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Texts: John 18:33-38, Philippians 3:18-21
So, I don't know if you've noticed, but there's an election that's about to happen in a few weeks. And even more shocking, there are some people out there who have opinions about it.
I joke, but seriously. The last... well, the last year and a half, actually, it seems like a political fever has swept the country. Which is does every four years, I guess, but maybe this one has felt particularly pronounced. And some of you keep wanting to have political discussions with me. Which has been challenging, because I'm very committed to the idea that pastors and churches should avoid endorsing or supporting particular candidates or political parties. Which I know is a relief to some of you and a frustration to others.
That said, political questions seem to be on everyone's minds. So this morning and the next two weeks, we're going to talk about politics. But not in that way. I'm not breaking that commitment. I'm not going to tell you who you should vote for, or how I'm voting. I'm also not going to do that things where I tell you without telling you. You know what I mean. Like when I get these magazines from “nonpartisan” Christian political groups that say, “Here's candidate A, who believes everything Jesus does, and candidate B, who wants to crucify Christians and feast on their young. But we're not going to tell you who to vote for. You decide.”
In fact, there are a number of reasons I don't think that's an appropriate thing for a church to do. First, because it goes beyond the church's authority. Endorsing, or quasi-endorsing, political candidates or parties goes beyond the church's authority. One of the distinctives of being Protestant, of having a theology grounded in the Reformation, is a commitment to the idea that the power of the church is ministerial, not judicial. Ministerial, not judicial. Which is a fancy way of saying that the church is to declare and teach what Scripture says, but never to make judgment calls for people that go beyond what it says.
It's not that the bible should have nothing to do with how people vote. In fact, it should be foremost on our minds. But the bible says, for example, “you should seek justice and care for the poor.” That's what the Bible says. The question of politics is “how should we do that?” Is it through a smaller government that stimulates job creation and private charity, or through strengthening of social safety nets and opportunities, or some combination of parts of the two? And that decision, which you have to make in politics, isn't spelled out in Scripture. It requires us to add some other decisions about things like economics and sociology. And I believe, and Martin Luther and John Calvin and all those people who founded Protestant Christianity believed, that once you're on ground that requires you to add a bunch of your judgment calls to the clear teaching of Scripture, that the church needs to stay silent. Because otherwise it was presuming to speak for God where He hadn't spoken.
So part of the reason the church shouldn't take partisan stances is that it just doesn't have the authority to do so. And part of the reason is because it actually breaks the unity of the church. There are passionate Republicans and passionate Democrats who both love Jesus and are knowledgeable about the Bible and are seeking to live lives in conformity with Christ. There are. If we don't believe that sentence, we need to check our hearts, because it means we have elevated party loyalty above Jesus as a test of who can be a true Christian.
And that is tragic, because one of the saddest things that has happened in America is that those passionate people in both parties have stopped respecting and talking with each other and instead just started yelling and name-calling. And I want the church to be a place that pushes against that, where we can actually dialogue and learn and grow and disagree within the love and unity of the Spirit. Because if the church can't be that place, then seriously, there's nowhere left.
So those are both part of why I don't think churches should support one party or candidate in an election. But the main reason, far bigger than both of those, is actually what we find in our text this morning. It is wrong for pastors to endorse candidates or for the church to identify with political parties because it actually violates what Scripture says in places like the two we read today. When the church supports any earthly political institution, it is confusion the kingdoms. It is confusing the kingdoms.
In our first text, we see Jesus before Pilate, the prefect of Judea, where Jesus is ministering. And this is an age of revolution, and those accusing Jesus are trying to make Him out to be a revolutionary who is trying to overthrow the Roman government. And so Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (33)
And Jesus responds in verse 36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
We can fail to appreciate Jesus's reply because kings are not something we're used to. We hear about kingdoms and that sounds foreign, alien.
But “kingdom” in the Bible simply means “political unit.” A kingdom is what governed a nation. So we could just hear what Jesus says in other ways. Pilate wants to know Jesus's political loyalties, and he asks, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” And Jesus replies, “No, I'm a Christian.” Pilate might seek to know Jesus's allegiances and ask, “Are you an American?” And Jesus says, “No, I'm from another country. God's country.”
So Jesus insists that, while He is a king, His kingdom, His country, is somehow different and separate from every country in this world. From Judea, and Rome, and America. And that gets even more shocking when you consider how Paul appropriates this same image in our second text, from Philippians. As he says in verse 20, “But our citizenship is in heaven.” Our citizenship is in heaven.
Again, we need to hear that right. Paul is not saying that some day, when we die, we will be citizens of heaven. Heaven exists right now; it is how the Bible describes that invisible reality running alongside ours where God is on the throne and Jesus reigns. It is present tense – our citizenship is in heaven right now. And the word citizenship, which Paul uses, is just as loaded with political and legal meaning in his world as it is in ours. If we are Christians, we are in truth citizens of the United States of Heaven. Period. That's where our allegiance ultimately lies.
Now none of that means that we aren't supposed to be citizens in a sense of the countries where God has placed us right now. We who live in the U.S. are to be a part of America, to vote and serve it and have an appropriate patriotism. We live out our calls to love our neighbors and obey God in this time and place. We're going to talk more about that next week.
But we have to do all of that with a clear sense that our true citizenship and allegiance and nationality is elsewhere. It is in God's country, not this one. As Jesus puts it in John 17, we are to live as if we are not of this world, just as Jesus is not of this world.
So that's the idea – that while we will live and act and have opinions and vote as a part of America, that we as Christians are to live as if our ultimate citizenship is elsewhere. America is no more the kingdom of heaven than Rome was. Which doesn't mean there aren't great things about it – I love America in so many ways. I do - it's great. But it does mean that, in the Biblical scheme, it is just as much a part of the earthly kingdoms as were Babylon or Egypt. And we have to live in it always being mindful of that fact, never confusing our temporary living place with our true country.
All of that being said... what does that mean for us? What does it look like to live as citizens of heaven? In particular, how does that shape the way we engage with the politics of this world? I think, if we reflect on these two passages, we get at least three lessons. Because our citizenship is in heaven, I think Jesus would tell us: don't buy in, don't panic, and don't lose hope. Don't buy in, don't panic, and don't lose hope.
Don't Buy In
First, don't buy in. The first thing that our citizenship in heaven means is that we have to remain skeptical of and separate from the promises that this world makes us. And that includes the promises of those in power.
On the one hand, this is because they will sell you lies. The world will sell you lies. Paul in Philippians 3 describes these people he calls “enemies of the cross of Christ.” And importantly, these people he's talking about are probably Christians, false teachers trying to lead the sheep astray. And in verse 19, this is his description of them: “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.”
Paul isn't just being rhetorical here. He's actually trying to say something about what's wrong for these people. First he talks about their destiny – that word could be translated as “goal” or “ambition.” They're seeking after this great thing, they say, but actually that thing is destruction. Then their god – they hold this thing up as worthy of worship, but really it's just what they're putting in their bellies. And their glory, their splendor – it is actually shame. They've convinced themselves that they're seeking these great things, but it's really a lie.
That, in Scripture, is always how the world works. It's always how the kingdoms of this world work. They sell you these great promises, a hope and a future. But it's a lie. The things they offer can't give you the happiness or peace or security or meaning that they promise.
One of the great dangers in all political systems is what is called utopianism. Utopianism. This promise that, if we could just give all the power to one group, if one party could just fully pass its agenda, the world would be perfect and all would be well.
Both American political parties try to promise versions of utopia.
One party promises that, if we could just have a big enough military and an unrestrained enough intelligence service and a strong enough police force, that we could have real security. That if we removed enough regulation and lowered enough taxes, we would have unending prosperity. That if we put the right people on courts and teach our kids the right values, we would see Christianity flourish.
The other party promises that, if we could just educated people enough and give them enough resources, that we could have real equality. That if we had enough regulations and built good enough bureaucracies, we could end injustice. That if we gave everyone enough freedom and outlawed enough hate, that people could live together in peace and love.
But both of those visions are, ultimately, lies. Not that they might not do some good things, or that one might be better than the other – that's part of what you decide when you vote – but those visions cannot promise you what they claim. There is no way to have true security in a world broken by sin. There is no way to educate people out of their crooked hearts. Prosperity and peace will always be fleeting in this age.
The best those visions can offer us is something marginally better than the alternative but still destined to perish – it is more comfortable beds and more polished brass rails on the Titanic. And we cannot buy in, lest we miss the reality – that in the end the ship is going to sink.
That's the problem with buying into those visions. The problem with buying the lie is that it ultimately costs us the truth. It costs us the truth.
There is this fascinating interchange between Jesus and Pilate in John 18. Look at verse 37:
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. (John 18:37-38a)
Jesus has said His kingdom is not of this world, and Pilate immediately siezes on this “Aha!,” he says. “You are a king.” Remember, the question in this trial is whether Jesus is a political threat. That's what Pilate's trying to determine – whose side are you on? Mine, and Rome's? Or those fighting for independence?
And Jesus's reply is, in essence, “Neither.” He says, “I'm on the side of truth.” And Pilate, in a telling moment, asks cynically “What is truth?”
If we are going to be comfortable citizens on earth, to buy into the promises of an earthly kingdom, that is going to cost us the truth. We will have to compromise our Christian faithfulness to do it. Because parts of this world are always opposed to the kingdom.
I mentioned at the beginning that I'm really opposed to Christian leaders endorsing candidates or positions. On a practical level, this is a big part of why. Because it often forces them to compromise Christian values in a very public way.
The problem isn't that they're voting for a person who doesn't share all their Christian values. We're basically always going to do that. The problem is that they make that candidate “their guy” or “their girl.” They launch into full-throated support of them, and that means they avoid, or even deny, the ways in which their candidate is failing to live up to Christ's standards. And this is a huge problem.
It's a huge problem because it destroys the church's credibility. When our candidate is doing or saying something unbiblical and we treat that as no big deal, we have communicated to the world that being biblical itself is no big deal. We communicate to the world that our Christian convictions are fine, but that they're not nearly as important to us as getting our person into office.
And it's so easy to excuse. We tell ourselves that the other person is so bad that we have to just rally around our guy or girl. It would be such a disaster if they won, we will overlook all kinds of sin. That being honest about our candidate's personal sins or unbiblical views might cost them the election. And it might cost us the election. But there is no election worth our souls or our witness. No earthly king that is worth abandoning the truth of God.
Our commitment as Christians should always be to the truth. And that means we should name evil as evil wherever we see it. That is a responsibility that comes before any political considerations. And that means we have to name and condemn evil even when it comes from the person we support. Especially then, because it's when we'll be most tempted to keep silent.
So, because Jesus's kingdom is not of the world, we need to ensure that we don't buy into the promises this world offers. But there's another thing I think it means for us, and that is this: Don't panic. Don't panic.
I love the scene of Jesus before Pilate because of how counter-intuitive it is. Think about it. Jesus is facing his execution. Pilate is the one who has the power to kill Him. Yet what is Jesus's attitude? Does He seem afraid? Not in the least. In fact, it seems like Pilate is a little bit fearful. He doesn't know what to do with this guy. This guy who says he's a king of an invisible kingdom, a kingdom of truth.
One of the constant refrains of Scripture is that we are not to be afraid. That's true generally – we are not to live in fear. But it is especially true of how Scripture says we should deal with the political world around us. We are not to let the powers of this world make us afraid.
This is Moses's words to Joshua as he prepares to die: don't be afraid of the nations that would seek to harm you. “Be strong and courageous.” Moses says. “Do not be afraid or terrified because of them [the nations], for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
This is what the Psalmists say, over and over, when they think about the nations of the world:
The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
The LORD is with me; he is my helper.
I look in triumph on my enemies.
Perhaps most strikingly, this is what Jesus says, very memorably, in Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
That passage is really key. Jesus is contrasting fear of things in this mortal world with fearing God. He's saying that you can really only do one or the other – you can recognize God's awesome power, and tremble, but be secure that He is ours. If you recognize that, the power of the nations isn't nearly as scary.
This is so important when we think about our political lives. Because our politics are all about fear. All about fear.
I mean, think about it. When was the last time there was a Presidential race and one candidate said something like, “I believe my opponent, although thoughtful and qualified, holds certain misguided positions that will result in marginally lower growth rates and marginally higher crime rates than my other, still imperfect, but better positions.” Nobody says that. They say, “This person is destroying America. They'd be the end of democracy. It would be mass poverty and roving gangs and maybe nuclear war if they're elected.”
Every politician, in some sense, builds their bid for power on fear. It's really the counterpoint to what we said above. If you buy into their dreams, that suddenly opens you up to the nightmare of losing them. They promise you great things, and then they tell you, “If you don't vote for me, well, then the unimaginable will happen.”
And the problem is, a lot of us buy into this. This fear gnaws at us. We live in this sort of constant low-grade anxiety about the future, feeling like the world is poised on the precipice, about to topple over it. Which is actually a really bad and painful way to live.
Now, in the first place, it's just worth noting that those fears aren't usually grounded in reality. I know this because I remember people selling me those exact same fears four years ago, and eight, and twelve and sixteen and basically before every election since I could put two sentences together. This is always the crucial moment, and if things don't go our way, America and freedom are always in jeopardy.
To drive that point home, I've just got to share this. Here are a couple of quotes from another Presidential election. One candidate's supporters said that, should his opponent be elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest [being] openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes. Female chastity violated [with] children writhing on a pike.”
The other candidate responded by saying his opponent was “a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man or the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." He said his election would mean “tyrrany” and “the end of the constitution.”
Those quotes were from the election of 1800. That's what our illustrious founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson thought about each other. Which is to say, selling fear has been baked into things from the beginning.
That said, it's not just that the panic politics inspires is overblown. It's actually anti-Christian. What Christianity says is something more than that it is misguided. It says, in effect, “So what if they're right? So what if their worst-case scenario does come true?”
Even if the worst comes, God is still on the throne. He is still in control. His love and His plans in the world are in no way dependent on us filling in the correct bubble on a ballot. He is still building His kingdom and working good for His children, the gospel is still the power of life and Jesus is still reigning from His heavenly throne, regardless of whether things go the way we'd like them to on November 8th.
And even if the worst comes, it can't touch our inheritance. One of the beautiful realities of being citizens of heaven is that we aren't subject to the uncertainties of earthly rulers. If our identity and security rest with God, we don't have to be afraid. As the Psalmist said, “The LORD is with me... What can mere mortals do to me?”
Which, again, doesn't mean there aren't certain things we should work for and do in this time and place. But it frees us from doing them fearfully. We can think and listen and vote with the peace of knowing that, regardless of the outcome, our hope is secure.
Don't Lost Hope
So those are our first two callings as citizens of the kingdom of heaven: do not buy into the kingdoms of this world and to not panic at the fear they try to inspire. But there is one more thing I think our heavenly citizenship should tell us: Don't lose hope. It should tell us not to lose hope.
Being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven means our hope is ultimately in Christ and His coming. As Paul says in Philippians 3:20, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” So we have a secure hope for the future.
But this hope also finds feet in the present. Look at verse 21: “who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Now part of that is still future – the resurrection of our bodies. But another part of that – Christ bringing everything under His control, under His reign – that is actually happening right now. That's happening right now.
Listen to how Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15. He starts, in verse 24, talking about the end - “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father.” But that end is the end of a process that is happening now - “after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” Jesus is somehow, right now, at work overcoming the powers of this world. Verse 25 says it again, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” (25-27a)
“Every rule and every authority and every power.” That is the language of, well, of politics. And Jesus is, according to this text, overcoming them in this age. Not cooperating with them, not convincing them to share his values. He is defeating them.
Which sounds radical, and I guess it kind of is. But it is actually a great source of hope for us as Christians. A great source of hope. Because that fact means that it doesn't ultimately matter which way this election goes. It doesn't ultimately matter which way America goes. This nation could continue in prosperity and growth or it could crumble to dust, but Jesus will still be on the throne, and His kingdom will still be ascendant.
Which doesn't mean we shouldn't want good things for our country, or be thoughtful, or vote, or become involved. We are called to love our neighbors and to seek to embody Jesus's kingdom in our lives, and for us here this morning that means in Ogle County, and Illinois, and America. That's all true.
But we shouldn't let our hope rest on them. We shouldn't feel like Christ's kingdom is somehow entwined with the fate of our nation. And if we have intertwined the two, we should repent. Because it means we've set our minds on earthly things.
More than that, though, it means that we can be hopeful no matter what happens in our political world. Because the flip side of what we've said is that Jesus is on the move. Jesus is on the move. His gospel comes with the power of salvation. His Spirit is at work changing hearts and lives. His church is being built up in the world, and she will not perish while He is at her head. We have great cause for hope!
Jesus is on the move. And maybe that's the most important thing for us to ponder. I sometimes suspect that part of why our partisan spirit is such a trap is that it makes us expect government to bring the change and the hope and the peace and the truth that should actually be carried by us. We get allured by its bigness, by its promise of reaching millions.
But that's not how the kingdom grows. It doesn't grow by men of power affecting millions. It grows by the millions who are in Christ each seeking to be faithful to His callins in their particular place. As each of us are faithful in our seemingly small lives, the world will be changed.
So instead of fretting about the election or the country, go tell someone about Jesus. Mentor someone in their faith. Show compassion to someone who is hurting. Help someone who is poor. Those aren't consolation prizes – those are the bricks that build up Jesus's eternal kingdom. Those are the things that truly matter.
I found myself thinking this week about a quote by C.S. Lewis. He once said, “A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.” (C.S. Lewis)
That's really what it comes down to. There are things we give to our country – our taxes, our service. There are things we give to our party or candidate – our vote. But we must always ensure that we aren't giving them more than they deserve. We must not give them ourselves – we must be given wholly and solely to God.
So don't buy in to the lies the world sells. Don't fix your eyes on their promises. And don't fear what the world tries to make you afraid of.
Instead of those things, set your eyes on Jesus and His kingdom. The kingdom of which we are citizens. Give yourself to that kingdom and have hope, because it's King is good, and His good reign is breaking into the world and will one day be fully realized at His coming. May we be people of such a nation.