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I think we forget… if we ever knew it… that the world that Jesus lived in was a politically charged and polarizing environment. I don’t know how we miss it to be honest. Every year when we tell the story of his birth, Luke puts the birth in a political context: "In those days, a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…" and so the story begins.
When we speak of his death, we tell the story of real politics- of an uneasy but convenient alliance between the politics of the church of Jesus’ day and the politics of Rome-simply trying to keep the peace… that lead to the death of Jesus.
I don’t know how we could miss it.
During the 33 years of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we find politics playing a huge role. The sacred home of Israel is occupied by a pagan political machine, Roman superpower… who kept control of their land by covering it with well trained armies. The Roman Emperor appointed a local governor to collect taxes from the Jews and to keep the peace. The Romans placed heavy taxes on land, goods, food and inheritances. They had toll roads… And to add insult to injury, the taxes the Jewish people paid supported the Roman Army and political system. As a result, the farmers and the poor suffered. They did this with the help of the religious authorities. They appointed a Jewish council called the Sanhedrin-consisting of high priests, chief priests and wealthy supporters of the Roman government. Their work on this council made them even wealthier.
Any of this sound familiar to you? Politics may never change. It’s often about power, alliances and control.
Into this world God comes… in Christ. Not living above this world but within this world. Seeking to bear witness in this world. Jesus comes proclaiming there is another kingdom to be dealt with … one that will be there long after Caesar is dead and gone… one that will last forever… the Kingdom of God.
It’s a kingdom where justice and peace will reign. It’s a kingdom where God, in Jesus and his followers: will bring good news to the poor, proclaim released to the captives, and let the oppressed go free. (according to Luke) Judging from Jesus ministry and teachings it is a kingdom where the sick are healed, the hungry are fed, sinners are forgiven, and people are made whole. That’s the political and spiritual platform of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus Christ.
When Jesus comes, an interesting thing happens. Jesus gathers together disciples, followers who will learn about this kingdom from Jesus. They will spend three years listening to him and watching him as they learn about the work that will one day be theirs…. And is now ours.
But do you know an interesting thing about this group? He does not gather them from one political party or another. They do not share the same political views or philosophies.You have some common, middle class fishermen… you have a former tax collector who supported Rome… you have a Zealot or two who were enemies of the occupation. Jesus doesn’t seem to care what political party you come from… all he cares about is gathering people who will proclaim the kingdom of God in the world.
That may be a good word for us to remember in an election year. No political party has a corner on God. I have grown to like how the evangelical Tony Campolo thinks about it. He says: "In books and speeches, I have often said that God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I have contended that to make either party "the God party" is idolatry. This, however, does not mean that Christians should abandon political activism. It has been said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Consequently, I have long called for Christians to be involved in both political parties, striving to be the "leaven" that permeates both parties with biblically-based judgments and values derived from Christian beliefs."
Tony reminds me that the key for the Christian is not the party one belongs to, but rather the cause one is working for-the Kingdom of God.
In today’s passage, Jesus makes that abundantly clear as he is training his campaign workers for the Kingdom of God. He has been teaching them about the culture and the ways of the Kingdom in the beatitude, and then he says:
"You (plural) are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world"
Hear what Jesus is saying,
"You are salt, yes, but for the earth, not for yourselves… you are light, but for the whole world, not just your closed fellowship of believers"
You exist not just for yourself but for the sake of the world and for the good of all people.
On this Reformation Sunday, that is a word we can clearly affirm as ancestors of John Calvin.Calvin, a lawyer, sought to reform the world according to the Word of God.
My old theology professor John Leith said well in 1962, what are words still true today. He spoke these words after serving a church in Alabama during the politically and racially charged 60s.
"Historically we stand in the tradition that has taken very seriously the command to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Calvinists have never been satisfied simply to go to church, to read the Bible, to say their prayers, as important as these things may be. They have always believed that they were the soldiers of the Lord in conquest of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and that was their high calling to take the world captive to Christ… They were to be the means for the working out of the eternal purposes of the sovereign God in history and space…. John Calvin was concerned not simply that individuals in Geneva should be saved but that Geneva should be a Christian community…
Now, admittedly, our situation is different (today). We live in what some call a post (Christian) world…Admittedly we are a gathered and voluntary church in a free and pluralistic society. But we ought to remember that the only real power that Calvin ever had in Geneva was the power of a Christian personality and the power of the preached word to create a godly public opinion…
Is too much to hope that the church should be something more than another amiable society? That it should be the people of God whose life and witness must be taken seriously by the politicians at the courthouse or city hall, or by the White Citizen’s Councils and the Klu Klux Klan? It is too much to hope that there are and will be some communities in the South in which some things happen and some things do not happen in race relations or in the city hall simply because there is a Presbyterian church in the community? One of the most authentic tests of the integrity of a local congregation is the seriousness with which it is taken by corrupt politicians- by brutal men (and women) who prey like vultures upon all those who cannot defend themselves.
Is it too much to hope that some Presbyterian churches in our South will be the salt of the earth to save it from corruption and destruction and the light of the world to guide a confused people?" 1.
Wise words for the 60s. Wise words for us.
One of the ways Presbyterians have often sought to be the light and the salt is to actually serve in political office with integrity.
My friend Richard is a good example. He is the mayor of Belmont and a pastor. He seeks to bring the best of our faith to the work of the community. The only clergyperson to sign the Declaration of Independence was Presbyterian minister, John Witherspoon. Presbyterians have often to be involved in politics as an expression of faith. We think voting is one of those ways all of us can be involved.
One thing we have not tried to do is to tell people how to vote. In a few days we shall all be casting a ballot for a person we think ought to be president of the United States along with governor, a Senator and other offices… There will be a number of issues in our minds that will influence our vote… and the challenge for us will be to translate our Christian faith into specific deeds.
A wise preacher once shared good counsel with his congregation in an earlier election. He said:
"None of us is likely to find this a very simple responsibility. It would be very simple if one candidate appeared wholly corrupt and the record of his party wholly evil, if we had adequate and accurate information, and if the issues involved were not complex. Perhaps someone here this morning sees the issues in the coming election in just these simple terms, but I imagine not. Thus, we too are faced with a (difficult) decision… It is easy to understand why some people are glad enough for their church to tell them how to vote. It relieves them of the responsibility of decision. But we are proud that the Presbyterian Church does not tell anyone how to vote. (We may not know much about how people will vote but ) what is certain is that equally conscientious Presbyterians are going to vote as Democrats and Republicans…. If Jesus were speaking to us concerning the election, [he might well ask us to think about how we can cast a vote that sheds the light of the Kingdom of God to the world]… He might say, "take heed and beware of covetousness or greed…One major question that some may ask as they mark their ballots is, "What is in it for me?" Our vote is determined too frequently by covetousness for some personal advantage. I do not suppose that anyone is wholly free from this motivation, Christians as well as non-Christians. The Christian, however, has the advantage of being aware of this temptation. A Christian is warned. A Christian knows that the vote ought to be determined by something more important than personal gain…. Our special task is to apply the teaching of Jesus to our decisions in politics and to the issues of the day.
Our first allegiance is to Christ, to the kingdom he proclaimed, and in light of that allegiance we must act in the realm of politics. The church does not tell us how to vote… the important thing is that we vote in the light of Christian faith, in the light of a loyalty that is deeper than politics"
That preacher understood well the high responsibility we all have as Reformed Christians to reflect deeply upon our voting in light of our faith. That to vote in this way is an act of discipleship. It is one of many ways we can seek to be the salt that brings zest and preserves life in the earth and the light that bears witness to the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
The church does not dictate our vote. But it does call us out of our homes and to the polls. The church does tell us that our vote must be cast as an expression of our faith. The vote must point in the direction of those things Jesus stood for in his life and ministry. What that means for you, is between you and God. Perhaps before we vote, it would be well to say a prayer, not upon the street where we can be seen, but in our closet where only God can hear and see us. If we pray that God may remove from us all malice, all placing of self before the common good, then we may rightly ask that God’s blessing may rest upon our vote-that it may be for the good of our nation and for the good of people everywhere… that through our vote, the light and love of God’s kingdom might shine a bit brighter in the world.
If we were to do that, I think we would make John Calvin and our Reformers proud. Amen.
1. P 56-57 – Pilgrimage to a Presbyterian