Monday, September 08, 2014

Sermon on Romans 13:1-10, for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, "Dual Citizenship and Debts of Love", Part 12

Part 12 of a 13 part series, "God's Greater Story" on the Book of Romans. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Like many other chapters in Romans, chapter 13 is so full of content and application, it will be impossible to explore it all in one sermon. Paul sets before us the reality, also taught elsewhere, that Christians maintain a “dual citizenship” of sorts. On the one hand, like all people, we are citizens of a “kingdom” or nation here on earth. There are nearly 200 independent nations in our world today. On the other hand, Christians also hold citizenship in the one kingdom of heaven, and as the book of Hebrews says, (13:14) “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Therefore, I am a Christian first, and an American second. And hopefully you understand that means if ever the two come into conflict, I must obey God, rather than men.
As soon as the presence of Christians was felt by the Roman empire, they had to make the case that they were neither revolutionaries, nor subversives, but lawful citizens who were submissive to just laws and rule. That goes all the way back to Jesus Christ Himself, who was challenged by both Jews or Romans about whether He was a threat to the existing powers. On one occasion Jesus affirmed the necessity to pay taxes: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”, but emphasized our higher calling to “render to God what is God’s.” Before Pontius Pilate Jesus affirmed that He was a King, though His “kingdom is not of this world.” Early Christians faced repercussions when they refused to sacrifice to the Caesars as to gods, but they maintained their willingness to obey laws that did not violate their faith. Christians in every country today face the very same challenges. Acknowledging God as the highest authority in our lives neither frees us from responsibility to our earthly leaders and governments, nor does it make us unpatriotic.
When I say that Christians are “dual citizens” of sorts, do not think that earthly kingdoms or governments are outside of God’s rule. All authority is from (or under) God, and governing authorities are instituted by God to rule over us. So earthly kingdoms ruled by men, and the spiritual, heavenly kingdom ruled by God—are both under His authority alone. Lutherans often call the government the “kingdom of the left hand”, and the church, the “kingdom of the right hand” to acknowledge that God rules both by His power. But also to recognize that God works out His rule differently in each kingdom or “realm.” Government is appointed by God to “bear the sword”—to carry out punishments against evildoers, to enforce laws, to uphold justice and good conduct, to collect taxes, etc. The church does not execute earthly punishments or bear the sword, but is instead the place where we hear the living voice of God’s Word. It proclaims to us the law that condemns our sins (both individual sins and collective injustices that are ingrained in our society or government). The church also proclaims the living voice of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that forgives us our sins because of what Christ has done for us. Church on the right hand and government on the left hand, are both authorized by God for varying, and sometimes overlapping tasks, but the way that they operate is necessarily different.
A Christian lives at this busy intersection between church and state, which raises a multitude of questions about how we are to live. Most times, the two will not conflict—but sometimes they do. Fortunately Scripture lays out some clear boundaries to guide us. First, our conduct should be blameless, or else we’ll be rightfully punished for breaking the law. The forgiveness of sins, which we receive before God, does not free us from civil penalties or punishments that we may deserve if we have committed crimes or broken the law. The normal obligations and privileges of citizens apply equally to Christians as to non-Christians. If we’re called upon to serve in the military, or fight as a soldier in a just war, we can in good conscience do so, in obedience to the government. If we owe taxes, we should pay them responsibly. If we are obligated to certain debts, we must pay them. These are not unchristian things to do, but civil duties we are commanded to do as Christians. But if ever we are commanded to do something that violates God’s law, or enticed to do something that might be legal in our nation, but sinful according to God’s Word—we are bound to the higher authority of God, not to do it. When told not to preach in the name of Jesus, the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men”—and they prepared to face whatever consequences they might face from earthly authorities. The same holds true for Christians today—we must obey God above all.
As a Roman citizen, Paul’s hearers had a different set of privileges than Americans citizens; but we can and should participate in good conscience in our unique privileges. That includes voting, participating in the political process to make and reform laws, and running for and serving in public offices. Being a Christian does not exclude us from any of these forms of participation, and neither does it mean that we are required to “check our beliefs at the door”, or the voting booth, or upon taking public office. At the same time, the Christian recognizes that many non-Christians  hold citizenship in our nations, and that they are not held to a specifically Christian morality. But a nation must uphold basic morals and justice. The Bible never proposes a new code or plan of government, but commands our obedience to the governments that exist.
Remember that Paul wrote this letter while Nero was emperor of Rome. While persecution had not yet broken out in its full intensity, Nero would soon become one of the most violent persecutors of Christians. So that is to say, Paul was not writing about submitting to a church-friendly, or even a perfectly just government. And obeying earthly governments, even hostile ones, does not mean that individual Christians cannot be agents for good, even if they are entirely alone as a believer, or without political influence. We need only turn to Biblical examples like Joseph, Esther, Nathan, Daniel, or others to see how God can bless a single person speaking the truth or acting justly, and they can have profound influence as a result. Greatest of all is Jesus our Lord, whose unjust trial and crucifixion at the hands of tyrannical powers, proved that there is a greater King and kingdom that rules over the petty powers of men. Jesus’ insistent voice of truth and His rising from the dead exposed the injustice of rulers and proved His higher authority. And because Jesus distinguished between the spiritual kingdom He came to rule, and the kingdoms of men—we make the same distinction today. “My kingdom is not of this world.”
So back at that intersection of these two kingdoms, Christians can be a positive force for change in our own nation in many ways that are legally open to them. We can oppose unjust laws, and try to improve on them, for the sake of the common good. We can come to the aid of the poor, the abandoned and neglected, and the unborn, whether through organizations run by the church, or the state. There may be aspiring young people in our congregation who should grow up to serve as leaders with moral courage and integrity, to serve as leaders in the church, or as politicians! Both are callings from God, and should be done faithfully to His glory. And both are called ministers or servants of God!
In our individual lives, Christians must show the highest regard for God’s commandments and care for our neighbor, which will give glory to God. Christians must not shrink back from speaking the truth, loudly if necessary, to condemn unjust laws or actions on the part of the government, and to seek justice for those who cannot speak for or defend themselves. In other words, Christians are to live out the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” in all the ways described in the Ten Commandments, not only in churches and Christian communities, but among all we meet. Pastors must teach and preach on moral and ethical concerns, whether they are perceived as “political” or not. But that does not mean that pastors or the church are policy makers, or that they choose which candidates we should vote for, or that the church presumes to dictate the strategies and solutions that government must pursue.
Our role is to speak out against injustice, to encourage Christians and all citizens to do their duty and make use of their rights as such, and to pray earnestly for our leaders. They have an unimaginably difficult job. The crises that our leaders face are dizzying, and we must pray for our leaders, whether Republican, Democrat, Independent, or whatever—praying that they would be given wisdom to lead and pursue justice. We respect and obey our leaders not for how far they agree or disagree with our own ideas, nor for how good or bad their life is, but for the sake of the office and responsibility they hold. The office is greater than the woman or man who holds it, because these offices of leadership are ministers and servants of God, for our good. They reward good, lawful citizenship, and punish the wrongdoers, as authorized by God.
Whenever we speak of authority, we always need to remember that no one has authority unless it is given to them from above. Jesus reminded Pontius Pilate of this, when Pilate threatened Jesus, that he had the power to free Him or crucify Him. “You would have no authority over me at all, unless it had been given you from above”, Jesus answered (John 19:10-11). Government may claim the highest authority in the land, but it’s not the highest authority on earth—as all nations, all governments, are answerable to God. We should especially remember this when governments and leaders stray from the rule of justice and order that God has assigned.
But even greater than Paul’s message about the Christian’s dual citizenship, is the overarching truth that we owe one another a debt of love, to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s the basic rule and motivation of our involvement in both spheres of our life—the spiritual, and the earthly. Because Christ died for us, rescued us from our sins—we face no condemnation before God, and we owe a debt of love. Many debts are negative. The debt of a mortgage—is often a 30 year grind. The debt of our sin—impossible for us to pay, but paid in full by Christ. Nothing could ever repay Christ’s love and sacrifice, and the countless riches that God has given. But this is a positive debt. A debt of love. A debt in which Jesus Himself supplies the love by which we pay it. A debt that never puts us at a loss, but ever increases our gain. As we love, we receive love in return. And even when love doesn’t return to us, we continue to love, as we heard last week, even toward enemies. Against love, there is no law.
The many ways that a Christian can and should be involved in their life as a citizen in this earthly kingdom, should all be counted as the product and result of our debt of love to God and neighbor. Politics can easily be misused to seek power for its own sake, or for personal gain. But this must never be so for the Christian. As Jesus reminded His disciples, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45). In the whole of our Christian life, in both kingdoms that we live, we are to live by this servant love. A debt of love and gratitude for Jesus’ ransoming us from our sins. A debt of love that we pay in Christian conduct and service in all that we do, in both church and state. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Romans 13 is a key passage helping Christians to understand their roles as citizens of two kingdoms—of an earthly kingdom (the government) and the heavenly kingdom (the Church—leading toward heavenly glory). Hebrews 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14. Where is the Christian’s greater loyalty?
  2. What does it mean to be “subject to” or “submit” to authority? What are some examples of “submission” in the Bible? Luke 2:51; 10:17; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13; 1 Corinthians 15:27-28; Ephesians 5:21-24. Why is submission different from inferiority or blind obedience? Acts 5:29
  3. What are the implications of the fact that all authority is under God’s higher authority? The implications for leaders? The implication for citizens, regarding our obedience? What does God authorize governments to do? Romans 13:2-7
  4. Pick a person from Bible history, such as Joseph in the book of Genesis, the prophet Daniel, Queen Esther, the apostle Paul, or another. Describe how they served as an agent for good and to do God’s will, even within unfriendly governments. What made their influence or impact so great, even while they were exiles, or outnumbered, or of little or no rank at all?
  5. How can you, a Christian, be a “dual citizen”, and an agent for good here in this earthly kingdom? What responsibilities do you have to your government and to your neighbor? What truth are you called to speak? What duty of love must you put into action for your neighbor? Why do we owe a debt of love? How did Christ set the example for us? John 18:33-37; 19:10-11; Matthew 22:21. 

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