Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
It was difficult to watch the warzone now known to the world as Ferguson, MO. It was difficult for me because Ferguson is a community of the greater St. Louis area – the place I consider home. Businesses looted at will, fires, general mayhem – throw military vehicles into it, and it just doesn’t look or feel right at all. It’s all wrong. This isn’t the way daily life in America is supposed to be. That’s probably why every form of mass media invaded Ferguson – which, in reality, only made it worse and fueled the fire even more. A police officer who happened to be white shot, and killed a young man who happened to be black. And tensions and issues about government, race, and justice exploded. Everything was exploited. Everything was a mess. “No justice, no peace!” “Hands up, don’t shoot!” The privilege to peaceably assemble and the right of government to keep order and peace all collided, and we’re still trying to sort it out. But graciously, the media has moved on. The media is no place for a trial. The media doesn’t bring peace and order. So now - if everything works the way it’s supposed to - the governing authorities and the citizens of Ferguson will do the hard work of putting the pieces back together, make sure justice is served righteous manner, and find a way to live in peace.
Government. That’s almost become a dirty word in America today. How big should government be? How small should it be? What programs should government run or not run? How do we deal with corruption? How much function, or dis-function is right? Taxes – how much and for what? I wouldn’t call this a national “conversation” right now – more like an argument. Why is Pastor Jon talking about this from the pulpit? Because Paul is saying something about government in our text for today. But he doesn’t answer any of those questions. Paul doesn’t talk about the structure and machinations of government. But he does talk about the authority and purpose of government – and our responsibility to the government. All authority is God’s. No matter what we think – which being the sinners we are, we think we have all authority – all authority over creation is God’s. In fact, Jesus is the one who has that authority. End of the Gospel according to Matthew: “All authority under heaven and earth has been given to me.” So Paul writes:
“For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Do you get what Paul is saying here? Government has been instituted by God. Not just one, or a few, special nations – ALL governing authorities around the globe have been instituted by God. And remember when Paul is writing this – during the rule of the Roman Empire. Nero was probably the emperor at the time – hardly an example of righteous, benevolent governance! What about tyrannical governments today around the world? Are they instituted by God? Yes. But those given the authority of government are not exercising their office in a just, lawful manner. Despite all this Paul says, “Be subject to the governing authorities. They are instituted by God for your good. Whoever resists them, resists God himself – and if you do resist, expect judgment. So you don’t want to live in fear? Do what is lawful and good, and the government will leave you alone. Are you doing something against the law? Be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain. Government carries out the wrath and vengeance of God.”
Let’s apply all of that to the real world in Ferguson. Our constitution gives its citizens the privilege to peaceably assemble. Peaceful demonstrations against our own government are permitted. This is a good thing! But what if they aren’t done in a peaceful way? Paul says, government has the right to maintain peace and order. It is their God-given right, in fact duty, to maintain peace and order, and those that do wrong – arson, looting, etc., should expect to be punished. I talked to my parents, who live in the St. Louis area – much closer than we are. The vast majority of the looting and general mayhem and chaos was committed by thugs and gang members from outside of Ferguson. They were just taking advantage of a bad situation and making it much worse. In fact, some citizens were standing in front of businesses ready to defend them! Now we can question the tactics used by Ferguson police. But however poorly, and despite appearances, government was trying to work in its God-ordained way. And if it does work properly, then investigations will continue, and hopefully, there will be a conclusion – with justice properly executed for everyone.
What do we do? What’s the Christian response? Our response is one of thanks, love, and service. Christ is risen from the dead. He has died and has risen for the sins of the whole world including you. In baptism and by faith, you have been connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus – dying to sin and rising to new life. By the authority of Christ, you are declared a new creation – something you cannot do by your own choice or will. You are now a citizen of his kingdom – his rule and reign – which is a kingdom of grace and love. And at the same time, you also live as a citizen in another kingdom – the kingdom of this world – you have been placed by God to live in this time and this place. And in appreciation and in response to what God has done for you, the believer in Jesus strives to conform to the will of God – love for God and love for neighbor. God has graciously given us government so that we might live in peace and civil order. So what are we to do with government? Paul just told us. Live peacefully, orderly, doing good, pay taxes that are due, pay honor where it is due, and government will approve and leave you alone..
In other words, be a good citizen! Live a life of love for your neighbor. Love – that’s a challenging word for us. It’s not always easy to love. Look at Ferguson! But we are bound by the debt of love even in cases where the government does things that we do not agree with. That’s not easy to do. But exercise your vocation of citizen. Vote! Participate! And as a Christian, we have an additional duty – to be a prophetic voice – a correcting voice – where the actions of government don’t conform to the order God has given us in his creation. Where government does wrong – truly against the Word of God, we are to speak up. And many before us have been martyred for being such a witness – for example: dying rather than worship the Roman emperor as God.
Is all of this easy? Absolutely not. We live tension – the tension of being a responsible citizen in TWO kingdoms – by grace, a citizen of the kingdom God in Christ; and at the same time, a citizen of the society in which we have been placed by God. But despite the good or the not so good that happens, we live this life in hope – hope for the final and total manifestation of the kingdom of God that will be revealed when our Lord comes to make all things right and just and new.
Until that day, be good citizens – work, serve, and love where you have been placed – as a living witness of the one who has all authority under heaven and earth – Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.