Part VIII of “Romans: The Road Less Traveled
One of the great privileges I’ve had for the last couple of years is to do the opening prayer for the Colorado State Senate several times per legislative session. I put on a suit, drive up to the Capitol building, climb up the marble stairs to the Senate chamber, greet the President of the Senate, and then offer an appropriate non-sectarian prayer for the assembled body of legislators who are often tense and ready for another day of political warfare. When I drove up to the Capitol last Tuesday for my turn to pray, I was told that some of the legislators almost came to blows over arguments about elections. In a place that looks so historic and refined, there is often great tension.
As I was going through the metal detector in the Capitol basement on Tuesday, I didn’t hear the usual echoing sounds of hard heeled shoes on the hard marble floor. Instead, the first thing I heard was…singing. A rich, beautiful choral seemed to fill the whole building. When I climbed up the two flights of stairs under the dome, I saw where the musi was coming from—the Colorado State University Choir was singing from a balcony in the Capitol Dome, which made the music resonate everywhere. I pulled out my iPod and recorded a little bit of the song…
Did you catch the lyrics? “I’m gonna sing ‘til the Spirit moves in my heart, I’m gonna sing ‘til the Spirit moves in my heart, I’m gonna sing ‘til Jesus comes.” The phrase “Oh, my Jesus” is sung underneath it all. There, in the middle of the State Capitol, in the halls of power, with people in suits hurrying in all different directions, was a hymn, a revival. It seemed out of place—a state university choir in the state capitol singing about Jesus. But then again, I couldn’t think of a better place for this song to be sung.
I made my way to the Senate Chamber and got seated, greeted Phil Brown (one of our members) who is the Chief Sergeant at Arms of the Senate, and waited for my turn to pray. I always try to use a prayer that speaks to peace, relationships, and respect for others. Last week I had chosen to pray our Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, which is not only a great prayer for the beginning of a new year, it’s a marvelous prayer to pray at the beginning of every day:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (I had to leave that part out), thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
It’s one of those prayers that should cause one to pause and examine one’s own heart, which is a good thing to do, especially after a contentious day before.
The usual order of things is that when I finish the prayer, the Senate President leads the body in the Pledge of Allegiance, and then they get right down to business. The President calls the roll, the secretary reads the order of the day, gavels are pounded and aides hurry in all directions. But last Tuesday was different. Just before I offered my prayer, the choir had slipped into the gallery of the Senate Chamber and after the pledge they were invited to sing. And they sang the same song I had heard when walking into the building…
I’m gonna sing till the Spirit moves in my heart. I’m gonna sing till Jesus comes. It was grace that brought me. It was grace that taught me. It was grace that kept me. And it’s grace that will lead me home. Oh my Jesus, Oh my Jesus…
We had church right in the middle of government. It wasn’t lobbying, it wasn’t partisanship, it wasn’t politicking—it was worship. Totally incorrect politically, but theologically and liturgically profound.
I’ve been thinking about that moment all week—the contrast of power and worship. It’s been the conundrum that Christians have dealt with from the beginning. How do we live the life of the gospel in a world where power, prestige, and politics prevail? How do we respond to a world where the dynamics of self-interest and angry rhetoric dominate the conversation? What do we pray for? What do we sing?
These are dynamics that Paul knew his Roman churches would be dealing with as well. They were a minority—many of them not Roman citizens. They had no vote and no voice in the marbled halls of Roman government. No pastor of a Roman house church would ever be invited to pray in the Roman Senate, nor would any choir sing praise to anyone but the Emperor.
And yet, Paul believed that the people in those house churches were the new humanity—the people through whom God’s ultimate reign and rule in the world would be proclaimed. Having no power of their own, they relied on the power of God. They had no official voice in the halls of government, and yet they were to show forth that they were part of an even greater kingdom. In response to the raw power of Rome, that was displayed on every street corner, minted in every coin, dominating every scene in the landscape—the followers of Christ were to live grace and sing till Jesus comes.
Romans 13 and 14 continue Paul’s outline of how Christians should behave in present age in light of knowing they are part of the age to come. Their relationship to government, to their neighbors, and to each other was to reflect the fact that they had been marked by Christ in baptism as citizens of God’s new creation. And so Paul gives them, and us, some instruction about how to conduct ourselves as people who know that Jesus is coming back to take over his kingdom.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Paul begins chapter 13 by talking about government itself. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (v. 1). This is a counterintuitive statement on a couple of levels. First, the idea of being subject to government seems like a capitulation. Paul says that government is “God’s servant for your good” (v. 4), which was a tough sell in totalitarian Rome and a twisted joke to many people in the modern world. In Rome, complaining about the government could land you in prison. Here, it can land you your own talk show and millions of dollars in sponsorship. The flip side of this is that any government official in Rome would have been scandalized by the suggestion that there is “no authority except from God.”
For Paul, however, the governments of the world are placeholders for maintaining order within God’s creation until Jesus comes. He had seen how the riots of the early 50s caused the Jews to be expelled from Rome, ostensibly for arguments about Jesus as the Christ, and Paul doesn’t want the Roman churches to get a similar bad rap for fomenting riots and rebellion against the government. In principle, Paul says, you must be good, responsible members of the community. “Do you wish to have no fear of authority?” he says in verse 3, “then do what is good and you will receive its approval.” The church should not earn a reputation as troublemakers, but as reconcilers.
Of course, this is one of those texts that can be easily misunderstood. Some Christians have used it as an excuse for colluding with government corruption and violence, while governments have used it to keep Christians quiet. What Paul is saying here is that the church should not resist a legitimate authority that maintains order, but when the rulers do not promote order, or foment injustice and impression on its citizens, Christians should appropriately and non-violently challenge the powers with due respect.
This is an important teaching for Christians in our culture. We have now made it acceptable to speak all kinds of evil about our governmental bodies, demonizing leaders and making them the targets of vitriol. But Paul says in verses 8-10, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves has fulfilled the law,” and “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” This reflects the kingdom ethic of Jesus, who called us to be salt and light in the world, loving our neighbor as ourselves. This is how God’s people are to be known.
What if instead of heaping insults on our elected officials and community leaders we instead committed ourselves to pray for them? What if instead of writing op-ed pieces for the newspaper and posting nasty notes on social media, we instead wrote our officials (even, and perhaps especially, those with whom we may not agree) and simply told them that we are praying for them? As I look out at the Senators at the Capitol every month, and as I hear the arguments, I’m even more convinced that the church should no longer be caught up in the partisan wrangling but rather live under the vision of Jesus and sow love in the midst of hatred. Should we hold government accountable? Absolutely. But we must speak the truth in love, letting love guide our language, our actions, and our thoughts.
And Paul says we are to love like this because we “know what time it is” (v. 11). It’s time to wake from sleep, the drowsy darkness of the present age, because “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. The night is far gone, the day is near,” says Paul. As we said last week, we are to live in the present age with our focus on the age to come that began with Jesus. As the song I heard that day in the Capitol repeats over and over again, we are to sing with our voices and our lives “’til Jesus comes.” So, “let us live honorably as in [that coming] day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (v. 13).
Paul goes on in chapter 14 to reinforce that we shouldn’t judge others (v. 1-12), an echo of chapter 2, nor should we cause others to stumble by majoring in the minors. Instead, Paul says (v. 19) “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” After all, “the one who serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval” (v. 18).
These are the signposts that tell us that we’re on the right road. The old Romans Road was mostly about how we can leave this world behind and get to heaven. The road that Paul has actually been taking us on, however, leads us directly toward the world and its pain. That’s where Jesus went, after all, and he calls us to follow. The one who was condemned by the world and crucified even though he was innocent, showed love even while in the midst of pain and injustice. This is the way of Christ and the way for all who follow him. As Paul puts it in 15:3:
“For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God. ”
What is the church? A harmonious choir, singing with one voice, glorifying God while standing in the midst of a contentious world. That’s the mission of the church, both in Rome and in Colorado.
I wish I could sing like those young people in the Capitol that day. Then again, the one voice that Paul calls to glorify God with takes many forms—prayer, service, compassion, loving our enemies, lifting up the weak, speaking the truth in love. These are the things we should be known for as the body of Christ.
With what voice are you speaking? Is it a voice of complaint? A voice of anger? A voice of self-interest? Or is it a voice of prayer, of hope, of love, of peace, of encouragement?
The song that we sing matters, whether it’s in the halls of government, the halls of a school, or the halls of your home—a song of grace, forgiveness, peace, and love. “You know what time it is,” Paul says—it’s time to sing!
“I’m gonna sing till the Spirit moves in my heart. I’m gonna sing till Jesus comes.”
May that be our song, offered for the world. Amen.