Sunday, September 06, 2020

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 13:1-7

The passage before us in Romans 13:1-7 is one that has been both misunderstood and misused in the past. It has been used to justify obedience to the cruelest of regimes and by those regimes to justify complete control over their subjects. The idea of obeying a ruler because their authority comes from God is one that does not sit easily with present day notions of how political power should work in modern democracies. Today, we believe in the ‘divine right of democracies’ in the way in the past people have believed in the ‘divine right of Kings’. Both I believe are wrong. To justify the absolute right of a ruler using this passage is to misuse it, but also wrong is a rejection of such authority in the name of modern ideas of ‘freedom’. St Paul would find both approaches unacceptable.

To try and understand what St Paul, in this passage, commands us to do, we need first to ask why he wrote it and why he wrote it here. This question is not so easy to answer as we might think. St Paul has been writing about how believers in Rome should live as those ‘being transformed by the renewing of their minds’ (Romans 12:2). Romans 13:8, about how ‘love is the fulfilling of the Law’, and what follows in the rest of chapter 13, follows on very well from the end of chapter 12. So well, in fact, that some have even argued that this passage about being ‘subject to the governing authorities’ wasn’t even written by St Paul and wasn’t originally part of the letter. They argue that it has been added at a later stage. There is, however, not a scrap of evidence for this, and it is rightly rejected by most interpreters of the letter.

These verses from Romans chapter 13, in any case, are not so out of place as at first they may seem. In Romans chapter 12, St Paul gives examples of what a transformed life should look like, including the need for believers not to seek revenge, but to leave ‘vengeance’ to God. Believers are not to be overcome by evil, but to ‘overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21). It is with this thought that St Paul leads into our passage this week. St Paul is answering the implied question of how evil in this present world is to be dealt with if believers are not to respond to it in kind. Is evil to be allowed to go unchecked?

The answer that St Paul gives is that God himself checks evil through those who exercise political power. Those in authority are put there, St Paul writes, by God, and are, therefore, ‘ministers of God’. As ministers of God, the only right thing for a believer to do is to be subject to them. ‘Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed,’ he writes (Romans 13:2). What is more, any who do resist will ‘incur judgement’. Notice that St Paul says we are to be subject to them not that we are to support them or agree with all they do and say. It is possible to be subject to them without approving necessarily of what they are doing.

Even with this proviso, the first response, of course, to this is always to see the problems. ‘What about tyrannical governments that oppress and abuse those under them?’ There are many examples that come to mind, and they hardly need listing. In recent years, we can think of many examples from Hitler and the Nazis to Stalin and the Soviet Union with plenty of others to go with them. This week in the news, we have been hearing about the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in Russia with all fingers pointing at President Putin. Are believers to see such a ruler as the ‘minister of God’? The simple answer is, yes.

Many in an attempt to get, as they see it, St Paul off the hook for such a shocking answer argue that St Paul is not talking about rulers in general. They point to the fact that, at the time St Paul is writing the letter, Nero had recently come to power and, at the beginning of his rule, there were grounds for optimism and for thinking that he would be a good and benevolent ruler. That, of course, is not how it turned out, but some suggest it is this optimism that leads St Paul to write about rulers in such glowing terms. One of the leading commentators on Romans goes as far as to write:

‘Paul does not envisage the possibility of either a totalitarian or a tyrannical government or one failing to cope with the just rights of individual citizens or of a minority group.’ (J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans)

I find it incredible that anyone could come to such a conclusion. We need to remember that St Paul describes himself as a ‘slave’ of someone who was crucified by the very government that he is now telling believers to be subject to (Romans 1:1). St Paul, we know, has previously been imprisoned by those in authority. In Philippi, he was imprisoned unjustly, albeit for just a night (Acts 16:16-40). But there were other imprisonments that we do not know the details of, including one he refers to in chapter 16 (Romans 16:7; 2 Corinthians 11:23).

While the imprisonments in Caesarea Philippi and in Rome were still ahead of him, and while he wasn’t to know that he would be murdered in Rome by the very authority he tells the Roman believers to be subject to, he was hardly ignorant of the Roman authorities’ capacity for cruelty and tyranny. And yet, he can still tell the Roman believers that the authorities that exist have been ‘instituted by God’ (Romans 13:1). How can he say this if he knows how awful the authorities can be? The answer, I think, lies in his understanding of both human nature and the power of God.

Human nature he has described at length in Romans. Again, as I have said many times in this series of sermons, St Paul expects us to remember what he has written before in the letter. He couldn’t be clearer that human nature is sinful. All are under the ‘power of sin’; there is ‘no-one who is righteous, no not even one’ (Romans 3:9-10). This includes both those in authority and those under them. Humans left to themselves will always be true to their character. They cannot help themselves. They must be restrained and regulated. They need someone to control their impulses to evil: those, as St Paul puts it, who are a ‘terror not to good conduct, but to bad’ (Romans 13:3).

That those who govern are themselves of the same character, that is, sinful and unrighteous, would be frightening were it not for the fact that God is able to bring good out of evil. St Paul, as a devout Jew who knew the Scriptures, knew that throughout Israel’s history God had shown himself to be the one who controls all the nations upon earth, so that even when rulers are at their most evil, even then their evil serves his purpose. God, for example, used the pagan ruler, Cyrus, as his ‘anointed’ to get his people back to the promised land (Isaiah 45:1) just as he had used Pharaoh before him to fulfil his purposes. Neither of them was a particularly nice ruler. St Paul has already explained how God is in control in answer to a different question in Romans chapters 9-11. There he writes:

‘So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’’ (Romans 9:16-17)

These verses give a clue as to where St Paul is coming from in his attitude to those in authority. Believers today have very much allowed themselves to be caught up in the political ideologies and agendas of this age. This is often for the very best of reasons, but the result is a fatal compromising of what should be the mission and priorities of the Church. Incredibly hard though it is for us today to accept, the mission God has given the Church is not to work for democracy, human rights, or even social justice in this world, but to seek the salvation of people from it by proclaiming the Lord’s name in all the earth, so that people may call upon it: ‘For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord,’ as St Paul tells us, ‘shall be saved’ (Romans 10:13).

In the interest of full disclosure, I need at this point to say that this is not how most Church leaders, teachers, and theologians see it. I realize that what I am saying is something of a minority opinion. There is not the time for me to go into what the majority opinion is, but you will have no trouble finding it out. In fact, simply listen to or read what most Christian leaders are saying or writing at the moment, and it will immediately become clear. I would, however, just comment that there is an irony here.

One of the things that gets said time and time again by church leaders is that in the past the church has allowed the Gospel to be identified and corrupted by whatever has been the prevailing culture. So, for example, western missionaries during the time of the British Empire are condemned repeatedly today for spreading the cultural and colonial attitudes of the west as much as they spread the Gospel.

I don’t deny for one moment that this happened. But what do those in the Church who make this criticism think is happening at the moment by how they are allowing the Gospel to be identified with the social justice movements of our day? The so-called ‘colonialist’ missionaries sincerely thought their ideology was good, true, and even Biblical in the way that present day social activists think theirs is too. We are all children of our age, which is precisely why St Paul tells us that we are not to be ‘conformed to this age’, but to be ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’.

Those in the Church who adopted a colonial mentality in the past were wrong to be conformed to the thinking of their age as are the social activists of our own age. What all ages have in common, apart from their sin, is the need for those who live in them to be saved. Which brings us back to one of the reasons that St Paul wants order and government to work in this world, even if it means God using sinners to provide it. In 1 Timothy, chapter 2, St Paul writes that

‘First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Many believe that St Paul is writing this from prison in Rome some years after he wrote the letter to the Romans. If this is the case, there can be now be no possibility that he is under any illusion about what Roman authority is like. However, rather than criticizing those in authority, he instead urges ‘prayers’, and even ‘thanksgivings’, for them, so that believers can get on with their lives in a ‘quiet and peaceable’ way. He suggests that this is related to God’s desire for people to be ‘saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’. God’s desire is to be our desire, and it is this desire that is to motivate us too in prayer and mission. The precise form and system of government by which God uses sinners to control sinners, so that this can happen, is not, in the first instance at least, to be our main concern.

This, I know, is not only unpopular, but even offensive to many. I apologize for any offence, but the New Testament does call for believers to take a different view of the world than the one that is dominant in most Christian thinking in the present. The dominant thinking today is that Christians should be involved in and engaged with the society in which they live. I would suggest that the New Testament instead demands that believers should be both separated and detached from it. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it:

‘For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14)

Or, as St Paul puts it, writing from prison to a Roman colony:

‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3:20)

This urgent emphasis on the priority of salvation explains, I think, why St Paul includes this passage about being subject to the governing authorities here in the letter. Let me explain.

St Paul will go on in chapter 13, again as we saw last week, to tell the Roman believers to ‘wake from sleep’ because their salvation is nearer now than when they first believed (Romans 13:11). St Paul will also tell the Romans at the end of the letter, in chapter 15, what his plans for the future are before salvation comes.

St Paul describes how he has preached the Gospel, which is the ‘power of God for salvation’ (Romans 1:16), from ‘Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum’ (Romans 15:19). He makes it his aim, he tells them, never to preach where ‘Christ has already been named’ (Romans 15:20). At the time of writing, he is planning to go to Jerusalem before setting out to Spain by way of Rome (Romans 15:28). As an apostle to the Gentiles, he wants the Gentiles in Spain to hear the Gospel. You will remember that he is hoping that Rome will provide him with support for his mission to Spain.

This all seems straightforward enough. For St Paul, however, there is the worry that there is the danger that it may not be quite as straightforward as perhaps it seemed. In AD49 the Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome. The reason for this expulsion, the Roman writer Suetonius tells us, is that they were rioting over one ‘Chrestus’ (Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25.4). Many scholars think this is a reference to ‘Christ’. Whether it is or not, we know that the expulsion affected Jewish believers too.

It was because they had been expelled from Rome that St Paul, when he arrived in Corinth in about AD50, first met Aquila and his wife Priscilla, who were to become two of his closest associates (Acts 18:2). Priscilla and Aquila went with him when he left Corinth and went to Ephesus (Acts 18:18). He left them at Ephesus to engage in preaching the Gospel, while he first went back to Jerusalem and Antioch (Acts 18:19).

All attempts at dating have to be tentative and approximate, but this would be about AD52-55 if we follow the chronology of Acts. Aquila and Prisca, to use St Paul’s version of her name, are still with him when he writes 1 Corinthians, which was towards the end of his time in Ephesus. He tells us that there is a Church there that meets in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19). At some time before St Paul went again to Corinth, where he is writing the letter to the Romans, Prisca and Aquila returned to Rome. We know this because he greets them at the end of the letter in chapter 16 (Romans 16:3). They are the first of the people St Paul knows in Rome that he does greet, and he describes them as his ‘fellow-workers’. He also greets the ‘church in their house’.

It is, then, perhaps not unreasonable to think of Prisca and Aquila as a sort of advance guard sent to Rome to get things ready for St Paul in the way they had at Ephesus. It is possible that he was planning for them to go to Spain with him. Whatever his plans may or may not have been, they didn’t work out as he hoped. Nevertheless, St Paul is, at the time of writing the letter to the Romans, working on the assumption that he is heading for Spain (Romans 15:23, 28).

The last thing St Paul needs, however, is any trouble in Rome before he sets out to Spain. He needs the situation in Rome to be stable. In other words, he needs the believers to be able to live the quiet and godly life he writes about in 1 Timothy, and which he urges believers to pray for those in authority to make possible by maintaining law and order.

Roman authority, however tyrannical it might at times be, and sometimes it could be very tyrannical, did, at the very least, maintain law and order. Rome, whatever its faults, by providing strong and ordered government, made it possible for the Gospel to spread in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without it. We are, then, to give those in authority the money they need to enable them to fulfil their ministry. As St Paul puts it:

‘For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.’ (Romans 13:6)

We are, then, to pay taxes ‘to whom taxes are due’. Or, as our Lord puts it: ‘we are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21). We recognize the authority’s usefulness in creating the conditions for preaching the Gospel by restraining evil, but we don’t expect them to be very good at promoting righteousness, or as we may put it today, social justice.

Finally, then, although this passage raises some challenging questions, it was never intended by St Paul to be the final word on how believers are to relate to those in authority. He recognizes the legitimate God-given role that those in authority have, and he wants to make sure that the Roman believers recognize it and honour it. We shouldn’t, however, make him say either more or less than he says here.

Are we then to have no concern about life in this world and simply wait until the next? Of course not, whenever we have the opportunity, we are to work ‘for the good of all, and especially for those who are of the family of faith’ (Galatians 6:10). But we are to realize that the good we can do in this world is limited by the very nature of the world itself and of those who live in it. Rather, then, than seeking to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, we are to pray for day of its coming and, in the meantime, to model it in the Church.

As always, our Lord provides the example to us of how we should relate to those who exercise political power in this world. When he appeared before Pilate, our Lord remained silent at the accusations made against him, Pilate says to him:

‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ (John 19:10)

Jesus’ reply is the ultimate put down of the arrogance of those who wield political power in this world. He replies to Pilate:

‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above …’ (John 19:11)

Silence in the face of power is the exact opposite of what we are encouraged to have by many in the Church today. We are instead urged to speak out against injustice and to make our voice heard. Jesus’ silence, however, spoke louder than any words. Jesus and St Paul recognize that the power earthly rulers have comes from God, and by recognizing it, relativize it: God, not Caesar, is in control.

The irony is that those most critical of those who exert political power in this world are often the very ones who most seek it for themselves. It is, however, not for us as followers of Christ to seek the overthrow of those who exercise power in this world nor are we to seek it for ourselves, but, instead, we are to demonstrate, by who we are and who we serve, a different way. As believers, we reject the pretentiousness of power and the pomposity of those in this world who exercise it, not by rebelling and rioting against it, but by modelling a radical alternative to it. Jesus said to his disciples:

‘You know that the rulers of the pagans lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’’(Matthew 20:25-28)

The problem with political power is that it is not powerful enough. It is powerless to change the human heart or to bring salvation. How sad, then, that we continue to prefer it to the real spiritual power that our Lord gives to his disciples: the power to forgive or to retain sins (John 20:23). In this week’s Gospel reading, our Lord tells his disciples that ‘where two or three are gathered’ in his name, he is there among them (Matthew 18:20).

We may be tempted by the Devil’s offer of all the kingdoms of this world if we but ‘fall down and worship’ him. It is, however, when two or three gather in Jesus’ name that the Ruler of all is in our midst and through his presence with us, even now here in this world, we experience the Kingdom that is to come.

Maranatha. ‘Even so, come Lord Jesus’ (Revelation 22:20).


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