My text this morning comes from the Letter to the Ephesians, but I also want to cite Paragraph (3) of subsection (c) within section 501 of Title 26 (Internal Revenue Code) of the U.S. Code, which provides a tax-exempt status for:
“Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
This is sometimes called the Johnson Amendment, and what it did was to put into legal form a longstanding recognition of the right of religious groups to engage in prophetic advocacy around any issue, but draws the line at direct involvement on behalf of candidates or parties.
How does that work? It means that back in the 1980’s Cardinal Krol could send out a letter to be read in every Catholic church in Delaware County the Sunday before Election Day urging his people to vote for candidates who opposed legalized abortion and state funding for parochial schools but never said, “Don’t vote for Bob Edgar on Tuesday, because he’s United Methodist clergy.” Today it means that I can tell you that the tax bill currently making its way through Congress would repeal this amendment, and to consider for yourself what it would mean, especially if you think politics and the pulpit need to be kept in a proper relationship.
Christians walk a thin line but a clear one between the need for earthly rule and authority and the recognition of its limits.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22:21]
Disagreement on that point is what led the Romans and the rulers of Jerusalem to nail the upstart rabbi from Nazareth who said that to a piece of wood to die as an example to anybody who might not recognize Caesar’s full authority over every corner of life.
The gospel claims that the effort of earthly powers to supplant God is futile. Earthly power passes from ruler to ruler but eternal power is God’s alone.
“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” [Ephesians 1:20-23]
So when push comes to shove, we recognize earthly power and the people who exercise it. but only in a contingent way.
Jesus was the Messiah, the Chosen One of God. Nobody else has a proper claim to the title, even though every generation sees someone who puts himself or herself forward that way, tsars and Holy Roman Emperors, kings and queens. Sometimes they are totally blatant about it. In 1609, King James I told the English Parliament:
“The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth ... Kings are justly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. For if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God has power to create, or destroy, make, or unmake at his pleasure, to give life, or send death, to judge all, and to be judged nor accountable to none: to raise low things, and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both soul and body due. And the like power have Kings; they make and unmake their subjects: they have power of raising, and casting down: of life, and of death: judges over all their subjects, and in all causes, and yet accountable to none but God only.”
Ummm… no. And “no” is the correct reply to anybody who says that they are going to be the savior of a nation, much less of the world. No politician of any party or stripe will ever bring the kingdom of God.
We find that out time and time again. It was the claim of Pope Pius XI in 1925 that
“If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule, not by their own right, but by the mandate and in the place of the Divine King, they will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer them, having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects. The result will be a stable peace and tranquility, for there will be no longer any cause of discontent.”
That may be good in theory, but the problem is that if a ruler ever forgets or denies that there is a Divine King, that is when they begin to travel the road to tyranny. Twelve years later, this same Pius XI had to write a letter to people in Germany – and he wrote it in German, not Latin, which was not his normal practice – that said,
“Should any man dare, in sacrilegious disregard of the essential differences between God and His creature, between the God-man and the children of man, to place a mortal, were he the greatest of all times, by the side of, or over, or against, Christ, he would deserve to be called prophet of nothingness, to whom the terrifying words of Scripture would be applicable: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them.’ (Psalms ii. 3)."
Then Hitler began sending Catholics to concentration camps along with Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jews.
The Church of Christ is not here to push any political agenda, but to proclaim the gospel. That means that the Church is always going to be questioning – and urging others to question – whether the policies and laws of a nation match the will of God as expressed in scripture. It isn’t because we have the answers to all human situations. It’s because we admit that we do not know everything. Somebody who experienced that intensely was Jimmy Carter. In his memoir, Living Faith, he talks about the need to exercise any kind of power with humility.
“Whether within a church, among a crew of workers building a house, in a family, or in a nation, I have noticed that isolation comes with increasing power or prestige. This can breed arrogance, as truth and sharing suffer when others are not willing to speak up to us or to correct our errors. This is true in military organizations and in governments, including democracies like ours, except that in a free society even the top officials can expect criticism, both constructive and otherwise, from political adversaries and the news media. Appreciated or not, this provides a very beneficial self-corrective influence.”
And he goes on to confess,
“Knowing how many lives could be affected by my decisions, I felt a special need for wisdom and a sense of God’s presence. Although I had a lot of advice from all sides, it was a lonely job during times of crises or when the issues were especially controversial.”
No less than anyone else, those in office remain human beings. If it’s our place to remind them of that, it’s also our place to remind ourselves of that. No human being is without need of God’s grace, nor beyond it. Some of those in the highest places may in fact be the most deeply wounded or troubled. One reason we don’t endorse candidates is that we have the duty to be supportive in a different way. We should be asking the Lord’s help for them as people, which is hard to do when we get caught up in seeing only their good points or only the bad. So we read in I Timothy:
“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and for all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” [I Timothy 2:1-4]
Pat Robertson should be praying for Nancy Pelosi. Franklin Graham should be in prayer for Barney Frank. Jim Wallis should be keeping Mitch McConnell in God’s light. Anyone who’s up for a real challenge might want to take on the grand slam: Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jin Ping.
“For there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all.” [I Timothy 5-6]
Yes, the scripture says, “All.”
 Jimmy Carter, Living Faith (New York: Random House, 1996), 96
 Ibid., 97.