Today we are tackling one of the most complex subjects in the Bible, and I am not going to pretend to be able to do it justice in a brief sermon. The church as a whole is all over the map on what God’s call actually consists of for Christians in interacting with the government of the nation they are in. In this church I am sure that there are significant differences of opinion on what the churches relationship with the government is supposed to look like, and addressing those differences is part of the work that we are all called to as the body of Christ. My belief in this matter is that for Christians there is an important relationship between our individual convictions and the convictions of the body as a whole in which both inform and build up the other in service to God. In this area of relationship to the nation we have not always done well, and have sometimes allowed our opinions to tear down those we disagree with rather than build them up. My hope in this sermon is not to address the differences, but to pull out some principles from the scriptures that can guide us regardless of our opinion of the government and our role in interacting with it.
Peter had a concern about the way Christians were interacting with the governmental structures around them, especially since some of those structures were actually protecting Christians from persecution by Jews and other faiths. There was even a movement in the church of folks who thought that since Jesus was coming back soon they really didn’t need to worry about paying taxes. Into that context Peter gave the following admonishment:
13For the Lord’s sake, accept the decrees and laws of all the various human institutions, whether they come from the highest human ruler 14or agents he sends to punish those who do wrong and to reward those who do well. 15You see, it is God’s will that by doing what is right and good you should hush the gabbing ignorance of the foolish. 16Live as those who are free and not as those who use their freedom as a pretext for evil, but live as God’s servants. 17Respect everyone. Love the community of believers. Reverence God. Honor your ruler. 1 Peter 2:13-17
This passage really interests me because of how deeply nuanced it is. Peter begins by telling his audiences to submit to or accept the rulings and laws of the government they were under no matter their source. The concern Peter addresses here is not one of obedience, but one of witness. Since we are the ambassadors of God’s kingdom, we are called to the highest standards of integrity in all of our dealings, even our dealings with governments. When we accept the legal consequences and take actions based on God’s understanding of what is right and just, it puts people on the spot and forces them to make moral decisions to go with or against their conscience. Let me give you an example of what this witness might look like.
In the late 90’s the City of Philadelphia began passing a bunch of ordinances that criminalized homelessness. There were ordinances against lying on the sidewalk, ordinances that banned eating or sleeping in certain public parks, that banned feeding homeless people on the street, and many more that were designed to drive the homeless out of sight. One of the parks in question was ironically named “Love Park” a main place for office workers to eat their lunch and the homeless to receive meals in the late evening, and I am sure it will not come as a surprise to you that no citations were issued to office workers that ate in the park. When this law was passed, the process was not an open one, and caught many organizations who served the homeless flat-footed. A group of churches decided that they would disobey the law and continue feeding the homeless in “Love Park” and hold sleep in protests. They also instructed those involved to treat the police that would be sent to cite or arrest them with respect no matter what treatment they were receiving from the officers, and to plead guilty to feeding the homeless. It was not an easy decision or discussion, and today’s text featured prominently in the churches’ decision to go ahead with their ministry. It especially informed how they interacted with the police and judges when they were eventually cited and tried. What was really interesting was that the police were very reluctant to arrest those involved and the judges routinely threw the cases out of court because they didn’t want it on their records that they convicted someone of feeding the homeless. The churches won their efforts to block the feeding law in 2012, but it isn’t over yet. For 15 years a witness to the good character of God was made public by those churches in locations as diverse as USA Today, the LA Times, and in legal classrooms and courtrooms all over the country.
With this example in our minds and the understanding that the text’s primary concern is with witness, let’s look at the principles Peter is giving us.
First, we must remember that everything we do is “for the Lord’s sake.” If our obedience or disobedience of laws is not honoring to God we are on shaky ground. We can’t witness to the good character of God if we aren’t displaying good character ourselves. It really is that simple. It really is that hard. We can’t just blanket accept or blanket reject the laws and rulers around us, but must weigh our actions in the balance of God’s good character and the integrity we are called to display.
Second, accepting is not approving, while we are called to accept the laws and their consequences, nowhere in the passage or scripture are we called to approve of everything blindly. This is not an easy task and requires us to be paying attention to what we are doing in everyday situations. We actually need to know the laws and weigh the whys behind them. For example: Did you know that an overwhelming majority of traffic laws are there not to inconvenience us, but to protect the lives of those around us? We have a biblical call to protect life, is that reflected by the way we drive? Honesty moment here, my answer to this is that if you put a GPS tracker in my car the answer would be: not always.
Third, just because you can do something does not mean you have divine permission to do something. I could have treated the police who patrolled the Occupy encampment with disrespect, as some others did. It would have fit in and given me some protester “cred,” however that would have reflected rather poorly on the God I serve. So I sincerely greeted the officers with a “Good Afternoon,” asked them how they were doing, and let them know that I was praying for them. There are a lot of things we can do that would reflect poorly on God that would benefit us, not just in our dealings outside the church, but in here as well. Many of us have been confided in and it would be very easy to use what has been told us in self-beneficial gossip, but I think we know that kind of behavior reflects poorly on the God we serve, and would destroy the relationships that have formed within this community of faith.
Lastly, there is no one we have permission to disrespect. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with someone, their decisions, beliefs, or the ways they choose to interact with the people and structures around them. Those of us who are more liberally minded damage our witness when we disrespect conservatives. Those of us who are more conservative minded damage our witness when we disrespect liberals. We as Christians damage our witness when we disrespect people of other or no faith. There is no one that we are given a free pass to treat disrespectfully, no matter what.
We must remember our status in this world as Ambassadors and remember that as representatives of God, his kingdom and his way of being and doing what is right, every interaction we have in whatever forum reflects on our God. To expand on Peter’s ending to this text: Respect everyone, even those you really don’t want to. Honor and pray for the ruler of the nation you are in especially when you disagree with them. Love your fellow ambassadors and do what you can to support their work on God’s behalf. Make displaying God’s glory your highest priority, no matter the sacrifice required. In these ways our light will break forth like the dawn to reveal the goodness and glory of our gracious God.