Citizenship - Here and Heavenly
A homily for Epiphany 4
February 2, 2019
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I don’t often talk about politics, and in fact, as a rule, in the church I don’t share my political opinions. I have typically found that politics have a way of distracting the church from doing the will of God. Furthermore, politics too often become a litmus test for orthodox belief when we need to be focusing on preaching Christ crucified, for our sins and raised to life so we too might be raised to life. Too often, political opinions divide and distract the church from doing what She is called to do, it distracts us from proclaiming Christ crucified for life.
As Christians we do not have the prerogative to decide who it is that we proclaim the truth of Christ to – we cannot decide “well, I am republican, so I don’t have to tell my democrat neighbor the good news of Christ.” We cannot say in our hearts, “I am a democrat, so I don’t have to tell my republican friends about what Christ has done in my life.” No, Christ died to call people from all walks of life to worship him. He died to call people from all nations, from every back ground to become citizens of heaven. The body of Christ is made up of political liberals, conservatives and everything in between, it is made up of the rich and the poor, men and women from all walks of life and every ethnic background, all who come to Him are made one in Christ. The diversity of humanity in Christ is what makes the church such a beautiful place.
This is diversity of humanity is address by St. Paul a couple of chapters earlier in his epistle to the Romans, for often we want to create a dichotomy of “them” and “us” but in the church there is only one side that matters and that is the question of whether you are on the side of Christ. We are called to live boldly and fully for Christ. We are called to walk with one another regardless of where we’ve come from for we are to be intent on following Christ and doing His will in the world.
We come then to our Epistle lesson. As I just mentioned St. Paul is writing to the Roman Christians. He generally seems excited about their existence. However, we can tell that he is intently interested to know that the Christians in Rome understand, believe and confess the gospel of Jesus Christ. He takes time to write it out, to articulate it, and to be sure that the Roman Christians have a firm understanding of what it means to be alive in Christ.
Now, what do we do with the passage assigned for this morning, for he is writing to Christians who live in the capital city of a massive empire, and have no real ability to change the government. The question we need to ask is – does this passage still apply to us today? We no longer have emperors, or kings. Our national and state governments are made up of a balance of power, and locally we vote for our representatives. Since we can vote in and out those who represent us, does this passage even apply to us?
Here are three truths we need to cling to – first – the word of God is still written for all God’s people, that includes Christians living in America, as much as it includes Christians living in Africa, or the middle east. How we apply from the truth proclaimed in this passage may look very different from other followers of Christ, but the word of God is always true.
Secondly – God is no less sovereign because we live in a democratic republic where we have the right and responsibility to vote.
Third – although we are citizens of a country – we must remember that our final home, and our truest citizenship is that of the kingdom of heaven.
So – what does it look like to “be subject to the governing authorities” in a country such as America? Here, we are going to venture into my own thoughts on the matter for a little bit, but I think that this is Biblical and I hope that you will agree and be edified that we might continue to grow as a community that glorifies God in all we do, even in the political situation which we live in and seems to grow more contentious every day.
First – it is a good thing to participate in the political process and even hold office, but we participate and hold the office first as Christians, we do so first as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. So, we treat those who are running for office with dignity and respect, whether we agree with them or not, whether they treat us with dignity and respect or not. As Christians, we have no choice - but to speak with honesty and integrity. We vet all our emotion, and intellectual reactions through the lens of Galatians five where St. Paul talks about: “the fruit of the spirit (which are) love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, (and) self-control.”
We need to ask: when we engage in political activity – does it glory God and are the fruits of the spirit present? As Christians, I think it’s okay to say, “I fundamentally disagree with this person and I think their political policies will ship wreck this country, this is why.” As Christians, it is not okay to use derogatory or dehumanizing language towards those whom we oppose. We engage with their ideas, but we are engaging with another human being, who is supported by even more human beings, all of whom are sinners in need of a savior, just as we are sinners in need of Christ. When we engage politically – we are do so in such a way, that we glorify the Lord, and do not tear down bridges but build them. Our first priority is His glory, for we are reminded that our true citizenship rests in the eternal heavenly kingdom.
Secondly – the reason, we avoid political discussions within the church – is too often politics divide us. Too often, as we mentioned above in some churches – being republican is the litmus test of orthodoxy, and in others it is being democrat. Christ died for republicans, for democrats, for libertarians, and yes, even for green party members. So, in the church we are all for Christ, regardless of our political allegiances and convictions.
Third – the second half of the first verse reads: “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” This is no less true in a country such as America. Do you like the president? God put him there! Do you dislike the president? God still put him there! Yes, we have the freedom to vote, but God is no less sovereign. Here we see the mysterious blending of the will of God and men, but yet even so, we know that God will use what men meant for evil for the good of His people. We may find ourselves at odds with those who are in political power at any given point in time, but I think St. Paul would still remind us – that God put them there, and as such, we are to behave as Christians under them. This truth transcends whatever political process is the rule of that country.
So, yes, if you dislike how things are going now – organize, participate in political organizations, vote your conscience next round, and most importantly pray. But recognize, the way the country goes may not be the way you wish it to go. Take heart for God is still in control, God still cares deeply for you, God is still sovereign and we are still citizens of the heavenly kingdom.
Now let’s pause so I can give you a little more perspective – this letter was probably written somewhere in the mid to late 50s to Christians in Rome. In 64 a fire broke out in that city. Following this fire, which some historians now think Nero, the emperor himself started, a scapegoat was needed. There was this fledgling group of, generally poor people, known as “The Christians” where a good target to blame. These Christians were the same group of people that St. Paul was writing to. Think about this - less than ten years after St. Paul wrote this letter one of the most horrific persecutions of the church started in Rome. I will not repeat the descriptions of it now, but you can easily find accounts of it online, if you are interested.
Let this sink in - less than ten years after St. Paul wrote: “there is no authority except God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement” the same people whom the saint wrote to where facing unspeakable horrors. No matter how dark the days may get – God is still sovereign, God still rules, and so we submit to earthly authority of those days.
As Americans, yes we vote our conscience, yes we partake in the political process, but we behave in such a way that God is glorified, and we seek to proclaim Christ at all times, in all we do. We seek to live as the best possible citizens of the country God has put us in, not because of pride – but because we recognize our true citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven, and so we want to glorify our King who is our sovereign Lord, Jesus Christ.
As we read on, it might seem as though St. Paul is overly optimistic about the nature of the political process in Rome. The central thesis of the middle of this section is to “do what is good, and you will receive his approval.” Too often we look for an earthly reward – too often we look for immediate feedback on what we have done.
I am, incidentally, the worst about this. When I preach a sermon, I desperately want to know what people think, when I have a pastoral conversation, I wonder what effect it’s had on people’s heart, and worst of all when I buy something on Amazon – the two day shipping seems like an excruciatingly long time to wait. But, we know that God does things in his own time, and more importantly, we know that we are to strive for the eternal promise.
So, if we do good and the government turns around and makes Christianity illegal, as was the case in Rome – is St. Paul a liar and by extension scripture untrue? NO! Absolutely not. We are not doing good for an immediate reward, we are not seeking to please the political authority – but God. We are seeking our heavenly reward and looking forward to the heavenly kingdom when we no longer live under earthly rulers but the one true God and king.
This passage also establishes why in our liturgy we pray for our leaders – because they have been put there by God. Yet, they are under God. If they pass wicked laws they will have to answer to God for that, if they pass laws that glorify God and lead to a more just and free society, then they glorify God. Yet, like pastors who will have to give an account for how they lead and cared for their sheep, so too will politicians have to give an account. So we pray for politicians.
St. Paul ends with a very practical exhortation – pay taxes! Benjamin Franklin was known to have said something along the lines of “the only certainty in life is death and taxes.” I think perhaps Franklin missed one thing – it is also certain that people will grumble about paying taxes but yet as Christians we are called to pay our taxes, in fact we are called to be model citizens regardless of the milieu of the day.
Now, there’s two more things that I think need to be kept in mind – first – in Rome Christianity became illegal. The exception to what St. Paul has written is if the government says “you may not worship your Christ.” We still do it, we are called to worship and follow Christ no matter the cost.
Secondly – in World War II while Nazi Germany abused Christianity for the purpose of the oppression of the Jewish people and other minorities, we also saw the amazing and beautiful example of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Cori Ten Boom and countless others who said “no, this is not acceptable, what you are saying does not represent Christ who has called me to follow him nor is this how we are to behave.” So Bonhoeffer – took part in an assignation plot, in fact several attempts against Hitler. He would eventually be executed for this crime against the state shortly before the end of the war. Ten Boom and her family, likewise, hid Jews in her house until her and her family was caught. She spent several years in a concentration camp, and never saw her sister or father again. They most likely died.
So, when evil persists, and we have the political or social power to do something about it we do have a responsibility to stand up against it whether it be racism, injustice against the least us, or evil that denigrates human life. No matter the cost we do need to say – this is not right, and then seek to make it right.
As we close, I want to read you an excerpt from a second century Christian writing called the “Letter of Diognetus.”
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity… inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct… They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws of by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make rich; they lack of all thing, and yet they abound in all… they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers.”
As Christians – we are called to live as the best possible citizens of the place the Lord has placed us. We are called to do this not because we are citizens of that place – but because we are citizens of heaven. As the world around us changes, as opinions ebb and flow, we strive to continue to honor even those who wish to oppress us that God may be glorified and Christ proclaimed to all. May God grant us the strength to strive to glorify Him, in all things, no matter the cost.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.