Note: Every week I write up a couple sermon starter articles for my website at The Center for Excellence in Preaching. For September 18 the Revised Common Lectionary text is 1 Timothy 2:1-7. So for this week’s blog I am sharing some of what I wrote in connection to this text as I think it has wider resonances than just for pastors who may be choosing to preach on that text next week.
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. 7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.” 1 Timothy 2:1-7 NIV
In the United States, this September Sunday falls about seven weeks before the presidential election. And it’s been an ugly season in what has seemingly become the nation’s never-ending presidential campaign. But it’s no longer just politics as usual that unsettles. No, it’s the deep, deep partisan divides that have taken hold the last quarter century as well as the deep, deep hatred—not mere dislike or disagreement with but actual HATRED—of elected officials that defines this era’s main political characteristic. Donald Trump has inspired much hatred of himself even as he and a chorus of others excoriate President Obama. Others want Hillary Clinton locked up for alleged crimes and it goes without saying that if she becomes president, she will be hated even more than Obama. It will be no different if Trump wins. And for many it was no different when George W. Bush was president—people did not just disagree with him, they hated him.
Into this ugly mix comes Paul’s sobering words to Timothy, urging Timothy to in turn urge his congregation in Ephesus to pray for kings and all those who are in authority. We are to pray for their prosperity and for the stable governments they may run so that Christians can lead peaceable lives and in that context be able to proclaim to all who is the REAL King of kings and Lord of lords, even Jesus Christ our Savior.
It goes without saying, I suppose, that a given believer is not going to be very inclined to pray for the well-being of a public figure whom that same believer hates. When we spend our days wishing ruination and failure for a leader, we are unlikely later to pray for his or her success or for the increase of his or her government. Maybe, just maybe, we might be inclined to pray that God will show a leader we dislike the error of his or her ways but the greater the vitriol, the less likely even something that relatively benign would get included in someone’s prayers. Politics today has become a “take no prisoner” affair. (And I am pretty sure that praying for a leader’s death or impeachment or utter failure doesn’t count.)
What’s troubling is how clearly partisan the church today has become, too. In many places it would require no stretching of the imagination to ponder what would happen to a given pastor if he prayed for the health, success, and safety of Barack Obama and for the well-being of his wife and daughters. How can we pray for the success of the one we’ve been taught by other leaders in the wider Christian world to see as the embodiment of evil? His success/well-being = complete moral failure. Pray for THAT??!!
It’s probably shooting fish in a barrel to point out this next item but it needs pointing out: the leaders Paul calls Christians to support and pray for in passages like 1 Timothy 2 or Romans 13 really were evil people, some of whom were so immoral as to make even some of the more crooked politicians of today look tame by comparison. And not a few Roman leaders actively tried to stamp out the very Christian faith and Gospel that Paul wants people to proclaim. (A good many of Paul’s own letters were written by shackled hands as he was imprisoned by the Roman authorities.) Worse, the Caesar (and not a few other leaders in the Greco-Roman world) declared themselves to be divine, to be Deus et Dominus, God and Lord of the Empire. Theirs was not simply an administration or a government but an idolatrous cult completely at odds with all Jewish and Christian sensibilities.
And yet . . . even as Paul wrote the entire Letter to the Romans without once mentioning the word “Caesar,” so in 1 Timothy 2 Paul does not get very specific as to who the leaders were but surely he knew the threat to the Gospel they represented, the idolatry they embodied, and the immorality—if not outright amorality—attached to these people. Even so, pray for them, Paul urges.
But wait, not just pray for them but GIVE THANKSGIVING for them. Give thanks to God for them. Again, it would be hard to imagine a Christian pastor today getting very far in altogether too many Christian circles these days if he asked people to thank God for Barack Obama (or, should it happen, for Hillary Clinton or, in other places, for Donald Trump). That would be the last straw for some folks and the pastor might well be sent packing as a result.
How can Paul do this? Paul himself will die at the hands of such governing authorities one day soon. Most of the other Apostles did too. It will be nearly two more whole centuries before the governing authorities will stop cracking down on the Church. Give thanks for these leaders? Pray for them? Intercede that their governments will be stable? Give us a break, Paul!
How can Paul do this? Because of everything else he writes in 1 Timothy 2:1-7. His eye is on the real God, the true Leader, the real King, and the only true Mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ. This Jesus did it all. He gave himself for us. He gave himself for “all people,” which echoes verse 1 when Paul calls upon Timothy to urge his people to pray and make intercession and offer up thanksgiving “for all people,” including kings and authorities. Connect the dots in this short passage and you see Paul holds out the hope that Jesus can save even the ugly and idolatrous wannabe divine being known as the Caesar or two-bit, tin-plated lesser figures like kings named Herod or other lesser (but no less brutal) dignitaries in the Empire.
Lots of things in life get relativized and put into their proper place and perspective when you see the big picture. When you see, as Paul did constantly, Jesus high and lifted up and God the Father as ruling all things and all peoples . . . well, lots of lesser things in life recede to the background a bit. Everything gets bathed in a different light, a holy light. Of course, the same Jesus who Paul saw high and lifted up was the one who told his disciples that hatred has no place in the Christian heart: not toward enemies, not toward those who actively persecute you, not toward the person whose image was inscribed on Roman coins.
It’s fine to be engaged with the things of this world, including politics. It’s fine even to be passionate about such things–from previous posts you readers know I can indeed be passionate on these issues. But it all takes place before the throne of God and under the Kingship and Lordship of Christ Jesus the Savior. He is the One we need to point people to above all and on a constant basis. But as Paul knew, that just could not and would not happen if we spend our days hurling invectives and calling for the failure of our governing leaders or anyone else for that matter. The disciple is not greater than the master, Jesus once pointed out to his disciples. And since our Master suffered and died on account of all the love he had for all people, we have more than a keen sense of what we as his disciples need to do, too.