- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 27, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship Psalm 103: 19 – 22
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Lighting of the Christ Candle
Hymn: Bless the Lord (10,000 Reasons)
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Gracious God, we praise you because in Christ you have set us free.
We are free from the bondage of sin, free from death, free from fear, free from despair, free from futility.
We are free to worship you, free to serve others, free to love our neighbour, free to be a blessing, free to lift up the name of Jesus.
We praise you because we live in a land where we are free people,
We are free from the oppression of government, free from state-sanctioned brutality, free from a corrupt justice system, free from slavery, free from war, free from the dire circumstances that is the reality for so many other people.
We are free to be your Church, free to make choices, free to speak, free to act, free to choose our government, free to protest, free to participate.
We confess that we are not a perfect country, and we name before you our faults as a society both now and in the past.
We confess that we are not a perfect church, and we name before you our sin both now and in the past.
Forgive us. Renew us.
We worship today as individuals who are part of a congregation; bind us together in love and unity.
As we offer you our gift of praise, may we magnify your holy name, Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon Isaiah 9: 6 & 7
For a child has been born—for us!
the gift of a son—for us!
He will govern the world.
His names will be:
Prince of Wholeness.
His ruling authority will grow,
and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.
Prayer for Illumination
Lord Jesus, speak to us your living Word, so that we may be worthy citizens of your kingdom. Amen.
Acts 23: 11 & 25: 6 – 11
Romans 13: 1 – 7
Matthew 22: 15 – 22
Being the Church – Church and State
With Canada day coming up, I’m going to speak about the relationship of Church and State. The on-going discoveries of burials on residential school properties make this a difficult topic. I have addressed that in depth in my sermon of June 4, 2021. The Church is far from perfect; it is particularly shameful when Christians deliberately abuse children. This sermon doesn’t diminish that. My purpose is to address how we, as Christians, relate to the government from a theological, historical, and Biblical perspective as we move forward.
Every year the General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada sends greeting to Her Majesty, the Queen and to the government of Canada. This makes me smile. I picture our heads of state anxiously pacing the floor, running to get the mail, and flicking through the envelopes in anticipation of receiving this vital correspondence from the PCC. I’m sure they’re frantic if August comes and it hasn’t arrived. They likely have staff whose sole task it is to track down our letters. After this, we send a bevy of emails to various departments of government encouraging them to do x, y, or z. These usually affirm what they’re already doing, but it must ease the minds of our elected officials to get the PCC stamp of approval. These messages, no doubt, are framed and hung in offices throughout the parliament buildings and recited daily, like a mantra. They are probably referenced at every meeting. I suspect, the truth is, no one cares what we think. This raises the question: Does it matter? Many people who champion the “separation of Church and State” would say it’s positive. They’d say the Church’s input is not needed by the government. They’d argue that the Church should not have a voice in our country or be involved in politics or in the decisions of government. They’d say that no political party should have a Christian influence and we should keep our beliefs to our selves. Many would think that the rights of the Church (if any) should be subordinate to the State and the Church should passively follow the government’s lead.
However, the “separation of Church and State” (SCS) is a misunderstood concept, even among Christians. The concept of SCS goes back at least as far as Jesus who said, “…give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his” (Matthew 22: 21). In other words, pay your taxes – respect the government, but don’t put them first. Your money, your allegiance and your soul belong to God. In the early days of the Church SCS was simply a reality, as Christians were living under Roman political rule but spiritually under the Kingship of Christ. (Rome, by the way, had no separation between religion and state as every Caesar declared himself a god among the pantheon of Roman deities.) Because “no one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6: 24), whether wealth or Rome, the Early Church lived in sort of “parallel universe”, where Jesus was Lord. Jesus, not Caesar, was their ultimate authority. Deference to the state was treason against God’s kingdom. Many Roman emperors, like Nero, perceived this as a threat to their position, and viciously persecuted the Church. The Early Church was constantly navigating their way between their faith and the government. In the 300’s AD, under Emperor Constantine, Christianity became the state religion. Because the Roman state ran the world, Christianity became the dominant world religion and “Christendom” emerged. By the Middle Ages, the popes of Rome claimed both spiritual authority and secular power, vying with emperors for supremacy, ruling over much of Europe, and legislating the norms of society. Since the Pope was hailed as Christ’s representative on Earth, King’s across Europe submitted to the Pope’s authority. Until Henry the eighth wanted a divorce and broke with the RCC. Henry, (or maybe Anne Boleyn) saw an opportunity to gain more power. He passed “The Act of Supremacy” which meant the newly formed Church of England was under the authority of the King, not the other way around. Then came the Reformation. The Reformers, like the early Church, believed that Christ is “the only King and Head of the Church”. They saw corruption within the papacy, and politics being put before service to Christ. Some broke away from state churches to become separate entities, first and foremost accountable to Christ. In Scotland, The Church of Scotland is a presbyterian denomination which is the official state church. Although the Queen vows to uphold their constitution, she also officially appoints the moderator each year. On two occasions (1977 & 2002), the Queen herself opened their general assembly. So there’s a tight relationship between the Church and State. But Scotland also has the Free Presbyterian Church – which I can tell you from personal experience is not “free” in their style of worship, their lifestyle, their control over the community, the way they dress or anything else. So, why are they called the “free” Church? Because they’re free from any official relationship with the monarchy or government of Britain. It’s the “free church” theology that shaped the PCC; that’s why we’re called the Presbyterian Church in Canada, not the PC of Canada. Why is it important for the Church to be free of the state? Apart from the fact that nearly every time the Church has “gotten into bed” with the government, it’s brought out the worst in us, being separated from the state is important because when a government is over the Church or their relationship is enmeshed, the Church is not free to follow Christ according to their own conscience, or to put the will of God before the laws of the land, or to speak a prophetic word to the nation. And those freedoms are key to the SCS. The two are not separate so that the Church stays out of the government’s business; they are separate, so the government stays out of the Church’s business. Under the separation of Church and State, the state does not interfere with church law or procedures, they cannot force the Church to act against our conscience, and they can’t deny a generally available benefit on account of religious identity. This separation protects our freedom of religion, our freedom to petition the government, our freedom to speak and defend our faith, our freedom to worship and, for Christians, our freedom to believe in Christ. On the other hand, it leaves the Church free to advice or critique the state according to our faith. The state is free to heed the Church or not.
In the book of Acts, Paul is arrested by the Romans, for starting a riot when he tells his Jewish listeners that Gentiles are included in God’s kingdom. He is kept prisoner for 2 years, with limited liberties. At various times, Paul could have been freed, but he kept insisting that as a Roman citizen, he has a right to a trial in the highest Roman court. Paul wasn’t concerned about his fate, or the justice of his situation, or his rights as a Roman citizen, or even the humiliation to his ego that he’s experienced as a prisoner. Paul has another reason for going to Rome. Jesus has called him to go there and witness to the emperor, who at that time (57 – 59 A.D.) was Nero (54- 68) So, seeing an opportunity to get to Rome, Paul claims his rights as a Roman citizen. He uses the law, in order to fulfill Christ’s calling. The church today is still called to speak the gospel to our leaders. We are called to remind the government of the teachings of scripture and particularly those of Jesus. We’re called to remind the government that they are accountable not only to the people but also to God. However, unlike the governor Felix who gave Paul an audience so he could hear what Paul was teaching, people aren’t really interested in what the church says or is doing. The recent decision of GA for the inclusion of LGBTQI would have been front page news 20 years ago, but I couldn’t find a report in any mainstream media. The Church gets worked up about many things, yet we’re not disturbed that we’ve become voiceless and are of no consequence to the culture around us. To some degree the Church has brought that on ourselves by not loving people as Christ loved. We need to regain our integrity so that we can reclaim our voice.
However, being free from the state doesn’t mean we need to be hostile to the state. In our passage from Romans, Paul is writing to Christians who are living in a pagan society, ruled by the elite. Under Nero, the government is hostile to Christians, so Paul offers them guidelines for survival. How do they stay loyal to Christ without causing needless tensions with the state? Paul encourages each Christian to, “Be a good citizen.” In other words, if we behave and stay under the radar, we should be fine. His reason for this is that “All governments are under God” (Romans 13:1). Governments exist by the will of God. That’s a problematic statement! While it is true that all governments are subject to God, it doesn’t mean the people within those governments respect God’s authority or seek his will. For instance, after a fired destroyed about ¾ of the city of Rome, Nero used the Christians as scape goats. According to the historian Tacitus, “a vast multitude [of Christians] were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of “hating the human race. In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to [while still alive], and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights.” The Roman Christians hid in the Catacombs (an underground cemetery) or passively submitted to the government. How is one a “good citizen”, faithful to Christ under those types of regimes? What if the evil isn’t directed at us, but at another group? What if a whole nation is being terrorized or systematically killed? Too often, the passage from Romans has been used by Christians (even Luther) for either doing nothing in the face of evil or actively supporting it, as in Nazi Germany. But that response doesn’t take in all of what Paul said. He continues, “Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen” (vs. 2). Generally, Christians are to be respectful of the state, but Paul distinguishes between a state that is in line with God’s reign of peace and order, and one that’s not. When the state is not doing what’s best for all of it’s people, or when it acts in ways that are anti-Christ, it’s up to the Church to lead the way in prophetic critique, reform, or civil disobedience. In WW ll, some Christians felt it was more important to submit to Christ rather than the government, so they risked their lives by hiding Jews or helped get them out of the country.
How do we apply this today? What is it to be a good citizen in Canada? Because the government is not to meddle in the Church’s freedom to worship, some congregations have adamantly defied the lockdown orders, ignoring the government imposed restrictions on congregations during CoVid. They would argue the government doesn’t have the authority to deny us the right to worship. Some would say this is a form of persecution and it sets a dangerous precedent. Your Session chose to follow government guidelines. It was a difficult to limit the coming together of God’s people, particularly for our primary purpose of worship. We followed the government’s guidelines because we believed the government was doing its best to care for all Canadians in extraordinary circumstances. We were also concerned that we, as leaders of Christ’s Church, do what’s best for the people under our care. So, we got creative and found other ways to worship, albeit with limitations. Since the government did not single out Christians alone, but gave the same advice to every faith group, and beyond that to businesses and families, we didn’t see their actions as a form of persecution. Do the government’s actions set a dangerous precedent? Absolutely. If the government can order the Church to close down under these circumstances and go so far as to fine those who didn’t, it becomes easier for the government to usurp authority over us under other, less altruistic circumstances. Depending on the situation, the Church could be swept along into action that would not honour Christ, just as the RCC and Lutheran churches in Germany hung swastikas in their sanctuaries and sent their children to war, in support of an evil regime. Christians need to stay alert and follow Jesus. We are not sheep following all of the government’s whims or demands; we follow the Good Shepherd alone. So, should the government put a ban on Christian worship for no good reason, our reaction would need to be much more defiant. We would continue to be Christ’s worshipping body. If other faith groups are given privileges denied to us, we need to speak up. The separation of Church and State should mean that no group is persecuted for their faith. Christians need to speak up not only for the rights of others, but for our own rights should they be denied. For our part, the Church should willingly be accountable for our actions, but no one should ever be abused, imprisoned or killed simply for their faith. As Christ’s Church, we must always defend our right to freely believe and act, without government interference or pressure to support a particular regime. We give to God’s what is God’s.
Christendom is long over. The opinion of the Church is no longer sought by the culture around us. The Church has become irrelevant. That should wake us up. It is cause for concern. Going forward, we need be “good citizens” and even better Christians, reflecting the love of Christ in ways that are irreproachable. We always need to be ready to defend our faith (1 Peter 3:15), as well as our freedom of belief and our right to worship. We need to speak a truly prophetic word to our government when required. We need to defy our government if necessary. And, above all, we need to stand outside of secular structures to serve with integrity our only Head and King, Jesus Christ.
Silent prayer and reflection
Holy Spirit, we come before you today, renewing our submission to your authority. Use us and our gifts to join you in creating the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Hymn: Thou Whose Almighty Word
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
You are our only King and Head, and we thank you that we are citizens of your kingdom and heirs of your realm.
We come before you today, with grief in our hearts for the many lives that are represented in the bodies of indigenous children being found on reservations across our country. We are ashamed for the Church and for our government. In light of that, we pray for healing and reconciliation between our nation, our church and our indigenous people. Show us how to do better in the future in ways that are respectful, productive, responsive and caring.
We are grateful that we are striving to building a country and church that will do better. We are grateful that we have built a country which values freedom and believes in the rule of the people. Lead us as we build a country which seeks to lift all people up and to provide for their needs.
We thank you that we are a country that can include a great deal of diversity. We pray that you would heal our prejudices and resentments, so that all can live safely and freely. We pray for those who need healing from the things they’ve experienced in other places.
We thank you that we are a country of relative harmony. Where there is increasing violence, bring new life in Christ and give your peace.
We thank you that we live in a beautiful country with a varied landscape. We thank you that you have blessed us with natural resources, farmland, and water.
We thank you that we have freedom to believe and worship you. Help us always to keep you first and give us boldness to speak and strength to resist whatever evil could emerge. Give us wisdom to see clearly.
We thank you for bringing our country through CoVid. We pray for those who grieve. We give thanks for our health care workers and for essential workers who have risked their lives and that of their families. As restrictions begin to lift, remove our fear and keep us vigilant.
We pray for all those we know who are in need. Give them health in body, mind and spirit. Draw them to you that their faith my blossom to sustain them. Provide of our needs.
We pray in the name of Jesus, saying…
The Lord’s prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory. Amen.
Hymn: O Breathe on me, O Breath of God
Invitation to Mission
As citizen’s of Christ’s kingdom we go to bring his reign to earth.
We go in God’s justice and righteousness
We go in God’s love and mercy.
We go to bring honour to our only King and Head, our Lord, Jesus Christ
Benediction May the Triune God bless and keep you.