October 25, 2020
+Reading: Romans 13:1-8
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God. Consequently, whoever resists authority is opposing what God has set in place, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Then do what is right, and you will have his approval. For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not carry the sword in vain. He is God’s servant, an agent of retribution to the wrongdoer.
Therefore it is necessary to submit to authority, not only to avoid punishment, but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes. For the authorities are God’s servants, who devote themselves to their work. Pay everyone what you owe him: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Be indebted to no one, except to one another in love. For he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
I hate Election Time. The noise of all the talking heads on TV, the shrieking and the whining and the pearl-clutching of political pundits left and right, the ugly-colored signs all over people’s lawns, the constant robo-calls and text messages from political campaigns asking for money. It makes me feel like I’m in a funhouse, surrounded by warped caricatures of not just political candidates, but their constituents and their supporters.
“Us versus them,” that’s all I hear, “us versus them!”
Lord help us!
But I’m not here to complain. I’m here to encourage.
Let me say this outright: I’m not going to “get political” or talk about who we should vote for, or even talk about who’s asking us to vote for them. The pulpit is not a soapbox. Nope, I’m not looking to meddle with the election so much as meditate upon our election time. In the same way that we give honor to mothers on Mothers’ Day, and to fathers on Fathers’ Day, and to veterans on Veterans’ Day, etc, I want to show a little honor to this special time in our nation, Election Time, and I want to shed a little bit of the light of the gospel on it, so that we can all be a bit more blessed than stressed in this time.
Because let’s be honest. Our nation is going through some stuff right now.
Our reading today was from Romans 13. Verses 1-7 have been read in churches for centuries. These seven verses have been wielded as political weapons just as long. You can imagine the tax collector coming to your door, and seeing the sheer look of panic in your eyes when you see the size of the bill, he says, “Now, now, you know what Romans 13 says! ‘Submit to authority! Pay everyone what you owe him!’ So pay up!”
But in all seriousness…what if it’s not the tax collector who comes to your door? What if it’s the Gestapo? Or the Stasi, or the NKVD? What if it’s the Red Guard? Earlier this year, out in Australia, my friends were afraid to get a knock on the door from their own local police, deputized by the national health service to arrest you — not fine you, but arrest you — if you were seen criticizing — not breaking, but criticizing — lockdown protocol.
When you get that knock on the door, doesn’t Romans 13 say that we need to submit to the authority on the other side?
An ancestor of my wife, and a close relation of the fathers of this very church, Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, tackled these seven verses when he was minister at Old West Church in Boston back in the 1700’s, before the American Revolution. He was a famous preacher in his day. He was the one who coined the phrase, “No taxation without representation.” His sermon on Romans 13:1-7 was a sermon that became very famous.
I don’t know about you, but I’d love to live in a world where sermons become very famous again…but I digress.
This sermon, which Rev. Mayhew gave on Sunday, January 30, 1750 was called, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers.”
This sermon is considered “the morning gun” of the American Revolution. John & Sam Adams attended Mayhew’s church, they were inspired by his sermons, and they said this one particular sermon was influential throughout all of America and even Europe. This sermon made Mayhew the “Father” or even the “Prophet” of the American Revolution, according to some. In the beginning of this sermon, Mayhew says, “it is the duty of Christian magistrates to inform themselves what it is which their religion teaches concerning the nature and design of their office. And it is equally the duty of all Christian people to inform themselves what it is which their religion teaches concerning that subjection which they owe to the higher powers.”
This is the least incendiary thing he says in this sermon, but perhaps the most important, and so very true. Mayhew goes on to outline how submission to authority is only Godly when the person in authority administers government that is Godly, since he is under the authority of God at all times and his “office” is designed to protect and enforce Godly ways. It’s not unusual for a ruler to lack Godly character — that should be expected of all mere mortals. But, Mayhew says, if the administration of government takes a turn for the ungodly, it is just and even good to abolish it — even to the point of executing the King!
You can imagine how much trouble that got him into. But you can see why the Founding Fathers liked him so much! They decided it wasn’t their role so much to kill the king as it was to write up a bill of divorce, so to speak, which we all know now as the Declaration of Independence.
I want us to put ourselves in their shoes for a minute. Mayhew and the Adamses and the lot, these were men, Christian men like us (ladies y’all included) — whose opinions were illegal to speak aloud. They had determined that the authority to which they were subject, namely the British crown, was acting in ungodly ways toward them, and that they were therefore in a position, in order that godliness should prevail, to exercise their God-given right to “alter or abolish” that form of government.
And they wrote it all down in the Declaration of Independence, and sent it over to ‘ole King George. The rest is history, as they say.
Now, Rev. Jonathan Mayhew did not live to see the Declaration of Independence, but we who live many years hence know what followed it, correct?
I hope we can all appreciate the luxury we have, that the power to exercise this God-given right to alter or abolish our forms of government is entrusted to us citizens in the form of the vote. What past generations had to cry out for; risk their reputations for; risk their livelihood for; risk their lives for; fight for; often to the point of death, often over the course of several generations — we get to do privately; without fanfare; as a matter of course, an errand among errands, on a Tuesday in November, every four years. We anonymously check off a box and move on with our lives.
Let’s pause and appreciate this. This is a gift from God. Election time is messy, it is sometimes ugly, but it is nowhere near as messy or ugly as what others continue to go through where people have no power to exercise their God-given rights in such a civil and simple way. Or in other places, where they do have these rights, but certain self-anointed people have lost faith in their electoral process because they believe that their fellow citizens should not be trusted with this right —- so rather than maintain open communication, they cut off communication; rather than reach out, they push away; rather than reason with fellow citizens, they fight against “the enemy”, calling it good to tear down rather than to build up, all of which we’ve even begun to see advocated for in our own country by small groups of people; where there is even discussion of altering or abolishing the traditional rules of the electoral process so that less populous and “less educated” rural states would lose representation to more populous and “more educated” elite urban areas, as was once the case when only white male property owners had the power to vote.
Is it a charitable or correct view, that one should first disdain ones’ neighbors in this way, and then go further to disregard the God-given rights of ones’ fellow citizens?
Now, how do we know for sure that “We the People” even have such a God-given right to self-determination? This brings us back to scripture. Trust me, we don’t want to veer into politics without a sturdy mooring in scripture.
Romans 13 reminds us, “There is no authority except that which comes from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God.”
Well, who are our authorities in this nation? (Presidents, elected representatives, etc).
Who appointed them? (God, or us? We did, by election).
Then who appointed us? (God did, and the Constitution protects this. Our Constitution does not give us this right/power, but God does, and the Constitution recognizes & protects it).
You might say I’m making an anachronistic argument — meaning, I’m forcing something from our time onto something written in another time to finagle an argument out of it — from God, no less!
So, let’s look for Biblical proof from Biblical times.
In Romans 13, Paul was talking about submitting to the rulers of his day: the Herodians, and the Pharisees, and the Caesars: puppet kings, puppet priests, and foreign emperors, respectively.
These were tyrants without question, but whose authority was not recognized by people like the Zealots — Judaens who believed only in their own sovereignty, and who would not recognize the authority of any of these figures.
Why did the Zealots, even Christian Zealots like Jesus’ disciple Simon the Zealot, believe this? Because they believed that only God was the King, and that any other authority was false, appointed not by God, but man.
And yet throughout scripture we see God instituting government that is seemingly appointed by man. We see it in the story from Samuel, when the people of Israel want a King of their choosing, and God gives them that King even though He said they were rejecting Him.
We see it in the story from Isaiah when we see God calls King Cyrus of Persia “my anointed,” using Him for His own special purposes, even though Cyrus was a foreign conqueror with no love for God or His law, but was merely acting out of his own self-will — Cyrus appointed himself as the authority, in other words.
In the latter story, we see God justifying the authority of a King who basically puts himself in power. If this alone were the final word from scripture, we should be concerned that Romans 13’s message to us is that the only authority in question is that presumed by conquerors, tyrants, and despots, and that our “unlimited submission and non-resistance” to these “higher powers” is expected without exception.
But in the story from Samuel, we see God bless what we might call a democratic referendum, where the people came together to decide their own fate. They call for a King, God says “Nah, you probably aren’t going to like that —I already know I’m not gonna like it!”
And they say, “Yea, though, we want one anyway.”
And God says, “OK, then.”
Indeed, the moral lesson from this story is that the freedom and right which the People of God exercised in making this decision was the very freedom and right which they would lose once their new King came to power. Nonetheless, we see in this lesson that it was God’s desire to give them that freedom and right, and that He did not desire that they should lose it.
God gives authority not just to rulers, but to the people, to rule themselves with authority. When they lose this authority, they lose their freedom.
Who remembers the beginning of the story of Israel, the words of Moses to Pharaoh? “Let my people go.” It is a story about freedom, with freedom as the goal. And what does Paul tell us? “What Israel sought after, it did not obtain.” But generations later, Christ comes. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be encumbered once more by a yoke of slavery.”
To follow Christ is to follow freedom. To be in Christ is to be free.
So, I always try to remember this. As much as I hate Election Time — you might not, but I do! — I try to remember how blessed I am that I bear the burden of my own God-given freedom and authority because we live under the authority of a man-made Constitution that recognizes both. This could easily not be the case, if not for the grace of God. But this vote, it’s a blessed institution. It’s the tangible power of our freedom that, with God’s help and God’s help alone, is powerful to ensure our future freedom.
All that noise of all the talking heads on TV — that’s for you and me, because of the power we wield. All that shrieking and the whining and the pearl-clutching of political pundits left and right — that’s for you and me, because of the power we wield. The ugly-colored signs all over people’s lawns, the constant robo-calls and text messages from political campaigns asking for money — that’s for you and me, because of the power we wield.
“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.” These are the classic words from…Uncle Ben, in the Amazing Spider-man. Wise words.
Yes, we have this power, this authority, and we should thank God, for it is appointed to us by Him, and we are blessed to live in a country whose Constitution recognizes this power and right as God-given. With great power comes responsibility: God grant us discernment to see clearly through the warped funhouse of politics — this house of mirrors where the light of truth seems to be bent and bounced back and forth, twisted, turned upside down — so that we may determine the best course for our nation; so that our vote yields a positive, Godly result for us, our families, our neighbors, and the world community. And in turn, we pray that our votes are honestly counted and not messed around with by anyone who might want to be insubordinate to our God-given authority as voters. And we pray that the ones who are elected are elected rightfully, and that these people take heed that they are civil servants, exercising power given to them by us, citizens whose authority to appoint leadership ultimately comes from God — God, Whose chief desire is, ultimately, not to put Republicans or Democrats in office, but Whose chief desire is for “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” which sets us free.
Our nation may not be perfect in her Christian witness, nor may our Democratic Republic ever be perfected. To borrow from and remix the poet William Blake, it is not certain whether we or anyone can “build Jerusalem in [America]’s green and pleasant land.” But certainly in America — because of our Western political traditions, which go back to the ancient Christendom of not just Europe but Africa, Asia, the Middle East — in our Constitution, and its equally important Amendments including the Bill of Rights, we are trying to respect and imitate what Jesus said: “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
Beloved Church, I want to finish with this. Like ‘em or leave ‘em, our political traditions and electoral processes, faithful as they might be to some Christian traditions in an ideal world — may they be indeed — they’re no substitute for the life of the church. Romans 13 is clear what all that wordly governing authority is for: “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Then do what is right, and you will have his approval. For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not carry the sword in vain.”
When we go to the polls, all we’re doing is voting for whose hand will carry that sword, the sword of the flesh. It’s our right and even our duty to take part in that institution as our conscience leads and permits. But there is another sword, the sword of the spirit, the sword of truth, and that sword is one of a kind, and it comes from out of the mouth of Lord Jesus, who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The one carrying the sword of the flesh has authority indeed, but only Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
What are we here for, folks? Where two or more gather in the name of Donald Trump, or Joe Biden — or Jo Jorgensen, Howie Hawkins, Kanye West, or Vermin Supreme — what do we gain? Peace that surpasses all understanding? The freedom of the children of God? A seat in the heavenly places?
Does the very God of all creation come to make an abode within us when we cast our ballot for one of these dudes?
Will the power of the pardon of the next occupant of the Oval Office have the power to forgive our sins, that we may stand before the throne of God unashamed, and be saved?
We have a calling, folks. The world out there is hurting. To say that this is a contentious election is an understatement. America is hurting. Her people are hurting.
Who will bear our griefs? Jesus.
Who will carry our sorrows? Jesus.
Who will take our illnesses? Jesus.
Who will bear our diseases? Jesus.
We have one simple job: to minister reconciliation. We are God’s priesthood in Christ. We saw from the stories of Saul and Cyrus that God doesn’t reserve worldly authority for his special chosen people only — that’s open to all. But to his holy household, the royal priesthood, to them alone he entrusts the ministry of reconciliation, since none but a believer can stand before the world and say: “Jesus is Lord. Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
I’ll close with this final thought. Many a political discourse has issued from the pulpit with Romans 13:1-7 for a reading. But to my knowledge, I’m in the minority who included verse 8. I don’t understand how you can’t include it. It’s like ending the movie before the twist, or cutting off Beethoven’s 9th before the final movement. When I say “Knock, knock?” — what do you say? (Who’s there). It’s a knee-jerk reaction. Verse 8 of Romans 13 should be a knee-jerk reaction to verse 7.
Verse 7 says: “Pay everyone what you owe him: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”
BUT! Verse 8 says: “Be indebted to no one, except to one another in love. For he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”
This verse is the prize hidden in the Cracker Jack box. Romans 13, about bowing down to authority, taking it from the Man, caving under the weight of oppression, right? Wrong! Romans 13 is about — drumroll please — Love.
Say that again: Love.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and exult in the surrender of my body, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
I could add, if I have the power of the vote, and have within my own brain the summit of all economic, political, and foreign policy knowledge, and I am absolutely certain I know I am voting for the best candidate on November 3rd, and I am absolutely certain I know who you should vote for too — but have not love, I got nothing.
What is politics really about but man’s pursuit of freedom? What will set us free but the truth? What is truth but that for which Jesus came forth to witness: God is Love.
Presidents and politicians come and go. But we’re the ones putting them in authority, by God’s grace. So we need to get right with God. “No one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
Romans 13, verse 8, the greatest economic and political wisdom the world has ever known:
Be indebted to no one,
except to one another in love.
For he who loves his neighbor
has fulfilled the law.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no account of wrongs. Love takes no pleasure in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Repeat after me: “Love never fails.”
The People have spoken.