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08.26.12 The Relationship Between Church and State, Matthew 22:15-22, Romans 13:1-10 Sermon Summary

by on August 28, 2012

How can we exercise biblical faithfulness in a democratic society? US politics is inconceivable to the worldview of the Bible. Still, there may some guidance to be found in the words of Jesus.

Summary Points

  • Preparing to hear Jesus
  • The politics Jesus preached
  • Playing nice with government?
  • 7 Principles for Being Faithful
  • Questions for Discussion and Reflection

In order to hear what guidance Jesus might give us today, we have to recognize and then remove some of our misguided expectations. We’re not the first to have to do this. When Jesus was alive and preaching God’s “kingdom,” he had to overcome people’s misguided expectations.

Back then, the expectation was that God’s Kingdom would be a restoration of the kingdom under David and Solomon—the golden age of ancient Israel. That meant that Rome, the present and most recent foreign nation occupying the Promised Land had to be vanquished. That would require, of course, military action. The expectation at the time of Jesus was that God’s Kingdom would consist of land, might, riches, and finally peace. Jesus would severely disappoint those expectations. If we are to hear him today, we have to be cognizant of our expectations, and be ready to be surprised or even disappointed.

Jesus didn’t engage the political system in the ways we do today. He didn’t debate the merit of philosophies or the results of policies. Instead, he proclaimed the “Kingdom of God” and he conducted his life accordingly. His favorite way to teach about the Kingdom was through parables.

According to Jesus, God’s Kingdom is like a businessman who hires people throughout the day and pays everyone—even those last hired—a full-day’s wage. It is like a heartbroken father watching and welcoming a prodigal child home. The Kingdom is also like a mother hen gathering up her scattered chicks. It is like a tiny insignificant seed growing into a tree able to nest all the birds of the air. It is like a sower planting seeds everywhere, all the time, without ever losing hope for a crop.

In his more concrete expressions, Jesus says the Kingdom is good news for the poor, sight for the blind, and freedom for captives. In the Kingdom, hospitality is extended towards the outcast and sinners are forgiven. In his favorite description—both in words and in action—Jesus exemplifies the Kingdom as a wedding banquet hosted by the father of the groom determined to have the hall full. The marginalized, forsaken, forgotten, forbidden by society are bidden to the banquet hall. There is room enough for everyone, and the father will not cease inviting until the hall is full. That’s the Kingdom, according to Jesus.

After Jesus, some new expectations about God’s Kingdom emerged. His followers understood that the Kingdom had come in Christ—as the resurrection had made clear. But the Kingdom was still coming, even as Jesus taught us to pray. But the early disciples, and even Jesus himself, believed the Kingdom was coming within a generation.

In the mean time, some passages in the New Testament instruct the church to play nice with Rome. This could come as a surprise. Rome it was who occupied the Promised Land. Rome it was who competed with the Jews for worship allegiance. Rome it was who had killed Jesus. Rome it was who sporadically persecuted the church. And yet Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 3:13-17 instruct the church to submit to Rome. Why?

One answer is that Rome and the church, for the most part, got along pretty well. Rome had been largely tolerant of Jewish particularities and idiosyncrasies with regards to religion. That tolerance extended for the most part to Jesus’ followers. Paul and Peter also believed the Kingdom was coming soon, so it was just a matter of time. True, there were some instances where conflict with Rome generated extreme antipathies (see the 5th biblical perspective on suffering). But for the most part, submission to the Roman authorities simply made life easier for the church.

There are times with “Rome,” here taken as a symbol for those with political authority over us, is so wrong that civil disobedience is required—at least according to the New Testament. In Acts 5 the Jewish ruling council arrested Peter and the other apostles and forbade them to minister in Jesus’ name. To that, Peter and the other apostles responded, “We must obey God rather than human beings.” But for the most part, the New Testament shows a sometimes uneasy but functional co-existence with Rome.

Given this, what guidance do we have from the testimony of Holy Scripture in regards to our own political involvement, the exercise of our political freedoms and responsibilities, and the relationship between church and state? I offer seven guidelines for being faithful to God’s Kingdom while living in a contemporary democracy.

1. Remember that everything belongs to God. The Pharisees and the Herodians, two opposing Jewish groups at the time of Jesus, tried to trap him with the question about the legitimacy of paying taxes to Caesar. If Jesus said yes, he would lose credibility with faithful Jews. If he said no he could be in trouble with Rome. His famous response, “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s,” contains the fundamental principle, really, of our lives. It is that all things belong to God. Whatever we have and enjoy comes as a gift from God. “Go ahead and give the tax to Caesar without heartache,” Jesus instructs us, “for everything belongs to God anyway.” But there is more: “Give to God what belongs to God,” which is, of course, everything. The point for Jesus’ disciples is that we orient our lives around the fact that everything comes from God.

2. Remember that at the end of the day we are “resident aliens.” This is the language of Hebrews 11:13-16. This chapter catalogues the great men and women of faith, believers who held loosely to this world and its allurements, always keeping in mind the promises of God. This perspective allowed them to follow boldly into God’s future. Hebrews commends their example to us who receive political promises of ultimacy that simply are not true.

3. Make a habit of acting locally, beginning with family, neighborhood, church, city. Galatians 6:10 says, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” The principle is to, “grow where you’re planted,” to be the Good Samaritan who helps the neighbor at hand, to let the light of Christ shine through you as far as you personally can.

4. Pray for authorities according to God’s will and kingdom. First Tim. 2:1-2 urges, “that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” We are tempted to pray for authorities according to our will, or our party’s will, or our ideology’s will. But we are to pray for them even as we pray for ourselves, according to God’s will. This will not only shape our “kings and all those in authority;” it will shape us as well.

5. Seek God’s will when balancing and voting Kingdom values.  Luke 4:16-21 records Jesus’ first sermon and the foundation of his ministry. It includes proclaiming good news to the poor (what might good news for the poor actually be?), freedom for the prisoners (what actually imprisons people before they end up in prison?), sight for the blind (what might this imply about health care?), and setting the oppressed free (we must ask what oppresses people?). These point to values that many political parties claim to possess. We have to balance those claims, and vote according to God’s will.

6. Hope only in God’s Kingdom, and not in our country. Perhaps the most helpful thing we can do to prepare for getting politically involved—including voting—is to read and meditate upon Psalm 33, verse by verse, and word by word. Psalm 33 says, “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance. No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.” Nationalism and patriotism can easily become idols for us (they did for ancient Israel). But, “our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8).

7. Invite others into Kingdom. Political parties have appealed to faithful people by saying if we only position the right people in the strategic places it will advance the faithful agenda. But I don’t see Jesus jockeying for political power. Instead what we observe is Jesus inviting people to live in the Kingdom even as he lives in it. Only by that method, and not by political maneuvering, will the light of God increase in this world.

The bottom line for the Christian, in this as in so many (if not all) situations, is what James calls “the royal (that is, Kingdom) law of love.” (James 2:8) Jesus said this law is the second part of the greatest commandment. (Mark 12:31) Paul said it is the fulfillment of the entire law. (Romans 13:9) It is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” James, Paul, and Jesus all agree—we  should pay attention. For James, it means not showing partiality. For Paul, it means doing no wrong. And for Jesus, it means loving God.

This, then, is the governing principle of how the church and state should relate. (It’s also the governing principle of how we should relate to one another.) Love for neighbor, which is love for God.

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  • On this blog you will find sermons on each phrase in the Lord’s Prayer. During this political season in the US, try praying the Lord’s Prayer as a political act.
  • Study the parables of Jesus, most of which reveal something about God’s Kingdom. Pray about what you read, and begin to act according to God’s Kingdom.
  • What do you trust in on a day to day, year by year basis? How much of your faith is placed in civil authorities, financial institutions, things other than in God, on a day to day basis? What would it look like to trust God more in these areas?
  • Discuss the seven guidelines with someone who has different political views than you. What do you learn from this discussion?

 

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