Sunday, April 28, 2019

Truth in Politics: Sermon on Revelation 1:1-8

A crisp, chilly November wind breezed through the streets of Pennsylvania's state capital: Lancaster. Among the 4,300 residents there at the time, two of them – the Barton brothers – had plenty on their minds. Sons of an Episcopal priest who'd abandoned his family to flee the Revolution, William and Matthias Barton had both gone on to success. William, 46, the new county prothonotary, was a well-known lawyer who'd reached his greatest fame in co-designing the Great Seal of the United States of America – the one you'll see on every dollar bill in your pocket. His little brother Matthias, 38, also a lawyer, had been in political office for seven years now – first three one-year terms in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and now just re-elected to a second term in the Pennsylvania Senate.

But it was election time, and the Barton brothers found themselves at odds. Governor McKean had called the feuding Senate and House to the Lancaster Courthouse for a special session to take up the monumental task that could shape the destiny of an infant nation – the task of choosing a method for picking Pennsylvania's fifteen Electoral College voters, which could make or break a close presidential race. William was a vocal supporter and speechwriter for the Democratic-Republican Party; Matthias was one of the thirteen Federalist senators standing resolutely in their way. I wonder how it affected the brothers' relationship.

It had been an ugly year, ever since the governor's election, in which Federalists in Lancaster tried to thwart Thomas McKean, the Democratic-Republican candidate, by spreading rumors among voters that he'd died. The present year had started with the new register-general Samuel Bryan charging the old register-general with having embezzled public funds; the whole thing got Bryan into heated conflict with members of the State House and his complaint about “gentlemen... asserting malicious falsehoods on the floor of your honorable house.” For that comment, he nearly got arrested, and one representative accused him of “a false, infamous libel.”

But the current presidential election was hottest of all. Democratic-Republicans fretted that Federalists, if they stayed in power, would gut the United States Constitution, turn the country into a monarchy, and virtually enslave the people to arbitrary government power. Federalists, on the other hand, said that if the Democratic-Republicans took over, a tidal wave of atheism would result in destroyed churches, the neglect of public morals, and lead even to widespread plunder and assassination. Both parties told their followers, “Your dearest rights are at stake!” It was a heated election, and the partisan political strife tore friend from friend, brother from brother. The candidates at the heart of the conflict? For the Federalist party: President John Adams. And for the Democratic-Republican party: Vice-President Thomas Jefferson.

Earlier, in May, Jefferson financed a scandalmongering journalist, James Thomson Callender (who infamously slurred George Washington as “twice a traitor”), to publish a pamphlet savagely attacking John Adams as war-mongering beast from hell. Abigail Adams denounced “all the host of Callender's lies”; John Adams likewise called Callender a “liar.” And Jefferson was Callender's sponsor. Throughout the year, newspapers filled with charges of deception and prevarication – here in Pennsylvania, Democratic-Republicans accused Federalists of maintaining “corrupt presses,” while Federalists denounced Democratic-Republican writings as “poisonous publications..., false and malicious..., misrepresentation so gross.” Lies and accusations of lies were both rampant. One letter-writer pleaded with both parties, “You sacrifice even truth to support your opinion.”

It's been over two centuries since the fierce election of 1800. But it still rings a familiar bell, for the ugliness of American public life has outlasted the march of time. Some of the great howling lies of twentieth-century politics, we remember. Johnson pledging not to send American boys to Vietnam while the Pentagon was planning out exactly that. Nixon vowing his personnel had nothing to do with the Watergate Hotel break-in. I won't bog us down with more recent examples, but suffice it to say that, while I've certainly preferred some presidential administrations to others in my lifetime, I wouldn't dare characterize any of them as renowned truth-tellers. And today, things aren't any rosier than they were in the days of Adams and Jefferson. It seems to be the rule in American public life that truth has to be checked at the door. In fact, one political philosopher in the 1960s wrote, “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other.”

I'm sure the matter didn't look much better nineteen centuries ago, from the standpoint of Roman Asia Minor. For over a hundred years, an infamous handbook on electioneering, attributed to Cicero's brother, advised that good political candidates always tell people whatever they want to hear, since “broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances.” The handbook warned, “Politics is full of deceit, treachery, and betrayal.” How seldom truth and politics mix – now, or in early America, or in the Roman world!

But embedded in that world of political corruption and untruth, an alternative order existed, buried in the fringes of many cities, large and small. An alternative order existed in the form of small, sometimes struggling, maybe even compromised groups who nonetheless gathered each week to talk and sing and eat together. And what they called themselves is interesting. 'Ekklesia' – the Greek word for what we today might call the borough council. We tend to cover that up by translating it, when we find that word in our Bibles, as 'church.' But that's what churches called themselves: 'ekklesia,' the town council.

And these alternative town councils had come into existence because of a story that's taken up residence in their midst, not merely in words but in power. And that story centered on a Pierced Man who stepped in to take the brunt of all humanity's hatred and violence and wrongdoing, allowing it to literally penetrate his body, so that he could carry it down where it belonged. And in doing that, he had given them an immense gift. They called him “the One who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5d). Their Lover and their Liberator. But he did not stay down. No, he achieved great fame among them by returning as “the Firstborn from the Dead” (Revelation 1:5c). Having lovingly freed his adherents by allowing himself to be pierced, he had been the first to defeat death. And now, “behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of him” (Revelation 1:7). His name? Jesus Christ. He was the reason alternative town councils, ekklesiai, had started popping up in town after town after town, even in Roman Asia Minor.

And to them, living where they do, a prophet writes a message encouraging them to keep living as an authentic parallel society: “John, to the seven ekklesiai that are in Asia: Grace to you, and peace...” (Revelation 1:4). He wants to remind them, and lead them deeper, into some of the truths that give them reason for being. And one of those truths is this: that, amidst all the propaganda of Roman politics then, and amidst all the propaganda of American politics now, the highest political authority is this very same Jesus, whom John calls “the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth” (Revelation 1:5c). He sits above every Asiarch. He sits above every governor. He sits above every senator. He sits above every consul. He sits high above the emperor in Rome or the president in the District of Columbia. The United Nations meets only as a crabbed batch of hasty stick figures beneath his sweeping banner overhead. All those who jet from nation to nation, who enter rooms to the tune of “Hail to the Chief” or “God Save the Queen” or what-have you – they may be “the kings of the earth,” but Jesus Christ is “the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.” There is no higher political authority in all the world than this Jesus. Even those who oppose Jesus operate only within the boundaries that Jesus sets. Everything they do, he has the authority to review. Everything they say, they're accountable to him. Ultimately, he governs, he presides, over every action “the kings of the earth” take. For John, Jesus is at the heart of politics.

And in light of that, it should maybe surprise us how else John describes him. For John, the highest political authority is also “the Faithful Witness” (Revelation 1:5a) – “the Faithful and True Witness” (Revelation 3:14), in fact. John's drawing on the imagery from Psalm 89:37, where God vows that David's throne will “endure … as long as the sun before me. Like the moon it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.” As constant and reliable as the sun and moon in announcing God's providence, so the Messiah's rule would last forever, and so Jesus would tell the truth forever, live as a witness for truth forever.

This is exactly the opposite of everything we've come to expect from politics, isn't it? This is the contradiction of how we ordinarily conduct public life. Jesus didn't become Ruler by tricking people. Jesus didn't become Ruler by flattering the masses and currying favor. Jesus didn't become Ruler by playing other contenders off of one another. Jesus didn't become Ruler by being loudest and most obnoxious in denouncing his foes. Jesus did not become Ruler by reciting a litany of one-sided factoids. Jesus spoke and lived relentless truth. He proved himself trustworthy in the name of a trustworthy Father God. And in love, Jesus persisted in his truthful and faithful witness all the way to the tomb and beyond. That was his campaign. And for it, God voted him into office as “the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.” Faithful witness unto death was Jesus' election strategy – none of the bickering nonsense of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans was found in him – and now in office, he keeps his every campaign promise flawlessly. Because Jesus, even now as Ruler, is still Faithful Witness.

It makes you wonder: what would a world look like where even one candidate for high political office looked like that? What would it look like if even one contender for the American presidency, or some other position, honestly pursued the path of Jesus? What would it look like if they took him as their political example? But John has a message for the churches, for the ekklesiai, for these alternative borough councils, these alternate boards of township supervisors. He sees them, first and foremost, as those who have gathered around this Truth-in-Politics Jesus. And because of that, Jesus has chosen them to be raised up as a new political mode of being. Jesus has selected them, these ekklesiai, to be the new political order of the world. John says to them, Jesus has “made us a kingdom, priests” (Revelation 1:6). The Kingdom of Priests is what authentic politics must forevermore mean – that is the government which Jesus, Ruler of the Kings of Earth, prefers.

As such, these alternative political bodies and their members are bound to new ways of living. They – we – have to be relentlessly scrupulous in truth-telling. We cannot afford to traffic in rumors, accepting every story because it confirms their biases, passing along every speck of partisan gossip and gobbledegook. We must not twist facts to their advantage or play games with reality. We must not hide behind semantics and diversions. We must be relentless in valuing and telling truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We must also be committed to love, never contempt, as our political motive: love for each other, love for others, love for God, love for their neighbors and neighborhoods. We must be driven by seeking the benefit of all those we encounter, even if it's a benefit that a hateful world doesn't recognize. This love cannot drive us to deny the truth and to become unfaithful witnesses, but it must drive us to display the truth as also the good and the beautiful. And since Jesus' grand political act was to liberate us from the powers that chained us down, so our political work must focus on freeing our neighbors and neighborhoods – freeing them from oppression, freeing them from injustice, freeing them from addiction, freeing them from pollution, from violence, from idolatry and greedy lusts and all false things. Truth, love, liberation – the political manifesto of the ekklesiai.

These ekklesiai and their members – our ekklesia and we as members – must exalt Jesus as the highest political authority and the greatest political example. Because he is the highest authority we recognize, we must be prepared to encourage and to rebuke lesser political forces in his name. Because he is the greatest example we recognize, we must be prepared for faithful witness to mean political life by way of the cross. The real political heart of earth is not what you'll see on C-SPAN or MSNBC or FOX; you'll seldom hear about it from Rachael Maddow or Rush Limbaugh. The real political heart of earth is where you are right now. The political decisions that bear ultimate importance are the ones we make here together, as we declare truth, as we baptize into heavenly citizenship, as we commune across divisions, as we turn to the Ruler of the Kings of Earth to rule and lead and guide us, as we welcome the Faithful Witness to teach us, as we implore the Firstborn from the Dead to revive and heal and liberate us anew. That – what we do here – is the public life of humanity. The politics section of The New York Times is small potatoes next to political coverage in the Pequea Proclaimer!

And as we bear faithful witness to the rule of Jesus the Pierced One, Jesus the Firstborn from the Dead, Jesus our Faithful Witness who Rules the Kings of the Earth – that is how the highest political authority on earth is wielded – right here, right now. As we bear faithful witness to 'the kings of the earth,' to all lesser political authorities around us, we aim to retrain them, disciple them, integrate them into a higher order – or, if they resist, we overcome them by remaining faithful to our witness, and the exposure of their deeds against us seal their overthrow. But faithful to our witness we must remain. Whenever you're discouraged by the division and deceit of the political and social order that today is unraveling beneath our feet (much as it seemed in jeopardy to the Barton brothers in 1800), remember this: Above all, Jesus the Faithful Witness rules, and his footsteps mark where we must tread. “To him be the glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen” (Revelation 1:6b)!

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