NOTE: This sermon was delivered by David M. Krueger, PhD at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday, August 27, 2017. The following lectionary scriptures were read prior to the service. All Biblical quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version.
- Old Testament Lesson: Exodus 1:8-2:10
- Epistle Lesson: Romans 12:1-8
- Gospel Lesson: Matthew 16:13-20
In the Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus posed a question for his disciples. “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Apparently, Simon Peter had the right answer, because Jesus responded,
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Jesus told Simon Peter that the church he founded would have tremendous power, resilience, and influence. But why would Jesus not want the disciples to say publicly that he was the Messiah? Why was he trying to keep a secret? To answer this question, it is important to consider what “Messiah” meant in that place and time.
The term Messiah had an overtly political connotation in the first century. In the Hebrew language, the term messiah literally means “anointed one.” For Jews, the messiah is a future Jewish king who came from the line of King David. Messiah was understood to refer to a savior and liberator of the Jewish people, a political ruler.
What would be so bad about that? Wouldn’t life in the empire be better if Jesus were on the throne? Wouldn’t the Jews have more access to imperial power if they fully-endorsed Jesus as a political messiah?
Throughout the history of Christianity, Christians have wrestled with the question of how closely the church should participate in the politics of the age. The early church found itself at the margins of political power. Some Christians were even persecuted because governing authorities saw their worship of Jesus Christ as a threat to Roman imperial religion.
The social status of the Christian movement changed when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 C.E. A few decades later, Christianity was enthroned as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the emperor Theodosius. By adopting Christianity as the established religion of the state, he fused together the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man. There was little distinction between them. The purposes of the Emperor were equated with the purposes of God. The indiscretions of the emperor, the unjust policies of the emperor, all became sanctified. If the emperor is God’s ruler on earth, who are we to question him?
Last week, televangelist Paula White spoke about state of the presidency on the Jim Baker Show. (Yes, that Jim Baker). White is widely known as the person who supposedly “led Trump to Christ” last summer. White has long been an ardent supporter of the president and on Baker’s show she claimed that no president has been hated more than President Trump. The reason for this, says White, is that “we are fighting against “powers and principalities that want to control this man because he surrounds himself with Christians, and he is a Christian.” White states that all rulers are put into authority by God’s will. Therefore, if you oppose the president, you are opposing the “hand of God.” These statements were met with raucous applause in Baker’s studio audience.
Paula White is one of several Christian leaders who have unique access to the president. Another is Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, who hosted the Celebrate Freedom concert on July 1 at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington D.C. His church choir sang an anthem titled “Make American Great Again” in reference to Trump’s campaign slogan. Jeffress earlier referred to Trump as the most “faith-friendly president in history.”
I think for many Christians, this raises some questions about exactly what kind of faith Jeffress is talking about. Is this a faith that endorses fear of immigrants? Dismantling of the health care system? A faith that makes no distinction between white supremacists and those that oppose them?
Messiah College historian John Fea refers to Jeffress, White and others in Trump’s inner circle as “court evangelicals.” By court evangelicals he is referring to the tradition of attendants and advisers who frequent the courts of monarchs and seek to use their presence to influence the ruler. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, the term “courtier” refers to a person who frequents the court and performs flattery of the king. The implication is that these “courtiers” are seeking their own advancement and their own benefit. These so-called court evangelicals, says Fea, operate with the assumption that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and that it is appropriate to endorse candidates from the pulpit.
In an op-ed to the Washington Post, Fea said that the problem is not that the church is affecting and guiding the presidency, but that the relationship is instead challenging the very integrity of Christianity. These Christian leaders have turned a blind eye to Trump’s indiscretions and reckless public statements. In a recent poll of his supporters, 61% said that there was nothing the President could do that would cause them to lose their faith in him. That’s remarkable! Many Christians seem intent on defending everything he does and it appears that they have gotten very little in return. In the words of one scholar, many of his Trump’s Christian advisers “are in the business of enabling” the president and legitimizing his authority in the minds of an Evangelical political base.
At protests around the country, you’ll often see signs proclaiming, “Trump is not my president” or that “Obama is still my president.” Although I sympathize with such sentiments, I find them to be problematic. What does it mean to say that the President is “my president” or “not my president?” He is legally the president, is he not?
However, I think when Christians are trapped in this binary of “He’s my president” and “He’s not my president” we are place our Christian integrity at risk. The danger is that we look toward our president either as a messiah figure who will save us or anti-Christ figure who will destroy us.
There are deep risks to both sides of the binary. When we describe a president as “my president,” there is the tendency to grow complacent, to become comfortable, to feel like it is unnecessary to speak up. We become blinded, we are willing to accept their indiscretions, assume the best in every statement they make. Many in the president’s Christian inner circle have done just that. On the opposite side, when people say, “He’s not my president,” we tend to isolate him and place the exclusive blame on him. We forget that 46% of Americans voted for our current president.
If Christians want to influence society, we’ve got to work toward shaping culture, and influencing our neighbors rather than hoping for a leader who will save us. We should be suspicious of all presidents, even the ones we like. This is key, especially in an era when democratic institutions have been eroded and many fear that authoritarianism is on the rise.
Jesus resisted the title of messiah because he did not want to risk the survival of this movement that would need to grow under an imperial regime. Jesus preached a kingdom that was not of this world, yet it is a vision of society that can pull this world toward greater justice, greater peace, and greater fairness. We need not disengage from political life, but we can still speak out for justice and organize citizens to influence legislators and other political figures. At Arch Street UMC, we support the work of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild, a group that does not endorse politicians, but focuses on issues such as fighting for a living wage, seeking the end of the cash bail system, and supporting health care policies that protect the most vulnerable.
Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail reminds us that there is a distinction between moral law and the laws of the land. We must forever hold earthly laws to the standards of the moral law as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In the Romans passage, Paul admonishes the believers to “not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Be changed from the inside out. Don’t let the values of the empire define your identity as a Christian.
Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew remind us the true messiah is not a messiah of this world. The messiah is not to be found in kings, presidents, or even charismatic politicians with totalitarian inclinations. As Christians, we must remember that there is only one messiah, Jesus the Christ.
Be not Christian courtiers who place their faith in charismatic figures that use religious appeals to serve their own political or egotistical ends. Instead, be prophetic leaders grounded in kingdom values, who embody a heart for justice, truth, and peace in a broken world.
David M. Krueger, PhD is a storyteller, scholar, author, and educator who is passionate about public history and social justice. To find out more, visit: https://davidkrueger.org/bio/