St Michael’s and St Barnabas 5th May 13
Reading – Romans 13:1-7
Over the past couple of weeks we have been thinking about our life together as the body of Christ. If you’ve been unable to be here, I hope you have had a chance to read the sermons online. We’ve been thinking how important it is to recognise we belong to God and to each other, because that’s what being the body of Christ is all about. Thanks to Jesus’ death on a cross we have a new relationship with God as our Heavenly Father and with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
And as we have seen, the hallmark of our life together is love. What marks the church out – at least in theory – from any other organisation or charity is a deep Christlike love one for another, where no one person is seen as better than any other, where everyone belongs, and everyone uses their gifts in Christ’s service. What does this love look like in practice?
Paul gave us the answer in last week’s reading, Romans 12:9-13:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.
So I hope over the past week you’ve had the time and opportunity to think about these verses, and consider your response. It is just so important that as a church we understand the nature of God’s love and then show it in direct, practical actions. To befriend someone in church you don’t really know and maybe share a meal with them. To stand by a fellow believer and give generously and sacrificially to meet their needs. To pray with someone struggling with a long-term affliction. We are called to be a praying, sharing, caring community where our faith makes a real difference.
And we are called to take this love out of the church building and our fellowship meetings into our workplaces, our schools, our neighbourhoods, our homes. Now today we are moving on from Romans 12 to Romans 13. If you have a Bible like mine, you will probably see that Romans 13 is printed as a separate paragraph with its own heading, something like “submission to the authorities”.
But I want you to realise that while these headings and chapters are useful, they are not actually part of the text of the Bible. When Paul wrote this letter, his scribe set everything down as one continuous line of text, and that’s how the earliest manuscripts were written. Of course if we tried to read the Bible like this, it would give us a headache, which is why medieval monks helpfully broke it up into chapters and verses. But we must not lose sight of the fact there is a continuous flow to Paul’s thoughts here. He didn’t write chapter 12 one day, and then think about what to write in chapter 13 the next.
No, Paul’s teaching in our passage today follows on and develops all that he has just said about love. His words are designed to help us see how to follow the example of Jesus and take His love out into the wider world. And if you want any further proof of this, notice how Paul returns to the theme of love in chapter 13:8 where he says: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law. In other words, Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7 comes right in the middle of his teaching about love, and unless we understand this, the chances are, we will get it wrong.
So what does Jesus’ command to love have to do with the kinds of situations we face day by day? Well, Paul gives this answer in Romans 13:1: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. And I guess most if not all of us recoil at this answer. After all, if we lived in North Korea or Saudi Arabia we wouldn’t be free to meet this morning. We would risk arrest, imprisonment, or even death. Yes, I guess we just can about get our head round the idea God is in control of the world, even over governments that do not recognise Him. But submit? Simply give up all our rights and freedoms and dignity? Is that what Paul is really saying?
I would suggest that if we are to going to properly understand Paul’s teaching we need to work out exactly what he is saying when he talks about “submission”. It’s one of the most controversial words in the New Testament, and it’s one that has often been used to justify all kinds of wrong behaviour in the name of Christ.
For example, elsewhere Paul talks about wives submitting to their husbands. You can find that in Ephesians 5:22 and Colossians 3:18, and I know that teaching has been used to encourage women to stay in relationships that are harmful or abusive. But I think Paul would have been horrified to see his words twisted in this way. What he actually says is wives, submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord (Colossians 3:18). And those little words in the Lord make all the difference.
Paul’s point is that in the usual course of events we are called as Christians to be humble, gentle and obedient. In the political sphere this means we are not to go round as anarchists or revolutionaries, preaching the overthrow of governments and the uprising of the masses. Nor even does it mean we should hold an attitude of general contempt and cynicism towards those who are called to govern us. We should be uncomfortable with the sort of comedy that relentlessly pokes fun at politicians, even though sometimes they seem to deserve it. Our example, as always, should be that of Jesus, who did not come to set up an alternative kingdom on earth, or encourage his countrymen to revolt, but called us, as we heard last week, to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).
And yet even Jesus when He came up to the temple in Jerusalem turned over the tables of the money changers and drove out all those who were buying and selling there. Because, you see, there is another side to submission, namely that the other party also is called to fulfil their God-given obligations. So for example, if wives are called to submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord, so also husbands are called in the next verse to love your wives and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:18-19)
God, you see, wants all our relationships to be based on mutual self-restraint and respect. This is true in the home. But it is also true in the workplace, in the classroom and in society. The money changers did not respect the temple as a place of worship, so Jesus staged a protest. Just as indeed we might stage a protest if, for example, the government forced churches today to conduct gay marriages on our premises.
Now, let’s be clear. The church is not designed in the first place to be a political protest movement. It’s striking that the churches who take up the latest trendy cause usually end up empty a generation later. Why? Because they have lost sight of the fact the church is the body of Christ called to share the love of God. But when our love of God conflicts with our duty to submit to the state, then it becomes right and proper to make a stand. And that point when all attempts to engage in debate, or gain a hearing for your case fail, then it becomes the time to take up your cross and follow the example of our Jesus Christ.
The key principle right at the heart of this passage comes in verses 3-4: For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. That’s the bottom line. Because if God is control of the world, then ultimately every government is under His authority, whether they recognise that fact or not. And so long as that government shows respect for those who bear the name of Jesus, it is our duty as Christians to submit to the rule of law.
After all, there is nothing which undermines the witness of the church more than, say, a vicar arrested for some dodgy dealings. Whether we like it or not, people will look at our lives and see if we really practise what we preach. So no matter how good the gospel teaching, or how lively the worship, if there is a financial scandal hanging over a church, its message and its reputation will be fatally compromised.
Yes, I know this sounds obvious. And yet, time after time, I see churches and ministries derailed in this way. Maybe it’s because we all too rarely teach about the right way to live for Jesus in the workplace or at school. Maybe it’s because we send out the message that all this stuff about church is actually the important bit, and we don’t really have to worry too much about taking the gospel message out into the wider world. Whatever the reason, my heart aches every time I see a church dragged into the headlines and abuse, corruption or other wrongdoing exposed. We are called as the body of Christ to do right, wherever we find ourselves, to show that our faith in Jesus does make real, practical difference.
That’s why protest and disobedience can only ever be the last resort for the Christian. The general rule is, if the law does not conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ, then it is to be obeyed. Even those laws we may not like, such as paying taxes or obeying the speed limit. To use the language of Jesus we are to: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (Matthew 22:21).
But what if, in the end, Caesar asks us to do something which goes against our faith? That was a real question for the church in Rome within a generation of Paul writing this letter. Because at that point Caesar demanded that either they give up their faith or else risk being dragged into the arena, and being killed in an unbelievably cruel form of public entertainment. I wonder, what would you do in that situation? What I find so moving about the history of the early church is just how many people chose the path of martyrdom rather than denying Jesus.
In the second century Justin Martyr wrote these words to the Roman emperor: we are firmly convinced that we can suffer no evil unless we are proved to be evildoers or shown to be criminals. You can kill us, but cannot do us any real harm1.Aren’t those astonishing words? Here were people for whom their faith in Jesus was so precious they would willingly face death, people who knew that nothing was more valuable than the fact thanks to Jesus they had a relationship with God their Heavenly Father which could never be destroyed.
Sadly the decision the early church in Rome faced is one even today millions, yes, possibly tens of millions of Christians around the world face – whether to obey their government or confess Jesus as Lord. One piece of research suggests that in the twentieth century up to 45 million Christians died for their faith. Even now organisations such as the Barnabas Fund (which this year celebrates its twentieth anniversary) report on discrimination, persecution and abuse in over 50 countries around the world. Let’s not forget that as the body of Christ we have brothers and sisters in places such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe. How much do we need to hold them in our prayers! How much do we need to learn from their example!
And what about us as we go about our daily business this week? Well, in this country, at least for the time being, we still have great freedom to practise our faith, and that is something for which we should be profoundly grateful. No-one will come knocking on our door after we come home from church, or interview us tomorrow about where we spent the previous day. But my sense is, that for far too long we have taken that freedom for granted. As someone once put it: if you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
You see, Paul’s teaching here really is a plea for the love of Christ to make a difference when we are at work or down the shops or in school, in fact wherever we find ourselves over the next seven days. We are called to be gentle, humble and obedient, showing respect to all whom we meet, and yet when the occasion demands, to make a stand for Christ. And as such his words tie in with Jesus’ teaching to be salt and light in the wider world, that is to make a real practical difference because of our faith. So at some point this week, maybe when the pressure is really on, when you are faced perhaps with an awkward decision, stop maybe even just for a minute and ask yourself this question: what difference does it make that I am a believer? How can the fact Jesus loves me change the way I approach this situation? Because Jesus is either Lord over every part of my life or He isn’t really my Lord at all.
As the apostle Peter writes in his first letter:
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:12)
That’s our challenge as the body of the Christ. So let’s go out from here, supporting one another, determined to love others as Christ loved us, and ready to live for Jesus, whatever the cost. And let us pray that through our lives others too may come to glorify God, and confess His name.
1 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.x.ii.iii.html accessed 30.4.13