1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. . . . 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1, 8-11, NRSV)
Jesus, in the wilderness, explicitly rejected having a kingdom that would rule the physical world.
He did it again later.
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:21-23, NRSV)
Peter is likened to the tempter in the wilderness — Satan.
We all bear the image of God, and yet we all are stained by the self-centeredness of Satan. There is a part of us that still wants to rule the world even though our Lord rejected such notions.
This is related to religious liberty. European history has profoundly impacted our understanding of church and state in the United States. Notions of religious liberty arose out of a context in which church and state were married together, first in Europe and then in colonial America, and then in the earliest days of our republic. In other words, despite Jesus’ example, the church existed for centuries in Europe with the church thoroughly involved in political affairs.
This led to wealth, and we all know the allure of power and wealth. Christianity fell victim.
Then there arose some followers of Christ who reconsidered the words of Scripture and realized the faith had been co-opted by the politics and money. The Reformation ensued, and many believers began to see their faith differently. But, before long there were new state churches. And soon other groups arose challenging the new state churches.
Each time new groups arose, they wanted freedom to worship as they saw fit, but they also faced a real temptation to replace an older state faith with a new one, often in a new place.
Baptists gained in numbers right as the colonies in America moved to rebel against Great Britain, and they worked with Enlightenment deists to push for constitutional protections for religious liberty.
America was special. America was also very different from the Rome of Jesus’ time and of the early church’s time. Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament luminaries never voted on Roman policies; they merely lived under them. Paul, a Roman citizen, says governmental authority is given by God, but it was that same Rome that took Jesus’ life.
Jesus and Paul could not vote on Roman policies, but in the United States, we can. Historically, that is a significant change from what most people have experienced. And, of course, every privilege carries with it responsibilities.
Our nation, by the way in which it is constructed, offers to each of us the temptation to rule with power and wealth. Jesus, however, brought about a spiritual kingdom, and Christ followers are therefore members of both Christ’s kingdom and the United States, with responsibilities in both.
We are not, however, the only ones in that secular kingdom. We share the political space. Thank heavens we Baptists were just emerging from persecution when this nation was forming. As a result we and the rationalists helped create something quite different from other nations, and we invariably protected ourselves somewhat from the historic temptation to be become persecutors.
Baptists now are often in very powerful places. We’ve had two Baptist presidents in my lifetime. There are countless Baptist senators, congresspersons, and other elected officials. And, even if not Baptists, most American politicians are Christians.
But America is changing, as it always has. The first Great Awakening exploded the ranks of Protestant Christians in America. Then Protestants grudgingly gave way to the arrival of more Catholic Christians and Jews. And now we are being asked to give way to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and all sorts of people.
This is not easy. In history, it has never been easy for a majority with a set of commonly held beliefs to make room for others.
In the United States we make it pretty easy to allow people their own religious notions when in private or in their worship center, but in the public square differing worldviews collide. They are colliding now, again, in America.
Evangelical Protestant Christians, who once dominated, may struggle the most in this time of change. Many people no longer share our values and beliefs, and those differing values and beliefs make their way into law.
The legalization of same-sex marriage is simply hard for some of us to imagine. But no-fault divorce was once hard to imagine, as well.
Muslim prayers in government buildings seem so strange to our understanding of America. But Catholic prayers were once a similar shock.
Unfettered greed is often championed in Congress despite our national Forefathers’ grasp of the power of self-centeredness. But our history is riddled with money and power grabs.
This is not a Christian nation, and that is hard for some of us to accept. Of course, our spiritual forefathers in this land set it up to not be a Christian nation. Even though most of them were Christians and Christians dominated the scene, they made room for others who thought differently.
Some of them probably only imagined a Christian future, but I suspect others saw clearly that the world was full of new or newly recognized ways of understanding reality.
We Christians have been tempted to worship this nation. In many ways it has been and is what John Winthrop imagined — a shining light on the hill of civilization. But Jesus tried to teach His disciples so many years ago that His Kingdom is not a worldly kingdom. It was not a new Jewish state then, and it is not the United States today. His Kingdom outlasted the Romans and will outlast the Americans.
Oscar Cullman said Jesus, as revealed in the New Testament, “certainly does not regard the State as in any sense a final, divine institution: on the other hand, we see that he accepts the State and radically renounces every attempt to overthrow it.” (Cullman, The State in the New Testament, 18-19)
I am so proud to be part of two kingdoms — God’s and the United States. I love both. I honor both. I’m actively involved in both. But God’s Kingdom takes precedence, and I’m proud that the United States gives me freedom to worship God as I see fit and that others have the same choice.
At the end of my favorite movie, “Braveheart,” a scene occurs that I can hardly watch. William Wallace cries out from deep inside himself the one word, “Freedom,” as he dies at the hands of the authorities.
May we all have brave hearts today as we pursue religious freedom for all, even when it ends up with results we do not like. While we love our nation and work to help it be its best, our kingdom is not of this world. Our kingdom is the one Jesus inaugurated. We have freedom in that kingdom, as well. We are free to enter it or to stand outside it. To enter it, means to make Him Lord, and no one else.
Pursuing God’s Kingdom may mean that sometimes we have to do as Jesus did and say to well-meaning friends, “Get behind me,” if you want to follow the way of the world. Of course, Jesus also offered to all, “Follow me.” He did not say exactly where he was going, but he said to follow. Today, I suspect Jesus is still saying, “Follow me or get behind me. It’s your choice.”