This is kind of a follow-up piece to my “Crashing the Manger” post. After writing that, I turned to the common lectionary to see what the lesson was for this week of Christmas and found Paul saying something similar to Christians in Ancient Rome that I’m trying to say to Christians in America today.
I’ve been told every preacher basically has one main message they continually come back to and circle around in new and fresh ways. If that’s true, my message is to call Christians to be single-mindedly devoted to just ONE King and ONE Kingdom. “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” as Jesus put it.
This is a hard sell in a culture that worships the idol of American politics, and where many Christians let God have some say regarding their personal morality and eternal destiny, but when it comes to how to run this world, they kick God upstairs and place their hopes in earthly politics instead.
As we draw near to Christmas Eve, and prepare our hearts to declare once again that the real ruler of the world was born in a barn 2,000 years ago, not in a Roman palace, we come to the opening of Paul’s letter to the Christians living in the ancient capital city Rome in the large shadow of Caesar. Notice how Paul also emphasizes that both Christian leaders and followers of Jesus are called to be “set apart” from the culture and kingdoms within which they dwell. Later in the letter he says exactly that, “Don’t be conformed to the culture around you” (Rom. 12:2).
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, SET APART for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son. (Romans 1:1-3)
Paul has been “set apart” and commissioned to spread a message called “the gospel of God,” which is probably subversive jab at the fact that Rome was spreading it’s own “gospel” of Rome’s peace and prosperity made available by the reign of LORD Caesar whose coins had his image and the words, “Divine Savior” and “Son of god.” So, he rambles on about Jesus’ royal lineage in the line of David to give Him street-cred with a crowd of new Christians who are bombarded everyday walking the streets of Rome that Caesar is the rightful king.
“He was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Rom 1:4-6)
Do we somehow get a free pass 2,000 years later? His message to them is a bold message to us today living in the New Rome where we’re reminded with every Tweet and 24/7 cable news coverage that the we belong to the “Greatest Nation on God’s Green Earth,” as one radio host says at the beginning of his show. Paul would like to say that he has been commissioned as an apostle (“sent one”) to “bring about obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” then and among all Americans now “for the sake of his name” — a name many early Christians were killed for having upon their lips.
We today are equally “called to belong to Jesus Christ” first and foremost — not the Republican Party, not the Democratic Party. Not this nation or that nation. Not your birth family or a particular church denomination. We belong to Christ, and that should mean something for this life, and not just the next.
He continues, again with political allegiances hanging in the Roman air, writing subversively to Christians gathering in a city where people are called to be loyal citizens of Rome:
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints [that is, a SET APART people]: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 1:1-7)
Likewise, to all God’s beloved living in the United States today, Paul would write urging us to be a set-apart people, setting up little beachheads of Christ’s eternal kingdom right here and now in the swamp of partisan politics and idolatrous nationalistic sentiment. We are to be set apart from the nasty divisiveness, set apart from unhealthy alliances with worldly powers, set apart from the mutual hatefest on social media, set apart from slapping labels on people you don’t really know, set apart from letting the American politics divide people into woefully inadequate Right and Left ideological boxes, set apart from thinking earthly politics ultimately determine the future of the world.
As we enter into another election year, I will be repeatedly calling Christians to be set apart followers of Jesus and His Kingdom values and agenda. And I promise, those who courageously do begin setting themselves apart from the masses and seeking first His Kingdom,” will experience the “grace” and “peace” that comes from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”