicts with watching the Canucks crush the LA Kings?  My national ethos might lead me to embrace unthinking consumerism and spending my money of whatever I want because it’s my money.  But my identity as a follower of Jesus trumps that perspective and leads me down the path of radical generosity and sacrificial giving.  My national pastime might be escapism and a sense of entitlement to flying somewhere warm over spring break or using my holiday time however I want.  But my new identity might lead me to invest that time to serve the marganizalied in Guatemala or serve right here at home at our summer camp for kids or go with Spencer and Ali to Quebec to support one of our fellow MB churches there this August.  Even choosing to be here on the weekends is an expression of choosing something antithetical to our cultural values, which suggest that you are entitled to sleep in every Sunday morning.  There are many other ways, both little and big, where our cultural and national values come into conflict with the values and ethics of the Kingdom of God.  And so today, I want to challenge and remind each of us that once you and I have given to God what belongs rightfully to Him, there isn’t a whole lot left over for Caesar.  Let’s pray.        

















Responsive Reading:


God in His mercy established government

to promote the well-being of all people.

We commit ourselves to pray for our leaders,

and to work for justice, truth, and righteousness

in our homes, in our communities,

and in all the nations of the world.

We ask for the Spirit’s guidance to make us keenly aware

of those who suffer discrimination and injustice.

In serving them, we are serving Christ.


God requires governments to uphold and bless what is good,

and restrain and punish what is evil.

We commit ourselves to obey all laws

that do not conflict with the Word of God.


The citizenship of believers is in heaven,

and God’s Kingdom demands absolute allegiance.

We seek the well-being of our governments,

but reject overbearing nationalism

as an idolatrous claim for our loyalties,

and an affront to the God of all nations.

We commit ourselves to always live lives

worthy of our heavenly citizenship,

for it has been purchased for us

with the priceless blood of Jesus. 


We live in an era when religion gets co-opted by politics (and visa versa) all the time. As Canadians, we sometimes think we are immune from this "God and country" stuff, but are we really? Join the people of Jericho Ridge for an exploration of what happens when discipleship and patriotism or nationalism come into conflict with each other.

Speaker: Brad Sumner

March 3, 2013
Matthew 22:15-22

Brad Sumner

Lead Pastor

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