Church & State: This week’s Unofficial Letter from Bishop Glasspool

Volume V, Number 16

October 16, 2020

An Unofficial Letter from Bishop Assistant Mary D. Glasspool

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

In this issue: Church and State

            What I wouldn’t do to be a fly on the wall (a fly who could be in multiple places at the same time) to listen to a host of sermons this Sunday! What a gift of a Gospel Lesson! (And I, too, will be preaching, so I will have to tame my own excitement.) Giving to Caesar (or “the emperor” – but Caesar is so much more delicious!) the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s can be expounded in so many different ways and certainly seems to be low-hanging fruit right now.

            For the early Church, the task of interpreting Jesus’ statement: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s was an ongoing one. How is the Christian to relate to political structures? If the church can at times support and at times must resist the state, the answers are never simple nor are they final. The struggle resumes with every new situation.

            From this wrestling Jesus was not exempt. In fact, in his decisions he was, finally, alone – because both church and state conspired against him. It was both the political and the religious leaders who did him in. One can hardly imagine a heavier demand: called upon to obey God, not simply in the face of political wrath but without the support of the community of faith. But it still happens.

            If we think this passage provides us a basis upon which to argue any aspect of the separation of church and state – we’re wrong. We’re wrong because, like Jesus, we’re always left with that struggle in how we live out our lives. The issue of the relationship between church and state was a very real issue in First Century Palestine – and it is today – and it most probably will always be a living tension. What we can learn from this Gospel Lesson lies in learning from Jesus, himself. Jesus was not concerned with politics – he was concerned with justice. He didn’t want to bring the kingdom of God into Roman-ruled Palestine. He wanted Roman-ruled Palestine to help bring in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ vision was not just another version of political and cultural organization, supplanting the Roman state with a Jewish state, or even, 1800 years later, a United States.

            Jesus weaned people away from the spirit of power and awakened them to the power of the Spirit. Jesus wanted to wake people up to the possibility that there was so much more available to them: more love, more joy, more justice, more power – through a right relationship with God and neighbor. Give to God what is God’s does not imply a separation of church and state. It is a radical mandate for a re-evaluated life and a renewed creation.

            The truth is that the church, itself, is in danger of perceiving Jesus as the Pharisees did. Like the Pharisees, we still sometimes think that Jesus had some kind of hidden agenda that we should be able to co-opt for our own benefit. We’ve tried to make Jesus into a liberal or a conservative, a Marxist or a Capitalist, a Baptist or an Episcopalian, a rebel or a dreamer. But Jesus was none of these. What Jesus was and is, is the living Son of God, the Christ, the Savior – and that is a category which lies far beyond the scope of any political correctness.

            It wasn’t a well-rehearsed script. It wasn’t merely for the purpose of political exposure or power. It was truly for the purpose of risky dialogue and engagement with humanity. Jesus didn’t suffer and die on the cross, didn’t conquer death and rise again, doesn’t offer us redemption and eternal life so that our pet agenda can get passed at next week’s Long-Range Planning Meeting. Jesus came and lived and struggled and loved and ministered and died and rose again to show us a way of life beyond the strictures of both institutional politics and institutional religion. That Way, that Truth, that Life, is Jesus, himself.

            And to that I say, Thanks be to God!

With love in Christ, +Mary