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Posts Tagged ‘allegiance’

I am struck by the amount of time the church spends talking about world leaders. Even more, I am struck by the division of Christians as they talk as if their allegiance is with one leader or another or one party over another. Still, after reading the New Testament, I cannot find the parts where the church becomes preoccupied with such conversation. If the first century Christians were debating who would succeed Tiberius as emperor, the New Testament does not show much interest. If the church divided its loyalties for and against the incoming Caligula, there is no mention of it.

Four years later, after Caligula was murdered, where is the talk about Claudius replacing him? And when Claudius banned Jews from Rome and made other important policy decisions, were there some Christians defending him and others asking for his removal? When Claudius was poisoned, did anyone in the church become obsessed with what Nero’s economic or foreign policy would be? Perhaps such conversations occurred, I cannot claim to know. But, if they did, the New Testament does not consider them worth mentioning.

Instead, the New Testament uses a lot of space to repeatedly focus on things like the death and resurrection of Jesus. While Rome appeared to rule and Caesars came and went, the New Testament remained interested in other news. I suppose conversations about emperors are not in the New Testament for a reason. It is possible the New Testament writers are only interested in the political changes that came with Jesus of Nazareth. It is possible the Christians in the first century were already aware that Caesar did not rule the world. It is possible they already realized that neither Julio-Claudians nor Flavians nor democrats nor republicans held the answers. It is possible that early Christians were convinced that if Jesus was risen the rest of this conversation was a sub point at best.

The first Christians knew their identity as Roman was not their primary identity. They knew that Rome was not the primary kingdom. They knew Caesar was not the true king. And they knew that Roman politics were not their politics. Instead, they were convinced that God had become flesh and sent the Spirit to make a new politic possible. A politic that, in our more faithful moments, we call church.

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A witness is someone who has made a discovery and attempts to pass the news on to someone else. It always happens this way; it has to happen this way. Witness always happens in relationship. This becomes important for us because some still try to convince us that following Jesus is similar to mastering a doctrine. One could not be further from the truth. Following Jesus is a way to live in relationship. Following Jesus allows us to interpret life meaningfully and influences our relationships significantly. Therefore, a Christian witness is someone who demonstrates that following Jesus has done something significant to them.

This emphasis on relationship directs us toward the systemic nature of this thing called church. We should be taking a more eccle-systemic approach to witness. In fact, we misunderstand Christian witness if we overlook its corporate and relational nature. At our best we are a collection of people who are called out in a way that cuts across the natural boundaries (culture, geography, language, gender, race) that we use to divide ourselves from one another.

It is my opinion that our witness has been hindered by our emphasis on personal witness over corporate witness.  Also, by our emphasis that Jesus has done something “for me.” While I am not adamantly opposed to either of these ideas, I do think they are more the product of an individualized consumer oriented western mindset than of a New Testament picture of witness.

We get ourselves into trouble when we start to think about following Jesus in ways that isolate some of us from others. Sometimes it seems that we prefer differences over a common desire to follow Jesus.  A case can be made that the church should be the safest place to discuss differences. Instead we often act as if we cannot welcome others into the body unless we are in agreement with everything they believe. We fail in our corporate witness when we act as if the sins of others are greater than our own. We fail when we are uninviting to people who are unlike us.

To be a corporate reflection of God is to shift our allegiances by gathering in a fellowship that re-orients and re-prioritizes the way that we live our lives. All prior commitments are brought into conflict with the allegiance now given to King Jesus. This will create tension with the allegiances that others have invested in. This will put the church in the sometimes awkward position of being concerned with the affairs of the world while at the same time those we are concerned about are at odds with us.

This seems to be right where we belong. In relationship with this God who significantly alters all other relationships, including both those who see things similarly to us and those who do not. We are living in a place where people we are concerned about overlaps with people who line up against us.

This all makes witness something that is rather unpredictable. Yet, we cannot stop the fact that we are in relationship with one another, with a world that does not understand our allegiance, and with a God who is unwilling to stop this relational way of doing things. Witness will continue to happen in relationship. The impact of our witness will be directly related to how serious we are about belonging to a fellowship that is witness to what God has done.

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In Revelation chapter seven we are presented with a great multitude.  They appear again in chapter fourteen.  They are with the Lamb.  As evidence, the name of the Lamb and the name of His Father are written on their foreheads.  This second appearance immediately follows a passage where others are also given a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads.  This time it is the mark of the beast or his name.  What a contrast.  Two troops are being formed.  Two leaders gathering recruits.  The land beast vs. the Lamb.

This is quite a scene.  Here in the middle of Revelation a showdown.  A stand-off with one leader standing on the sand.  (Perhaps he has not heard that isn’t a good foundation).  And another standing on Mt. Zion.  (Certainly a better foundation).  A host of combatants witness this.  Some wear the name of the beast.  Some wear the name of the Lamb and His Father.  We are reminded that Revelation is a political book.

Satan, the seven headed dragon, recruits two beasts to execute his will.  The sea beast to frighten us (13.7).  And, the land beast, to deceive us (13.14).  As the Son receives authority from the Father, so the sea beast receives authority from the dragon.  As the Spirit glorifies the Son, so the second beast glorifies the first beast.  The beasts are described with traits borrowed from God, the Lamb, and Christians in an attempt to validate their authority.

They attempt but fail.  This trinity of beasts; dragon, sea beast, land beast are imposters, fakes, pretenders.  Religious – yes they are.  Political – yes they are.  The dragon, the sea beast, and the land beast form a competing trinity.  But they have nothing to do with God.

Most attention in my lifetime seems to be given to the land beast.  At least to his number – 666.  As the false trinity, the land beast is observed to be a fraud, “like a lamb.”  In the language of numbers, 666 is a triple failure to look like 777.  Have we mentioned that he is not what he claims to be?  666 falls short of the three times perfect, whole, divine number.

G. K. Beale suggests that to identify with the beast by worshipping his image is to identify with his shortcomings and imperfection symbolized by the triple 666.  The triple six emphasizes that the beast and his followers fall short of God’s perfect purpose for His creation.  Triple sixes are intended as a contrast with the divine sevens throughout the book and suggest imperfection.  Triple repetition of sixes intensifies the incompleteness and failure of the beast (and this false trinity).  Though the beast attempts to mimic God, he falls short.  Epic failure.

Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder gets to chapters 12-14 and labels them “The Last Word on Politics.”  Not a bad summary for that section of scripture.  But in essence, it has been the theme of every chapter to this point.  Each chapter in Revelation is political.  Each chapter examines again the question “who is in control around here?”  Each chapter asks the one in control to please stand up.  And every time the Risen Lord rises to the occasion.

With the mark of the beast on the forehead the recipients are viewed as the property of the beast.  With the mark, recipients receive his stamp of approval.  This, of course, is the opposite and parody of the seal placed on the forehead of those who are God’s property.  Followers of the Lamb and followers of the beast are both stamped with the image of their leaders.  Revelation is a political book, we are being asked to give allegiance to Lamb or beast.

There is danger in this reading.  Revelation makes us aware that we are choosing a side.  Revelation alerts us to the risk of aligning ourselves with the wrong side.  Revelation wants us to know that we reflect the one whose name we wear.  Revelation asks the question “Who do you belong to?”

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It is frustrating to listen to political candidates.  I constantly want them to be people they are not.  With as much optimism as I can muster, I cast my vote.  Many will expect a newly elected official to accomplish things they are not capable of.  At the very least, we should likely require all political commercials to be proceeded with a hazardous warning label that common sense and intellectual health can be impaired by watching the commercials.  Not my idea, I’m just adding an amen to what has already been proposed by Neil Postman.

Especially at election time we are reminded that politics is an arena of suspicion, manipulation, finger pointing, fraud, forked tongue, immaturity, compromise and convenience.  For us, it is a reminder of who we really are.  A lesson in identity.  A reminder that to be shaped by government goes against creation.  It can not be emphasized enough that we are not who and what government thinks we are and wants us to be.  We are present in this realm but we are not governed here.  We live in this realm but we do not live under its rule.

To be dependent upon government is to ensure collapse for it is like building in the sand.  For one thing, government is not certain of its own identity.  Polls, lobbyists, political action committees, special interest groups, consultants, and contributors enable Gepetto to have firm control over government’s officials at any given moment.  As if it were Gumby, government is willing to twist into any shape necessary to maintain the appearance of power.

It is the desire of government that we will be willing to wear a label.  To identify ourselves as liberal or conservative.  Democrat or Republican.  Pro-choice or pro-life.  Union or coalition.  Blue collar or white collar.  NAACP or NRA.  Any group or label will do.  If we can be convinced that we are one or more of these things, we can be convinced that they are working on our behalf.

You can vote Democrat, but don’t become one.  Register Republican, but don’t become one.  You can join the NRA but that is not who you are.  You can pay dues to the union but they are not your people.  In fact, we are none of these things.  Such weak efforts at community and identity fall short on their best day.  To align ourselves with one or more may not be wrong, but to draw our identity from them is a crisis.  To consider any of them a source of community is artificial.  To pledge them our allegiance is to be a fool.

Our expectations of government need to be put into perspective.  We should not expect the most important issues to be recognized by the government.  We should not expect it to share our priorities (prayer and worship do not always provide the results that government is looking for).  Government has limits, it is not an eternal entity.  Caesar is not, has never been, and will never be in control.

I’m reminded that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Perhaps we could paraphrase “there is neither Republican nor Democrat.”  We are the people of God, the Body of Christ, we are the church.  Our gatherings, in fact all of our efforts and activities, are to the glory of God.  To gather as his people and celebrate anything else is compromise or idolatry.  We cease to be his people.  Politicians in pulpits on Sunday mornings are not God’s design for the Lord’s Day.

The issue, as it always is, is one of allegiance.  Campaigns and elections are obviously places where allegiance may be discovered.  I remember what Jesus said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  I think of Witherington’s paraphrase “Give back to Caesar his worthless coins, and give to God your wholehearted and undivided allegiance.”

Having said that, we must acknowledge at the end of the day that government is gift.  It is given responsibility from above for a time to oversee the affairs of people like us.  “Be in subjection to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God…”

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