This sermon was preached by Doyle Sager, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo., on July 5, 2009.
1 Peter 2:9-17
I hope you are having a good Independence Day weekend. This weekend, lots of fireworks went off, lots of speeches and celebrations were made. But I wonder how many people stopped to think what we were celebrating. I took part in the opening ceremonies for the “Salute America” program Friday night on the Capitol steps, offering the invocation. As I sat on the platform, I was truly overcome by the blessings of our country. The huge statue of Jefferson was looking down on us. The Capitol was behind me…laws are made right here! I was facing the imposing Supreme Court Building…laws are interpreted there! I drive by this scene hundreds of times each week, but often don’t stop to think about it. What a privilege to live in this town, in this state, in this country!
Perhaps we all need to see our liberties through the eyes of outsiders, to really appreciate what we so often take for granted. A thirteen-year-old Vietnamese refugee was once asked what freedom meant to him. He replied, “It means you are free to eat when you want something. Free to play. Free to sleep. Free to sit down. You can anything you want…play baseball and kiss girls.”
It seems this time of year, we want to avoid two extremes that are often shouted loudly. One extreme attempts to turn our Founding Fathers, Jefferson, Washington and Franklin, and others, into Bible-thumping Evangelicals (they were not). It claims that they tried to establish a theocracy (they did not; they established a DEMOcracy…they were fleeing from attempts at theocracy in other countries). The other extreme that gets espoused during this time is one that simply says we are a secular state, and God has no place in our national life. Neither extreme is correct. Our forebears recognized God’s providential hand, and sought to create freedom for people to practice religion according to their own conscience. They wisely knew that faith thrives best when separate from the state and state thrives best when separate from faith. Faith is not strengthened when propped up by government. Paradoxically, faith actually is weakened when government tries to prop it up.
I hold in my hand a copy of the U.S. Constitution. And does anyone know what the First Amendment says? In part, it reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” And did you know it was a Baptist preacher by the name of John Leland who persuaded/pressured James Madison to include religious liberty in the Bill of Rights? So the next time you choose to go to church, or you choose NOT to go, thank a Baptist!
Another mistake we make is to assume that there is only one word in scripture about the believer’s relationship to government. In fact, there are many words. Many people like to pick out this passage, where Peter admonishes believers to accept the authority of the emperor (v. 13) and to honor him (v. 17). Or the one in Romans 13, that tells us to obey the government and those in authority over us. The irony is, if the patriots that fought for our liberty in the 1770’s had looked only at those scriptures, we wouldn’t be here today! They defied human authority because they believed they were following God’s will.
In fact, there are other scriptural words about our relationship to the state. Revelation 13 depicts the cruel Roman government as a hideous beast that will one day be overthrown by God’s power. And there is that famous statement of Simon Peter in Acts 2:29: “We must obey God rather than human authority.”
Even in our morning text, there is some tension. Yes, Peter admonishes believers to accept the authority of the emperor (v. 13) and to honor him (v. 17). But he also reminds us that our obedience to human government takes place in the context of our primary identity as the people of God. Our first identity is not given by the state but by God who made us and saved us in Christ (“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holly nation, God’s own people,…” v. 9). We are not a people of geographic boundaries, but of spiritual birth. Not one of political party but of God’s family. We belong to God in Christ. We are being transformed by the living Jesus. We are baptized. We are God’s! That identity defines all other identities.
Did you read the piece in the June 4 issue of Word and Way? It described the recognition of the 75th anniversary of the Barman Declaration. That was the courageous document written by the German Christians who were resisting Hitler in the 1930’s. Hitler was trying to gather support and calling on churches to be “patriotic” by falling in line behind him. The Barman Declaration clarified that first of all, these believers belonged to God in Christ. They were Christians first, and Germans second. Commenting on this, ethicist David Gushee said, “American Christians need to decide whether we are Christians or Americans first.”
That’s why Peter’s epistle points out that we’re just passing through…we’re resident aliens (“…I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh…” v. 11). Our citizenship is first of all in heaven, not here. The living Christ has transformed our allegiance. So how do we bear witness in such a climate? A clue is found in v. 12. Even though they malign us as “evildoers”, we confess Christ and live our allegiance to him. Our best witness is not one of power and coercion, beating people over the head to get them to agree with us. Our best witness is out of weakness. We are zoysia grass Christians. Plant a plug here, plant a plug there…and we spread! The Gospel is spread through the faithfulness of believers, not through human coercion. Through our weakness, not human power.
So does that mean that as Christians we are free to rebel, cause anarchy, defy the government whenever it suits us? No. If we don’t something the government does, are we free to not pay our taxes? I wouldn’t try that! No, just the opposite. Because we are free in Christ, Christians have a greater responsibility to government. Read v. 16 carefully. “As servants (slaves) of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” When we sing “America the Beautiful”, we sing “God mend thine every flaw; confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.” Our lives are established (confirmed) in self-control. There is no such thing as absolute freedom, only freedom with responsibility.
Listen to these words, and see if you can guess who spoke them: “For every right that you cherish, you have a duty which you must fulfill. For every hope that you entertain, you have a task that you must perform. For every good that you wish to preserve, you will have to sacrifice your comfort and your ease. There is nothing for nothing any longer.” Those words were spoken by George Washington to his ragtag band called an army in 1775. The only freedom is the freedom that comes with responsibility.
Let me ask you: when is the last time you voted? Attended a city council meeting? Contacted your elected representatives in city, county, state or national life? They work for us; we don’t work for them! I entitled this sermon “Great Experiments in Liberty” because that’s what it is, an experiment. The jury is still out. We haven’t arrived. Not everyone enjoys full liberty and full justice. Remember what we pledge when we pledge allegiance to our flag? Liberty and justice for most? For people like me? My kind? For people who agree with me politically or theologically? No. For ALL!
When slavery was finally abolished in Great Britain, a great day arrived. William Wilberforce and others had worked for years to see that day come. At midnight on July 31, 1834, 800,000 slaves became free. Historian G.M. Trevelyan describes the scene on that last night of slavery. The blacks in the West Indian islands actually went up on the hilltops to watch the sun rise, bringing freedom with it as the first rays of sunlight hit the water. [Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, Eric Metaxas, p. 277]. God wired us for freedom and justice. We’re just wired that way—for a free relationship with him and others. (And He made us so free, that we are free to reject Him!). And God wired us for justice—for ourselves and for others. Let’s go up to the hilltop together, and watch the sun rise on freedom, God’s great experiment.