Sunday, September 23, 2018

Servants of God in Washington: Sermon on Romans 13:1-7

In the front of the room there sat a nineteen-year-old with dirty-blond hair and gray eyes. He was in charge of the meeting in the Curia Julia. By his side sat a rather older man, his co-consul, Lucius Calpurnius Piso. As for the young man, he was just beginning to shake off the effects of last night. He'd been out late in his usual 'pranks' – carousing, stealing, doling out beatings at the wine shops and the houses of ill repute. He should have known better than to do it the night before the senate meeting, but impulse control wasn't one of the young man's strong suits. Since becoming emperor three years earlier when his mother Agrippina poisoned his stepfather Claudius, he'd done the same to his stepbrother Britannicus and then struggled against his mother's control. Fortunately, he had a few good and reliable advisors. He'd met with them earlier in the morning. There was Sextus Afranius Burrus, the praetorian prefect, commander of the imperial bodyguards. And there was Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the philosopher and poet, his boyhood tutor and now often speechwriter.

Still, running the government could be a tiresome task for a man of nineteen. The youthful Nero had so many people to consult. His personal secretary Epaphroditus was with him frequently. There was Faenius Rufus, the prefect in charge of the city's grain supply; Titius Flavius Sabinus, the new urban prefect, effectively mayor of the capital; and now, in front of him, gathered senators, clad in their togas with the distinctive purple stripe. It was not one of the busier times for them, but still there was plenty to do. Since settling the quarrel with the quaestors over the treasury last year, they'd doled out four hundred bronze coins to each resident of the city (in hopes of blunting the mounting tax complaints), given directions to build a wooden amphitheatre, cracked down on slave-led assassinations of their masters, banned provincial magistrates from wasting tax revenue on lavish entertainments, and now were dealing with an extortion case. Cossutianus Capito, governor of Cilicia, had returned to Rome so the senate could settle the charges of extortion pressed another senator, Thrasea Paetus, on behalf of the Cilician people. Things looked to be going Thrasea's way, and not so good for Cossutianus.

Nero and Piso looked out at the senators while Thrasea pressed his case for the Cilicians. Over there was the consul's brother, the other Piso. And then there were Aviola and Marcellus, some of the last consuls during the reign of Claudius. Dolabella was there, and Suillius Rufus, and Nero's friend Vestinus Atticus. And then there was Aulus Plautius, the man who'd conquered Britannia fourteen years ago, and was now dealing with questions of a domestic variety, overseeing the trial of his wife Pomponia, who stood accused of secret involvement in some obnoxious new superstition about a foreign god called 'Chrestus.'

Earlier that May Sunday morning, dozens of gatherings of fellow-practitioners of Pomponia's superstition met around the districts of Rome. And as Thrasea put the Cilician governor on trial, they were reeling from a long letter by a Jew from the Cilician provincial capital of Tarsus. The letter was brought to them by a merchant woman named Phoebe and her scribe Tertius from one of the port villages near Corinth. As they made their rounds through these Roman gatherings, they found most to be in the swampy immigrant ghettos, mainly in crowded apartments. Not only were protests brewing over sales and import taxes of all sorts in the market, but the Jews had another reason to complain. Ordinarily, there'd be no tribute tax to pay, as they lived in Rome; but during their five-year exile, they'd been in the provinces for the census, and now even after they returned, insult added to injury appeared in their tax burden. Needless to say, they weren't happy. As for the non-Jews in these gatherings, Phoebe found plenty who weren't thrilled with their government – and some who just weren't sure. We have reason to think that at least two of these gatherings of Roman Christ-followers were in fact groups of public servants who'd been incorporated into the low levels of the imperial bureaucracy – basically as if there were a little church meeting in the IRS, and another church full of congressional pages meeting in the Capitol building. Well-educated and conflicted, they wondered what Paul's advice to “overcome evil with good” meant for their careers in a pagan government headed by a nineteen-year-old lout (Romans 12:21).

Figuring out how to relate to the governing authorities of pagan Rome was tricky – no less tricky than figuring out how to relate today to governing authorities in Washington DC or in Harrisburg or in your local township board or borough council. And Paul's first word to them on the subject explains that these governing authorities – whether the emperor, the senators, the urban prefect, the tribunes or quaestors or any of the other officials – this whole thing has been “instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). It's a God-provided thing. They are, in a real way, his servants – “the authorities are ministers of God,” Paul says (Romans 13:6). One of Paul's earliest readers, Irenaeus, writing 120 years later, commented on this passage that when God saw how far people fell from righteousness, he instituted governments to safeguard at least a minimum degree of justice in the world.

So on the one hand, Paul says, these governing authorities are a gift of God. They serve God, in their own way, through what they do. They have a good purpose. For that reason, Paul tells them, they can't get involved in the assorted resistance movements they're tempted to. “Whoever resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:2). That's what Paul says. Rebelling against 'the man,' raging against 'the machine,' trying to buck 'the system' – that road, in fact, is picking a fight with God himself, because God is the power behind the system. Disagree with how the authorities govern, that's their right, in the Roman churches; but the government as such is put there intentionally by God to be a benefit and to fulfill his will, and an attitude of general resistance to it just won't do. That's true in Rome, and it's true in Iraq, and it's true in North Korea, and it's true in Belgium, and it's true in America. It's true in 1787, and it's true in 1950, and it's true in 2010, and it's true in 2018.

At the same time, Paul wants to be very clear that these authorities were “instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Which God is that? At the time, the emperor virtually claimed to be a god, and they saw plenty of Roman gods as the powers behind the curtains of the empire. Paul's saying that Jupiter and Mars and all the rest have not a thing to do with giving Rome any legitimacy. If it were up to those idols, the whole thing would be a charade. No, there's a different God behind Rome, a very specific one: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – the Christ, you'll remember, who was sentenced to death by a Roman governor. And Paul is saying that the whole system, from the emperor on down to governors like Pilate, in fact only has legitimacy because they were put there by the God we meet in Jesus. The power that gives legitimacy to the entire Roman government, Paul is saying, is a former death-row convict raised from the dead and now enthroned in heaven. And clearly, Paul thinks, if the cross is any indication, Jesus has a very different idea of how the government ought to run.

That matters, because Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He's the divine power behind the government, which means he's the divine power above the government, to which the governing authorities are accountable. It's him they're supposed to be serving, and “there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1). It's the God of Jesus Christ who made “every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). Jesus is the Lord to whom even Nero is answerable for how he governs – and so is every other official and every other institution. Because this God instituted the governing authorities, this God owns the governing authorities, whether they admit it or not. And every decision they make, every act they take, each will “give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).

So Paul explains that, on the one hand, even this pagan government around them is instituted by God, which means we mustn't have the attitude of resistance. It also means that the early Roman Christians who perform accounting, secretarial, or errand-running work for government officials are in a potentially good place – a place God created, a role where they can serve him. But this pagan government is enrolled in the service of a God it denies, which will hold it to account. And the same is true in Harrisburg or Washington. Every act of every governing authority is answerable to Christ. Every word from the president's mouth or Tweet from his fingertips – answerable to Christ. Every opinion drafted by a Supreme Court Justice, every bill proposed and debated in the House or in the Senate – answerable to Christ. Every administrative rule cranked out by a bureau – answerable to Christ. He is the judge and the standard of everything that happens in our government. When we're tempted to be complacent with business as usual, we remember: they'll have to answer to Christ for every decision, every vote, every law, every grandstanding speech, every backroom deal.

Paul also subtly warns the Roman believers not to get suckered in by imperial propaganda. There's plenty of sloganeering in first-century Rome, no different from modern Harrisburg or Washington. There, one of the key features of propaganda in Nero's early years was the claim that the Roman sword had been put away. Nero was supposed to say things like, “My sword is sheathed, nay, fixed in its sheath. … I keep harshness concealed, but I have clemency always at hand.” He boasted that all Rome's thousands of swords were “now restrained by my authority,” and so although he had a “power of inspiring terror,” he had put it away. A key feature of Nero's propaganda was that he had put the sword away, and would not use it in how he governed. Remember that when you hear Paul tell the Roman Christ-followers that a governing authority like Nero “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). The very thing Nero boasted made him different from other rulers, Paul says to the churches, “Don't buy it.” Don't buy the propaganda. Don't let Nero pull the wool over your eyes.

In Harrisburg or Washington, is there any less propaganda? Claims that one administration, one party, is so very different from 'politics as usual'? Paul warns us against gobbling up any party line hook, line, and sinker. Don't let them pull the wool over your eyes. Don't buy the propaganda. Even if it sounds good. Even if it inspires you. Even if it has a patriotic ring to it. Don't buy it. Nero wanted Romans to see him as offering a new golden age. And he, like every emperor, put his hopes in Roma aeterna – 'eternal Rome.' But the Rome of Nero wasn't and isn't eternal. God “determined allotted periods” for it, and no more (Acts 17:26). Nero did not rule forever, and Rome was not forever. No presidential term is eternal. The Jefferson administration had its start and its end. The Nixon administration had its start and its end. The Obama administration had its start and its end. The Trump administration had its start, and it will have an end. No executive order is eternal. No judicial precedent is eternal. No bill passed by Congress is eternal, not even when signed into law. Even the Constitution itself is not eternal. Neither is the United States of America. Get your fill of the anthem now, because “the day is at hand” when we'll never hear it again (cf. Romans 13:12). It's not eternal, no matter what our propaganda leads us to believe. What's eternal is that Jesus “will reign … forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33).

So the Roman government isn't eternal, and the American government isn't eternal. Jesus' government is eternal – and the Roman and American governments are just two tools he uses in this dark and broken phase of world history. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the God who instituted those governing authorities. That means they have certain purposes to carry out – which also means they can overstep their bounds. So what are they supposed to be doing? Paul tells us two key things: “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God, an avenger of wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3-4).

Two things the governing authority, described ideally, is God's servant to do. One: give approval and recognition to what is good. Two: penalize what is bad. We heard two weeks ago about how we're freed from the burden of vengeance because that's God's exclusive prerogative (Romans 12:19). Paul tells us now that, at least partially, God exercises his vengeance through the governing authorities he calls his servants. We see that as the governing authorities punish criminal activity. Not every sort of wrongdoing falls within the governing authority's jurisdiction, but many do. And at the same time, the governing authority can hold up good examples and give approval and reward to good conduct. When functioning well, a government can maintain at least the bare minimums of ethical order in society – an ethical order warranted by God. It can't justify us, but it can keep a space clear for us to proclaim and embody the good news and to otherwise lead “a peaceable and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). The governing authorities have the responsibility to let that be possible by maintaining conditions conducive to it: letting us worship God and witness to God and live for God in ways that are peaceable, quiet, godly, and dignified. Paul knows good and well that governments don't always do that. The Bible he reads is full of oppressive kings trying to fight God and disrupt the lives of God's people (cf. Psalm 2:1-3, etc.). But even some of the worst governments in history have still aimed to hold up some model of good behavior and punish at least some real crimes, and Paul offers that as a starting point for how to get along with whatever government that is.

So the governing authorities are instituted by God, and accountable to him, no matter what their propaganda says. Their purpose is to serve God by approving what's good, and thus teaching us positively, and also by punishing what's bad, and thus restraining disorder. That is meant to clear the way for God's people to enjoy peace and be a respectable healing presence in society. In light of that, resistance isn't the right sort of general attitude to have. Instead, Paul says, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. … One must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:1, 5). Subjection, not resistance. The word Paul uses here has the sense of fitting into place, into rank, behind or beneath some other thing. To be subject means to fit into place under the authorities. It's a voluntary choice Paul advocates: the opposite of resistance and rebellion is to acknowledge that the governing authorities may make valid claims on us, that they deserve something from us, that we are to look to them for certain things.

What does that look like in practice? Paul explains that each kind of governing authority is owed something in particular, and every soul under their jurisdiction should give it, including us. The first thing he mentions is the tribute tax – the thing exiled-and-returned Jewish residents were so irritated about having to pay. For us, the nearest equivalent would be federal income tax. Paul says to pay it faithfully, just as you owe it. Then he gives mention to the other sort of tax in the city, the indirect taxes – things like sales tax, usage tax, import and export duties, all the sorts of taxes you'd encounter in the marketplace. For us, this includes our assorted sales tax but also property taxes, estate taxes, and maybe even state and local taxes unless you count them in with the other one. In either case, Paul wants all his bases covered. No matter which part of the government you're paying it to, or how it's supposed to get there, pay what you owe (Romans 13:7). Paul says that, in fact, he's sure the Roman believers have been paying their taxes already, in spite of grumbling about it, which is another piece of evidence they already agree with him on the governing authorities' legitimacy (Romans 13:6).

But there's more that we owe besides different kinds of taxes. Paul says we also owe “respect” and “honor” to those to whom respect and honor are due (Romans 13:7). No matter who holds it, we're to show respect to the office, at the very least – that's something we owe. Treat the governing authorities with due respect for their office. Maybe that's the president. Maybe that's the legislator. Maybe that's the judge in the courts. Maybe that's the IRS agent or the borough council member or the township supervisor. But respect in the way you treat them, respect in the way you talk about them. America has always had a problem with intemperate criticism of our elected officials; some of the first elections were just as nasty as the latest. But even when the office-holder is someone who dishonors it, even when they seem to make a mockery of it, even when they're as deranged or corrupt as you can imagine, still they are owed a certain degree of respect in that office, as part of what it means to be subject to the governing authorities. That's what Paul is telling us. And then, beyond that, there are those who serve well and faithfully and are owed an even higher degree of honor and praise for it. That, too, is part of what we owe: particular praise for good performance in government. We don't often do that enough, especially at the local level. We can highlight their accomplishments, thank them, send notes of encouragement – all things they may well appreciate. In doing that, we show both respect and honor.

That's what submission or subjection to the governing authorities looks like. But like I said, Paul is under no illusions that the governing authorities always stay within their bounds or do what's right. Nero will eventually have Paul beheaded and other Roman Christians burned or savaged by beasts. Paul grew up on stories about evil kings who wanted to be worshipped. Even short of that, Paul knew that many kings and many emperors were cruel tyrants, possibly insane or incompetent. Irenaeus, one of the first people to comment on these verses, suggested that God provides the sort of ruler who fits the people's character: sometimes the nation gets a leader who's beneficial and just; sometimes they get one who's punitive and overbearing; sometimes they get one who's arrogant and ridiculous. After all, God says through Hosea, “I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath” (Hosea 13:11). Frequently in our days, the choices we get as candidates have a lot to say about the character of America, and it's seldom flattering; God holds them up as mirrors. Paul knows this kind of thing happens. Paul is hardly naive. There's a reason he avoids the word 'obey' in this chapter. There are many times when subjection to governing authorities will look like obedience. But he steers clear of telling us flatly to obey the governing authorities. Sometimes, with all due respect and reverence and subjection, we nonetheless have to dissent and disobey: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Submission doesn't require obedience when they stray outside the bounds God has appointed for them. As the servants of God, the governing authorities derive their powers from him. They have limits; there are things they cannot do, and things they cannot ask of us. So Paul bids the Roman gatherings of believers to prayerfully get together to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). It's true here, too. Authentic Christian submission to government means meeting together as a church to discern when obedience to God requires us to disobey or challenge the governing authorities of the land. But whether in obedience or disobedience, Paul charges us to above all “owe no one anything, except to love each other … Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8-10). More on that next Sunday.

Paul's sketch of what God instituted governing authorities for gives us a sense for how to measure, how to discern, the sort of government we live under. Do they stay within their bounds? If so, good; if not, they need to learn not to overstep. Do they praise and commend those who do what's good? If so, good; if not, they ought to start. Do they avenge wrongdoing? If so, good, though hopefully they temper it with mercy; otherwise, they risk letting chaos and oppression rule the roost. And do they acknowledge which God ordained them? If so, again, good; if not, they need to be reminded what God's kind of rule should look like.

There are more opportunities for that in today's America than in Nero's Rome. None of the people reading this letter for the first time had any input into who the emperor would be, who the senators would be, who any of the provincial governors would be, or the urban prefect, or most any of the offices in question. We have a bigger role in our system than Paul's first audience did in theirs. If Nero had to face popular elections, if Lucius Piso and Thrasea Paetus and Cossutianus Capito had to face popular elections, you bet your bottom dollar Paul'd be urging the Roman believers to faithfully and thoughtfully engage their own role as part of the electorate.

Whether inside or outside the ballot box, though, here's the last thing Paul would tell us to do. Challenge the governing authorities – borough council, township supervisors, local mayors, all the way up to the White House and the Capitol – to know the God who ordained them, to carry out their just mission, and to keep to their proper bounds, so that we can worship, witness, and live “peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). Challenge them where they need it, but show respect and honor wherever it's due, pay all the taxes that are due, and cultivate an attitude of willing subjection to the servants of God in Harrisburg or Washington, who are appointed by Christ and accountable to Christ. Washington, Harrisburg, Rome – none are the eternal city. But all are the seats of God's servants now for our common good. Encourage and help them to do it well, and pray to the God and Father of Jesus Christ for them – to him be all glory forever. Amen.

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