Last week’s sermon: “Tough Texts Part 1: God and Government”

September 25, 2009

Sermon Text: Romans 13:1-7

Think about how some of the most passionate, angry, and divisive arguments we get into in our culture relate to politics. Whether it’s a congressman calling the president a liar in the middle of a speech, provocative hosts on talk radio and cable news getting people riled up for big ratings, or my many Facebook friends of all political stripes posting their passionate opinions every day. It’s all a part of democracy, whether I like it or not, and maybe that’s a good thing. But if you really want to stir the pot and make a combustible mix, throw in a healthy dose of religion to go with your politics!

And yet… here we have Paul, seemingly stirring the pot more than any proponent of prayer in public schools or Ten Commandments displays in courthouses has ever done! “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God.” This authority, by which Paul means state authority, is “instituted by God.” The state is the “servant of God,” etc. If we take this to a logical extreme, it raises some troubling questions: if a government is doing really horrible things, committing murder and genocide—as in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russian, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, South Africa under Apartheid, Rwanda—are we Christians supposed to just accept it because, after all, the state—every state—has been established by God to do God’s will. If we read this casually, it almost sounds like opposing the government is really opposing God. Do you see the problem? It sounds like Paul might be excusing evil done by the state. And certainly, over the centuries, this very text has been used by kings and rulers who believe they have a free pass, a “divine right,” to do whatever they please.

How do we deal with it? First, by being good Methodists and using our reason: It just doesn’t make sense that Paul would be excusing or justifying evil done by a government. It goes against what we know to be true as Christians about the gospel of Jesus Christ. And when one part of scripture doesn’t gibe with other parts, we need to interpret it first in light of those other parts of scripture that are more clear. We know that the gospel of Jesus Christ stands in judgment of all governments, all principalities and powers. Ultimately, as Paul himself writes in 1 Corinthians 15, Christ himself will destroy “every ruler and every authority and every power” [1 Co 15:24-25].

Moreover, it wouldn’t make sense for Paul to argue for absolute allegiance or obedience to the state. Paul himself was imprisoned and eventually killed by the Roman Empire because he and his gospel were a threat to it. Even to say, “Jesus is Lord,” as Paul certainly did and taught, is to say, implicitly, who is not Lord—Caesar—and that was a dangerous thing to say. If Paul and Peter, and all the other Christian martyrs who witnessed to the gospel of Jesus Christ had simply been good Roman subjects, they would hardly have lost their lives! Being a Christian of good conscience means saying no at times to what the state demands and being willing to accept the consequences. If you’re familiar with the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, you know that there were some faithful Jews in Babylon who had to say no to what its ruler asked of them. Civil disobedience is, biblically speaking, O.K. and probably necessary at times.

Governments at best are fallible, sin-filled, and at times capable of doing great evil. Even our own. Our problem is that we tend to think our candidate, our party, is on the side of the angels and the other guy and other party are in league with the devil. The truth will always be somewhere in between.

Paul is speaking in general terms about the role of the state: God establishes governmental authority for the sake of justice, peace, and order—ends which serve God’s purposes on this side of resurrection. Most of the time and in most places, states accomplish this general purpose, and inasmuch as they do, they are serving God. This is true regardless of whatever particular evil action the state may be presently taking. Recall Jesus’ interesting words to Caesar’s puppet, Pontius Pilate, in John 19:11: “You would have no power over me unless it was granted to you from above.” Even in this most shocking act of godlessness on the part of the state, Jesus says that the state is acting under the authority given to it by God the Father. Again, this is not to condone or justify Pilate’s actions—Jesus explicitly condemns them—merely to say that this authority, even to do something extraordinarily evil, is given to Pilate by God.

Why does God allow this? Think about our own lives: Our lives are created and sustained by God at every moment in order that we love God, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. At our best, we Christians call ourselves servants of God, yet look how badly we often mess things up. Look how easily we succumb to sin. So it is with the state, instituted as it is by God for its specific purposes.

Paul writes these words about government in the context of a discussion about the demands of Christ-like love. Paul and his readers knew of violent revolutionaries who tried and failed to resist the Roman government. We know from history that in about ten years, the Romans would utterly destroy Jerusalem because Jews in Palestine tried to win independence from Rome. These people took the law and their lives into their own hands and paid a terrible price and had nothing to show for it. This is very different from Christ’s example: Christ himself submitted to the cross, refusing to return violence for violence, even though surely in Jesus’ case it could be justified. Jesus refused to take his life into his own hands; he refused to assert his own will, but instead trusted in his heavenly Father. Can you imagine how difficult that must have been? Paul urges us to resist the temptation to take our lives into our own hands and trust that God is in control.

Think about how this relates to our own lives… Instead of submitting to God’s will, aren’t we constantly tempted to do our own thing? Prayer is tough—for me at least. Waiting patiently for God to solve our problems is tough. Waiting patiently to discern God’s will for our lives is tough. Sometimes we do what we think God wants us to do and wait around a long time to see the results. “God, where are you? I did what you asked, and I’m waiting for you to do your thing. I could use a miracle soon.” Sometimes we do what we think God wants us to do, and we still think we failed. Think about Abraham in Genesis: packing up his family, leaving his home country, doing what God wants him to do—only to find 25 years later that God still hasn’t delivered on the promise of a son. All this waiting around on God is difficult. Why bother? Wouldn’t life be a lot easier if, instead of submitting to God’s will, we took our lives into our own hands and did what we wanted?

This scripture says no. Paul challenges us to trust in God no matter difficult the circumstances we face. God is bigger than any human being, any king, president, or potentate, any human institution, any government, any political, military, or health crisis, any act of terrorism… The sky is never falling, no matter how it sometimes seems. The future is never without hope, no matter how it sometimes seems. And God is certainly bigger than any problem that we face, no matter how it sometimes seems! The future is in God’s hands, and we can trust God to make it come out right. As Paul says elsewhere in this letter, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Rom 8:38-39]

May God convince each one of us of that same great truth.

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