“People of Light”
September 25, 2011 - Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I reached over and clicked the switch on the alarm clock before it could wake Beth. Then I got up and stumbled around in the dark, collecting items I’d set out the night before. I pulled on my jeans and a pair of boots. I picked up my hat, my vest, my net and my rod and slipped out the doors as quietly as I could. Just a few minutes after waking, I was driving up along the creek to the spot where I’d seen fish the previous afternoon.
Oak Creek Canyon is deep and narrow, so it takes along time for the rising sun to reach the bottom of it. As I parked and got out to walk down to the water, it was still almost too dark to fish. I wouldn’t be able to tie on a fly or see it once I cast. But I was there and ready for the light to come, working its way down the canyon’s west wall.
In Romans 13 Paul pictures Christians in something like my situation on that cool, dark morning this past May. In many ways, the world we live in is still dark. It’s still night. But we are people of the light, people called to be up and ready for the dawn, dressed and prepared for the light to arrive.
The chapter starts in what seems like a strange and possibly dark place for us. What comes to your mind when you think of great Christian character and discipleship, of being people who live in the light rather than in darkness? Maybe it’s heroic acts of forgiveness or sacrificial generosity to others in need. But I sort of doubt anyone’s first thought is that being a good Christian means obeying the law and paying your taxes.
Yet verse 1 tells us, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” which feels like about the last thing we Americans would like to do right now. President Obama has a forty percent approval rating, while Congress as a whole has something like fourteen percent. It may be lower soon as we watch them playing the government shutdown game of chicken for the second time this year. Why, we wonder, should we be subject to authorities like those? When government does a bad job, we kick it out and put in a new one.
That’s the spirit of America. We take it as a God-given right to question the powers-that-be and to rebel against them if need be. That’s how our country got started, after all. But if we take what the Bible says seriously, we might want to think about that attitude.
There was one time I wrote graffiti in a bathroom. For several weeks I would enter a stall of a restroom in the North Park College library and see where someone had written in big letters capital letters: “QUESTION AUTHORITY!” I looked at that day after day and finally couldn’t take it anymore. I found myself a marker, went in and underneath I wrote: “WHY?”
Paul wants us to question the authority which taught us to question authority. He wants us to look at government as something God instituted. That’s what it says at the end of verse 1. Verse 2 spells out the consequences of that fact. To resist (or rebel against) a governing authority is to resist what God instituted.
The spin we naturally want to put on this command to be subject to government is that we are to obey good government, just and fair and righteous authorities. Anyone else is fair game for resistance. The problem with that spin is that it didn’t make sense in Paul’s time. If you think America has lousy leadership, take a look at Judea and the Roman empire in the first century.
In the late 50s A.D., the cruel and insane emperor Nero sat on the Roman throne. All Christians knew that the Roman governor Pilate had put Jesus to death almost thirty years earlier. Paul himself would soon appear before the Judean king Herod Agrippa who committed incest with his sister and was finally kicked out of Jerusalem by his subjects. It was not exactly good authority to which Paul was telling Roman Christians to submit.
We cannot escape Paul’s direction here with a loophole regarding the character of those in authority over us, whether it’s an emperor or a president, a soldier or a police officer. In verses 3 to 5, Paul explains that these authorities have a purpose, God’s purpose, in our lives.
Verse 3 speaks about the fear we have of authority. Beth came back from the airport early last week after dropping off Joanna. We zoomed along West 11th and saw a car stopped along the side. As I went to pass, it started flashing lights. It was a police car. You know the feeling. The adrenalin flows. “Was I going too fast? Is he coming after me?”
Paul says that sort of fear is a healthy thing. “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Fear of authority helps keep human sin in check. Verse 4 is translated that an authority “is God’s servant for your good,” but a better reading might be, “God’s servant for you unto good.” Fear of authority pushes us toward doing what’s good. That’s why God lets governments have power, to “bear the sword” as it says here. That power does what we read last week that individuals are not allowed to do. Unlike individual Christians, governments and authorities may take vengeance on those who do wrong.
God’s purpose in government is to move us toward what is good and right. So verse 5 tells us to obey authority not just out of fear, “because of wrath, but also because of conscience.” The role of authority is to aid and strengthen our weak consciences, to help us remember and want to do what is good.
Submission even applies to taxes in verse 6. Neither Paul nor Jesus offered any reason for tax revolt. Instead, they both said what’s in verse 7, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue (like sales tax) to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Which echoes what we remember Jesus said in three out of four Gospels, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
It may very well be that God let’s governments demand taxes just so His people will remember that they owe not only those taxes, but also tithes and offerings to God. April 15 could be a day not just to moan about what Uncle Sam takes from us, but a day to remember that we are people indebted forever to our Lord.
The same is true of those debts of respect and honor which Paul mentions. In our democratic, egalitarian society we may too often drop titles and forms of respect that actually have a spiritual purpose. Calling everyone by first names and dropping titles like “president” or “doctor” or “officer” or even “mother” or “father” might contribute to a spiritual tendency to drop our respect for the One who deserves it most. Our Lord Jesus Christ becomes just “Jesus,” and we think of Him more as our buddy than as our Lord. But respect for human authority helps us learn respect for the highest authority.
Paul turns to what seems a more Christian topic in verse 8, but the idea of paying what is due is carried forward. The NRSV translation “Owe no one anything,” is misleading. This is not financial advice. The point is not to have no debts. It’s what Paul said at the beginning of verse 7. Don’t default on your debts. “Don’t fail to pay anyone.” Except that there is one debt that is never paid off, which is “to love one another.” We always owe love.
I John 4:11 says, “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” We live under an enormous, infinite debt we all incurred on a little hill near Jerusalem where a Man who is God, and who didn’t owe us anything, paid everything for us. We were given an immeasurable love and we are forever in debt.
In our Gospel lesson today from Matthew 21, we heard Jesus tell a parable about two sons and what it meant to respect and honor their father. One of them finally understood that it meant doing what his father asked, doing his will. Paul explains here that all God our Father asks, all His will for us expressed in commandments and laws is summed up in this debt of love. Do love and we’ve done the law. Do love and we’ve fulfilled our debt to God.
A film from 2000 captures this idea of the debt of love. In “Pay It Forward,” twelve year-old Trevor conceives the idea that a good deed ought not to be paid back, to the one who did it, but paid forward with good deeds done to three new people. As he tries to help a homeless man and others, the idea of paying forward changes the lives of his family, his teacher and more and more people around him. God’s love to us is like that. It’s a debt meant to be paid forward in further love.
Feeling that debt of love, in verse 11 Paul calls us to wake up, to be ready for the arrival of morning. I love the last bit of that verse, “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” That hope and expectation is carried forward in verse 12, “the night is far gone, the day is near.”
Paul tells us to obey and respect governing authorities, Paul reminds us of the debt of love we owe, because the time is right. It’s still dark. Our world is still in night. But we are people who know the daylight is coming. We are people who can wake up and prepare for morning to arrive. It’s time, says verse 12, to take off our pajamas and put on our work clothes. Even in the dark it’s time to get busy paying forward the debt of love we owe. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
How many times have you watched a movie scene where the hero has dressed for late night battle? He slips into body armor. He holsters a pistol. He snaps on an ammo belt. He tucks a knife in a scabbard on his thigh. He pulls on leather gloves. He jacks the action on a massive rifle and slings it over his back. He slides night vision goggles over his eyes. The whole outfit is jet black. Or just imagine Batman putting on his costume.
Picture that dark armor and then picture armor of light. Light seems like nothing. Light doesn’t offer any protection. Light won’t shoot or stab or choke an enemy. Yet light is Christian armor in the night we face. It doesn’t look like much. It’s the armor of quiet and peaceful life, obeying the law. It’s the armor of love for people around us. It’s what Paul means at the beginning of verse 13, “let us live honorably as in the day.”
You have to shake off the effects of sleep. Wipe the gunk from your eyes. Stretch your cramped legs. Forget that bad dream. Get your mind clear and ready for the day. Spiritually that means shaking off the things that cloud our hearts and minds, things like those listed in verse 13, reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. People waking up in Jesus Christ don’t want to do those things anymore. They leave them behind with all the rest of the darkness.
The works of darkness are rebellion, rebellion against the people around us, rebellion against authority, rebellion against God. To wake up is to quit rebelling, to submit to what is true and good, to submit to the law, especially and above all to God’s law, the law of love.
We’re all thinking, “What about those times when we need to rebel? What about those bad authorities we must resist? We can’t always do what we’re told or else darkness and evil will win”. Didn’t someone need to resist Hitler? Didn’t we need to take down Saddam Hussein? Isn’t the quote attributed to Edmund Burke right when it says, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
When Romans 13 asks us to submit to authorities and obey the law of love and get ready for the light, it’s not talking about doing nothing. But it’s also not talking about political revolution. It’s talking about the rebellion of light against darkness, of love against hate, of good against evil. It’s a rebellion that may not happen in extraordinary acts of bravery. It happens in the everyday lives of those who follow Jesus. They rebel by not rebelling. They overcome by not seeking an advantage. They win by losing. They win by getting up and getting dressed for the day ahead even while it’s still dark.
The last verse tells us to “put on Christ.” I got ready for a morning of fishing by putting on a vest filled with fly boxes. I didn’t take a pillow. I didn’t plan on a nap. Paul says, “Make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” Quit desiring and trying to get the things that belong to the dark, but instead be clothed with the light of Christ.
After World War I ended, German philosopher Theodore Haecker felt a darkness left over Europe and that some great catastrophe would follow. His response to that gathering darkness was to become a Christian, to put on Christ. He began to read and translate the works of other great Christian thinkers, Soren Kierkegaard and John Henry Newman.
Dressed in Christ, Haecker was one of the first to perceive a terrible threat in the Nazi movement. When Hitler came to power, he published an article attacking Nazi philosophy. He was arrested and only by the grace of God and the intervention of a friend came to be released. He was then forbidden to publish or speak in Germany.
Haecker obeyed the authorities, but for another five years he continued to privately journal his thoughts about what was happening in his country and the world. In private conversation he influenced younger Christian students who made their own protests against Hitler. They died for it, and became known as the “White Rose Martyrs.”
Haecker’s journal was saved by his daughter and published in English as Journal in the Night. In it he speaks against German pastors who cooperated with the Nazis, against persecution of the Jews, against ugly philosophy which caused the German public to believe the only answers to their problems were power and will. Along with all that he was against, Haecker continually affirmed the truth of God in Jesus Christ. In 1944 Haecker’s home was totally destroyed in a bombing raid. And he wrote, “Quite openly, God works in secret; and without deceiving, He deceives His enemies.” A few weeks later he talked about everything depending on the practical command to love God and love our neighbor.
In early 1945, two months before his death, utterly alone, with his son having been sent to the Russian front, and thinking about a particularly distressing speech by Hitler, he penned this, “In very many cases faith in God is no longer much more than faith in a last, saving, straw. But what does it matter, if the straw is really God, for God is all-powerful.”
Romans 13 won’t answer all our political questions. It won’t tell us when it’s right to obey authority and when we need to resist evil. But it does tell us how to live in dark times. We are people of the light, people who live in the light of Christ while it’s still dark. When we remain faithful, when we demonstrate a practical, visible love to the people around us, we write our own stories, declaring our faith that the day is dawning, that the darkness will one day be over. Let us get up and get dressed in Christ. Let us write our own journals in the night. Let us be people of the light.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2011 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj