July 3, 2011
Citizens of Two Kingdoms
Some years ago I was asked to speak at a high school baccalaureate service. Baccalaureate services were complicated for the school system because some of the other religious traditions in the community complained every year. Because of the school administration’s worries about controversy they kept asking me about the content of my message. I had a number of conversations with the school about the content of my message and when the evening of baccalaureate arrived I was standing in the hall before walking in thinking I had chopped so much out of my remarks that I wondered if I was saying anything worthwhile. The irony of the situation was that the service was heard in one of the local churches, but no one seemed to complain about the location.
In another community, for a number of years, I spent time each spring with the senior class at the local high school helping them to plan their baccalaureate service. I heard from a lot of people, representing some very different perspectives, about what should and shouldn’t be included each year in the service.
Those experiences perfectly represent, I think, the tension we face as followers of Jesus in our country – we are citizens of two kingdoms – we are citizens of the kingdom of God and citizens of the United States of America. And as much as the Judeo-Christian heritage is ingrained into our society there is still a great deal of tension between those two kingdoms. Do you ever feel the tension?
So I debated all week about whether or not I wanted to wade into all that today. One of the reasons for my hesitancy is that some topics are better in an environment where there are opportunities for discussion and asking questions that allow for clarification. I ended up writing and rewriting this message several times, because there is a lot to say about the intersection of our earthly and eternal citizenship, and I wanted to be sure I wrote as clearly as possible, and I want you to know that I take very seriously the fact that I stand up here almost every week of the year and with that responsibility comes the need for me to sort out what is my opinion and what is the timeless word of God. The difficulty, however, is separating out personal opinion from that prophetic word, because some of what he believed to be prophetic preaching was to me, just personal opinion, and he would probably say the same of me. I attended a revival service over the 4th of July weekend years ago, and the minister was preaching about returning America to God. He wandered into some political topics and eventually arrived at capital punishment. He said, someone asked me if I believe in the electric chair. I said, “no sir, I do not. I believe in the electric couch – line them up 3 and 4 at a time!” I think it’s safe to say that was his opinion and not God’s eternal truth.
So, I have considered my words very carefully, and I hope you will consider them carefully as well.
It is not only complicated for us to be citizens of two kingdoms; it was complicated for Paul as well. This famous passage that Paul wrote in Romans chapter 13, interestingly, is one that he didn’t always follow himself. While Paul tells us we ought to submit ourselves to the governing authorities, he didn’t always do so himself. In fact, Paul was often in conflict with the governing authorities. The governing authorities attempted to restrict Paul’s preaching, they arrested him on a number of occasions, and Paul was eventually executed by those governing authorities.
The early Christians, as we all know, were very heavily persecuted by the Roman Empire. One of the things the Romans did to pressure the early Christians was to start a campaign of disinformation and lies against them. The Romans were so unsettled by the rapid growth of the church, in spite of heavy persecution, that they sought to apply public pressure against the early Christians. One of the ways they did this was to claim the Christians were unpatriotic. What’s interesting is this – to a certain extent it was true. The Romans claimed the emperor was divine, and every person was legally obligated to offer an annual sacrifice to the emperor acknowledging his divinity. Do you know some of the titles used by the emperor – Son of Man, Prince of Peace, Son of God, the Incarnate One. Do those sound familiar? They are titles Jesus applied to himself, titles used by the Roman emperor as he claimed divinity for himself. Jesus committed a capital offense by using those titles in reference to himself. Once you made your sacrifice to the emperor you received a certificate showing you were in good standing. Christians would not offer that sacrifice, and many paid with their lives.
I imagine the Romans scratched their heads at the early Christians. What’s the big deal, they probably thought. We don’t care if you believe the emperor is divine (most of the Romans probably didn’t believe it), but just do it and go along with the structure of society that keeps everything in good order. But to the early Christians there was one Lord, and it wasn’t Caesar.
So here are some things to remember, as we celebrate our wonderful gift of freedom –
1. The conviction of faith carries a power greater than any earthly power.
We often hear that the Roman Empire didn’t fall by the sword, but that it fell from within. Although there was plenty of immorality and decay and problems within the empire, I think the Roman Empire withered in the face of a far greater power – the power of conviction. The early Christians said we will not bow at the altar of the Caesar even if it means the loss of our lives. What army can defeat that kind of conviction? The mighty Roman Empire, with an army that controlled the known world and did not hesitate to use an absolutely brutal force to protect that control, could not defeat the conviction of faith.
2. The tension of the two kingdoms is about more than just the obvious debates.
One of the most recent examples of obvious debates took place during the final round of the U.S. Open Gold Championship. Someone at NBC edited out the audio of the words under God during the Pledge of Allegiance, setting of a firestorm of protest. But it’s not just these types of debates; it’s not just the debates about school prayer and hanging the Ten Commandments in public buildings that symbolize the struggle and the tension between the two kingdoms; it’s also the consumerism and materialism that place so many people in financial and spiritual bondage; it’s the cavalier attitude toward God’s creation that is destroying this beautiful world God has created; it’s the self-righteousness and legalism that so many see in people of faith, which turns off so many to faith; and so much more. We are influenced in such subtle ways by our culture that we can slip away from the central tenets of faith without even realizing we have done so.
3. We are to pray and work for the blessing of all people.
When Jesus cleansed the Temple, just days before his crucifixion, he said something of incredible importance – My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17). Jesus was quoting Isaiah 56:7, which was a reminder that in spite of national boundaries God is the father and creator of all and desires to bless all people and because he does our pray and work is to be a blessing for all people.
By the time of Jesus the religious establishment had long-forgotten the desire of God to bless all nations and all peoples. Our calling is to pray for all people, beyond the boundaries of nations or ethnicity.
4. We each have a voice, and are free to use it.
Freedom is a beautiful, complicated, messy gift. Because of the tensions inherent in freedom, there are those who want to limit the freedom of others.
I don’t understand the desire to stifle opposing opinions, which is done by people of all political persuasions. Why are we so afraid of the opinions and ideas of others just because they differ from ours? We are afraid of them because we are afraid those opinions may become the rule of the land. So we try to stifle others because we fear not only their opinions and the potential power of their opinions.
Imagine for a moment if the Biblical characters had been stifled in what they had to say. Imagine if Nathan’s voice had been stifled. Who would have confronted King David of his sin with Bathsheba with the immortal words You are the man! Imagine if the great prophets of old, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others had failed to use their voices. Imagine if Peter and Paul and other early church leaders had allowed their voices to be stifled. Imagine how different our country would be today if our forefathers had not used their voices to protest against tyranny and oppression. Imagine how things will be in the future if we fail to use our voices.
I practice a certain amount of self-censorship. There are some things I choose not to say; I think we all do that. But it is a very different matter when others try to silence us because they don’t like what they have to say. I don’t like some of the political or religious opinions I hear; I don’t like the antireligious opinions I hear; but I believe the people who speak those opinions have the right to their opinions.
5. We are not to make an idol of our country, as our worship is reserved for God alone.
I love our country. I’m grateful for the gifts we have that come with the good fortune of being an American. My family are relative newcomers to America. My mom and dad are the first generation on both sides of my family to be born in this country. I’m glad my family made it to these shores. My grandfather and his family made their way from Liverpool, England and my grandmother from Ireland. I’m grateful they made it here. I will love my country, but as a citizen of a heavenly kingdom I am reminded that my worship is to be reserved for God alone.
And so a citizen of a heavenly kingdom I will give thanks to God for the promise that when life on this earth is complete, there is another kingdom that awaits. It is a kingdom where want will be no more. It is a kingdom where there will be no more tears, no more mourning, and no more death. It is a kingdom where there will be no need for weapons of warfare because love will be the rule. It is a kingdom where hatred will be unknown. It is a kingdom where no one will be hungry and no one will be thirsty. It is a kingdom where there
We are citizens of two kingdoms, and there is a tension between those kingdoms