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.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.
Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is something different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit over the next two months that you won’t agree with, and if that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we begin with The Separation of Church and State.
The Church and the State have a long and complicated relationship. Like a number of romantic couples from popular TV shows, think Ross and Rachel, Sam and Diane, Jim and Pam, Luke and Lorelai, and even Kermit and Miss Piggy, the “will they/won’t they” question of their relationships has happened over and over and over again.
It began during the days of Jesus. A wandering and poor Jew developed a following that threatened the power dynamics of the Jewish leadership and the Roman Empire. His actions might have appeared innocuous, feeding the multitudes by the sea, healing the blind, walking on water, but what he said terrified those in power: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” sounds the beginning of a call to revolution.
And for living and healing and preaching the way he did, Jesus was nailed to a cross. But three days later he rose from the dead. The Christian church began in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, the power of the Good News of God’s triumph over death spread throughout the region and small groups gathered together to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. The book of Acts, and Paul’s letters, help us to see how the story traveled and took hold of the communities where it was received. Lives were transformed; the gospel spread, and the kingdom began to become incarnate.
But whatever the church stood for, and whatever the state stood for, was very different.
Most of what we know about the early church comes from scripture. Which is to say, we know what the church thought about the church. However, we do have some idea of what the state thought about the church. Pliny the Younger was the governor of Pontus (Asia Minor) from 111 to 113 CE. During his rule he wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan about the Christians in his community in response to their unwillingness to worship the Emperor: “They [the Christians] asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault of error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, not to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food – but ordinary and innocent food.”
The first Christians were strange, with their singing songs to a man who died on a cross, and sharing bread and wine, and promising to be good and trustworthy. How bizarre. And for nearly 300 years they were persecuted, abused, and killed for following Jesus. The state, Rome, resented the Christians and their weirdness. They refused to bow down to worship the Emperor like everyone else. Instead they believed some guy named Jesus was Lord. And for that, they were punished.
But then things changed.
In the year 312 CE something happened that forever affected the relationship between the church and the state. I cannot overemphasize this point enough; it changed everything. The story goes that emperor Constantine was preparing his troops for a battle against a rebellion from within the empire, and on the night before the battle he had a vision of the Greek letters Chi (X) and a Rho (P) in the sky and the words, “in this sign you will conquer.” From this vision Constantine ordered all of his troops to be marked with the Chi-Rho, which looks like the symbol on the right hand page of your bulletin. Chi and Rho are the first two letters of Christos (the Greek version of “Messiah”). After doing so, Constantine’s army won a decisive victory and he entered Rome shortly thereafter as the undisputed Emperor. The battle gave him complete control of the Western Roman Empire and it paved the way for Christianity to become the dominant faith.
The very next year Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity an officially recognized and tolerated religion in the Roman Empire. Within a dozen years, he called for the Council of Nicaea, which was the first attempt to attain a consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom.
From a vision of two Greek letters in the sky, Christians went from being persecuted and murdered, to being part of the state religion.
And now we fast-forward to today, to the United States, to a country founded on the principles of religious freedom, tolerance, and the Separation of Church and State. After centuries of the church and state co-mingling to a frightening degree, the founders decided to move in a different direction. After being persecuted for their different religious convictions they envisioned a new way forward. Recognizing that this place was, and could continue to be, a melting pot of differing ideologies, the forefathers articulated a political system whereby the state could not control religion, nor could religion control the state, and that those two things would find their fullest potential while being completely separated.
Constantine’s vision of conquering under the sign of Christ was over, and the time of secularism began.
Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, said, “Be subject to the governing authorities.” This is to say, follow the laws of the land, pay your taxes, be good citizens. Paul’s words echo through the centuries and reverberate here in this sanctuary: Do as the country tells you to do. If you’re called to serve in the military, go to war. If its time for a presidential election, vote with your conscience. If the government says there’s a separation of church and state, keep it that way.
And Jesus, speaking to his disciples said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you… If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.” Jesus’ words echo through the centuries and reverberate here in this sanctuary: Following me means acting like me. If people are being persecuted, you are to love them with every fiber of your being. If the government starts belittling people for what they believe, you need to stand up for the oppressed. If you feel called to live like a disciple, prepare yourself to be hated by the world.
These two scriptures from Romans and John contain the tension of what it means to be a Christian in the United States. We constantly wrestle between being subject to the governing authorities and pushing back against the governing authorities. We wrestle between what it means to love the world and what it means to be hated by the world. We, as disciples, live in the world but we are not of the world. We may be citizens of the United States, but our truest citizenship is in heaven.
Years ago there was a civil case raised against an organization for displaying a nativity scene on public property. Because of the separation of Church and State, the concerned citizen believed the nativity scene had to be removed. However, when the matter was brought to trial, the court ruled in favor of the Christian display. The reasoning was that because the nativity scene was next to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus, it had every right to be there. Christians across the country rejoiced when the matter was settled and celebrated what they thought was a decisive victory for the church.
But was it? Should we celebrate a time when the nativity is one of many signs of the holiday? Or should we savor its sacredness? Do we want the nativity to be the same as holiday cartoons, or do we want it to symbolize the profound incarnation of God in the flesh being born in a manger?
A few years ago there was another civil case raised against a baker for refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. Because of the freedom of religion, the baker believed it was within his right to refuse service to people who went against his religious convictions. The matter went to trial and the judge ruled that the baker unlawfully and illegally discriminated the couple for their sexual orientation. Christians across the country protested when the matter was settled, and vehemently opposed the ruling.
Were they right? Should Christians support the freedom to pick and choose who they serve? Or should they follow the command to love the way Jesus loved? Do we want the church to be connected with the religious liberty that isolates particular people, or do we want to go against the conventions of fanatical Christianity and love people regardless of any particular identity?
The separation of the Church and the State is a good thing because for too long the state controlled the church. The Constantinian revolution was certainly responsible for spreading Christianity across the globe, but it also led to things like the Crusades and the Inquisition. Constantine co-opted the church for the role of government in such a way that it limited the qualities that made Christians strange, and instead made them normative. Gone were the days when people lived by the convictions of Christ, and instead they went to church because that’s what they were expected to do.
But the era of Constantine did not die when our nation was founded. Though we articulate beliefs like the Separation of Church and State, it still says, “in God we trust” on our national currency, children still pledge their allegiance to the flag and country under God every morning before school starts, and we still have many courts where we must place our hands on a bible and are asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
So perhaps now is the time, the best time, to recover those qualities that will make the world hate us. Not the qualities of religious bigotry and prejudice that for too long have dominated the state’s view of the church. But the qualities of Christ-like love that drive the state crazy. Like refusing to bow and worship our country and our politicians as if they were gods, and instead worshipping the risen Lord. Like gathering together on a day set apart to hold ourselves accountable to honesty, truthfulness, and peace. Like sitting before a table of ordinary food of bread and wine that becomes the extraordinary gift of body and blood.
We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We might have national citizenship, but our true Lord is Jesus Christ. We are like strangers living in a strange land. Amen.