Sermon: Pentecost 13, 10 September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 10th September 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

GOVERNMENT, LAW, LOVE AND THE CHRISTIAN

 (Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:10-20)

Michael Cassidy was a church leader in South Africa in the last decades of last century. In October 1985 he was granted an interview with President Botha. He hoped to see some openness to a change from the oppression and injustice of apartheid. The President began the interview by standing to read those opening verses of Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” The president’s message was clear: his government had the right to rule South Africa as it saw fit, and Christians should comply and not question their apartheid policy.

Was President Botha right or wrong? Of course he was using the scriptures in a distorted way for his own purposes: such a common thing for people to do. He had taken something true and important that Paul had written, and then drawn a false implication from it.

In this passage this morning, Paul reminds us that we live in the world, and we live in a society and community. And where people live this way, God’s purpose is that there be an appropriate form of structure and authority, a government, with law and direction and leadership. In a society, we need government and authority, so that we do not descend into chaos. We need someone to insist that we drive on a particular side of the road; that murder and robbery are crimes; that we must consider safety issues when building high-rise apartments or planning a public event. In our society we need governments to provide hospitals and roads and public transport and a whole range of essential services.

Paul tells us that government with its role of making laws and providing stability is a good thing, and it is a provision of God. And it has a God-given role of punishing evil and promoting what is good. That means that it must make laws, with punishments attached for those who violate them.

What about us as Christians? We are to obey the laws of our government: their power to make laws and to punish wrongdoers is a legitimate role under God.

Now that’s all very well. No government is perfect, and many governments are very far from perfect. Was President Botha right in claiming that under God he had the right to demand obedience to the laws of apartheid? And what about people like Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or Idi Amin or Mugabe?

This is where we need to pay attention to what Paul was saying and what he was not saying. After all the Roman Emperor when Paul wrote was Nero. Admittedly Nero was not at his worst when Paul wrote his letter. But the Romans emperors were always something of a mixture. By military power they imposed a moderately stable peace on the Empire, and provided a moderately fair system of justice for many, and the opportunity for people to live and move about and trade. However, they could be brutal to any who challenged their power.

But Paul here is giving a general framework, not locking us into an unquestioning subservience to whoever might be in power. Paul himself called upon the Roman laws at times when he was treated contrary to Roman law. However, he was also treated unfairly at times by the system. And we might remember how the apostles, when they were told by the authorities in Jerusalem to stop preaching about Jesus, replied that they must obey God rather than humans. It actually links up very well with Jesus, when he told people to render to Caesar what was due to Caesar, and render to God what is due to God.

The claims of the state are important and valid, but they are not absolute. There may well be times when it is right to criticize or protest against the unjust laws of a government, and even perhaps to disobey those laws. We remember how the Old Testament prophets regularly found themselves castigating the rulers of Israel for their disobedience to the Lord and his ways. Churches under some oppressive regimes have continued to gather contrary to the government’s orders.

Civil disobedience has been used in Australia when the government has made laws that Christians and others have found unconscionable: this has been done, for instance, in response to what is seen as the appalling treatment of asylum seekers. Of course such actions should not be lightly decided on, but sometimes actions like this may be the right thing for Jesus’ followers to do.

God is a God of order. The establishment of human government is one expression of that order. We respond to it by obeying the laws that have been established. We mightn’t always agree with them, we mightn’t always like them. But as citizens of Australia who are also citizens of heaven, we are called by God to be law-abiding citizens. Any breaking of the law must be done with thought, with care and with prayer.

Similarly, says Paul, we are to pay our taxes: income tax, GST, roadway tolls, and so on! The government requires finance to do the job it has been given under God: providing structures and making laws and providing educational, military and health resources, and all we expect from them.

So as Christians we don’t resent paying taxes; nor do we seek questionable ways of avoiding them. We might feel that some charges are unfair. We might prefer the government to use our taxes differently. We might even feel that we have been expected to pay more than our fair share. But no system is absolutely fair, and in any case, fairness is generally in the eye of the beholder. We are to pay taxes to whom taxes are due, and honour to whom honour is due.

Once again, honouring our leaders does not mean agreeing with them or refusing to criticize them. In these cynical days, not to mention mass media which put on display all sorts of things which were once kept behind closed doors, it is sometimes hard to have a high opinion of our leaders. A Chaplain of the US Senate was once asked whether he prayed for the Senators. His reply was: “No, I look at the Senators and pray for the country.” We might be tempted to do that as we think of our parliamentarians.

The scriptures do charge us to pray for our leaders personally, and especially when we gather for worship. That is why this is part of the regular prayers at our services. It is part of the way we honour them as God calls us to do. But in fact questioning the government is also a way of honouring it, as God calls us to do. Where its actions are contrary to what we see as right and good, it is right and good to speak out and seek change. That is part of the privilege and even the responsibility that goes with living in a democratic society. And we should certainly be thankful that we do live in a democracy: it is far from perfect, but I don’t think there is a better alternative!

As Christians, Paul calls us to pay our debts, not only to the government, but wherever we have them: we are to be responsible in paying our bills and accounts, and never to take them lightly. But he points out that there is one way we will always be in debt. We owe not only our family and our fellow-Christian, but our neighbour, a debt of love. We will always have that debt – and of course in the life of God’s kingdom, love will still be at the heart of our relationships. And love is not just about how we feel: it is how we treat people and how we relate to them. We seek to do people good, not harm; thus love is the fulfilment of God’s law.

Here we are then: privileged to live in such a blessed country. Thankful for God’s blessings. But as citizens of heaven, let us remember that under God we also have responsibilities as citizens of this country. We begin by obeying the law and paying our taxes. We go on by our active concern for the life of our country and community, and indeed our active and prayerful contribution for the good of all.

But let us also seek to demonstrate in our lives and words the reality that there is another country: a kingdom without shadow, without crime and injustice, a perfect kingdom with a perfect and loving ruler. We live our lives today as good and dutiful citizens of Australia: but we know that our ultimate allegiance is to the ruler of all, Jesus Christ, the bringer of righteousness, peace and perfect love. Amen.

Paul Weaver