Romans 13:1-10 / Proper 18A / 7 September 2008

This sermon from 2008 inserted here to complete the lectio continua through Romans 6 to 14.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God. (Romans 13:1)

We are talking about “life as liturgy”, today from Romans chapter 13. Your life is a priestly liturgy as you, a baptized priest to God offer your own body as a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God, a holy and acceptable sacrifice to God by His mercies in Christ Jesus. This “life as liturgy” begins in the congregation, where your Baptism is located, where the Lord’s table of His Body and Blood are, where the Word is preached into your ears. It extends out from the congregation in love – sincere love that hates what is evil, that honors the other over one’s self, that never lacks in zeal, that is joyful in hope, patient in suffering, faithful in prayer, generous in hospitality.

This is a love that extends in blessing not only to the friend and fellow congregation member, but also to the enemy. Especially to the enemy! Blessing those who persecute you, living in harmony, refusing to take revenge. Giving the hungry enemy something to eat, the thirsty some to drink. This isn’t natural behavior; this is what sets us apart from the rest of the world. Love for the enemy isn’t our natural reflex. This is most “unnatural” for the old, self-centered Adam. But this is you as you are in Jesus. This is the mind of Christ shaping your thinking. This is the love of Christ pouring down on you and through you to others. this is the Spirit of Christ making you “Christ for your neighbor,” as Luther liked to put it.

In today’s reading from Romans, we hear how “life as liturgy” extends to the halls of Caesar, to the civil government and those placed in authority. Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, remember, the seat of government, their “Washington DC,” a place where power and politics are in the water and the air. This is an apt passage for us too, as we enter the campaign season and weigh the candidates.

There is no doubt that this is a difficult passage, perhaps one of those we wish wasn’t in the Bible. Many Lutherans, I’m sure, would love to stop at Romans 11 and shut the book after Paul’s grand doxology and say a hale and hearty Amen to all that Christ did for us. But there’s more. Chapter 12 on the life of love and service that flows the justified. And there is chapter 13 dealing with the government.

Recognize this: Our old Adam in each of us is a natural born anarchist who wants to the rule the roost for himself. He will not submit to God’s rule, and he certainly won’t submit to the rule of law. He has no king but himself. He hates order, government, submission, all the words associated with authority. We want to write our own rules, determine what is best for us,. (How dare they make be come to a full and complete stop when we have places to go! Who do they think they are, anyway?)

We see the old Adam at work in our children in their defiant “no” to a parent’s command, or that coy little way they have of not doing what they’ve been told to do, trying to make the rebel look cute. That “inner brat” is in us too, don’t think you grow out of being a sinner. Even as baptized believers, we remain to our dying breath sinners in the flesh of Adam. Hence the gift of government.

Gift? Yes, gift. Gift as in 1st article gift – along with clothing, shoes, food, drink, house, home, and all that we need to support this body and life. Gift as in “daily bread,” under which the catechism lists “good government” as one of those things for which we pray. Luther says, when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” we are praying that God “endow the emperor, kings, and all estates of men, and especially our princes, counselors, magistrates, and officials with wisdom, strength, and prosperity to govern well and to be victorious over the Turks and all our enemies; to grant their subject and the people at large to live together in obedience, peace, and concord” (LC III.77).

Some folks call government a “necessary evil,” but government isn’t evil. It is a “necessary good,” a gift from God to curb our sin, to keep temporal order, to provide protection, to judge disputes, to curb the sinner in all of us and keep us from infringing on our neighbor’s peace and liberty. Even if the whole world were Christian, we would still need a police force and courts and laws and a military, because we remain throughout our lives 100% sinner, justified for Jesus’ sake – yes, but sinner nonetheless. Four times in the text, the apostle Paul calls the governing authority “God’s servant or minister.”

This isn’t a Gospel minister, make no mistake about that. Don’t expect the government to forgive sins and preach Jesus. That’s not what this gift is about. Paul says the government is a minister of God’s wrath. Yup, His wrath against the disorder our sin brings into the world. The government is God’s left hand of power to punish the wicked with temporal punishments like fines and jail time and, in certain cases, taking your life. The government is God’s servant for good, rewarding what is good and just. That presumes, of course, that the government knows the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, which should serve as some measure of a guide when we choose the people who will exercise this authority for us.

We have an unusual form of government, in case you haven’t noticed. One that Paul probably would not have recognized – “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Paul was referring to the Roman Caesar, who was Nero at the time. His early years, when Paul wrote this, were decent years, some of the best in Roman history. HIs later years were bad, resulting in great persecution of the Christians to improve sagging poll numbers. Paul was beheaded by Nero; Peter was crucified upside down by Nero.

We elect our own government official to exercise this authority of God’s left hand. When they abuse or misuse this divine authority, we can peacefully get rid of them and put others in their place. Our founding fathers understood the corruption of our humanity, and rightly didn’t trust anyone to exercise full authority. Instead they spread executive, legislative, and judicial authority across three branches and let them fight with each other, sometimes even to the point of gridlock. The last thing we need is for government to be “efficient.”

Notice what the purpose of government is, as divine authority: to punish evil and reward the good. Essentially to keep order and temporal peace. Not redistribute wealth, not to create a “great society” or an equitable society or any other sort of society, not to engineer social change, not to provide a safety net against our recklessness. Simply to punish evil, reward good, adjudicate disputes, keep the peace, protect the people. We have to keep our expectations of government simple. God didn’t give government to save us. And don’t trust government for one second, especially when it says, “Trust us.” “Trust not in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.” Even our money says it, at least for the moment: In God we trust. And if we do not trust the God who hung on a cross to save us from sin and death, no government in the world will be able to save us.

What does “life as liturgy” look like with respect to God’s gift of government? Taxes to whom taxes are due. Revenue to whom revenue is due. Who would have thought that paying taxes was a spiritual act of worship, a living sacrifice to God? Respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. When we dishonor and disrespect the governing authority, we dishonor and disrespect God, whose authority it is. We have the gift of determining who exercises that authority on our behalf. I believe this too is a 1st article gift from God. We honor and respect governing authority when we elect honorable and respectable men and women to fill our public offices as stewards of this divine authority.

In addition to taxes, revenues, honor, and respect, I would add one more: prayer. Paul says, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Tim 2:1-2). We do that here, each and every Sunday, with monotonous repetition. Those who govern need our prayers. It is not an easy thing to be the instrument of God’s left hand. Pray for our president, our senators and representatives, our judges, our governor, the candidates running for office (the ones you support and the ones you don’t). Pray for them, whether they are of your “party” or the “other party.” That is your priestly duty. Priests pray, they intercede on behalf of others. If we don’t, who will?

Jesus was subject to the government of His day; He obeyed the laws of His land. He perfectly honored father and mother and every temporal authority that in His humility was placed over Him. He did that for you. He became a citizen of this world, under a less than perfect government, for you. He stood before Pontius Pilate, Caesar’s local representative, the governor of Judea, falsely charged with treason, making himself a king. He reminded Pilate that his authority to judge Jesus, either to free Him or crucify Him, came “from above,” from God. He was the victim of gross injustice, an abuse of the Roman system of justice. God employed it all for the salvation of the world, for your salvation.

Christianity, following Jesus, does not try to “change the world” through government. It doesn’t really even try to change government. It doesn’t seek to establish a “Christian nation” or a world government the way Islam does. It does not attempt to establish the kingdom of God on earth. The reason for that is that we as Christians are in the world but no longer of the world. Our citizenship is in the City that God builds, and we live as resident aliens in this world, holding “dual citizenship” in whatever country we live, praying for and supporting the governing authority, yet always recognizing that the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords is Jesus, who died and rose to rescue the world from its own destruction, and who now reigns as Lord of heaven and earth.

One time at a funeral, the military honor guard was bringing the coffin of a veteran into the church (I honestly do not remember who this was.) They were about to wheel the flag-draped coffin into the church when I stopped them. I told them that the flag must be removed and replaced by the church’s pall. There was a bit of tension in the air. Though their guns were ceremonial and unloaded, there is something about facing down men with guns that causes the heart to race a bit. I explained that they were entering a foreign embassy of the King of all kings and Lord of all lords before whom every knee will bow. In this embassy, the only flag that flies is the cross by which He conquered. They understood.

Like the Israelites in Babylon, we live as pilgrims, going home but not yet at home. This country is our temporary home, and we pray for it, we participate in it, we honor and respect its government, we pay our taxes. We are good citizens. This is our home away from home. And we know that there is coming a Day when the kingdoms of this world, including this one, will cease. Governments will end, kings will bow before the crucified King, and bring the glory of the nations into His eternal City. That’s your home. Don’t lose sight of that.

Peter says much the same thing as Paul does. This passage describes beautifully what Christian citizenship looks like: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authroity instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong, and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.”

O Lord, grant us good government and wise leaders to exercise the authority of your left-hand, that we may live our days in peace and godliness, for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, the King of king, the Lord of lords, and our Savior. Amen.