Heal Not Harm

A message on Romans 13 by Richard Keith on Sunday 5 February 2023

Our message today from Romans chapter 13 is that being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven should make us a better citizen of the kingdoms of earth. That’s right. Better not worse. Being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, washed clean in his blood and led by his Spirit, should make us a better citizen, a better neighbour, a better husband or wife, a better parent, a better teacher or doctor or farmer or soldier, a better leader or a better follower, a better councillor or council worker.

Every virtue, every quality that helps make you the best possible you that you can be, comes from putting into practice the good news of Jesus. Not only believing it, but living it. Patience. Perseverance. Humility. Sincerity. Kindness. Goodness. Courage. Peace. Joy. Hope. Faith. And love. They are the fruit of the Spirit. So that the most heavenly minded among us should be the most earthly good.

For the days may be dark. And people may go on hurting and being hurt by each other. But God has shone the light of his truth and grace in the face of his Son Jesus Christ, and through him we are children of light. People of the day and not of darkness.

In verse 1 the apostle Paul wrote,

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.

It’s probably not the message that we were hoping for. Words like “submit” or “authorities” aren’t very popular these days. After all, we live in an age where the rioters and looters are treated like the heroes and not the villains. Where people show their commitment to their ideals not by how hard they work, but by how loud they shout. So it may not be the message that we want to hear, but it is the message that we need to listen to today, staring at us from this page of the Bible.

Everyone – including me, including you – must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.

Paul had no illusions about people in power and how they used their power. The people in power in Jerusalem, the chief priests and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, conspired against Jesus and put him to death as a rebel. Paul himself in his former life had abused his power as a Pharisee to persecute the followers of Jesus. Then in his later life as a Christian missionary Paul had been treated with fear and suspicion by local authorities wherever he went. Sometimes they ordered him to leave town. Sometimes they put him in prison.

Paul had no great faith in frail human leaders. But what he did have was a great faith in the one true living God, the creator of all things, the Lord of all people and of all nations, who raises up and brings down human leaders for the good of human society.

I mean, we can all think of rules or laws that we think are stupid, and we can all think of politicians and prime ministers and state premiers that we don’t like or don’t trust. But we must all admit that any government is better than none at all. Because law and order are wonderful things. They build trust and consistency in the community within which true freedom come flourish and not wither.

It really doesn’t matter whether we drive on the left side of the road or the right. It’s very arbitrary. You could toss a coin to choose left or right – as long as everyone in the country does the same thing. It looks like conformity. It looks like everyone is being forced to do the same thing. It doesn’t look like freedom, but it is. It’s a picture of everyone arriving safely at their destination. The few people who break the rules of the road going over the limit, weaving in and out, tailgating, cutting in, they can only do it safely because everyone else is doing the right thing. They are parasites on our compliance, because if everyone did what they want to do, if everyone did on the road whatever they wanted, then the result would be Nairobi. I mean, chaos.

Government. Authority. Order. Rules. Law enforcement. Are ordained and permitted by God for our good, for not just our good, but for the good of everyone. Even the bits that you don’t like. Even the bits that you find annoying and inconvenient. It’s true as much when the Liberal party is in charge as when Labor is. And the peaceful transition of power from the one to the other in this country is one of the unappreciated joys of modern life.

Of course there are significant problems at every level of government. Don’t get me started or we’ll never get to eat cake at morning tea. But in Australia we have the wonderful privilege of being as much part of the solution as we are part of the problem. We get to express our opinions freely. We get to lobby and advocate. We get to demonstrate peacefully. We get to vote. And being a Christian, being a follower of the King of kings doesn’t give us the right to think that the law don’t apply to us and we can do whatever we like. No being a subject of the king of kings should make us a better subject of the king, who exercises his executive power through the governor general, who is appointed by parliament and takes advice from the Prime Minister, who are all elected by the people to enact laws and regulations, which we the citizens of this great nation have a duty to obey on pain of penalty.

Now it is the Commonwealth of Australia that creates this duty to obey. The words of Scripture, however, are clear that our duty before God is to do what is right, not just what we are told. And the difference between right and wrong is informed by the values of the gospel made clear in the life and teaching of the Lord Jesus. It’s not about conforming to the powers that be. It’s about doing what is good, doing what promotes life and justice and freedom and peace. And sometimes that will conflict with our duty as citizens to obey the state. But not in a way that makes us worse citizens of the state, but better.

And, of course, the state is all funded by the taxes we pay calculated from the income that we are obliged to declare. It’s for our good and we benefit from it every single day of our lives. It doesn’t mean we agree with everything that government decides. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t call out injustice when we see it. It doesn’t mean that human laws and regulations are anyway as nearly as important as the values and principles of the gospel.

So yes sometimes if the cause is just and the issue is urgent we must make a fuss and take the consequences for it. But the gospel of Jesus is not a license for us to use our faith as an excuse to believe that human laws don’t apply to us so we don’t have to follow them if we don’t want to. Instead, the gospel of Jesus reminds us that human laws do apply to us, For the Lord calls us to be a part of human society, not to bring it down but to transform it.

As Paul says,

[The one in authority] is God’s servant … Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

Not just because if you don’t you’ll get in trouble, but because it is the right thing to do.

Paul goes on to tell us to pay all our debts. To pay what we owe.

If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.

Some people seem to carry on like lying on our tax return is some kind of national sport. But it is in fact a kind of stealing. Not just from the government but from the whole community and from the people whose wages are paid by the taxes and from the projects that are funded by the taxes.

But even more importantly we are not just to give our taxes grudgingly and with bad grace, but to give respect and honour where it is due. Politics is not meant to be a soap opera played for our entertainment. It is not meant to be a blood sport where we boo the baddy when he wins and cheer when he loses. Every act of disrespect, every refusal to give credit where it is due to people who don’t get paid like bank managers for running the country, every petty act of defiance erodes the glue of trust that keeps our society together.

It’s not about doing what we’re told. It’s about loving our neighbour. Paul said,

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

This is the obedience of faith. We are not saved by the works of the law. The law cannot save us because we cannot keep it as we should. We are saved by Christ through faith by God’s grace. But by God’s Spirit we are being changed from the inside out so that we may fulfil the law. Not because the law is the instrument of our salvation, but because it is an expression of God’s will for us. So that God’s law is fulfilled by love. Not by servile conformity to the regulations of the law. Not by grudging obedience for fear of punishment. But by willing, generous, open-hearted, joyful love.

All those commandments just mean, Treat people the way you want to be treated. They mean helping not hurting. Building up not tearing down. Serving life not bringing death. They mean love, a love as strong and sure as God’s love for us in Jesus, a love we therefore owe not just to each other, but to all.

All of this, how we behave in society, how we treat other people, all of this is a test of our faith. Do we believe in a good and wise and all powerful God? Do we believe in his truth and love? Do we believe that he is the giver of life and joy and peace? Do we believe that his ultimate victory over evil and death is as sure and certain as night will fall tonight and the sun will rise again tomorrow? Because whether we believe it or not will be seen in our attitudes and choices and actions.

Paul said,

The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

The night is nearly over. Evil and selfishness and greed are only temporary. Their time is running out. God is only giving everyone the chance to change their lives. To wake up to themselves and to come to their senses. Because the eternal day of light and life and joy is almost here. We know it because we see a glimpse of it in the face of the Lord Jesus. We know it because we enjoy a foretaste of it in the love of the fellowship of believers. It feels so remote like it will never come, but the truth is that it is one day closer than it was yesterday.

And when it comes it will be forever. We don’t have to lose hope. We don’t have to give in to fear. Believe me, I know what it is like. I hate waking up at 4 in the morning and it’s like all my fears and worries go round and round my head like they want to consume me, like they want to hollow me out and leave me empty and grey and lifeless. But then the sun rises and morning comes and all those night terrors just vanish in the light of the day.

Friends, the days seem dark. But the day is coming and until it does we are called to live as children of light. To clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, to so embrace his goodness and love that they become ours and people can see that light shining in us, and led by that light they may become children of light as well. People of the day and not of darkness.

People say that some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. It couldn’t be more wrong. For the most heavenly minded among us are the most earthly good.