Monday, October 22, 2012

The Great Game of Elections, Citizens, and Saints

Preached on October 21, 2012
Scripture readings: 1 Peter 2:13-17; Luke 20:20-26 

In seventh grade gym class we spent the fall playing flag football. We were assigned to our teams and we stayed on the same teams all through that fall season. Each team had a name. I don’t remember what we called our team, but I remember that we lost every game.

Yes, we lost, and we lost, and we lost, and we lost, and we stopped caring anymore. We didn’t even hang our heads in shame because we didn’t care.

Sad Looking Primrose
We made a joke out of it. We became the clowns of the field. Sometimes we scored; but most of the time we scored because we played so badly that we completely confused the other team. We played so badly that we would throw the other team off their game.

Every morning, at the beginning of the period, the coach would read the standings, and he would always get to us last, and say something like 0 – 10 (0 wins, 10 losses). And we were so shameless that we would cheer: “Yay!” The next day the coach would shout our name and say “0-11”: “Yay!” “0-12”: “Yay!” We never won a single game: “Yay!”

This experience has put me in the unique position to understand what Peter means when he writes, “Submit your selves, for the Lord’s sake, to every authority instituted among men.”  The problem with most translations of this verse is that they overly translate it, so that the words apply only to the next few words, only to how Christians are to relate to kings or governments. “Every authority instituted among men” probably refers to everything through the end of the second chapter of this letter and into the third chapter. So the so-called “institutions” of authority that Peter writes about are really all kinds of human relationships.

They are relationships between citizens and leaders and governments; relationships between slaves and masters; relationships between wives and husbands, husbands and wives; relationships between Christians; relationships with absolutely everyone.  These relationships are the authorities, the disciplines, the boundaries of our lives. “Honor everyone,” Peter tells us. (2:17)

Relationships! Relationships stand up around us like authorities that require us to decide how we will live and what kind of people we will be in this world.

God has designed and created us human beings so that we must live our lives within a great, complex network of human relationships, and obligations, and rights, and freedoms, and responsibilities. There are marriages, families, friendships, churches, faiths, boards, clubs, councils, businesses, communities, and more. There are economies, and societies, and political parties, and nations, and more.

In Peter’s writings, the thing he calls “human institutions” does not means humanly created human relationships, it means divinely created human relationships. The “institution” word, in Greek (ktisis), is actually a God-centered word. It is the Greek word that the New Testament uses to describe God’s work of creation, not human creations.

My seventh grade experience tells me that Peter’s words “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” means “play the game”. Play the big game in this field of relationships. Play like you take the game seriously; and play your part, play your position as well as you can, and play it with joy, because it is God’s game, God’s creation.

The game is a huge game, but we are playing for life, we are playing for eternity. Some of the plays are seen by no one else but God. These plays are made in our minds and hearts. Some of the plays take place in our family. Some of the plays take place in the larger world outside our homes. Some of the plays take place in our elections, and our politics, and our lawmaking and government.

God created the game in the sense that the rules are his. We don’t honor the king, or the emperor, or the government just because they write the laws. They are players in the game too, just like us; and they are accountable to keep the rules, themselves; but how we play, and how they play, will all contribute to the course of the game.

God is the creator of the game because he wrote the rule book, and measured and marked the lines on the field; the yard lines, the side lines, and the goal lines.

The question to Jesus, about whether to pay taxes to Caesar or not, was a trick question, but it was a question that mattered to a lot of people. It was basically to ask: are there parts of the big game that you can sit out, if you want. In Jesus’ time and place, God’s people wanted to know if they could sit out the Caesar part of the game; the secular part of the game. Was that a part of the game they didn’t have to play in?

Jesus answer was that they had to play the whole game, even the secular part. Belonging to God, knowing the Lord, does not let you off the hook for sitting out the game for what is going on in the nation, or in the world. Or, even if you think that you are only stuck on the sidelines, you are still part of the game.

In a monarchy, like the Roman Empire, submitting to the game looked different than it would in a democracy, or a republic. In the empire people either obeyed, or they could write letters or send petitions which might get them in trouble, or might actually get them a hearing from the emperor.

In a democracy or a republic we submit to the game by keeping well informed, and meeting, and voting, and joining, and contributing, and by running for office. Jesus’ answer about “giving Caesar what is Caesar’s” applies to this because, ultimately, in this nation, we are not under obligation to human leaders; we are under obligation to the constitution. The constitution is the covenant of the people of the United States. We have no right, for the Lord’s sake, to sit out the constitution part of the Lord’s great game.

Jesus didn’t say to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” (Luke 20:25) because Jesus thought that Caesar was a good guy who was doing a great job. The case was just the opposite. Jesus spoke at a time of the beginning of a string of mostly bad emperors. The emperor in Jesus’ day was Tiberius, who lived in splendid isolation of the Isle of Capri and let corrupt underlings do all his work. The emperor at the time when Peter wrote about honoring the emperor was Nero, who had his own mother killed, and who is famous for “fiddling while Rome burned”, and who lighted his evening garden parties with torches made of burning Christians.

Honor doesn’t mean closing your eyes to evil, or compromising with it. Honor is the stubborn and gracious determination to remember, no matter what, that other people (whomever they may be) are still (and always will be) creatures of God, made in the image of God. If you have contempt and hatred for anything or anyone God has made, you will not play your part in the game well. When any team plays the game with contempt for the other team they begin to play badly.

There was an ancient Christian named Justin Martyr, born around the year 100 A.D., born in the city that is now called Nablus, in the West Bank area of the River Jordan, in what is now the Palestinian Territories. He wrote an open letter to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius and his sons. He wrote: “So we worship God only, but in temporal matters we gladly serve you, recognizing you as emperors and rulers, and praying that along with your imperial power you may also be found to have good judgment. Suppose you pay no attention to our requests and our frank statements about everything. That will not injure us, since we believe, and are convinced without doubt, that everyone will finally experience the restraint of divine judgment in relation to their voluntary actions. Each will be required to give account for the responsibilities which he has been given by God.” (FIRST APOLOGY, 17)
Perovskia: Russian Sage

When Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25) he doesn’t mean that we have compartments in our lives. You can’t let the world claim part of you, or claim part of yourself for your self, and then let God have the rest.

You can’t have different rooms in the house of your life. Imagine thinking your life was compartmentalized into separate rooms where you could live a different life in each. Imagine having a politics room, and a money room, and a family room, and a religion room, and thinking you could be one person in the religion room and a different person in your family room, and still another person in your politics or money room.

If your life was a house, you would be God’s house, and God would be the master and have his say in all the rooms. But in my story, you are in a great game; and your politics, and your citizenship, and your family life, and your financial life, and your spiritual life are all played out on the same field with everyone there.

You are a player in God’s game of life and you are not divided into 10 percent here and 50 percent there. Wherever you are in the game, even, if you are on the side lines, you are in it 100 percent, or 200 percent (as a coach might put it), or not at all. And that includes your identity as a citizen of the republic and your identity as a saint, a person who belongs to God.

When Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”, he tells us that Caesar is not God. The world and the culture we live in is not our God. We have no reason to listen to the world around us, or to the culture we live in, if they tell us something different than what God tells us.

When we are ready to give to God what belongs to God, then we are ready to give him our very selves (our whole selves), and we immediately become potential revolutionaries and mavericks. We immediately become ready to contradict what the world and the culture says. After all, Peter says, “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Honor is an attitude of respect. Fear is a sense of awe and wonder. Fear engulfs honor. The world cannot compete with God.

Peter says, “Honor all men.” And he says, “Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17) There is just one Greek word originally used for how we are to relate to an emperor, or to just anyone; even though some translations use a different word in each phrase. Honor is the one thing that is meant in both places. Any human being Peter met he would honor just as much as he might honor the emperor.

This was revolutionary. It is said that there were more than 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire during the first century. They were nothing more than mere property in the eyes of the law, in the eyes of the culture.

But for Peter, looking through the eyes of Jesus, any single slave, working in a quarry, or a farm, or a kitchen, or a shop, was the emperor’s equal: that was his brother. This was revolutionary. This was as much as treason.

We live in a world and a culture that have very little understanding of respect and honor. I think the church is supposed to be a culture of respect and honor. This culture used to be reinforced (more or less) by the world around us.

But now the world teaches us to laugh at people, or point a finger at them, or rant and rave about them, or just ignore them. Everyone we laugh at, every one we accuse, every one we hate, everyone we ignore is some one who is the image of the living God, someone for whom Christ has died. What are our election campaigns and political programs teaching us about the importance of respect, as citizens?

Peter writes about the Christian’s freedom. Our freedom comes from the love of God working in the cross of Christ, setting us free from our sin, and setting us free from the power of death.

There is a real freedom that is God-given. It gives us the ability to stand up against the false reasoning, the false priorities, and the false fears of the world around us.

There is a false freedom, Peter warns against it. (2:16) Peter warns us that we are tempted to think we have the freedom to do whatever is convenient for us. We are tempted to think that we have the freedom to do whatever makes us feel good, no matter what affect it has on others.

When a person’s personal freedom is more important that the life of an unborn child; that is a false freedom. When a business saves a worker’s benefits and then lays them off so as not to have to pay them a pension, that is their using their right of proprietorship as a false freedom (it’s a broken promise, after all).

I think the economic failures that continue to haunt our country and our world began because so many people in banking and investments thought that they had a right to get what they wanted just because they wanted it, and they gambled with what other people entrusted to them under false pretenses and false assurances. That was the false freedom of greed. Nations decline when they become addicted to the worship of false freedoms.

True freedom is to be a servant of God, who lays out a great game before us, for us to play in, and not hold back at the parts of the game we don’t like.

God himself is the major player of the game. He played in every part of it. He came down from heaven and was born in a stable. He played as a child, and learned to work with his hands at an early age. He left his work to teach others. He made passionate friends and passionate enemies. He was misunderstood. He stood up to the powerful. He stood up to the Roman governor, who was the local arm of the empire.

Birdbath in my frontyard
He identified with the sins and evils of this world, and died to defeat them. He died and rose from the dead to save us from our sins, and give us the freedom of the children of God.

God still loves this game. It gives him joy to play in it. And it gives him joy to watch us play.

It is a game that takes up the whole of your life, and involves you in the whole of life on this planet. There is nothing of which we can say that God has nothing to do with it. There is nothing that goes on in this world that God wants us to be indifferent to.

The election we are all thinking about is a reminder that we all have an invitation to God’s great game. Whether it is Washington, or Olympia, or Washtucna, or Kahlotus, or anywhere: nothing is off God’s playing field. Freedom is a life where everything matters, and everything counts, and no one is to be left out, and no one is off the hook.


  1. Everything matters, everything counts.
    What a very well written sermon this is.
    I am glad to see your post here. Hope you are well.

  2. Amen. Thank you for the reminder that all humans are children of God, made in his image - it's one I need to remember daily.