Living as Foreigners
Jubilate Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| May 7, 2006| 1 Peter 2:11-20
We Christians are sojourners and pilgrims in this world. Our citizenship is in another country. Our true home is heaven. In heaven there are no laws. You don’t need any laws because there is no crime. In fact, there is no sin. There is no temptation to sin. There is nothing evil at all. Nobody dies in heaven. Nobody hates. Nobody lusts for what is wrong. You don’t need armies, policemen, courts, or the threat of punishment. In heaven we will do what comes naturally to do and it will always be good and holy, loving and kind. We will not be at war with anyone. We will feel no tinge of guilt, regret, remorse, or sadness. The death and sorrow of this world will never be brought to mind. We will enjoy fellowship with Christ and all His Christians. Our union with the Holy Trinity, established in Holy Baptism, will be the source of eternal joy for us.
Heaven is the home of every Christian. We are not there yet. We belong there. But we live here. As long as we live in this world we are living as guests. Jesus warns us against setting our affections on the things of this world. He also tells us that we are the salt of the earth. The reason God keeps this world going is for the sake of His Church. God will preserve this world as long as the Church is in the world. When He chooses to bring His Church to heaven He will destroy the world. Meanwhile He cares for this world because He loves His Church. He has pledged Himself to His holy church, and He cannot go back on His word. So He preserves in this world a Communion of Saints, a holy Church, a people that belong to Him.
Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew that the world would come to an end tomorrow. He said he would plant a tree. To live on the edge of eternity does not mean that we ignore our responsibilities here and now. The fact that our hope rests elsewhere than in this world does not mean that we should care nothing for the world in which we live. If you are a guest in someone else’s home you should not trash the place. You should show respect. To live as if we may be in heaven tomorrow is the most responsible way to live. We know that heaven is our home because it has been purchased for us by Christ’s blood. We may be pilgrims passing through but this is where God has placed us. We are citizens of two countries at the same time: the eternal country and the temporal one. Our text for this morning teaches us how we, as citizens of Christ’s eternal kingdom, should live in the kingdoms of this world.
The word “kingdom” sounds strange as a description of our country. We don’t have kings these days, at least not in America. St. Peter mentions specifically kings and governors because that’s what they had in those days. The Bible doesn’t specify what kind of government we ought to have. We are to submit to the laws of whatever government we have. The Bible wasn’t written to teach governments of this world how to govern. It is a Christian book written to proclaim the Christian faith. It isn’t an American book written to tell us how our country should be governed. A Christian can live as a faithful citizen under any type of government. St. Peter said, “We must obey God, rather than men” when the authorities told him that he couldn’t preach the gospel. There are times when Christians must disobey the government. But this is only when we are commanded to do wrong or when we are forbidden to do what God demands. The apostles, speaking with the full authority of Jesus Christ, taught the early church to submit to godless governments. This is not submitting to godlessness. It is submitting to the law as that law is imposed by godless people. Even godless governments are servants of God.
As Christians living in America we need to learn to distinguish between two different kinds of authority. The authority of the church and the authority of the state are fundamentally different. The state’s authority is coercive. The state has the power to punish people who do wrong. Recently a jury deliberated for several days whether to impose the death penalty or life without parole on a man connected to the 9 / 11 attacks on our country. The state has the authority to punish such men. This is how civil order is maintained. Without the coercive power of the state there would be anarchy. Anarchy is worse than the most repressive and godless governments.
When the government loses the ability to punish criminals it loses its ability to govern. Everyone knows this. This is why when people think of a government they think of punishment. They think of the power of the sword or the gun. Without that power there is no government. The very idea that there could be a government that governs effectively and has no use for force of any kind is too radical to believe. In fact, it defies reason. This is why Christ’s government is so often misunderstood. The prophet said, “The government shall be upon His shoulder.” He called Him the Prince of peace. His government and the peace it brings have nothing whatsoever to do with force, with laws, with threats of punishment, or with any of the other necessities of earthly governments. It is a government with no rules at all.
How does this work? How can God rule over us without telling us what to do? Listen to how God described this rule through the prophet Ezekiel:
For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezekiel 36:24-27)
Here is how God described this government through the prophet Jeremiah:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law in their minds, and write in on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, say the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
This is the kingdom of Christ. God rules over us without coercion. He cleanses our hearts. He takes out the stony, unbelieving heart, and replaces it with a heart of flesh. He changes the way we think and feel. He forgives our sins. He refuses to remember them. This is how He sets us free. This is how He changes us on the inside. He rules over us by means of taking off of us our burden of sin and guilt.
This is why He rules from Calvary. Mt. Sinai can threaten. It can curse. It can provide standards for civil law that no ingenuity of men could improve upon in thousands of years of trying. But what Sinai cannot do is to change the sinful heart of fallen man. It cannot make the unwilling willing. Only the Spirit of Christ can do that. Remember how Jesus pointed to the wounds He suffered on the cross right before breathing the Holy Spirit into His apostles? Then Jesus gave to His church the power of the keys, the power to forgive and retain sins. The power of the Holy Spirit is the power of Christ’s vicarious suffering on the cross. It’s the power of the forgiveness of sins that comes from the blood shed on Calvary. When the Holy Spirit seals to you the full forgiveness of all your sins He also sets you free. The freedom of a Christian renders any and every law superfluous. We have no use of law, rules, and regulations. We are free without them. We belong to a kingdom that no law can touch. No threat can undo the freedom we have because it was purchased by Christ Himself. He withstood and faced down all of the threats of divine retribution against sinners. He took everything every law could throw at Him. No law could find any fault in Him, and by innocently suffering in our stead He fulfilled all the demands of divine justice once and for all.
The freedom Christ gives us is not something for which we must wait while remaining enslaved by the law here and now. No! It is now! Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” It is because we are free that we may submit to every ordinance of man. It is because we are free that we can abstain from fleshly lusts that war against the soul. As Christians against whom there is no threat and no judgment of God’s law we can live the pure lives we are called to live. In heaven all sinful desire will be gone. Fixing our eyes on our eternal home, we learn how to live here on earth. We submit to human authority for Jesus’ sake.
Christians make good citizens. This is because we have something more precious than anything a merely human government could give us. We don’t need to try to remake the government in a Christian image. The government relies on the law. We’re free from that. We have the gospel of the forgiveness of sins and so we are free from all threats and immune to all bribes. We willingly submit to the rules. We lose nothing in so doing. Heaven is our true home and nobody on earth can take it away from us. We are only passing through. As guests in this world we know that there’s no place like home.