Two Kingdoms/One Lord
The scripture lessons today speak to the touchy subject of church and state relationships. In the Old Testament lesson, God claims to use a pagan king to do his will, rather than Israel. It is a claim that should take note of – that God’s agenda is larger than that of any government, and no government can claim God for their own. In the Gospel lesson, the Romans are an occupying force that have not only put their own imprint on money Jews had to use, but forced them to use money that said, “Caesar is God,” violating the first two commandments. It so incensed Jews that they printed their own money for the temple, but you couldn’t get away from using Roman money in commerce and for the “head tax,” which they had to pay to Rome to take care of the occupying force. The Sadducees try to trap Jesus with a question: “Is it lawful for Jews to pay the head tax, using money that acknowledges Caesar to be God?” If he says, “Yes,” he will lose the crowds, who hate the tax. If he says, “No,” then he will be arrested as a subversive. Instead, he says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And we’ve been arguing about what he meant by that ever since.
What should the Christian’s relationship be to the secular world, and especially to the state? Luther begins with the fourth commandment: “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord, your God, has given you.” He says that this commandment isn’t simply about parents, but about all those in authority. We are, as Paul said, to “give respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” The reason for this is that we might live orderly and secure lives, at peace with all people. We were not meant to live in chaos. One of God’s great blessings is peace. Government, although only a human institution, can provide both of these for us. It is a positive good in our life.
We love to beat up on politicians and, often, they deserve it. But it's unfortunate that there is an atmosphere that has been created around politics that discourages good people from entering the field. There is an old maxim that says that you generally get what you deserve. I suppose our delight in seeing people - especially powerful people - brought down, has gotten us into a fix. And it’s become so easy to say things, in the internet age, without having to pay any consequences for our unseemly words, that many people feel they can say anything at all – no matter how outrageous. Perhaps we are getting just what we deserve. What good person would want to go into politics?
On the other hand, the last couple of decades, we’ve also had a group of folks who have entered that field big-time - bringing what they believe to be God's agenda for our country into the political arena. And they have had some success.
Luther, looking at scriptures like we have in today’s lessons, would disagree strongly with both of these responses to government – and, to the larger, secular world - one side regarding it as a necessary but irredeemable evil, the other attempting to create a Christian theocracy. Luther has important wisdom to share with us as we steer a middle course through the choppy waters of church and state relationships, as well as between the larger secular, non-religious world and the religious one.
Luther referred to these two realms, of the sacred and secular worlds, as the "Two Kingdoms," the kingdom on the right being the church, the spiritual kingdom which is ruled by the Gospel; yet he also make it clear that God also rules in the kingdom of the left - that is, through secular government. All authority, the scriptures say, comes from God. That does not mean that those in authority are infallible, or sinless, or that they are always to be obeyed. Governments are human institutions and always under the power of sin. But authority is a gift from God – we do not thrive in chaos – so government was given to us that our lives may be ordered and we may live in safety and peace. That authority includes everyone from the parent to the policeman to the president. St. Paul instructs us to pray for all those in positions of authority, and tells us that we are to honor them. That should be true whether we are talking about the president, those in congress, or local politicians. That’s true of our boss, our parents, and the corner cop.
It may mean that we have to swallow hard sometimes and bite our tongues; but I wonder what would happen if those in power were treated that way - as if their positions were important - so important that people held them accountable for what they did. Thomas Maslow talked about a concept called the "looking glass self," in which he said that people tend to see themselves as they think other people see them, and they tend to act based on how they think other people expect them to act. What if our politicians suddenly realized that people expected them to act morally and courageously, and in the best interests of the country; that we demanded of them that they express the highest ideals of our nation? I wonder if that wouldn't revolutionize government? If we held education and those who educate in high regard, and expected only the best from our schools, would education improve? If we expected every child to be properly cared for, loved, and given good guidance by their parents, would it change things? Would it change things if people in positions of authority knew that we also were there to pray for and support them in carrying out their work, rather than standing at the ready to throw stones at them?
On the other hand, there are those who hope to solve the dilemma of morality in government and society by bringing what they feel is a "Christian agenda" into government. At the present time, most of them are from the right end of the spectrum, although I remember not too many years ago when it came from the other end. I don't know about you, but I get uncomfortable when people start talking about voting a "Christian agenda." The facts are, that Christians disagree - they always have - over many items on the national agenda. God’s kingdom should never be confused with earthly ones.
Luther said that earthly power and the power of the Gospel do not mix. He even said, at one point, that he would rather have a good ruler who is not Christian, than a poor ruler who is. You cannot legislate the Gospel - that is an improper division of Law and Gospel. Nations - governments – societies - rule through laws. Their purpose is to order and protect by condemning wrongdoing. In this way, even the institutional church is “secular,” in that it is run through rules – it has a Constitution, rules and regulations, and a governing body. But God's kingdom is built by the Gospel in the hearts of people. That is the work of the kingdom of the right - the church – that is what we are here for today. And, in some ways, the one kingdom – the one run by laws – enables the other kingdom – the one in which the Gospel is central – to function more effectively. And the kingdom where the Gospel is central helps to keep the other one in check, by pointing out its proper function, and holding it accountable. Our purpose, as the church, is not to construct an earthly Kingdom of God through earthly rulers, but to establish it in the hearts of people through the proclamation of the Gospel.
There are many things that we, as Christians, would certainly like to see happen, to make this world a little more reflective of the Kingdom of God. We would like to have heaven on earth. We would like to see God’s reign come to this world. We know that only when that happens will the world come to know its true meaning - the true purpose of its existence. Only then will peace reign, and there will be enough for all - and more! But earthly rulers can't do that. They are also sinful human beings, whose vision is limited, and who make mistakes. And so do the institutions they represent. All they can do is offer a measure of protection and security - and Christians should strive to work in the political and secular realms to make sure that all receive these gifts from God. The scriptures say that especially those on the bottom rungs of society should be of special concern – children, the poor, and others that cannot fend for themselves - they must be protected from oppression and cared for. That is the first duty of any society.
But the creation of the Kingdom of God is the work of the church, through the proclamation of the Gospel. That is our job - to proclaim Christ; to let the Living Word be heard, that hearts may be changed, and God's rule established in human hearts.
In this country we have wonderful opportunities, as Christians, to work in both realms - both kingdoms. We have the opportunity to restore the political realm to a place of respect and honor, lifting up our elected officials in prayer, holding before them a vision of their high calling, using their offices as God's tool to lift up the weak and weary, and provide for the common good. We can do the same for schools, for parents, for police, and for all in positions of authority – holding up before them their high calling, supporting them, as well as holding them to account for their office. At the same time, God calls us in the kingdom of the right - in the church, through the Gospel - to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, that hearts and lives may be changed, so that Jesus may rule as Lord of both kingdoms.