Proper 18 · Romans 13:1–10 · September 10, 2017
Editor’s note: the following homiletical help is taken from David Schmitt’s sermon series “God’s Greater Story: A Sermon Series on Romans 6–14,” which is available for download here.
By David Schmitt
At the time Paul wrote this letter, Nero publicized his rule as the dawn of a golden age. Yet, privately, there were rumors that his mother had poisoned Claudius, her husband and uncle, to secure the throne for her son. Nero himself joked about the poisoning, saying that Claudius became a god by eating a mushroom. A poisoned one. Why use a sword when a mushroom can work just as well? While there were suspicions of assassination and conspiracy and a fearful use of power, Nero pictured himself early on as one who promoted peace. When Seneca offered an essay to Nero on mercy, he celebrated the fact that Nero had sheathed the sword. Prophecies said that his reign was the dawn of the golden age. In one poem, a child comes in from working in the fields and stands before a sword hanging in his father’s house and marvels at it. He does not need to carry a sword nor use one since this is a time of peace. What the public heard about Nero is that he had hidden his sword but privately what they whispered about Nero revealed their darkest fears.
Imagine the difficulty this posed for Christians. How do you relate to the civil authorities when publicly they say one thing and privately do another? How do you obey, as a Christian, when it seems like the rulers you are asked to obey are obscured by propaganda so you never know the truth? The question is as relevant for Christians today as it was for Christians in Rome.
Look at our political landscape and the struggles of Christians. Some refuse to have anything to do with politics. They withdraw from the political world, from the responsibilities that they have as citizens, because politics are corrupt and they don’t want anything to do with that world. Others want to use the political realm to create a Christian nation. Turning away from God’s gift of the church, where God gathers his people through the proclamation of the gospel, they turn to the nation, wanting the nation to take the place of the church, proclaiming the gospel from political offices and enforcing God’s word through the power of the sword.
The Apostle Paul offers another way. Paul knows of two kingdoms, two ways in which God is at work in the world. Earlier in the letter, Paul has recognized God’s gift of the church. The church is the means whereby God proclaims salvation, gathering for himself a people who share his message of salvation with the world. Now, Paul speaks of God’s gift of civil authority. One looks to such authorities not for a proclamation of the gospel but for an enactment of God’s good rule in the world.
Paul could have spoken like any other propagandist. He could have argued for obedience to rulers because of their character, because they showed mercy, or because they had sheathed the sword. But Paul anchors Christian obedience not on something as temporary and fleeting as the person in office or the laws of the empire. No, Paul anchors obedience on something as powerful and eternal as God. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (v. 1). Paul turns the eyes of the early Christians from the realm of Rome to the realm of God. They are to see that the present authorities are masks of God, offices that God has established in his rule of the world. Though Nero’s propaganda encouraged people to think he had sheathed his sword, Paul claims that God has given one to him and that he does not bear it in vain (v. 4). Whether he believes or does not believe, he is a “servant of God” (v. 4), placed in authority.
Some who hold these offices test God’s people, driving them deeper and deeper into the experience of faith, so that Christians believe in the midst of persecution and confess the faith in the midst of a world of contempt. Others offer a public witness, honoring God by their words and seeking to serve him as best they can through their actions. Our relationship to these authorities, however, is not based on their person but on God’s work. Within their offices, we see the power of God, establishing order for all people in the world. They have been given the power to restrain evil and promote good. Sometimes they use it wisely. Other times not. But that does not diminish their office, the fact that God has established the civil authorities not to save people but to care for them.