Allegiance

Colossians 1.11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. 

Our local Wegmans can be a little overwhelming depending on what time you go to the store. For instance, if you left from worship this morning, mere days before Thanksgiving, and went to the store we might have to send a rescue team to find you. There is a better than good chance that today the store will be filled to the brim with individuals and families making sure to stock up on everything necessary for the once a year meal on Thursday.

A few weeks ago, right in the middle of a peak moment while the store was jam packed, I was pushing around my son in a cart trying desperately to get what we needed and then to get out of there. We were going up and down aisles, throwing things into the cart, and my head was constantly darting back and forth hoping to find the next item.

And the store was loud. There were other frantic parents banging into carts trying to get around a corner, on top of the PA system piping in music that should’ve stayed in 1987, and even Instacart employees who buy your groceries for you so you don’t have to.

It was in the midst of that loudness, in the midst of the frantic searching, that I noticed my son was saying something under his breath to himself.

For what its worth – this is a fairly common experience. We can be anywhere around anyone when he will spontaneously break in song, usually something like “Jesus Loves Me.” Or I’ll be sitting in the other room and I’ll hear him playing with all sorts of toys and having them engage in a conversation together.

So when he first started talking in the shopping cart I didn’t pay much attention until I heard the actual words he was saying…

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

To which he replied, “Dad, I learned it at school. We say it every morning.”

My son is three years old.

I share this story not because I want to offend or ostracize any among us regarding our potential affinity for the pledge of allegiance, but I do want to call into question how the pledge has become something so determinate in our lives against, and perhaps in spite of, Jesus our Lord.

Bible-and-Flag

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is a day when, for at least the last hundred years, churches affirm the Lordship of Christ and how our truest allegiance belongs with him over and against anything and anyone else. As a liturgical Sunday it began after the wake of the Great War during a time when Christians needed to remember what it was they really believed in the hope that we would never resort to such horrific violence toward our brothers and sister ever again.

Spoiler warning: It didn’t work.

And yet we still mark this day differently than other Sundays because the Lordship of Christ really does reorient our priorities, our proclivities, and even our politics.

It is a time for us to confront one of the most important truths of the gospel: If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.

Or, to be a little more on the nose about it: If Jesus is Lord, then America is not.

Paul writes to the church in Colossae with this kind of distinction in mind. Now, what was read for us might feel lofty and gratuitous: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” But Paul wrote to the early church not with hopes of academic pandering. Instead he used words and ideas to speak directly to problems in the lives of real people struggling to understand what a life of faith is all about.

Whenever we confront new ideas, new world-views, whether we lived in the first century or we live today, the temptation is to take the unfamiliar and fit it into what we already know. It’s how the church, time and time again, takes Jesus outside the content of the Good News he brought and declared through his life, and instead uses him like a bludgeon to beat back our theological or political enemies.

This is perhaps best exemplified with a bumper sticker I once saw that said, “If Jesus had a gun, he’d still be alive today.”

That bumper sticker is fundamentally unintelligible from a Christian perspective. 

For some strange reason, *cough* sin *cough*, we want Jesus to be a lot of things for us – a teacher who teaches the perspective we already have, a healer who heals those on our side while ignoring those on across the line, an ethical guide who affirms our current behavior, and even a political wedge so long as we’re right in the end and the others are wrong.

And, at times, Jesus is those things. But when he is those things it is for the Kingdom, and not for our own opinions. 

Today we declare that among the many things we want Jesus to be, that he is forever our King, and that makes all the difference.

This is why Paul is so inclined to begin and end everything with Jesus. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Paul will not let the world set the terms for the church because he knows and believes its actually the other way around. He writes about how we, those who follow the Lord, are transferred from one kingdom to another. In this new kingdom everything is different – the rules are different, the ruler is different, and all the assumptions about what is good and right and true are different.

Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, brings us into a new kingdom and yet we are forever trying to bring him over into one of our own. We cherrypick verses, or isolate moments in scripture, in order to give meaning and validity to whatever we already think is important.

But if Jesus is Lord then it means he’s the one who tells us what’s important.

jesus-christ-is-lord-by-thomas-hawk

Paul proudly and boldly proclaims that becoming a Christian is like being dropped into a foreign land. Everything we thought we knew gets thrown out the window as we learn a new language, and new customs, and even eat new food. Being a Christian is not about fitting Jesus into our present ways of thinking – Christ has kicked us out of the kingdoms of our own desires and says you’re stuck in this kingdom with me. 

And in Christ’s kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first.

I’ve noted a few times recently that it often doesn’t help the church to just spend time addressing what’s wrong in other churches. And I want to own that – I know that. But sometimes we have to know what’s wrong in order to know what is right.

If the church tells us that we need to put America first, then it is not God’s church.

If the church tells us that some people are in and some people are out, then it is not God’s church.

If the church tells us that any politician or any leader or any celebrity is more important than the least of these, then it is not God’s church.

We can only know what is good, right, and true because we know who Jesus is. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, makes the invisible God visible. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, is before all things and all things are held together in him, by him, and for him. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, is first.

Jesus is first. 

If we believe that were true, could you imagine how differently we would live and move and breathe in this world? How many things would we toss out forever? What divisions would we destroy? 

Or, if we can’t quite wrap our heads around that thought exercise, let us just rest on this for a moment – Do we really put Jesus first in whatever we are doing and whatever we are talking about?

That kind of thinking can get us in trouble with the world. Its that kind of thinking that calls into question the practices and habits that form us. Its what made me stop when I heard my son saying the pledge of allegiance. 

It made me stop because as a Christian, my first allegiance is to God.

Grace is not about adjusting the words of Jesus to fit into the mold of the world. The grace of God is about judgment, because our King doesn’t rule from a throne or from behind a desk in an oval office. Our King rules from the cross!

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom the world doesn’t want because it makes a difference, and that difference means that we will be different because God has made us different.

The problem in the church today is that we want to seem like everybody else.

God, thankfully, won’t let us have our way.

On Christ the King Sunday, more than almost any other Sunday in the year, we confront the wonder and beauty of the new thing God has done in the world through God’s Son. In the person of Jesus Christ a new creation has taken place and a new Kingdom has been established. And in that kingdom, we are made to be gentle even in a cruel world, we are made to call out that acts of cruelty that result in even more people being little, last, least, lost, and dead. 

And calling those things into question will make the world want to kill us.

It’s why Jesus was killed.

And that’s the whole thing right there. Beyond all talk of allegiance and behavior and worship. At the end of the day we have a King who died for us, who showed us that power comes not with militaristic might, but with meekness – a King who made peace through the blood of his cross.

Advent begins next week. Most of us like to imagine that Advent is that special time set apart for us to get ready for Christmas. It’s why the stores are already decorated and the radio stations are already playing the songs. 

But Advent isn’t about getting ready for Christmas.

Advent, strangely enough, is about the end.

It is about what happens when Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Advent shows us glimpses of a time we cannot yet imagine when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of the Lord who reigns forever and ever.

Which leaves us with one final question on this Christ the King Sunday – To whom will we pledge our allegiance? Amen. 

On The Perils Of Going With The Flow

Ephesians 6.10-20

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and have done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrow of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly as I must speak. 

A few weeks ago a young pastor got on the radio to address the nation. He offered a speech entitled, “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” Though most of the talk was highly philosophical and kind of dense, it also constructively argued against the type of leadership all too common these days. It boldly claimed that unless something changes, and changes soon, our nation will be lead in a nightmare of violence and misery.

The pastor said a true leader must know the limits of his or her authority. The good leader serves others and leads others to maturity. The leader puts the values of other first, like a good parent does with a child, wishing that child to someday be a worthy parent. 

The young preacher then said this type of leadership is better known as discipleship. Only when we see that leadership is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, then real leadership has been reached.

The pastor said, “All leaders are responsible before God.”

And right then, at that exact moment, the speech was cut off and the line held dead.

Authorities representing those in leadership found the words to be too controversial, and too critical, to allow it to continue. And so, the young pastor’s message on leadership was suppressed all under the auspices of control. 

Can you believe it? Someone was so afraid of that pastor’s words they yanked the power to the radio station just so the words would not hit more ears than they already did. Can you imagine the fear required to stop an address like that? Can you fathom the trouble the preacher got in for saying what was said?

Perhaps you can’t believe it. Maybe you’re thinking, “Surely in today’s world, no one would be so foolish to speak out against the governing authorities and the powers and principalities!” 

Or maybe you’re thinking that the freedom of speech we hold so dear in this country would prevent anyone from being cut off even if he or she was being hyper-critical of those in power.

If you’re thinking any of those things, you’re right. It didn’t happen. At least, in didn’t happen the way I described it…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany, and thus began what we call the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler was known for his ruthless uses of power for destructive purposes, his love of overwhelming propaganda, and his fear-mongering through scape-goating.

Not many of us today can remember what it was like when he ascended to power simply because we weren’t alive, but the world shuddered when his reign began.

Two days after he was elected by the people of Germany, a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address to the entire nation spelling out the dangers of worshipping a leader the way Christians were meant to worship the living God in Jesus Christ. He critiqued a people who were blind to the injustices around them already, and those surely to be committed, and called for Christians to stand firm against an idolatrous nation that would be marched to its doom.

And they pulled him off the radio before he could even finish.

Paul is quite clear in his letter to the church in Ephesus the the role of the Christian is the opposite of going with the flow. He calls for the church to stand, in faith, with all of the armor of God against the evils and injustices of the world made manifest in the powers and principalities. Stand your ground against enemies, rules, authorities, cosmic powers, and all spiritual forces of evil.

This is a call, here at the end of the letter, to be courageous with every fiber of our being regardless of the circumstances. Because standing up in our faith, not necessary for our faith but in our faith, for the vision of the kingdom of God made possible in Jesus Christ will make us unpopular, at least according to the terms and values of the world and culture around us. 

Going against the flow runs the risk of ridicule, if not worse, as we strive to be faithful people living in the community of faith.

Paul’s vision of a church that stands firm in its convictions about the first being last and last being first implies a willingness to debate, a willingness to listen, and a willingness to call into question the powers that be when their values stand in opposition to God’s. In this proclamation, God’s kingdom is the goal, while maintaining the basic principles of discipled living offered to us throughout the centuries.

Sadly, Christians like us are told all too often to just go with the flow, or to chill out, or to relax about everything under the sun. But Paul’s words beg us to reconsider our posture of passivity. 

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We are not merely sitting along for the ride while the world falls apart around us. 

We are bound to the created world around us even if we are no longer able to harmonize with it. 

We have a responsibility of standing up for those who can no longer stand, speaking up for those who no longer have a voice, and empowering those who have been disenfranchised.

And friends, this is not a popular thing to do! We would rather hear from St. Paul about how much easier our lives would be if we could just go with the flow, we’d like to read a passage about how much our lives are going to get better if we stick together, we want God to tell us that every little thing’s gonna be alright. 

Being a Christian isn’t popular, and it certainly isn’t easy.

Paul calls for us to put on the armor of God because we’re going to need it!

Some Christians, since the time of Jesus, have been willing to name the powers and principalities for what they were. They’ve stood firm, without fear, bearing the repercussions of their actions knowing full and well that God was with them regardless of the outcome. They knew the kingdom of God was more important than whatever their lives might be.

Things became quite difficult for young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany descended into Fuhrer-worship with the German church emphasizing politics more than theology, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be authentic to the Word of God as a pastor. 

With each passing day he saw the injustices and evil being perpetrated in the name of his beloved country to such a frightening degree that when he was once asked about his prayer life, he responded by saying, “If you want to know the truth, I pray for the defeat of my nation, for I believe that is the only way to pay for all the suffering which my country has caused in the world.”

By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden to speak in any public forum and he was required to regularly report his whereabouts and activities to the police. The next year he was forbidden to print or publish any of his thoughts. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after making his speech on the radio, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks. 

He went to prison for two years and was thankfully able to smuggle out letters filled with theological reflections to friends and family. And though he remained hopeful that the second World War would come to an end, and that he would be released, he was condemned to death just weeks before the camp where he was held was liberated.

Right before his execution, Bonhoeffer was allowed to preside over one final worship service and his last words to his fellow prisoners were: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”

Now, there is a strong temptation for any of us here to hear a story like the one about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and regard him as an exceptional example of what it means to be a disciple. We encounter the story of his firm standing with his faith and because it is such an extreme example we can appreciate it, but we cannot resonate with it.

And this makes sense considering the fact that it is extremely unlikely that any of us here will ever be silenced, or imprisoned, or murdered for our Christian commitment to going against the flow. And yet, Paul is bold enough to conclude this letter with a call to be strong in the Lord in the strength of his power.

We might not encounter a sweeping governmental and idolatrous disaster like the one in Nazi Germany, but we all know the slippery slope that begins when we worship those in power the way we are meant to worship God.

We might not have the opportunity, nor the desire, to speak to the entire nation about the evil in our midst, but we all know of particular ways that our voices can draw attention to injustices that are happening here in our community.

We might not be punished with jail time or threatened with death for calling the powers and principalities into question, but we can all imagine the stress and anxiety that would begin if we did so in small and tangible ways here and now.

Pain and suffering will always come when one prepares to engage with the things that really matter. That’s why we need the church community surrounding us, we need the armor of the Lord protecting us, and we need the voice of the Lord empowering us.

It can be a hard word to any of us who believe that we are a Christian nation, or that Christian values are normative here, but following Jesus actually implies a willingness to be counter-cultural. It means that what we stand firm in and for are not necessarily the same things that the culture around us stands in or for. 

I often joke that Jesus could use some better PR because the stuff the church has to offer doesn’t sell very well. We don’t have simple fixes and salves that make your life go back to normal, we don’t shuffle everyone in here just to pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way. It should come as no surprise (the more we hear what Jesus had to say) that the once large crowds all but disappeared by the time Jesus was hanging on the cross.

All of this going against the flow isn’t something we’re naturally disposed to. It is so dissonant with much of what we’ve been taught about the ways the world works.

But the kingdom is not the same thing as the world. 

We do this difficult and challenging work not because it is easy or fun but simply because it is what God did for us! If God went with the flow, or just chilled out, we would still be left to our own devices, twiddling away the good gift of creation, still suffering under the reign of sin and death.

But God, in Christ, stood firm for something different. Wearing the armor of God Jesus mounted the hard wood of the cross with the divine declaration that the power of sin, and the empire of the powers and principalities, had come to an end. With a sure and firm foundation the Lord of lords inaugurated the beginning of a new time, one in which real power would be felt in weakness, where standing firm is worth the pain, and where life could be found in death. Amen.