The Epistle to Diognetus was written between 130 and 200 A.D. by a member of the Johannine community. In commenting on the place of Christians in the world is opines that “Every foreign country is (our) fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country.” Every foreign country is (our) fatherland because Christians live in virtually every nation in our world. Every fatherland is a foreign country because as Christians we know that our true citizenship is not in the nations of this world but in the Kingdom of God. As Paul says in Philippines 3, “Our commonwealth (citizenship) is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our humble bodies to be like his glorious body.” You and I hold dual citizenship. How then should we live?
What does the Bible say?
1. Christians should seek the welfare of the nation in which we live. In Jeremiah 29, the prophet speaks to the exiles in Babylon in the name of the LORD saying:
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
We seek the welfare of the nation in which we live when we participate as fully as possible in its common life. In Matthew 22, Jesus said that we should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. He was speaking of paying taxes, but most scholars believe this also gives Christians the right and duty of serving in the armed forces of their nations, conscience permitting, and, of course, it gives us the right to vote, where it is allowed, as long as it is allowed.
2. Christians should live lives of good conscience and blameless reputation. 1st St. Peter 3:17 says “it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong.” This means that at the very least, we should abide by the law of the nations in which we live, as long as those laws do not come into conflict with the higher law of God. In Romans 13:1, St. Paul writes:
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Paul said this at a time when the Roman peace and Roman roads and his own Roman citizenship facilitated the preaching of the gospel. This statement is definitely time conditioned. I am not sure he would have praised the Roman government as “God appointed,” on that day when the Roman guards came to lead him to the chopping block where he lost his head, which according to tradition he did.
We are grateful that we live in a democracy where the most basic laws are compatible with the laws of God. They protect us from ourselves and from one another. We revere the great moral imperatives like ”You shall not kill, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal, and “You shall not bear false witness.” These are almost universal. The Code of Hammurabi is a good example. It dates to 1800 B.C., well before the giving of the law at Sinai. It was the first legal code to establish the idea that one is innocent until proven guilty. Today, the Supreme Court building features carvings of Hammurabi along with carvings of Moses and Solomon, among others.
3. Christians should concern ourselves with the economy, with poverty, and wealth. In Proverbs 30 we read:
8 (LORD) Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, 9 lest I be full, and deny you, and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.
Many scholars affirm that, in the Bible, God is always on the side of the righteous poor. That is true, but the key word here is “righteous.” Poverty by itself is no guarantee of God’s blessing. It is also true that Jesus asks some people to give up all that they have to follow him, but the Bible never commands mandatory poverty for all God’s people. Likewise, some people say that “Money is the root of all evil.” The Bible never says that, but 1st Timothy 6:10 does say that “the love of money is the root of all evil.”
John Wesley gave the early Methodists sound advice about money. He said, “Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” I like that. Let’s break it down. Wesley said, “ Make all you can.” Like most of you, I always liked it when I got a raise or a good deal on something we really needed. When Ben Franklin said, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” he was not just talking about a savings account. Wesley said, “Save all you can.” Like most of you, I have always had savings and investments of some kind, and I am laying up for my children, which the Bible says is right to do. I certainly don’t want to be a burden to my children, or to the community in which I live. You might recall that when Mahatma Gandhi was trying to free India of British rule, he took a vow of poverty. Perhaps you will also recall that near the end of his life Gandhi said, “My poverty has cost my friends a fortune.” Finally, Wesley said, “Give all you can.” Like most of you, it makes me feel good to give to worthy causes. Elayne and I have been giving to our local church since the 2nd month of our marriage. We have supported World Vision International for almost fifty years. Since 1979, at one time or another, we have supported a number of charitable organizations around Winston-Salem, including Sunnyside Ministry, Crisis Control, the Samaritan Inn, City with Dwellings, and the Moravian Prison Ministry, among others.
It has been my experience that, “It is impossible to out-give God.” If you want Biblical evidence for my conviction, look at 2nd Corinthians chapter 9, wherein St Paul tells us that:
God is able to provide (us) with every blessing in abundance,
so that (we) always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.”
Paul adds that, “God loves a cheerful giver, ” saying “those who sow bountifully, reap bountifully, while those who sow sparingly, reap sparingly.”
Does this mean that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing as the Sadducees believed in the time of Jesus? I don’t think so. The Navajo origin myth associated the ability to get wealth with witchcraft, for they knew that wealth can worm its way into the human heart and do it much harm. Jesus would have agreed. In Matthew 6:4 he said, “You cannot serve two masters: for either you will hate the one and love the other; or else you will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” And in Matthew 19, Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven.” Even if that is oriental hyperbole that is a scary statement. Even if there was a narrow gate into the city of Jerusalem called “The Eye of the Needle,” it troubles most of us. Thankfully, when his disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus said, “With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Today Americans celebrate CEOs who make salaries c. 350 times larger than their workers, movie stars, sports stars, and dot.com entrepreneurs who make hundreds of millions of dollars, and sometimes billions. We ought rather to celebrate those people like Andrew Carnegie who said that the rich should pay back society, and Warren Buffett who has pledged to give away 99 percent of his billions before he dies. Of course, we also celebrate those who have formed a giving habit of giving. If you watch Masterpiece Mysteries, you know that PBS thanks Darlene Shiley and Conrad Prebys for their contribution, but it also thanks “Viewers Like You” (and me!). Don’t fret that you don’t have a lot to give. After Jesus and his disciples watched the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury, Jesus and his disciples watched a poor widow drop in two copper coins. And Jesus said that the widow put in more than all of them, for she had put in her whole living, all that she had.
4. God gave us freedom to do right and freedom to do wrong. Human Freedom is a basic element of Christian theology. With this in mind Christians ought never to force our faith convictions upon others. We may win the argument. We may even win the culture wars, but we invariable lose those people whom we forced to abide by our choices. E. Stanley Jones tells the story of two Catholic priests who accompanied a Roman Legion to Gaul. After one notable Roman victory, the priests baptized a defeated German tribe in a river. The baptism was not business as usual. As each warrior went under the water, he held up his sword arm. The warriors were giving notice that the issue between their tribe and far-off Rome was not forever settled. Their descendants made good on their promise when the tribes sacked Rome in August of 410 A.D.
Speaking of long, never-ending conflicts, people ask me how I fee1 about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. Since I fully support the position of neither party I will answer. I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I have never liked the idea of using abortion as after-the-fact birth control and would much prefer that people who are having sex, whether inside or outside of marriage, take responsibility for their actions. About 60% of abortions occur in marriage which seem way to high for me. On the other hand, I fear that the end of Roe v. Wade will put at risk the people who can least afford to be at risk. The rich will continue to have access to abortions as we always have. Likewise, most states will continue to allow abortion to save the life of the mother. However, even this basic right may be complicated in states where doctors face serious charges for performing unnecessary abortions. Likewise, a number of states will deny abortion to young women and underage girls who are victims of rape, incest, various forms of abuse, and youthful indiscretion. These young mothers will bring a new life into the world, but it will often be a world of unbelievable poverty and risk. In my mind, if we live in a society that denies a fourteen or fifteen-year-old victim the right to abortion we are making a moral contract with her to see to it that she can afford to raise her child. Many people consider all abortions tantamount to murder, and they will say that my stand on abortion is far too open. However, I would remind those people that most abortions occur quite naturally. Does this make God a murderer? I am not being flippant when I say this single fact deserves much prayerful consideration. Of course, abortion is a complicated issue. For instance, “What do you believe about the transmigration of the soul?” Or, “What do you really know about the start of human life?” I believe we can all agree that abortions should be limited. Obviously many disagree about how limited.
5. Christians must look with clear eyes upon the sins and imperfections of the nation in which we live. We know from Scripture that “God chastens those whom he loves.” God’s people must do likewise. We train our children up in the way they should go, and we must do the same with the nations in which we live. The ideals of American Democracy have no equal. Of course, we have not always lived up to our own ideals. Only gradually have we extended the rights and duties of citizenship to more and more people, first uneducated men, then women, former slaves, and native Americans. If you don’t believe this, then read our Constitution. In determining the population for the sake of representation, it counts enslaved people, indentured servants, and untaxed “Indians” as 3/5ths of all other persons. Or, if you prefer you can read the story of Susan B. Anthony and the Suffrage Movement, the story of the Cherokee trail of tears, where the tribe was forced out of its ancestral homes, or the story of the Jim Crow south and the segregated north that endured well into the 1970s. Today, those who grew up in the 1950s enjoy looking back to simpler times. We enjoyed Vacation Bible School, summer picnics, good schools with fine teachers, and growing up in real neighborhoods. I loved my neighborhood and never noticed that it was one of the poorest white neighborhoods in the city.
The 1950s were different for other Americans. They had picnics, but they were denied access to service station bathrooms, hotels, motels, restaurants, lunch counters, and movie theaters. They attended schools that were underfunded, were denied the right to buy houses in certain neighborhoods, and hardly ever saw anybody who looked like them on TV. The framers of the Declaration of Independence acted to form “a more perfect union,” and, gradually, the nation followed their lead. We have made a lot of progress. Our children are among the least prejudiced people ever to have lived, and many more of them “lift-up strong hands after perfection” than their parents have done. And that is a good thing. Maybe, if we learn to work together again, we can still beat those enemies which should concern us—obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, climate change, terrorism, and, above all, ignorance.
It has been said that there are two mistakes that Christians make regarding the church. On the one hand, some of us love the church as it is so much that we fail to see the church as it might be. On the other hand, some of us love the church that might be so much, that we fail to love the church as it is. The same is true of how people look at our nation. Some of us love our nation uncritically and deny any need for change. These folks say, “Love it or leave it.” That is demonstrably wrong and certainly out of step with our founders and our long history of progress. Others see an idealized version of America, and they push so hard for that vision that they ignore the needs of the people who live here now. We cannot do that. We have to provide for people who are now digging coal, at the same time we are beating climate change. In Galatians 6:10 St. Paul says, “Let us work for the good of all.” And in 1st Corinthians 12, when the apostle is discussing the make-up of Christ’s body, he is quick to point out that “the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable…and require the greater honor.” Jesus, Paul, and all the saints of the Old and New Testament would say “Amen!” to a final quote by Gandhi. The Mahatma said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
Speaking of the vulnerable. Last week, while serving as a pastor in residence at Holden Beach Chapel, I had dinner with a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army. I found we shared a common concern for the great generation of American veterans who have given so much to fight the war on terror. Modern combat medicine has saved many lives but left men and women broken in body, mind, and spirit. It has been rightly said that “We live in the home of the free because of the brave,” I propose that we remember them today. I have placed a special offering in the rear of the church for Disabled American Veterans. I have put in the first check. I would love for you to add to it if you are able.*
Report: Twenty-five people gave just under $400.00 to the DAV in this one-time offering.