Summary: Human government and human leaders are ordained of God. How do their roles intersect with faithfully living as a disciple of Jesus Christ? That is the focus of this sermon.
As a pastor, there are two things I try never to talk about in church: religion and politics. Well, here we go! Not only talking about both subjects, but wedding them together in a message series. Let me offer some disclaimers as we begin. This will not be a message series that “takes sides” in the political arena. First United Methodist Church is a congregation with a diverse range of views on a number of issues. We honor that as being part of the body of Christ, and as Americans. A second disclaimer is that this message series is not designed to make us an issues-centered congregation. We’re not going to get into issues. What we are going to do is look at how the biblical narrative counsels the disciple of Jesus Christ to live and engage in the culture around them.
So, why faith and politics? It’s not just because we’re in an election year, and we’re headed toward the election of a new president. It helps, certainly, to keep us relevant, but more importantly, over the past several election cycles, religion has played (or at least sought to play) an integral part in the outcome of elections. Why is that? Should it be that way? Should politics even matter to the disciple of Jesus Christ? These questions matter because being a disciple of Jesus Christ should influence every area of our lives, and that includes how we view politics and engage in the community. In this series we’ll look at a disciple’s obligation to engage in the political realm, as well as the clash of cultures, not only in our communities, but in our world. We’ll also reflect upon some biblical advice in how we choose our leaders, and we’ll discuss the most important aspect of a disciple’s engagement—the power of prayer. But, we start this week with a look at the role of government in our lives.
I think it is safe to say these days there is a healthy amount of skepticism concerning the government. President Ronald Reagan once quipped, “I think you all know that I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.” His cynicism reflects our own. That’s one of the characteristics that endeared Reagan to so many. Whether one agreed with his politics or not, he could capture and communicate the thoughts and feelings of most Americans. The cynicism has not waned although Ronald Reagan hasn’t been President in almost thirty years. As we read the Apostle Paul, though, we discover that the government really is here to help, the great bureaucracy of any government notwithstanding.
As we think about the role of government in culture, one of the things we must do is try to take off our American lenses. We talk about government and our minds focus, quite naturally, upon our federal government, our state government, or our local community governmental structures. The Apostle Paul didn’t have any of these in mind when he penned the words we read a few moments ago. As we work through the passage, we’ll contextualize it certainly. That’s the only way we are able to make it relevant to our lives. Paul, however, was living in a vastly different culture than our own, yet even then he could council disciples that the government was there to help.
Paul was living in a world dominated by the Roman Empire. Yes, Rome was considered to be a republic, and there are some ways ours is modeled after the Roman government at the time, but seriously, in the first century A. D., Paul’s council was somewhat shocking to the Christians living in Rome. The Roman Empire was one of the most evil and cruel empires to ever rule a larger part of the world. The emperor at that time was Nero. He took pleasure in killing Christians. In fact, historians say that he burned many Christians as torches to light up his garden parties. Yet, in spite of its cruelty, immorality, and persecution of Christians, Paul said to submit to the government in Rome. His instruction to submit is front and center in this passage. We’re not going to dig into that this morning. We’re looking instead at the reasons for obeying the government. Paul’s words give us insight into God’s vision and role of government, and his words still speak to those of us who seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
Paul can’t help but remind the Roman Christians that God is the one who establishes governments. Three times in two verses Paul states the fact that God has established all government authority. A quick reflection of biblical history confirms the fact. When God wanted to take his people out of Egypt he broke the will of Pharaoh with ten plagues. In God’s dealings with his people he used the governments of the world to bring blessing or punishment as needed. The biblical writers acknowledged that God used the Assyrians to destroy Israel. Later God used Nebuchadnezzar to take his people into captivity in Babylon as punishment for their disobedience. There they repented and returned to the Lord. Then God brought in Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, to set his people free and place them back in the Promised Land. The Old Testament indicates that the Lord blessed all people through Cyrus.