“We must obey God rather than any human authority”. So says Peter and the apostles, when they are dragged before the ruling council of the Jewish Temple in Acts Chapter 5. Obeying God, rather than human authority, has been a constant theme of religious struggle over the centuries. Jesus himself was challenged on this point. You might remember the occasion when someone asked him whether it was lawful, under Jewish law, to pay taxes to the occupying Romans. We might ask the same question today if we were living in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Would it be lawful, or morally right, to pay taxes to the occupying forces of Vladimir Putin?
Jesus’ answer, when he was asked the question, was typically enigmatic. He said that we should pay to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. He seems to imply, with this statement, that it is normal for religious people to live in two worlds, simultaneously. We live on earth (or ‘in earth’ as the Book of Common Prayer so poetically puts it, implying that earth is a state of mind, as much as a physical place). We are subject to the society in which we live. We have to conform, to at least some extent, to the rules of that society; or chaos and anarchy would ensue. But, says Scripture, we are also citizens of heaven – an altogether different way of being, with its own rules and norms. It is when these two states of being collide – earth and heaven, that religious people have the hardest task of all. Shall I obey God, or the human authorities? It is a question (for example) with which conscientious objectors have to wrestle at times of war. It’s a question that Christians opposed to abortion have to wrestle, when they realise that at least part of their taxes pay for abortion clinics. It’s a question that Christians who disagree with the socially divisive policies of any government must wrestle. With the Coronation of our new King coming up soon, with all its pomp and inevitable appeals to our sense of UK citizenship, this is a pertinent question for us too.
Shall we obey God, or human authority? It’s a particularly sharp point to contemplate at times of great changes in church doctrine and teaching. It was something with which the proponents and opponents of slavery had to wrestle, for example. For centuries, slavery was considered a perfectly normal and natural human condition. The Bible even gives rules on how slaves are to be treated humanely. The only time that the Bible seems to reject slavery was in the context of the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt, and their return from Exile in Babylon. In other words, a strict reading of the Bible suggests that slavery is perfectly normal, except for the God’s chosen people! For centuries, Christian companies and nations exercised slavery in the honest belief that God had decreed it to be a normal way of structuring human affairs – albeit with some tight rules about how slaves should be treated, humanely.
However, among the leading Christians of their day, certain minds began to change. The likes of John Newton, a former slave-ship Captain, began to see slavery for the evil it was. His own conversion led to his remarkable hymn, Amazing Grace. “I was blind, but now I see”, he wrote, in testament to his change of heart and mind over slavery. Senior Christian politicians, like William Wilberforce, began to lobby the church and the government of the day. Eventually, the human authorities of the day were persuaded to see slavery for what it was, and to change the law of earth to reflect the laws of heaven.
Today, a similar battle is underway, especially in the Anglican Communion around the world. This time, it’s a battle for the Bible’s view of issues around human sexuality. We are in the middle of that battle – with both sides claiming that they are the ones following God and not human authority. Those who oppose gay marriages, for example, claim that the Bible is explicit about the wrongs of any union outside the conventional one between one man and one woman. Those, like me, who have perhaps a more historical perspective, look back into history and note the many times in the past when the Bible’s apparently clear and unambiguous teaching has been overturned and transformed into something new. For example, the Bible teaches that slavery is normal, as we’ve already seen. It also teaches that if your child blasphemes the Lord, you shall take him to the City gates and have him stoned to death. The Bible teaches that you should not wear cloth made of two types of material – so woe betide anyone who is wearing polyester-cotton today! It prohibits the eating of pork and shellfish, which if still in place today would be a great barrier to success for the farmers and fisher-folk of Chichester Harbour. With regard to marriage, the Bible explicitly supports polygamous marriage – many of the Fathers of the faith had more than one wife. But we, today, would never countenance such a thing.
You see my point, I’m sure. The Bible’s teaching, straight off the page from thousands of years ago, can seem unambiguous. But wrong, for today. Context is everything, as I always teach. The context of a small middle-eastern tribe, struggling to define themselves against the world which repeatedly conquered them in battle, is a very different context to ours. We live in a world which, step by painful step, is becoming just a little bit more like heaven on earth. For two thousand years, Christians have prayed in obedience to Jesus, ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’. Have those prayers been in vain, or are we at last beginning to glimpse what that heaven on earth might look like?
We have many challenges, not least the climate catastrophe, the collapse of nature, and the horror of continuing wars around the globe. But, we also have systems of justice in which you are innocent until proven guilty. We have individual human rights; slavery (though still practiced) is universally illegal. In this country, for all its many faults and challenges, we have education and healthcare that are generally free at the point of delivery. For all its problems and challenges, we have a universal welfare system, to offer succour to the least fortunate among us. Most of us have flush toilets, easy access to food and a miracle of technology in our pockets that connects us to the whole world. The average human lifespan has almost doubled in a century. And as far as the issues of human sexuality are concerned, we have an increasing openness to loving and accepting people as they are, rather than forcing them to conform to ideas, from a previous context, about what God might require of them.
The Jewish ruling council gave strict orders to Peter and the other apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and his friends felt that they had no choice but to proclaim the incoming of the kingdom of heaven on earth. I pray that we might have the courage to do the same. For we, like Peter, are ‘witnesses to these things,' (these advances of the kingdom of heaven) 'and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him’. Amen.
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