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The first half of this reading is difficult. Our FIRL small groups which discuss the preaching text ahead of each Sunday, wrestled with it and some wondered aloud why this particular passage is in the Bible in the first place. Romans 13:1-7 has been easily appropriated by corrupt governments, misguided church leaders, and those in power seeking to push a particular agenda and to silence those who might otherwise courageously, faithfully resist systemic evil. It has been misused and abused frequently. It is absent from the revised common lectionary perhaps for these very reasons. Cherry picking scripture passages to affirm one’s own beliefs is not uncommon and it is certainly not new. This passage has been cherry picked fairly regularly in the last century or so. It has been used and abused by people in power to justify atrocities, unjust policies, marginalization of people groups, discrimination, injustices of all kinds and really all manner of things which I would say are contrary to the gospel. I’ve wrestled with it and struggled in my preparation for today.
When looking at short portions of scripture its best to look at them in context and to consider the whole cannon while seeking to interpret one particular part. For us to truly dive into this small portion of Romans, we need to be familiar with all of Paul’s writings, what we can know of Paul’s experiences as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and most importantly we must be familiar with the gospel of Jesus Christ itself. Without a firm grounding in the gospel, we cannot hope to understand much of what the Bible has to say to us. For my part, I hope that we do not further the use of this particular text or any others to justify or bolster behaviors or ways of thinking that are in contrast to the gospel message, to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Should we throw out difficult and troubling texts? I don’t think so. Should we consider them with care? Absolutely. Should we approach them with humility, repentance, and prayer? Without a doubt.
Last week I attended the national gathering of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators where I was privileged to hear Rev. Tom Long, a noted homiletician and one of the greatest preachers of our time and to be led in worship by Rev. Kim Long, one of the greatest liturgists of our time, who happens to be Tom’s wife. In the liturgy of our worship services, Kim reminded us time and again that this world is thirsty for truth and love, God’s truth and God’s love. In his plenary remarks, Tom reminded us over and over again that the most important thing for the church right now is to approach all things in repentance and humility: worship, formation, mission. I’d say it’s a good rule for our lives, as well.
As good reformed protestants we Presbyterians believe in the need for repentance. It’s one of the reasons we have a confession sequence in our worship service. We recognize our own sinfulness, ask for God’s forgiveness, are assured of that forgiveness, and then we share the peace of Christ with one another as a sign of reconciliation. It’s one liturgical move in our order of worship. It’s a part of our liturgy and liturgy means the work of the people. As good reformed protestants we Presbyterians believe that humility is vital. When we approach our faith and our lives with humility, we recognize that there’s a distinct possibility that we may not know everything, that we may be wrong about some things. As Vernon told the FIRL group, we can be convicted but not certain. And so we are in a continual process of prayerful discernment about our thoughts, our words, and our actions. Repentance and humility over and over again.
Now, to our text in which Paul tells the church in Rome that every person must be subject to governing authorities for there is no authority except from God. We live in a governed community. There is order. There are laws. We are governed in this congregation. We are governed as a people at the local, state, and national level. There are rules, laws, and expectations of citizenship. We wear seat belts, stop at stop signs, we do not steal, we pay taxes, we vote, and we exercise our right to be involved in government, even our right to peacefully protest all because we are a part of an ordered, governed community. We believe in a God of order. God who created order out of chaos at the very beginning, breathed life into all that is, later gave us 10 Commandments to follow and sent Jesus Christ not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. So, the order of things is no surprise and the idea that we should obey authority is not really a surprise either. God desires order in the world. In light of this, it is perhaps easy to ready verses 1-7 as a blanket statement on obedience to earthly authority in all circumstances and at all times which can be problematic when this section has been used to justify the holocaust and slavery among other things in our more recent history.
We don’t stop reading at verse 7, though, because that’s where we could get into trouble. As we continue reading, the next section seems very different from the first. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” It goes on to remind us of a familiar admonition: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” and further still “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Our call as disciples of Jesus Christ is to love God and to love our neighbors. Full stop. So, which part of Paul’s writing do we follow? Is the unquestioning obedience of earthly authority the way to go? How do we discern God’s will when it comes to being a citizen of this world? With humility and repentance.
It’s a very human tendency and temptation to see things as right or wrong, either/or. If we take from the first section that earthly authority is ordained by God and we have no right to question it, we perhaps ignore the second part of the reading and much of what came before it. It’s incumbent upon us to practice discernment. When do we obey and when do we dissent? Obedience and dissent can both be faithful responses. If we want to find examples of God working through dissenters, protesters, and civil disobedience we need look no further than scripture itself. In the book of Exodus, the Hebrew midwives refused to follow Pharaoh’s command to kill newborn males and Moses lived. In Judges, Jael drove a tent peg through Sisera’s temple in order to save Israel. Paul and Peter were both arrested for refusing to stop preaching. Jesus himself healed on the Sabbath and kept company with those deemed unclean in direct defiance of religious law. We find example outside of scripture, as well. The Barmen Declaration in our own Book of Confessions was written by those in the church who opposed the Nazi regime with its militarism and nationalism which conflated patriotism and Christian truth. Our own nation was born from civil disobedience and revolution. The Civil Rights movement with sit-ins and boycotts changed our nation. God works through both submission and dissent. It is up to us to discern in every circumstance what it means to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ and when we do question earthly authority or act against the powers that be, we must be ready to accept the consequences. Our ultimate authority, though, beyond any earthly authority is our Creator God.
It’s complicated and it’s challenging. We live in a time of great division. We live in a time when being right is often prized over loving neighbor. So, how do we engage one another? How do we disagree with one another? How do we live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ and good citizens? Repentance and humility is a good place to start. I do believe that God desires order and that we are to follow the rules in a way that keeps us faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes being faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ means we question the rules and we resist laws and attitudes and policies that are in contrast to that gospel and do not prioritize love of God and neighbor. Sometimes being faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ means submission to earthly authorities.
I’d like for us to back in the book of Romans to chapter 12 in which Paul writes about the new life in Christ and what it means to be a Christian. “Do not be conformed to this world, Paul says, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” And in the last section of chapter 12, “9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Whew. Friends, this is the lens through which we live out our faith.
We live in a challenging time and in a spirit of humility and repentance we must continually reflect upon what it means to not be conformed to this world, what it means to discern the will of God- that which is good and acceptable and perfect, how to live in harmony and peaceably with others, to hate what is evil and to hold fast to what is good, to extend hospitality to strangers, and to trust God. It can be easy to look at the state of things and feel as though God is absent or has simply left us to our own devices. God is up to something, though. I can’t tell you what it is but I believe that God is up to something. God is at work in every mess and every broken place even those broken places in our own lives. The God who comes to us in and through Jesus Christ is a God who loves those we deem unlovable and dispensable, who crosses borders, who seeks the lost and the lonely, who builds a longer table not a higher wall, who works for good at all times and in all places, and who loves us and this world more than we can possibly imagine. If that isn’t good news, I don’t know what is. So, let us live our lives in repentance and humility, doing the hard work of discerning the will of God in all that we think, all that we say, and all that we do. This requires of each of us an abiding faith in the wonder, majesty, and goodness of God.