St. Matthew’s Sermon 05-06-2018


St. Matthew’s Sermon 05-06-2018

Church and State

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen.

Over the last few years, and especially in the last few months, I’ve struggled with maintaining a separation of “Church and State” when I’m in the Pulpit.

On the personal side, that is impossible to do. My Christian beliefs are first and foremost in the shaping of my world view. Thus, when it comes to my political convictions, they, too, are ultimately shaped by my religious beliefs.

On the public side, which is as a Christian Minister, it’s a requirement. By the law of our nation, we could lose our tax exempt status if I preached partisan politics. I can speak on “issues”, as long as I don’t promote the stance of any particular political party; but it’s an incredibly fine line to walk when the “issues” I need to talk about are so tightly entwined with political partisanship.

It’s enough to drive a Pastor CRAZY!

Looking in the Bible for help and guidance regarding this issue is not helpful either. You see, in the Old Testament times, there was no separation of Church and state. In fact, the nation was founded in religious beliefs; the two weren’t separated but one-and-the-same. This goes for, not only Israel, but every nation known on earth. Generally speaking, the only difference between Israel and other nations was that God was the ultimate king of Israel whereas, in many neighboring nations, the king himself was considered a god.

Looking at the New Testament is a little different; from our modern perspective. But when you get into the historical context you find it’s still much the same.

At a glance you might think that Jesus didn’t get involved in politics at all. This can be backed up with a few quotes like: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. (Matt. 22:21 NRSV) Or “My kingdom is not from this world…” (John 18:36NRSV). Yet, Jesus spoke boldly against the oppressive nature of both the religious and the political institutions of his day.

And in Paul’s writing there are many quotes that can be pulled out of context to be used to affirm the separation of Church and State such as in Romans 13:1 “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (NRSV). And from Hebrews 13:17 (if, indeed, Paul wrote that letter) “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account” (NRSV).

But, looking at the historical context we can see the need for Paul to ask his follower’s to submit to the governing authorities. First, it was a matter of the survival of the faith; The Churches Paul established would have been quickly wiped-out if they weren’t compliant with their local governments.

And, second, Paul was building the Church in many places with many authorities for the sake of the faith; not for promoting one government over another.

I could go into a lot more detail, but for the sake of brevity, I will simply state that things aren’t really that much different in our age than they were in the times of the Bible; including the idea of separation of Church and State.

As I said, in ancient times the religion and government weren’t separated; although they were two separate entities taking care of two separate aspects of life; they were still completely intertwined.

And, speaking now of our own nation; even with the notion of a separation of Church and state; there is still an entanglement of the two.

Just think about how many laws of our nation are argued on religious grounds. A few of the most contentious and most obvious to me are things like abortion rights, marriage law, and especially religious freedom itself.

But my most frustrating encounters with all this is when the same people claiming religious authority as a basis for lawmaking will completely ignore or, worse still, promote policy contrary to, many of the Biblical teachings on how to treat others in the world around us, especially the weak, downtrodden, powerless, and marginalized.

In these, think of our current national debates on immigration, the tearing-apart of families with mixed citizenship status, the proposals to reduce our national budget by cutting financial assistance to the poor and medical assistance to the uninsured; all with a focus of making the rest of us richer; and all ignoring Biblical teaching…

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” (Lev. 19:33-34 NRSV)

“…I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals- they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way… …they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed…” (Amos 2:6-8 NRSV)

“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)

Such ignorance, tied to our national politics makes our nation an exclusive club; AND does the same of our Christian faith. That is not the way it’s supposed to be! That is not what Christ teaches!

 

The book of Acts, that is a part of our readings today, is the account of the first Apostles taking the teachings of Christ into the world around them; it is the Gospel of Christ being enacted, becoming reality.

In today’s story, Peter and some companions, all Jews, are visiting a Roman Centurion by the arrangement of the Holy Spirit. There is clear conflict here with the emphasis of the “circumcised” (the Jews) meeting a “gentile” (a non-Jew) and his household. Yet, as Peter is speaking with them “…the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” [and] “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”.

They were “astounded”; they thought they were members of an exclusive club, the club of the “circumcised”, but now they know differently!

I seldom use the word in my speech; especially when talking about Biblical interpretation. But I think the message here is “obvious”. We are obviously being taught that the Christian faith is not exclusive of nation, gender, social status, economic status, or anything else we can imagine. And using scripture to justify the creation of an exclusive nation with laws that oppress the powerless and marginalized is an obvious misuse of the word of God!

 

Where it all gets messed up is when thee-most-important-words in the Scriptures are not considered first when interpreting everything else. These words are drawn together from the Old Testament in the Gospel as Jesus speaks to a lawyer saying…

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As people in the faith of Jesus Christ, as a Church of Christ, and as a nation, we must learn to put love of God AND love of neighbor first, above all else; then, and only then, can we be astounded to see where the gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Amen

 

Acts 10:44-48
10:44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
10:45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles,
10:46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said,
10:47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
10:48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Psalm 98
98:1 O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.
98:2 The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
98:3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
98:4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
98:5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.
98:6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.
98:7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.
98:8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy
98:9 at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

1 John 5:1-6
5:1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.
5:2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.
5:3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,
5:4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
5:5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
5:6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

John 15:9-17
15:9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
15:10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
15:11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
15:12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
15:14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
15:15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
15:16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
15:17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.