Robert Jeffress is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. He’s made a few interesting political comments in recent years. In his new book, Perfect Ending, he claims that while he does not believe that President Obama is the Antichrist, he believes the President is preparing the way for the Antichrist. That’s quite a provocative comment, isn’t it?
There are few things as volatile as mixing politics and religion, as we all know. 2014 is an election year – aren’t you happy about that? Don’t you look forward to the commercials and the noise that comes with campaign season? Along with the campaigns will come some of the usual fireworks that result when politics and religion intersect.
What are the political issues we face? What are the pressing political issues of our time? Health care? Immigration? The minimum wage? Gun control? Same-sex marriage? Abortion? The relationship of church and state? War? Capital punishment? How does our faith relate to those issues? Is there a Christian position on those issues? If so, who gets to decide what constitutes the Christian position?
Those are difficult questions, and, perhaps, they are questions we would rather ignore than engage, especially in worship. Merely mentioning those isues can cause a rise in blood pressure, so if I have put you on edge this morning simply by mentioning them, I want you to take a deep breath and relax.
This morning, we continue our series of messages titled Having A Heart Like Jesus, and as we continue, I want us to consider the question of how we engage the politics of our day as people of faith. As our series of messages are based upon what reflects the heart of Jesus, that will be the lens through which we approach this topic, not by through the lens of the Old Testament or Paul, which are often more influential in shaping how we relate our view of faith and politics.
Allow me to offer a couple of disclaimers as we begin – first, this is a Disciples church, and as Disciples, we both support and encourage diversity of opinion. We offer the grace of disagreeing with one another in an agreeable manner. Second, I’m not going to tell you what you should believe about any particular political issue; I don’t believe it is my role to do so. I am happy to discuss with you any political issue, to answer questions, and to help you come to your own conclusion, but I will not tell you what you should believe about a particular political issue. Third, my goal is to offer some guidelines that I hope will help you relate your faith to politics in the manner in which Jesus did so. Fourth, to remind us that we often project our views onto Jesus. Isn’t it amazing how often Jesus reflects what we think? We often assume that Jesus would vote the way we vote, that he would maintain the same political affiliation, and, perhaps, even cheer for the same sports team. I believe that if the words and actions of Jesus do not make us uncomfortable, we are not taking those words and actions seriously. We must, therefore, think carefully and pray for the guidance of God, that we would reflect his heart.
This subject is complicated, in part, because the manner in which Jesus spoke about politics is not always obvious. He often made references to the Roman Empire and in doing so was critical of their use of power and their treatment of people, but those references are easily missed in our modern context. It is also difficult because we relate to government in a way far different from those in the time of Jesus. When we desire to bring about change in our society our thoughts often turn to how we can use the political system to bring about that change. That we find it so difficult to think about our faith and how we express it apart from our relationship to government reminds us how hard it is to really study this issue from the perspective of Jesus.
So, recognizing that many political opinions exist among us this morning, I want to offer some guidelines that I believe are very important as we try and reflect Jesus in the ways in which we think about and act upon politics.
I want us to approach this issue through one question this morning – Who Is Lord? For Jesus, everything comes back to who – or what – is the lord of our lives. This is why we’re approaching this topic through the story of the temptations of Jesus, because that is one of the questions Jesus faced in those temptations.
1. If we want to reflect the kingdom of God, we have to follow the right Lord.
The third temptation faced by Jesus was the question of who to worship – who is lord? Bow down and worship me, offered the devil, and all the kingdoms of the world would belong to Jesus. Overlooking the fact that the kingdoms of the world were not rightfully his to offer, this temptation reminds us that everyone has a lord in life; the question we each must answer is, who is my Lord?
If you lived under the Roman Empire, the emperor claimed he was your Lord. In fact, when Jesus used titles such as the Son of Man or Lord, he was directly defying the emperor, for whom those titles were reserved. It was an act of treason punishable by death for anyone else to use those titles in reference to himself, and Jesus used them freely.
The emperor claimed to be divine – a god – and if you lived in the Roman Empire you were required to offer an annual sacrifice, and when you did, you received a certificate, or some type of token, that proved you had paid homage to the emperor and you were thus allowed you to engage in commerce and business throughout the empire. To fail to do this made it very difficult to engage in a meaningful economic life. This is also, incidentally, what the book of Revelation means by the Mark of the Beast. People worry far too much today about the Mark of the Beast being tied to modern technology, such as a personal ID or other electronic device, but the Mark was used by the emperor to demonstrate his complete control over the lives of his subjects.
That’s why Jesus answers the way he does when asked about whether or not it is acceptable to pay taxes to Caesar in Matthew 22:15–22 – 15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
We usually read that passage and interpret it as a very neat, easy way of dividing our loyalties to God and government – each one gets what they are due; God gets some and the emperor gets some. Except that’s not at all what Jesus was saying. In his day, his hearers would have recognized that he was presenting a dilemma – both God and Caesar claimed to be lord – you couldn’t divide your loyalties between them as they both wanted to be your lord.
For Jesus, you had to choose the right Lord if you want to reflect the kingdom of God.
2. The right Lord will give you the right sense of power.
Power is the ability to make things happen. That power can be through the power of example, the power of influence, or through the power of force.
Jesus knew real faith is not forced upon people. I can’t find any example, in the gospels, of the power of the state and the power of faith being put together in order to advance the cause of faith. Not one. Jesus never used the power of the state to further his kingdom. Not once. He had opportunities to do, but he always declined. At the Triumphal Entry he had large numbers of people ready to accept him as a king, if he so chose, but he did not. While on the cross he was challenged to use power to save himself and proclaim his kingdom (Luke 23:35), but he did not. In fact, in the ministry of Jesus we see he was more often in conflict with earthly powers and in disagreement with those in authority. He was in conflict time and again with those who represented earthly power, power that was often used to subjugate and oppress people.
Who we choose as lord will determine how we use power. Unfortunately, history has demonstrated the tragedy of how the church has sometimes used power, the power of might and coercion and it led to terrible results that haunt us to this day.
Jesus never used the power of coercion, so neither should we.
3. Because Jesus always advocated for people, treated them without judgment, and treated them fairly, so should we.
The early Christians were persecuted because they rejected the Roman Empire and Emperor as their lord. The Emperor claimed to be the benefactor of people and that he treated them fairly, but he did not.
Jesus upset people because he always treated people fairly and equally, and if that was his heart, so should it be ours. It is a tragedy that some people use faith and religion as a weapon to divide rather than to serve as a call that we are all created equal by God. To demonstrate our allegiance to Jesus and not an earthly power we must reflect his values, and we do that when we reflect that he disqualified no one from fellowship with him.
This is where the church is to be a real beacon to the world, because the church is a people created not by the sword, or by the power of coercion, or ethnicity, or national boundaries, but by love, welcoming people simply because they are children of God. Western society has historically embraced democracy because of he influence of Christianity. The Roman Empire saw people as disposable. The Empire did not embrace the idea of equality or the dignity and worth of every person, but Christianity did. This idea – based in faith – has infused much of the world’s thinking about how to treat people. Though skeptics of faith may deny it, faith has provided Western society’s idea of the worth, value, and dignity of every individual. This is a direct result of the ministry of Jesus.
You probably know that late last year we took in a scout troop that had been expelled from another church because of the change in the membership policy of the Boy Scouts of America. They are not the only scout troop that lost their church home in our community because of that change, unfortunately. I debated whether or not to reference that event, because I’m not comfortable publicly criticizing other churches, but I will say I believe they were absolutely wrong to expel those scouts. To do such a thing is to draw a line that I believe Jesus would never have drawn and it made a political statement I believe Jesus would not have made.
I have one overarching political ideology, and it is this – everyone should be treated fairly and equally, and I hold that view because I believe that was the attitude of Jesus. If a political proposition promises to treat all people fairly and equally, I will support it; if it does not, I oppose it. I know that sounds overly simplistic, and if it does, then so be it.
It’s one thing to have varieties of worship styles, organization, and other differences among churches, but it is a very different matter to fundamentally alter the mission and purpose to which we have been called by Jesus, and to do so by saying some individuals, or some groups, are not welcome in churches.
When Jesus stood in front of Pilate and Herod, before his crucifixion, he flatly rejected exercising any kind of earthly political power, and in doing so, he demonstrated a power that has far outlived the power of Pilate, Herod, or any other person ever to occupy a political throne. I think that speaks very plainly to us, and should be the model for how we live.