Citizenship on Earth
Text: Romans 13:1-7
By: Rev. Garry E. McCaffery
Many, many years ago, when I was in elementary school, I, along with my classmates, were introduced to awards ceremonies. At the end of, what at the time, seemed like extremely long school years, we would be ushered to the school auditorium and presented with various awards for a variety of accomplishments. One of the awards to be handed out, like many of the others, only went to certain individuals. These individuals had to be nominated by the teachers. The award: the “Good Citizen” award. Much to my surprise, my name was called and I was invited on stage to receive a certificate and shake the hand of the principal and have my picture taken with the others selected to receive the award. There were a few years where I received this award and, each time, I was surprised and honored.
Not too many weeks ago, I was excited to hear about another young man who had been nominated by his teacher to receive the “Good Citizen” award. That young man, Kallan, mine and Karen’s, and Jesse and Cheryl’s grandson! My heart swelled with pride to hear he was receiving that award. It was a great joy to watch, even though we had to watch on-line, to hear his name called and to see him come up to receive the award.
Perhaps some of you, and your children, and grandchildren have received the “Good Citizen” award at some time in life. As I thought about these awards, I got to thinking about what it means to be a good citizen. I also got to wondering, does the Bible have anything to say about being a good citizen? As you would guess by the scriptures read this morning, the answer to that is “yes.” Yes, the Bible addresses the topic of citizenship, both citizenship on earth and citizenship in heaven.
As Christians, when it comes to citizenship, one of the things we need to keep in mind is we are citizens of both realms. In other words, so long as we live on this earth, we have a dual citizenship. We are citizens of our country of origin, and we are citizens of heaven. This morning I am going to talk about our earthly citizenship and next week I will focus on our heavenly citizenship.
From the time we are born, at least here in the United States, we are citizens of this country. We are born into citizenship, and we are afforded a great many rights and privileges based on that citizenship. It is a citizenship that no one can take away from us, although it is one we can choose to give up if we decide to emigrate to another country and become a full citizen of that country. We also have the option of dual-citizenship with another country as we so choose. Nevertheless, as citizens we have a great deal of freedom to live however we want to live. This freedom, of course, from our understanding, does not come from the government, rather, it comes from God. God has given us our freedom, and our government has been established, in theory, to protect and guard our freedoms.
Admittedly, government is not a very popular word in our vocabulary these days. There is one thing you can count on being in the news every day and that is some news about the government. It may be an economic report, something to do with foreign affairs, something to do with how the government will handle the climate crisis, the crisis at the southern border, something about the national debt, or a presidential press conference, its all there on the news. Many times it causes us just to shake our heads in wonder and amazement.
Given all of this, how are we, as Christians, to relate to the government? How are we to be good citizens? Paul lays this out for us here in Romans 13:1-7. Just prior to this passage Paul has been teaching his fellow Christians how they are to live their lives in the presence of those who do not believe. He then proceeds to teach them and us to take that one step further by being subject to the government. “Say what? Be subject to the government? Do what the government says I’m supposed to do? Be obedient? Paul, what if these people are eediots?”
Let’s hear again these words from Romans 13:1-2, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
Here we are told that God has appointed the authorities who have governmental power. This, of course, is broader than just the scope of our own government. This would be true of every government everywhere. It is true of democracies and dictatorships. It is true of capitalistic governments and communistic governments. It is true where the bells of freedom ring loudly and clearly and it is true where the bells of freedom are not allowed to ring at all.
As we read through the entire scripture we will find that sometimes God puts good people in power to be a blessing. Sometimes God puts evil people in power to be a curse.
There is one thing that all governments and all governmental rulers have in common. Their authority is given by God and God alone. They will remain in power as long as God allows it.
I want to make sure you understand what I am saying and what I am not saying. Paul is not saying that the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Saddam Husseins and the Kim Jong-Ils of our times have been personally appointed by God and that God is responsible for their behavior and that their authority is never to be resisted. All Paul is simply saying is that no ruler has authority in and of himself. All of his authority comes from God whether he recognizes it or not. Jesus said to Pilate in John 19:11, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”
Did Pilate misuse his authority to condemn Jesus Christ? Absolutely, but the authority he used even to do this had been delegated to him by God. Every government in power today is there for one of two reasons: either God put that authority personally in place or God allows that authority to be in place. That does not mean that a government should always be obeyed and should never be resisted. If the government commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, we have a duty as followers of Jesus Christ to resist and to disobey the government. When Peter and the other apostles were commanded by the civil and religious authorities over them to quit preaching the Gospel, they plainly said in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men!’” (Acts 5:29, NIV)
We have a responsibility to be obedient to the government placed over us, so long as that government does not require us to be disobedient to God.
We are also called upon to be obedient because, when we are living the right way, we do not need to be afraid of the government God has placed over us. In Romans 13:3-7 Paul reminds his hearers that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.” In other words, if we are doing what we are supposed to be doing and living in the way we are supposed to be living we will have nothing to worry about.
Have you ever been driving along and doing the speed limit only to find you have a police officer following you? All of the sudden you feel yourself tense up and really focus on your speed. Then you realize, “why am I worried? I wasn’t doing anything wrong to begin with.” You then relax, especially when the officer turns down another street or passes you, going along their day. The same is true when you’re cruising along on the Thruway and you see an officer sitting in the median ahead of you. If you’re driving like you’re supposed to you just keep cruising along because he or she is not worried about those who are doing the right thing.
The people who have to worry about the authorities are those who are not doing the right thing. This is what Paul is saying. Those who have to fear are those who don’t want to be subject to any law. The government is there to look after the preservation of the liberty and freedom of those it serves and to protect those who are good from those who are doing evil.
To be a good citizen means to be obedient to the government authority that is over us because God has placed it over us. It also means to live in such a way that we do not need to fear punishment or judgment. Which leads to doing the other things we are required to do which Paul lays out in verses 6 and 7. “For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”
Awe, maaannnn….why did Paul have to equate paying taxes with good citizenship? If you are like me when it comes to paying taxes, then there is not a great amount of joy to parting with money you have worked hard for. Especially when you’re not sure about how it is all going to be used. However, if we believe God established governmental authority and He did so for our good, then paying taxes is the most obvious and universal expression of support for the government God put in place.
Consider our gospel reading from Matthew 17 regarding the temple tax. Tax collectors came to Peter and asked if Jesus paid the temple tax. Peter said, “yes.” Then Peter went to Jesus, who could have refused to pay the tax as He is the Son of God, to tell Jesus about his encounter with the tax collectors. Jesus then told him how to get the money and to go and pay the tax for both of them. Jesus paid the tax so as not to offend the authorities. We are called to be obedient in the same way Christ was obedient.
Obedience to God and obedience to the State can quite often go hand in hand. The citizenship we have on earth offers us an incredible opportunity to demonstrate to the world what it means to have a relationship with Jesus through the way we show respect to our earthly government. We show this respect because we believe in God, who is a God of authority, who has established the authority of government, to provide for our safety, secure and protect our liberty, and be a blessing to those who honor and obey God’s commands. The way we live our lives in relationship to the government and to each other can demonstrate our relationship with God. Through these actions we live out our “good citizenship” as God’s people here on earth. Amen.