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The Subversive Authority of Love ~ Romans 13:1-10

Well, the election is over – hallelujah! Now we can get back to the regular advertisements about laundry detergent, Viagra, and Gas X. President Obama has been re-elected and we can settle down into day to day living; which despite what we were told, probably will not change all that much. Yes, this was the most important election of our lifetime…until 2016. And, don’t worry, the next presidential campaign has already begun.

Paul gives some very practical advice to those of us living in the post-election days. Be subject to those in charge, obey the laws, pay your taxes, respect the authority of the office. Fair enough. I think, for the most part, we all do these things.

BUT – ah, there is always a “but.” On Tuesday last, I received this email:

John, So now your preaching comes to Romans 13:1-6, one of my least favorite passages in the Bible. Paul’s directives did not sit well with me during the Vietnam War (or the Civil Rights revolution), and still don’t: “submit to the supreme authorities” (NEB) or the somewhat softer “be subject to the governing authorities” (RSV) doesn’t sound like a guide to Christian living if those “authorities” are persons using the power of the state to engage in evil. [I was] wondering whether Dietrich Bonhoeffer should have submitted to Hitler. What if the U.S. Constitution is our “supreme authority”? But Paul says “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (RSV) and even Calvin’s Institutes (per today’s entry in the Mission Yearbook states that “the civil ruler is a co-worker with the ministry of the church . . . ” So what then would become of the separation of church and state in the First Amendment?

Of course Paul lived in a different time and under a different political system. One can’t fault him for not imagining our own unique, imperfect democracy. But can we still draw useful guidance from this passage, or is it just archaic?

You all are a thoughtful bunch! I agree with this writer. Passages like this one in Romans at first make me certain that reading passages of scripture as if they are direct from God’s hand is the height of absolute silliness. Everything needs to be translated, interpreted – everything has context.

Paul lived in the first century. There was no democracy. No Republicans, no Democrats, no Supreme Court, no Fox news or MSNBC, no elected officials, no Tea Party, no Civil Rights movement, no Occupy Wall Street, no NRA.

Paul was writing to house churches in Rome – some Jewish, some Gentile – all under the oppressive thumb of anti-Semitic Imperial Rome who could, and often did, and would do for centuries to come – think nothing of wiping out dissidents, revolutionaries, and those who didn’t sacrifice to the Roman gods. It had only been a couple of years since Nero kicked out the Jews from the capital.

Perhaps to Paul’s time and place he was merely giving some practical advice: “Keep your nose clean, stay under the radar, faith isn’t about politics anyway.” If you read on in verses 11 and 12, Paul most likely thought that time was coming to an end; so not much reason to become politically active.

Through the ages these verses have been used in many and various ways. You can bet that when Constantine had his vision at Malvern Bridge and the Roman Empire became Christian, the Emperor would have loved this passage! When the church took on its imperial flair it would have found this passage very nice indeed for tempering the enthusiasm of inquisitive minds.

Martin Luther wrote: “Christians should not refuse, under the pretext of religion, to obey men, especially evil ones.” Of course, Luther’s reformation had the backing of many German princes who wanted to wrest political power from the Pope. It was this sentence and others from Luther that shaped the thinking of German Christians who supported Adolph Hitler – obey the one chosen by God!

Preachers in the Jim Crow South and North, both White and Black, used these verses to discourage political activism.

Because of this passage most evangelical Christians did NOT become involved in activism until Roe v. Wade and the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority and the Tea Party. Now, even the most fundamentalist Christians question authority!

But Presbyterians have always had a different take on this passage. Calvin wrote that “tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government.” One hundred and fifty years later the English Parliament called the American Revolution: “That damned Presbyterian rebellion.” It is in the Presbyterian DNA to be trouble makers and political activists.

Without the faithfulness of Christians disobeying authorities – and Paul – and following other scriptural imperatives, we would have no Civil Rights, no voting acts, no abolition, no child labor laws, and no women’s suffrage. Yes, we read Romans 13, but we also read the words of the prophets, and the words of Jesus.

Yet I wonder if by placing so much of the emphasis on the first seven verses we miss the real point of the passage – the subversive call to “owe no one anything except to love one another.”

Love – it is not a warm and fuzzy feeling. Love is about doing – it is a call to action. Love is a verb; an action word. Love casts out fear that white males no longer are in charge. It is OK!

Love leads us to reach out to those with whom we disagree. Love calls us to practice civility and remember that we are all beloved children of God. No one gloats. And no one pouts.

Love leads us to care deeply about the poor and not to blame them for their condition. Love builds relationships with those we wish to serve. Love pushes us to the front line!

Love leads us to host “Family Promise”, and feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger.

Love leads us to political action and advocacy.

Love leads us to invest in the most blighted areas instead of fleeing from the urban core.

Love led us to challenge sub-prime, predatory loans.

Love led us to question deed restrictions.

Love leads us to sacrifice our own riches for the needs of another.

Love calls us to hold President Obama accountable to justice for the poorest among us.

Love leads us to question investment in the war machine.

Love leads us to tell the truth and not lie about what we see.

Love calls us to serve “the least of these my brothers and sisters.”

Love calls us, in the words of our Brief Statement of Faith, to “witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of people long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”

Love called the writers of the Barmen Declaration in response to the rise of Hitler to declare: “We reject the false doctrine as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.” Yes, love led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to become part of the plot to kill the Fuhrer and to accept his death.

Love led Dr. King to write from the Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Love led the authors of our Confession of 1967 to declare: “Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it…. The church is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. A church that is indifferent to poverty…makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.”

Love is about liberating ourselves and others. Lila Watson, an Australian Aboriginal women, said to a mission worker: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I think Paul used love here as a subversive code word to Christians huddled against the power of the empire and to you and to me who are free to express ourselves by ballot, by media, by faith.

Paul used “love” to agitate you and me, and activate us to move off the dime and not be “rule followers but love followers” – the subversive authority of love fulfills the law and the work is never done.

In this time of post election, when we are called to come together again, the question lingers:

Where can you love this week?

Who will you love this week?

Amen.

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