16th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, it seems that if you want to spark a very passionate and very argumentative conversation with someone today, just start talking about politics or policies or something that involves the government. It seems that in our nation people are very passionate about what our government should be doing. And that isn’t a terrible thing. We live in a country where the citizens of our country actually participate in a small way in government in the ability to elect officials to govern us. So it is important for citizens to be aware of the government and have knowledge so they can vote appropriately. But that also presents some challenges. How do we as Christians view the government? How do we live in this present world when in reality we are citizens of heaven? How do we balance this tension between the fact that heaven is our true home and yet if God has not yet taken us out of this world by death that we are still to live out our lives in this world?
Through the apostle Paul God gives us direction on how we are to carry out our lives in this world while we are not of this world. Remember that the government under which the apostle Paul lived was not a very nice government. Apparently, the government was very corrupt, dominated by unbelievers, promoted pagan idolatry, and would later on introduce some of the most horrid persecutions against Christians. But, nevertheless, notice what the apostle Paul tells us: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.”
God has chosen to deal with you and me through representatives. One sphere of those representatives are all those who have secular authority over you and me. That includes the president, the members of congress and the senate, that includes the governor of our state and the house and senate, that includes mayors, judges, the police- everyone in authority over us have been given their positions by God. God is ultimately the ruler of the world and so those who have positions of authority have been put into those positions of authority by God.
Next, God tells us why government exists: “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 you will be commended.” The purpose of governmental officials is to keep the peace and order and provide protection for society. Governments should have laws that pose terror for people who would otherwise be menaces to society.
Next we’re told that those in authority are actually God’s servants. “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Why should we respect those in authority? Because they are in positions of authority established by God. They ultimately are to serve God’s purposes. They’ve received their power from God and execute judgment in the world and bring God’s judgment on people who disobey him. Those in government are finally to carry out God’s will. As soon as a ruler begins to make laws or demands that are contrary to God’s will, they are no longer servants of God, but usurpers of the authority which God has given them. The only time Christians will disobey the government is if it makes rules or demands that are contrary to God’s will. Then we are bound to a higher authority and must obey God rather than people. That doesn’t mean Christians will incite open rebellion against the government but patiently refuse to act contrary to God’s will – even if it means persecution.
“Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” Unbelievers will submit to the government’s laws out of fear, fear of punishment. There’s a part of each of us, a sinful flesh, that also submits out of fear. But as Christians we have an even better reason to obey the government in all things unless it tells us to disobey God and that is this: God wants us to. When we submit to authorities we are obeying God.
“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you ow them: if you ow taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” You see, when rulers are carrying out their jobs as representatives of God, when they rule according to God’s commands, then they provide a peaceful society in which we can do our God-given work of living for the Lord and sharing the gospel. So, we pay our taxes willingly, we don’t need to pay more than what the government says we should pay, nor should we pay less than what the government says we should pay.
Finally, to sum it all up, to describe how a Christian lives in this world in relationship to the government, to your neighbor, to your community, to anyone, God tells us: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” So how do we live as citizens in this world but not of this world? It is summed up in this word “love.” Love others means seeking no ill or harm to anyone. Love isn’t so much a fuzzy feeling or an emotion inside as it is a mindset that says, “I care so deeply about this person that I’m going to shape my actions to serve that person’s best interests.” You see, it’s not so much a gushy feeling as it is a decision to care about someone and show that care in the way that I act toward that person.
So, the question here is, do you do this? Do you honor those in authority over you? Do you gladly and willingly pay your taxes, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s? Do you pray for those in the government and those in authority over us? Do you gladly and willingly obey the government’s laws? Do you find yourself getting so wrapped up in politics that you forget that God is ultimately in control and those in power are there by God’s design and God will somehow someway work things out for the good of His people? Do you have a sincere love for every other person, shaping your actions to serve their best interests?
If we’re honest with ourselves, each of us has to say, “No. I’ve failed. I haven’t kept the fourth commandment. I need a substitute, a Savior.” And then we look to Jesus and we see in him the perfect substitute, the one who perfectly kept the law of love. Even while he was being nailed to a cross by an angry mob he said, “Father, forgiven them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He suffered and died there for all our sins of disrespecting those in authority, all our sins of failing to love our neighbor as ourselves, and every other sin we’ve committed. Because of that God sees you right now as the perfect citizen and as having loved others perfectly 100%.
Right now you’re an heir of eternal life. But right now God wants you to live in this world. You don’t belong to this world, you’re a citizen of heaven. But while you’re here, reflect the love of your Savior, honor and respect those in authority. Love your neighbor as yourself. For in doing so, you will have plenty of opportunities to communicate the greatest love to others by sharing with them the love of God in Christ our Savior. Amen.