This post is the reproduction of a sermon that I recently preached. If you are looking for political discussion, this is probably as close as you are going to get here on Der Evangelische Theologe. The sermon isn’t political per se, but it was given in something of a political context – the Fourth of July with a congregation that tends to be decidedly more ‘right of center’ than I would place myself. Because I was only the summer intern, I felt caught between two responsibilities: first, my responsibility to preach the Gospel as I understand it; and second, to be sensitive to the context of the congregation and my own position as a guest among them. My attempt to walk the tightrope resulted in the following, which was relatively well received.
Readings: Isaiah 63.1-6; Matthew 10.32-9; Revelation 19.11-16
John Calvin. Some of you know nothing of the history and doctrine that goes with this name. Some of you know quite a bit. And some of you have been attempting to learn more through my clumsy efforts over the past three Tuesday nights. When Rev. Rob and I sat down to schedule when I would preach to you all, and when we saw that July 2nd was the most opportune date, it occurred to both of us that it might be productive to reflect on a particular facet of Calvin’s life. Most of Calvin’s time was spent reforming the laws and morals of the city of Geneva in Switzerland. This involved extensive interaction with the city’s government. It is here that we find Calvin’s significance for us on this Fourth of July weekend. On this weekend every year, the church is faced with a problem. How should the church and the national government be related? The United States of America has made illegal the establishment of a religion, which is to say that there can never, without drastic modification to the Constitution, be a national religion. This ensures that many different kinds of Christians and even many other people of non-Christian faiths are given freedom to practice their religions without being discriminated against. This is a wonderful thing, and it is wonderful for two reasons. Not only is it wonderful because people of all religions are free to practice their beliefs, but it is wonderful because it ensures that peoples of faith can practice their religions without government interference. The government cannot tell a church what it may and may not preach about. The government cannot tell a church that it must care for some people and not others. The government cannot decide what color a church’s hymnals will be.
So, here in the United States of America the practice of religion is relatively free from government control. We have every cause to thank God for this situation. The question of the relation of government to the church in the United States of America is settled. But, there is one more question. What of the relationship of the church to the government? Although the government does not control the church, should the church control the government? Should the church participate in governing? Should individual Christians hold government offices? These kinds of questions are brought home to us in a special way today because we draw near to the day when the United States of America celebrates its independence.
In my reflecting this week I was reminded of the similarity between how the relationship between the church and the government of the United States of America resembles that of Calvin’s Geneva. Calvin’s greatest battle in Geneva was to establish for the church a measure of freedom from government control in a society that was used to the same person wielding both sacred and secular authority. Calvin understood that these were in fact two different kinds of authority. He knew that the church needed to be free from the civil government because the civil government is only a temporary thing. When the end arrives and Jesus returns to the earth, there will be no more need for civil government. Why? Because there will be no more sin. There will be no more need for protection from the harm that one person all too regularly does to another. In a redeemed world where Christ reigns supreme, all other authority is superfluous. It is not necessary. It will go out the window. But, in the meantime, it is necessary – too necessary.
Why might Christians wonder as to whether they should participate in government? War. For, what is it that war requires but the death of an opposing party? This has always been unsettling for Christians who routinely hear that they should not murder, that they should love their enemies, that they should turn the other cheek, and who aspire to following the example of Jesus who died a humiliating death of crucifixion when he could have easily called down regiments of angels to destroy those who would dare to nail the Son of God to an execution stake. How can a Christian, one who should care about the well being of others more than they care about their own well being, end another human being’s life? How can a Christian, one who has experienced the reconciliation and redemption that comes from Christ, destroy another human being? How can a Christian, one who recognizes that she has been created in the image of God, viciously deny the dignity that comes from carrying that image to someone else? War puts a profound question mark next to the life of any Christian who has participated in this ghastly enterprise. Calvin recognized this difficulty. He argued that these difficult questions are overcome when faced with aggression. When an opposing army threatens a government, that government must defend itself and its people. This is excusable for Christians because to love one’s neighbor greater than one loves oneself might easily include defending one’s neighbor from physical harm. This is even more important for Calvin when the opposing force would, if given the chance, take away the freedom of Christians to worship God without fear or interference.
However, this is not all that Calvin says. We remember that Calvin wanted the government and the church to be separated. We also saw that Calvin understood the government to be only a temporary fix meant to contain human sinfulness until Christ returns to reign at the end of time. The reign of Christ is the kingdom of God. This kingdom started with Christ and it will be completed with Christ at the end of time. In the meantime, Christians are stuck between two worlds – this disgustingly sinful one, and the beautiful sinless one that will be. This is why the church and civil government must be separated. Civil government belongs to the ugly world and the church belongs to the beautiful world. In fact, the church is the part of the beautiful world whose mission it is to tell the ugly world about the beautiful world. How does the church do this? On the one hand, it does this through Word and Sacrament, that is, when we tell people about Jesus, when we share the Lord’s Supper, when we baptize as we did last week. But, on the other hand, the church does this through its life, that is, how it represents itself and acts toward others. How can the church preach about a God who loves us and wants to save us while at the same time it wages war and kills? Even if this has been the way things have happened in history, this is not the way it should be. And, this is precisely why Calvin wanted the church to be separate from civil government. It is not the church’s job to wage war. It is the church’s job to tell people about the peace that Christ has made available and to point people toward the way life will be in the beautiful sinless world.
The big point to remember here is that the church, and individual Christians, must act like Christ. If the church and Christians are to exercise power, it must be the same kind of power as Christ exercises. So, what we must discover is what kind of power it is that Jesus exercises. I’m sure that at least some of you were wondering when I would actually talk about the Scripture passages we read a short time ago. I’m also sure that many of you are wondering how all my talk about how the church and Christians should love as Christ loved, and how Jesus brings peace when we have just read passages that suggest that God has seen and will see his fair share of combat. Furthermore, we read that Jesus himself said that he did not come to bring peace, but to bring a sword, which is to say the he came to wage a war. But, we need to think a little more about what this “sword” that Jesus brings actually is? How is it that Jesus wages war? How is it that he exercises power?
Remember those seven guidelines for reading that Bible that Rev. Rob put in the bulletins last week? Number seven of those guidelines tells us that we should, “Interpret each text in light of the whole Bible.” This is important, because words and images in the Bible take on different meanings when you look at all the places where they occur. So, our task is to see what kind of “sword” Jesus came to bring. In John 18, Peter cuts the ear from the head of one of the chief priests servants. Jesus miraculously healed the servant and rebuked Peter for his action. If Jesus came to bring a sword like Peter thought, this would have been a perfect time to put such a sword-wielding plan into action. But, Jesus didn’t. By saying that he was bringing a sword, Jesus did not mean that he was going to lead an armed revolution. The next place we hear about swords in the New Testament is in Romans 13, where Paul warns the unlawful that governing authorities do “not bear the sword in vain.” But, here it is the government that has a sword, not Jesus or Christians. So, this does not help us figure out what kind of sword Jesus was talking about.
Next, we see a sword pop up again in Ephesians 6.17 when Paul is discussing the armor of God. Here Paul tells us to, “Take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” So, this sword is the word of God, Scripture. Now we are on to something. And, this idea is strengthened by the next time that we come across swords in Hebrews 4.12. Here, the word of God is again described as a sword. But, it is not just any sword. This sword is both living and active. And, it is even sharper than a double-bladed sword. It pierces so deeply that it gets to the middle of our bones, and it does this in order to judge our thoughts and intentions. Does it make sense that the kind of sword Jesus brought has something to do with the word of God? You will have to decide for yourselves, but I think it might. We have one more passage to look at.
Our last reading for today was from Revelation 19. Here we saw an image of Jesus returning to the earth. This is a pretty striking image. It is a pretty scary image too. If you read on, the battle-scene kicks into high gear, but we need not be concerned with that for right now. What I want you to notice is where the sword is in this image. Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, comes riding out of heaven on a white horse. His eyes are filled with fire, he has a bunch of crowns stacked on his head, and he has blood on his white robes. His name is the Word of God and a sword is coming out of his mouth with which to strike down the nations. Let me ask you, where does a warrior usually hold his sword? The sword should be in Jesus hand, but instead, it is in his mouth. Furthermore, Jesus is called the Word of God here, and we saw that the image of a sword is often connected to the notion of the word of God. Is Jesus himself the sword that he came to bring? Is Jesus himself what will upset the peace of the world – a peace established by the Roman Empire through the use of swords? Is Jesus God’s sword that will destroy and render unnecessary the kind of swords the Roman Empire used? What does all this mean?
There is one more important thing to notice here. Jesus’ robes in this passage are bloody. But, how did they get bloody? He’s just now riding out of heaven. The battle doesn’t start for a few more verses, so it can’t be blood from the enemy. How did his robes get bloody? If we stop a moment and think about what Jesus is best known for, we might get the idea that Jesus’ robes are stained with his own blood, the blood he shed for us on the cross. This image of Jesus riding out of heaven, soaked in his own blood and with a sword coming out of his mouth instead of in his hand, is strange for a reason. It isn’t supposed to be what we expect, because what we expect is an image of power like this ugly sinful world thinks of power. We expect to see an image of Christ with his sword in his hand, striking down his enemies and splattering his robes with their blood. This isn’t the image shown to us because we are dealing here with power as we will one day find in the beautiful sinless world. In the end, Jesus, the word of God, God’s sword, will come again. He will speak the truth, and this is the greatest weapon of all. That truth is that God loves us and that Jesus came to earth not to condemn us, but to redeem us and free us from sin. Sure Jesus came to bring the sword, but this isn’t the same kind of sword that the Roman soldiers carried. He came to bring the sword of the Gospel.
Just what does this have to do with Calvin and with what we were talking about earlier? Calvin knew about these two kinds of swords. That is why he wanted the church separated from government. The church’s job is to explain the sword of the Gospel, not to follow after the sword of the Roman Empire, or the improvised explosive devices of the Iraqi insurgency, or the M16’s of the United States of America’s military forces. In this world of violence, it is certainly necessary to defend ourselves, and the purpose of a government is to do just that. When we are threatened, it is hard to see how Calvin could be wrong in thinking that it is regrettable but admissible to pick up the sword of this ugly world and defend ourselves, our family and our neighbors. But, we must always remember that the church and every Christian is bound by something far more powerful than the sword of this ugly world. We are bound by the sword of the beautiful world, Jesus Christ, the Gospel. It is this sword that we must always wield, even though at times we must wield the other as well. It is this sword of the Gospel that will prevail in the end over every sword of this ugly world. It is this sword of the Gospel that will triumph and bring peace. And always remember that this sword of the Gospel is a living and active sword. It will cut deep down into the bone to judge thoughts and intentions. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself pierced by it. In fact, rejoice when this happens because you are being prepared for the beautiful world that one day will come when Jesus rides out of heaven with a sword in his mouth and his robes soaked in his own blood. Amen.