Sermon: A higher loyalty

Sermon for Williamstown
5th of November, 2018

John 18:33-37

Yesterday was Election Day here in Victoria and all those of us who are eligible voted – I hope. The UK is currently celebrating the centenary of women getting the right to vote, and as I’ve followed that I’ve been reminded of the great privilege it is to be able to participate in a democracy. It is a right that Australian women won earlier than almost any other women in the world, in 1902. New Zealand women had won the right to vote in 1893, but they weren’t allowed to run for Parliament until 1919. Australian women could both vote and stand for parliament from soon after Federation, as long as they were ‘white’. In White Australia only white people could vote, so we can’t be too celebratory about women’s early enfranchisement. But Australia still had complete women’s suffrage earlier than any other country in the world; we were a model for the rest of the world, hence this amazing banner by Dora Meeson Coates, which was carried in suffrage marches in London in 1908 and 1911.

Trust the Women

Every-so-often I think it’s important for us to pause and remember just how astonishing it is that we live in a democracy in which all Australian citizens over the age of 18 are able to vote, and in which changes of government happen peacefully. For most of human history people had no say in who ruled over them, and when those rulers were changed it was by violence. Our electoral system is something to be celebrated. Despite this, we as Christians have an even higher loyalty than our loyalty to our democracy. Democracy is the rule of the majority and sometimes the majority can get things wrong, as it did when only white Australians were allowed to vote. Today, on the last Sunday of the Christian year, we are celebrating the reign of Christ, Christ the King Sunday. Today we affirm that Christ is not just the ruler of our hearts but of the whole world, and that our first loyalty is to him.

That might seem to be an easy and obvious thing to say. We might imagine that the Feast of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ is an ancient one, going back to the first century when the Gospel of Matthew told of magi seeking ‘the child who has been born king of the Jews’ and the book of Revelation described Jesus as ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’. In fact the Reign of Christ is one of the most recent additions to the Christian liturgical calendar. It was initiated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, and then adopted quickly by those Protestant denominations with European roots that were already seeing the gathering threats of fascism and communism. Celebrating the Reign of Christ can be, in some places and at some times, a very brave and radical thing to do. For many Christians it has led to imprisonment and torture. Other Christians have died because of their belief that loyalty to Christ supersedes loyalty to secular rulers.

One example of the courage it can take to acknowledge, promote and celebrate the Reign of Christ comes from one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis in 1945. I have mentioned this before, but I think it bears repeating; in 1933, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer gave a radio broadcast on ‘The leader and the individual’. The word for ‘leader’ in German is, of course, Fuhrer. The authorities recognised how subversive Bonhoeffer was being and cut him off before he could finish, but a couple of months later Bonhoeffer was able to return to the subject in a lecture.

In his broadcast Bonhoeffer argued that no mere human could have ultimate authority over other humans. Ultimate authority lies with God. Bonhoeffer said:

The individual is responsible before God. And this solitude of man’s position before God, this subjection to an ultimate authority, is destroyed when the authority of the Leader or of the office is seen as ultimate authority … The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, be it of the Leader or of an office, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him.[1]

For holding views like these Bonhoeffer was seen as a dangerous and subversive individual. He was following the example of the very first Christians, who were also accused of sedition because they claimed to belong to a ‘kingdom of God’ and a ‘citizenship in heaven’. Christians were thought to be fanatical, obstinate, and defiant. Tacitus called them ‘haters of mankind.’ Christians scorned long-held Roman religious traditions. Christians included slaves and women. Christians refused military service. Christians just did not seem to understand their civic duty. For this reason, some critics even blamed Christians for the fall of Rome.

The problem was not that Christians hated humanity or refused to be part of civil society. The problem was, and is, that Christians have a very different idea of what civil society is like. Christians are citizens first and foremost not of any particular state, whether that’s the Roman Empire or twenty-first century Australia, but of the kingdom of God. That kingdom, as Jesus said to Pilate, is not of this world. As Jesus pointed out, if the kingdom he was announcing was like other kingdoms, his followers would be fighting to keep him from being handed over.

At times, sadly, Christians have confused God’s kingdom with the kingdoms of the world, and have tried to impose Christianity through violence and authority. When we talk about the Reign of Christ, we are not talking about something that can be brought about by inquisitions or by crusades. When we talk about Christ the King it’s important to be clear that he’s not a king with an army or a police force. But he is a King to whom we owe ultimate loyalty. If our commitment to the secular state comes into conflict with our commitment to Christ, then our commitment to Christ is to take priority. This why the Code of Ethics for Uniting Church ministers includes my favourite clause: ‘It is unethical for Ministers deliberately to break the law or encourage another to do so. The only exception would be in instances of political resistance or civil disobedience.’

How do we know when our commitment to the kingdom of God should take priority over our commitment to the secular state? I believe that we should obey the law and live as members of the secular community, except in cases when the secular law or the beliefs of the community actually conflict with the kingdom of God. For us in Australia that very seldom happens. We see what God’s kingdom would be like in the life of Jesus. Jesus created a new community among enemies. The kingdom reconciled a Samaritan woman and a Jewish man, a Roman soldier and a Palestinian peasant, the leprous and the clean, the stranger and the resident, Jew and Greek, tax collector and exploited farmer, male and female, slave and free. The new community gathered around Jesus broke bread together, shared their goods and their lives, and resisted the Roman Empire’s powers of division. The way of Jesus gathered enemies into one community, forgave and reconciled them. The community that Jesus created was the first taste of the peaceable kingdom. King David described this sort of kingship as ‘like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land’.

When the secular state acts in ways opposed to this, as Nazi Germany did in the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and as Australia is doing today in its mistreatment of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru, Christians must remember that our first allegiance is to God.

Jesus’ kingship is unique. Unlike any earthly kingship that is bound by geographic borders, this kingdom is boundless. Christ’s rule is not limited to a particular racial or national group. All are welcome, especially the chronically unwelcome ones. And we are part of it; we too are citizens and subjects of Christ the king. We celebrate this today; let’s celebrate it every day. We belong to God; thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, (London: Collins, 1965) p. 203.

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