The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany


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O God, who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers…
Romans 13:1-7
Matthew 8:23-34

After Romans 3:22-24, on which the Reformation turned, the passage of Scripture most quoted in the 16th and 17th Centuries is the opening of Romans 13. From turbulent German ‘free’ cities and petty Principalities in the 1520s to the France of the all powerful Louis XIV at the end of the 17th Century the issue was where religious authority lay after the outright renunciation in the former or severe dilution in the latter of Papal authority. In the early 1520s Luther’s Reformation was almost wrecked by populist uprisings in the name of religious freedom which forced him into the arms of the Princes; and the Catholic king of France had to reach and enforce a settlement with the Huguenots. Responding to turmoil Protestants and Catholics alike turned to Romans 13 to develop the doctrine of the “Divine Right of Kings”.

Paul goes much further than Jesus’ “Render unto Caesar” (Matthew 22:2) by explicitly saying that Christians should obey rulers because: “The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God.” Rulers are, regardless of their individual behaviour, intrinsically beneficial: “Not a terror to good works, but to the evil” (a difficult claim to sustain in the reign of the Emperor Nero!). The clinching phrase, however, introduces the passage: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” and, taken together with “Ye must needs be subject… for conscience sake”, the civil authorities were confronted with formidable moral and religious authority. Paul probably meant that we should all be subject to God represented by civil powers but I doubt that he could even have imagined that this would be taken to mean that the church should be ruled by the civil powers. It is easy to adopt a somewhat superior attitude to this post Reformation assertion but Germany and France were split by bloody religious wars in the 16th Century, succeeded in the 17th by the Thirty Years War in Western Europe (1618-48) and civil war in England. It seemed right to many that the civil ruler “beareth not the sword in vain, for he is the minister of God...

Surprisingly, given the climate of the times, the Collect refrains from reference to the civil authorities and concentrates on the Gospel which puts the discussion of earthly power into context by showing divine power at its most spectacular. The collect pleads that because of our own frailty we cannot stand upright and must call upon God, a clear reference to Peter’s attempt to walk on water in a later, related story (Matthew 14:28-31). Even though they had been his followers for some time, his Disciples had no faith in Jesus and after he had calmed the storm they asked ‘What manner of man is this?” One wonders what would have convinced them.

The balance of the Gospel contrasts that power of God with human degradation. There are two men (another instance of Matthew seeing double!) who are so mad that they live naked amongst the tombs, abusing themselves and frightening anybody who comes near. The devils within recognise Jesus and, in being cast out, ask to be sent, via the swine, to a watery doom. The city around seems to have been more worried about the loss of revenue from the drowned pigs than the recovery of the two men; at the end of Matthew 14 they are more grateful.

Here we have an implied framework: because humanity is capable of being as degraded as those possessed, it needs the civil power; but because we are all capable, like the Disciples, of losing our faith, we need the power of God, portrayed in the Gospel in the power of Jesus. This presents us with two issues. The first is the idea of devils. No doubt there are people who are possessed and require form of exorcism but a more useful image might be that of the addict who becomes a criminal outcast desperately, serially stealing to find the money for his next fix. The more difficult issue is how we face Paul’s political theory in a democratic society. One obvious starting point is the need for us to question our cynicism. Do we really believe that most people in public life are “in it for what they can get out of it”? Does our political partisanship and institutionalised antagonism—uniquely sharp in the United Kingdom in contrast with other equally democratic countries that have a greater tradition of consensus—lead us to be unjust in our assessment of politicians? Is there anything we should or can do to reduce the friction and negativity of the adversarial process? Three further questions might seem less obvious: first, is it true that we foist onto politicians all the difficult decisions we are not prepared to make ourselves? Secondly, are “they” really all the same? Finally, what responsibility do we have in a democratic society to take personal responsibility and not be so prepared to leave it to “them”? These are all questions about adopting a proportionate, rational and even respectful view of the power that we give to politicians and the power we retain. Scepticism is a necessary democratic corrective but cynicism is unchristian because it denies the presence of God in the other.

In these times of deep insecurity we might not wish to accord divine sanction to those who rule us with our consent but we might reflect on the difficulties they face and pray that they turn to God in their many hours of need.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How relevant is Paul’s theory of the ruler relevant to us today?
  2. Think about the contemporary equivalent conditions to being “possessed by a devil”
  3. What are the arguments for and against the disestablishment of the Church of England?
  4. What is a Christian’s political duty?
  5. Do you agree that in social relations we should avoid discussing religion and politics?

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