Monday, March 9, 2009

This week's sermon: Authority

How easy is it to complain about the government? We do it all the time, and we can usually find something to gripe about no matter what political party is in charge. If we sit around discussing politics too long, we can end up convincing ourselves pretty quick that we really have it bad, that our country is heading for the hot place, and that things have never been this bad for anyone ever in the history of the world. Now, we aren’t here to discuss politics this morning, so our minds are clear of those thoughts and we can see that rationally, we have it pretty good. Especially if we think about those people who live in dictatorships or countries where there is no thought given to the starving, the dead and the dying people in the streets. No, we don’t have it too bad here, but it is still tempting to think we do. We worry about taxes; we fear war; sometimes we are a little paranoid about Big Brother watching over our shoulder. Sometimes we even feel like a good old fashioned revolt to clear the air and get us back on track. So how do we respond to these feelings of worry and fear as Christians? What does the Bible have to say about how we are to respond to our government?

One place where very clear instruction is given is Romans 13:1-6:
1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves… 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing.

What? We need to do what? We have to submit ourselves to the government? We have to pay our taxes? Who wrote that anyway? Well, that was written by Paul to the church at Rome. That would be like writing to the church in D.C. These people would have known all about government, and don’t think for an instant that their government was somehow cleaner or less corrupt than ours. Oh, no! They had their drunken parties. They had their political intrigue. They had their assassinations. They had their fair share of corruption. And even to those who lived in the shadow of the government’s base of operations, Paul writes, “Submit yourself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” You mean that God put every one of those corrupt Senators in their place? Well, that depends on your view of how God’s sovereignty works. That isn’t my sermon today, but I will tell you that I believe that while they may not have been hand-picked by God, not one of them made it to that station without God allowing it.

Well, where does Paul get off telling us we need to submit to the authorities? We are going to find out together this morning by looking at how Paul responds to the governing authorities he comes in contact with in Acts chapter 25:1-12. Paul has testified before Claudius Lysias, the commander of armies, Felix, now Festus—the Governor who succeeded Felix after he was removed from office. Paul has been held captive for two years. He hasn’t really been abused in that time, able to have some freedoms and his friends have been caring for his physical needs. He hasn’t been shut away in a tall tower or a deep dungeon, but he has been a prisoner nonetheless. It was the leadership of the Jewish people who had brought the charges against Felix that got him kicked out of office. So when it says at the end of chapter 24 that Felix had left Paul in prison as a favor to the Jews, it was a last-ditch effort to keep his position and power. Here with Festus coming into office, he is fully aware that the people he governs have the ability to get him removed from office as well. That is why he approaches the Paul situation so carefully.

When the Jewish leadership approach Festus in Jerusalem just days after he has come into office, Festus knows that what they really want is for Paul to be handed over to them for punishment before he has a proper trial. This is illegal, especially for a Roman citizen. There must be a trial with a verdict and then punishment can be applied. Festus knows the law, and he knows that he has to tread carefully because of the power of the people he is dealing with. He is walking a tight rope between following the law and maintaining favor with the political force of the region. Festus picked the best middle-ground option for his initial move. Instead of having Paul moved to Jerusalem, he invites the Jews to present their charges against him in Caesarea when he returns after his tour of the province.

The Jewish leaders take him up on his offer and the day after he settles in at home, they are there to press charges against Paul for whatever they can think of. They brought charges against him that fell under Roman law as well as Jewish law, and none of them had any proof or merit. Remember that it has been two years since all this started, and there are some in the Jewish leadership who have spent those two years gritting their teeth, waiting for the next opportunity to pounce on this troublemaker Paul. We have to remember that Paul was not just a follower of the Way. He was not just a heretic in their minds, he was a traitor. He was supposed to be on their side. He was being groomed for leadership among the Pharisees. He has an impeccable resume and impeccable pedigree. He was a Pharisee, son of a Pharisee, trained at the feet of Gamaliel. That is like going to Harvard or Yale. And what happens? He changes teams in the middle of the season. Paul went from persecuting Christians to converting others for them. And those who are in leadership now, it has been several years, are those with whom Paul had trained. They are his school mates, his buddies from back in the day when they were plotting to squelch those heretical Christians together. This is not just a matter of Paul doing something or believing something that they don’t agree with, this is personal. They feel betrayed by Paul, and they are out for his blood.

Paul’s defense against their charges is simple, “Prove it.” They have nothing in the way of solid evidence that Paul has done anything wrong. They know it. He knows it. Festus knows it. Paul just lays it out there. He says, “I have not done anything against the Law of the Jews, or against the Temple, or against Caesar.” Those are the three categories of charges that would have been leveled against him. There are aspects of Jewish law—the Law of Moses that could have called for him to be stoned. There are laws and rules about respecting the Temple, that came after the Law of Moses, that could also require his death. And there were laws of the Empire that if violated resulted in execution. These were the charges presented against Paul, and he denies them all in one breath.

Festus, still trying to win politically here, knows he cannot issue a verdict based on no real charges and no real evidence but no verdict gets him in trouble with the Jews. So, he tries to pass the buck to a Jewish trial that he can just supervise. He asks Paul to stand trial before him in Jerusalem. And this is where it gets interesting. Paul refuses to go to Jerusalem. Up until this point, Paul has been willing to follow those in authority with all submission. When they moved him, he went. When they called him, he showed up. Here, Festus says, “Let’s go to Jerusalem,” and Paul says, “No.”

Either Paul has decided that he is not going to get a fair trial either under the court of Festus or in the assembly of the Jews or the Spirit of God has told him it is time to go to Rome. In either case, Paul appeals to Caesar. It is his right as a Roman citizen to appeal directly to the court of Caesar, just as it is our right to appeal to the Supreme Court. It was the last effort to get a fair trial in those days. Unless you were a big political figure, no one in Rome would know who you were and would evaluate the case based on the facts. And Paul knows that eventually he will testify in Rome, because that was revealed to him in Acts 23:11 “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.’” That was two years before this incident, but I am sure that as events unfolded it was a statement that Paul held onto as hope.

Paul does not defy Festus, though, I want to clarify. He simply uses the one appeal he has left to go before another court, where he says he will accept whatever verdict is given. Paul says, “If I have done something deserving death, I do not refuse to die.” He is still willing to submit himself to the decision of the courts, but he wants every opportunity to do two things: 1. testify to the truth of the gospel; 2. prove his innocence. Paul is not going to fight the death penalty if there if really some crime he has committed deserving death, but he is not willing to die at the hands of the Jewish leaders when he knows--and he of all people would know--he has not violated their law.

Festus has really received a windfall from that appeal. He quickly consults his advisors and shouts with glea, “You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you will go!” This gets him off the hook. He no longer has to make a decision about what to do with Paul. It is out of his hands. Festus is safe from political angst…for the moment at least. He gets to pass the buck up the food chain, and he can’t wait!

Sounds just like the politicians we know today, doesn’t it? Things haven’t changed much when it comes to politics and politicians since Paul stood before Festus. And he set an example for us in his actions. Paul was submissive to those in authority over him, but that submission did not mean that he allowed his legal rights to be trampled on. As Christians, wherever we find ourselves around the world, we need to live in submission to the rulers over us. That submission does not mean that we cannot act on our own behalf within that governing system. It does not mean that we can’t defend ourselves against false charges. It does not mean we can’t appeal to a higher court. It does not mean we can’t find every way to legally file our taxes so that we get a refund or pay less in taxes. Those things are within our rights as citizens and as long as we are acting in a legal way without the intention of defrauding the government, we are fine.

But we also need to see that as Christians, if we are guilty of a crime, we need to be willing to pay the penalty. If we owe taxes, we need to pay them. We need to do these things not just to be good citizens, but as Christians we need to follow the law out of conscience. By submitting ourselves to the authority that God has placed over us, we are submitting ourselves to him. And we are offering witness to the world that our God is a God of order, of respect, and honor.

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