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Sunday, July 7, 2019
Scripture: Phillipians 1:27-30 & John 18:33-38a
“I Wonder… ” Summer Sermon Series
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I Wonder… how do we bring people together in our country and find compromise?
I Wonder… how do we live with conflict?
I Wonder… about the relationship between faith and politics.
Today’s topic is faith and politics, with special questions on compromise and dealing with conflict in these divisive times. Since it’s a communion Sunday, I have about 15 minutes to cover it all, which should be more than enough, right? No?
So, what I’m going to do today is take three stops in history to consider how the church has talked about politics. We’ll start in the first century in Philippi, an important Roman colony in Macedonia, and the first place Paul planted a church in Europe. Paul is writing this letter to the young church in Philippi to encourage it. Things are going well for the church, but the circumstances are difficult. Paul is not writing from his pastor’s study or at a retreat. Paul is in prison. Again. So, the first thing we should note is that neither the political nor the social order in the first century were particularly enthused about this Christian movement. It was disruptive to their way of life. Politically and religiously it presented a counter-narrative to the one that led to the pax romana, the Roman peace, which used military might to maintain an uneasy peace among many different people groups. Particularly in Greco-Roman areas, Christians were unwelcome because they stopped participating in the local religious cults, and in their understanding, the gods got mad if you opted out. Christians became easy scapegoats for anything that went wrong.
Paul is in prison because his ministry has disrupted the political and social order, and he is writing to a small group of Christians, who exist within a Roman colony. Paul and these people are claiming Jesus is Lord and Savior, not Caesar, the political leader. They are not going with the flow. From its start, the church operated outside of the structures of state power and had no intention of working their way into power.
Philippi is not only a Roman colony, it is also a place where many of the retired Roman military lived. They had special privileges, including not having to pay taxes and having the right to own and market property. Philippi itself was a densely populated city. Since it was on a major trade route, it was also highly cosmopolitan. This was a community with a noticeable commitment to the Roman Empire. Paul is writing into that political reality about how they are to live as Christians.
In 1:27 Paul writes this, “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The Greek word for “live your life” is different from one Paul typically uses. Usually he uses the word peripateo, which means to walk or live or conduct oneself. Here in Philippians 1:27 and later in 3:20, Paul uses versions of the word related to the polis, the city. This is intentional for these people well-versed in what citizenship means. So, Paul tells them, “conduct yourselves” or, perhaps more accurately, “let your public behavior” be worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Your citizenship is in heaven,” he writes in 3:20. In the words of N.T. Wright, “Appropriate public behavior and united work for the gospel will together send a signal to opponents: we’re not afraid. And that signal is part of the gospel message. It functions as a sign to Christians that they already belong to the coming king [Jesus], and to their opponents that a new world is beginning in which the threats of the old one don’t work anymore.” So, to summarize what Paul is up to. First, the secular Roman government is making absolute claims on the lives of people. Second, God in Jesus make a counterclaim to that narrative. Third, if you follow what Jesus is doing, then there is a very real chance of suffering for standing up for what is right. Finally, you are do the right thing anyway because your citizenship is in heaven. What Rome can do to you is not worth exchanging for the glory of knowing and following Jesus and living in his way in the world.
So, let’s fast forward around 1700 more years, recognizing that I am skipping vast swaths of history and political developments, but just go with me here. The American experiment is just getting underway. Presbyterians have been around for a little over one hundred years, and they bring their theology and political understanding to this land. From their beginning, Presbyterians have been heavily involved in the civic life of America. King George called the revolution “The Presbyterian Rebellion.” At least fourteen of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterian. That is 25%. One clergyman signed it, John Witherspoon, and he was Presbyterian. Our church form of government, which we still use today, gave our civil government an alternative to monarchy, and it is rooted in Presbyterian ideas of equality between people.
The U.S. Constitution was ratified on March 4, 1789. Do you know when our denomination started here? 1789. The first presbytery was actually formed in 1703 in Philadelphia, but we were duly constituted the same year our country became a country. So, why all of this history? Well, did you have a chance to read the front of the bulletin today? It’s worth a look because on it are words from our own Presbyterian constitution – words still in there today – that seem awfully relevant into our fractious world. In 1788, Presbyterians like you and me put these words to paper. “God alone is Lord of the conscience….Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power.” From our inception, Presbyterians have believed that politics and political structures are neutral powers that can be wielded for good or ill. To be human is to be political, but to be Presbyterian means a pretty careful distrust of how political powers strive to coopt Christianity into getting people to buy into their political ends, even if it compromises the way of Jesus. We believe that this power should be used for equality and the common good, not just for those in power.
But let’s not get stuck there because there is more good stuff from 1788. “We also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters may differ.” Did you hear that? 231 years ago Presbyterians knew that it was possible that good people who thought long and hard on a topic could disagree with each other. Crazy, right? People didn’t see eye to eye, and yet what did they urge? “And in these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” Whoa. People can disagree and yet still live with each other. People can hold strong convictions about just about anything and still live with each other and work towards a better future. I have to believe that there was a reason they wrote those words down in 1788, and that reason had to be that people really disagreed with each other.
So, with the little bit of time we have left, let’s move into today. Despite knowing for centuries that good people can disagree and still get along, we live in a time where our political culture is demanding absolute loyalty and faithfulness to their ideologies. People are still disagreeing, but now our disagreements are amplified by the speed and spread of media. The good news is that all of us have a voice. The bad news, is that we all have a voice and can bark our opinion out 24/7. We’ve been told we’re red or we’re blue. We’re Republican or Democrat. Now, I’ve been here for almost two-and-a-half years. I know we have some liberals in these pews. I know we have some conservatives. I know we have libertarians. We have moderates. We have people who defy categories. We disagree at times, yet we are striving to live into what our own constitution says about us. We believe that people can disagree and live in mutual forbearance with each other. That’s crazy to me that that sounds radical in this day and age, but we get to live it as a church. One of the greatest ways we can bear witness today is to love each other and to be committed to each other even though we may disagree.
So, what are we supposed to do in this day and age with faith and politics? Here are just a few things I’ll offer, recognizing fully there are many, many more. Honestly, each of these encouragements could be a sermon in itself, but I’ll just go ahead and get them out there today. First, the ends do not justify the means when it comes to the gospel. The way of Jesus is the way of giving away power. He is God, yet he submitted himself to death on a cross out of love for us. He could have taken the world through force. He did it through love. He spoke the truth at all times in love. The lying and spin have got to stop, and as Christians we should expect truth telling, just as we are to be truth-tellers. Even when the end seems like a benefit to the country or to its citizens, if it seeks accommodation from the way of Christ, then it is not worth doing. Jesus’ way is better than our shortcut.
Second, in all you do and especially in your public behavior (like Philippians), ground your behavior in the two great commandments – love God with all you are first and foremost and love your neighbor as yourself. This is part of how we learn mutual forbearance for each other. Before engaging with a political opponent, see if how you are handling it meets this holy task of loving God and loving neighbor.
Third, we need to learn how to listen again. We need to learn how to empathize again – that is to enter into someone else’s situation and to understand it from their perspective. And we need to learn how to appreciate nuance. The political issues we wrestle with are complicated. Our current ways of engaging in politics – whether cable news or Twitter – does not have any space for complexity, and it certainly does all it can to shout down voices it disagrees with. Christians can model a better way by seeking depth and understanding. This is part of loving God with all of our minds and of loving our neighbor.
When Jesus stands in front of Pilate – the representative of civil government – he tells him, “My kingdom is not of this world.” When from prison Paul writes the Philippians, he says, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” We are here 2000 years later on a completely different continent, but nothing has really changed. We love where we live, but our citizenship is in heaven. We have work to do politically, but it is in seeking justice for all and in encouraging policies that give us a glimpse of God’s reign. Jesus saves us, not our government, and we should stop acting as though politicians are sovereign over us. Only God is, and through grace we are invited into the kingdom of God – our political reality.
There is so much more to say, but I don’t have time today. Our confessions offer us some great examples of political engagement, but those will have to wait for another time, but I hope you know there are resources that dig deeper into this.
I’m glad today is a communion Sunday. There is no greater symbol of Christian unity than this table. We are invited by God through grace to come together – Republicans, Democrats, and people of every political stripe. Here we submit our whole selves – including our politics – to what God says about us. We come as the young, the old, the new-to-Grand-Haven and those who have been here for generations. In Christ, God welcomes us all. Here, God gives us a foretaste of what the great banquet in heaven will be like, where through grace we are all welcome to the table. And that is good news.