Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.1 Peter 2:13—17
They say that the two things you should never discuss in polite conversation are religion and politics. But I think we can do it politely! Once at an annual National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in Great Britain, former British Prime Minister Theresa May said this: “Over the past two millennia, the Christian gospel has transformed the United Kingdom, with its values and teachings helping to shape the laws, customs and society of the country in which we live.” In a written message to guests, she described the event as “an excellent opportunity both to celebrate Christians’ ongoing contribution to this country and to reflect on the role Christianity can play in contemporary public life.”
My friend David Williams was born in the UK, raised in the US for a time, and then moved to Canada. By the time I met him in university he was already a dual citizen of the UK and US and was in the process of becoming a Canadian citizen also. He was a citizen of more than one country. And this is true for lots of people.
In our passage this morning Peter is providing guidance and wisdom on what it means to live as citizens of the Roman Empire and as citizens of the kingdom of God. So that’s what we’re thinking about this morning: living as dual citizens. Whatever it means to live as dual citizens, our participation in our community should put to rest the tired but familiar cliché that Christians are “too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good.”
You probably know that Acadia University is built on a hill. Going from the library to the Divinity College is an uphill walk. Some professors called it “cardiac hill.” This is especially apt if you have a bagful of library books! When I was going to Acadia Divinity College, I heard that some people on the campus would refer to ADC as “the holy huddle on the hill.” Which isn’t a great image. It suggests that ADC has been perceived at times to want nothing to do with the larger university community and was disconnected from it. The question is: should this be our posture?
In Romans 13, where Paul instructs us about our relationship to the governing authorities, he writes this: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Human institutions—including the government—are God-ordained. They are there for our protection and well-being. Peter says: They are sent to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do good. That God has instituted these authorities for our good is a sign of what some call “common grace.” Dennis Davidson writes: “Peter does not recommend one form of government over another. The principle is that the Christian should submit to the government or human institution under which he lives.”
In our passage, the apostle Peter is writing to believers who are citizens of the Roman Empire. Some think that these Christians were already undergoing systematic persecution under the reign of the emperor Nero. Others think this is more local, sporadic persecution; they were facing lies and verbal abuse, not torture and death. Either way, Peter is trying to help them understand how to live as both citizens of God’s kingdom while living as Roman citizens, how to live as exiles and strangers. And I think it’s clear that for Peter: Living as dual citizens means we are called to engage and not withdraw from public life.
We are expected to participate in the public life of our communities to the extent that our convictions allow. There will be ways we can participate and ways we cannot. Ours is a personal but not an altogether private faith. We also cannot be indifferent to public life, politics, and community issues, as if our Christian faith is irrelevant to them. The late theologian Karl Barth once said: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
In other words, I would say this: we engage in public life not in spite of our Christian faith but precisely because of it. What are the issues in our community? Do you think your faith in Christ has anything to offer our local community? What concerns you about our neighbourhood? In addition to praying, is there anything else you (or we as a church) can do to help?
Notice what Peter says: Be willing to serve the people who have authority in this world. Do this for the Lord . . . Live as those who are serving God. We even submit to earthly authorities because of our faith in God, knowing that he is the one who is sovereign over earthly authorities and has put them in place.
But though we live as dual citizens, we do not treat earthly authorities the same way as God. To quote Dennis Davidson again: “Occasions may arise when the Christian feels he must obey God rather than the government, but the Christian ought to have extremely good reasons for disobeying the chosen authority. Scripture says we should submit to our government, and if we disobey, we must accept the punishment.”
A good example of this is in the book of Acts. In 7:19—20, where Peter and John were being told by the authorities to stop preaching about Jesus, they said: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” While they kept preaching about Jesus, they did not resist being put in jail.
So, this means: Living as dual citizens means our highest allegiance is always to Christ. What does it mean that we are to be loyal to Jesus above all else? This means a couple of things.
First, when there is a definite conflict between how we are expected to live as citizens of Nova Scotia or Canada (or even Barrington!) and our loyalty to Jesus, Jesus wins. And we are living in a day and age when it is more and more likely to find our faith in conflict with the governing authorities. You have probably heard the stories of business owners refusing to bake wedding cakes for same-sex marriages.
The Canada Summer Jobs Program from a few years ago is one example where our allegiance to Jesus comes into conflict with the governing authorities. We’re not going to compromise our Christian faith to receive government funding. Many Christian churches and camps were unable to sign the attestation required by the government in order to have their application for funding processed.The truth is that Christians in other parts of world are more likely to face a conflict between practicing their faith and being good citizens of their country.
Second, there are situations where because of our primary allegiance to Jesus, we will work to change laws in our country and community because such laws are unjust. Consider William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. Think of Martin Luther King Jr and segregation. I think of examples in the US where state abortion laws have been changed.
But most importantly it means this: we owe our allegiance to Jesus. He is our Lord. He is our master. In the NIV, our passage says: Live as God’s slaves . . . Fear God. While we are called to honour the emperor, we are called to fear God.However, just because our ultimate allegiance is to a higher Lord—indeed, the highest!—we’re still called to be respectful, law-abiding citizens of our land. Think of when Peter tells us: Don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Live as those who are serving God.
And, among other things, this means reflecting on how our Christian faith affects how we participate in our larger community, positively and negatively. What might it look like if Jesus really were Lord over all of your life? In what ways do you communicate that your allegiance is to him first and foremost?Have you or anyone you know ever found themselves asked to violate their Christian conscience? How should we handle such situations respectfully? Why might our allegiance to Jesus motivate us to address wrongs in our neighbourhood?
For the last number of years, the Church of the Resurrection, an Anglican church in Grand Bay-Westfield, NB, has worked with Town Officials, and Members of the Grand Bay-Westfield community to create a public space that will fill a genuine need in the community. Currently, in the Grand Bay-Westfield area, there are no indoor play spaces for families with young children during inclement weather. The purpose of the Play Park Project is to provide a recreational opportunity for children who are not inclined towards sports or are simply too young for athletic involvement. By creating an indoor play space in the Grand Bay-Westfield area, the Play Park Project will be a key component in promoting active living among the youngest members of the population. This space will be a safe, clean, fun, and affordable environment for families with children ages 0-12, during the winter months. Part of the vision for the play park project is to strengthen the community by providing a space for families to interact and develop friendships that will benefit their overall social well-being as well as provide a resource point for families. Furthermore, a low admission fee will allow families of all economic backgrounds to gain access to this space.
Think of when Peter writes: When you do good, you stop ignorant people from saying foolish things about you. This is what God wants . . . Show respect for all people. Love your brothers and sisters in God’s family. Respect God, and honor the king. Churches should be looking for ways to add value to their communities. How can we support local organizations that are already doing good?
Let’s put it this way: Living as dual citizens means working towards the common good of all our neighbours. Every one of our neighbours are made in the image of God. Our desire should be their good. Jeremiah 29:7 says this:Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
I’m going to quote Dennis Davidson one more time. The sermon of his I read on this topic was very good. In it he says, “Let’s be known as people who are for the good, not just against the bad. While we may want to criticize our sick society, we should instead do what is good in order to change the bad we see. Even a small example can have a big influence.” Working towards the common good of all our neighbours is to love our neighbours. It means understanding that God is looking to restore shalom to his world.
Why should our witness include the way we participate in and seek to bless our community?How can we add value to our community? What does it mean to become common good Christians?
So, what does all this have to do, if anything, with the gospel, with the good news of Jesus? What is the good news except that God through Jesus is looking to restore that which has been broken, to retrieve that which has been lost, and to heal that which has fallen ill?
God is looking to do more than bring individual people to salvation; he’s looking to bring people to salvation as a part of renewing the world he made.
Living as dual citizens means we are called to engage and not withdraw from public life. Why? Because God hasn’t abandoned the world he made even though it’s broken. In fact, through Jesus he entered the world he made to restore it. Living as dual citizens means our highest allegiance is always to Christ. Only the good news of Jesus offers genuine hope for the hopelessness and brokenness of our world. Offering our ultimate allegiance to him means finding our ultimate hope for our world in him.Living as dual citizens means working towards the common good of all our neighbours. While waiting for the renewal of all things, we begin to live out our new creation lives now so that other people can know and experience the restorative power of Jesus.