2 Kings 5:1-3, 9-15a

Luke 10:1-11

I want to have a conversation today. The Fourth of July celebrates “our country’s” birthday, and today’s readings raise some questions about what “our country” could mean to Christians. We all negotiate different ways of answering these questions. There’s no simple right or wrong answer, just perspectives to share. I’ll think about the background for a while, then we’ll open things up for conversation.

To set the stage for these questions, let’s look at one main point of the 2 Kings reading (there are other points too). One main idea is captured in Naaman’s affirmation that “there is no god but Israel’s God.” This story is about both sides of the idea of monotheism, the idea that “our” God is real and everyone else’s is not. Monotheism was a big idea with Elisha’s generation of prophets. The first side of the idea is that “we win.” From Israel’s perspective, the big idea of the story is that their god is better than Syria’s.

However, the second side is also there: the implication that if there is only one God, Israel’s God is the god of Syria too. When the first verse of the story acknowledges that “the Lord gave Syria victory,” even over Israel, that’s a very big change. It used to be that each nation had its own god, and our god would fight yours when our armies fight each other. “The Lord” was Israel’s own god. So to say that “Israel’s god gave the Syrians victory” was pretty much blasphemy, saying that Israel’s god is not who we knew he is. 2 Kings 5:1 says just that! It says that Israel’s god not only Israel’s, it’s the God of all. As the only deity, God has reasons to love Syria as well as Israel; being the only God is different from being one god among many.

Most of us now believe that God doesn’t fight at all. The all-powerful God of everything wouldn’t have to fight, right? For us, the idea of one universal God is well established. That idea makes lots of monotheism invisible to us, like the implication that God takes precedence over human governments and nations. When 2 Kings was written, it was a new idea that God’s precedence holds kings and rulers accountable. That accountability is why monarchies have the church crown the king. Since before Elisha, prophets called kings to account on God’s behalf, and at least since Elisha’s time they were , speaking for the God of the universe. Of course, kings don’t like to be held accountable; people generally like to imagine that we’re the highest power around.

And that’s how today became the Fourth of July (before 1776 we went straight from the Third to the Fifth, I guess): one king in particular overstepped his bounds quite a bit. Thomas Jefferson based his Declaration of Independence on a developing idea about where kings get their power, namely “the consent of the governed,” and emphatically not from God. He articulated our “unalienable rights” based on the idea that people have moral standing prior to the institution of the government. No legitimate government can take this standing away from the people. Of course, we’re still finding out exactly what these rights are; for instance, it took 87 years for the government to extend “liberty” to everyone just because they were human.

The idea behind the Declaration of Independence was a sea change in human life. Just like saying that God is greater than the king, saying that the people are prior to the government is a “self-evident” truth that can’t be put back in its box. The Declaration of Independence claimed people’s right to limit the king’s power by revolution, and the Constitution would establish the peaceful vote as a “more perfect” way to curtail the government’s power. There is nothing perfect about this governmental system, and many of the imperfections seem deliberate, but that principle of setting ideals above politics and power seems almost divine. (Not that Jefferson suggests any divine inspiration except for Reason, which is about equal to God in his philosophy, but we can interpret, right?)

Jesus sends his disciples to proclaim values greater than power, to talk about God’s activity that he calls the Kingdom. He’s talking about God’s reign that is greater than the rule of Rome. This is a unique kind of rival kingdom – Rome opposes all upstarts, but God’s Kingdom is out of Rome’s reach. We live into it by setting God above all worldly powers and concerns, living justice and peace rather than Rome’s values. God’s Kingdom is a direct threat to the imperial power of fear and division, but it’s untouchable because it exists on a different level from politics and military might.

There are several different Christian approaches to the distinction between these two kingdoms (God’s and Caesar’s), all with deep roots in the tradition. One is to treat civic life as something opposed to God’s reign, because there is no final state authority. This approach refuses military service, taxes, and voting as contrary to the radical change of life Christ requires. A second approach is to actively engage in politics and work to ensure that state entities reinforce God’s program. Essentially, this approach wants to bring human governments under God’s kingdom. A third way is the acknowledge “two kingdoms” where civic life is just distinct from religious life; religion belongs in your personal life, and you keep your politics separate. A fourth approach is to “speak truth to power.” You don’t seek political power yourself, but you’re a fly in the political ointment, refusing to compromise your values.

Different religious and political leaders have their own emphases, and you probably have your own approach that I may not have mentioned. Most of us have some combination of two identities, like being a dual citizen of two countries. We might carry two passports, one of God’s Kingdom and one of this country (or some other). We find some balance between the ideals our church guides us to and others from our culture and the life of our earthly country. Both sets of values influence each other, and some of us see more conflict between them than others do. Where do you strike this balance?

Let’s start the conversation at this level, the political. I don’t care about particular issues here, just the big ideas. Then we’ll move on to daily life.

Some discussion questions:

How do you think of yourself? Are you a citizen of God’s Kingdom or of the United States? Do you identify with one reality more than the other? How does your faith (your relationship with God, your values, your morals) inform your approach to life as a citizen of your country? When has your faith come into conflict or tension with your political life? How did/do you resolve it?

Let’s shift to daily life, because not all of politics is about voting: how do your everyday choices reflect God’s reality? How do your commitments affect the issues and causes you contribute to? The groups you’re a member of? How do they affect the choices you make as a consumer? The people you make an effort to get to know?

Jesus sends the disciples off with the greeting “peace be on this place.” What does Jesus’ vision of peace look like to you? How is it different from (or more than) peace between countries? What underlying issues or conditions undermine the kind of peace you believe in? What change in conditions would further this kind of peace in the world? How can you (as an individual or as a citizen) contribute to bringing about these conditions?

Part two of the peace question: Jesus asks the disciples to wait for peace to return from others, to partner with people who share this vision of peace. Why is it important to have others around who share your vision? How closely must someone share your vision before you can partner with them? Is it possible to agree too much? What’s the value of different or competing visions? (Isn’t that what democracy is about?)

I wanted to have the cross highlighted on today’s bulletin cover, but our new copier is too crisp. The cross is a symbol of self-sacrifice, not of triumph or hard-core rigorous truth. How does self-giving lead to peace? What difficulties are there in trying to give yourself away, without seizing power, in “real life”? How do we balance them with this call? Am I saying that peacemaking is necessarily a religiously based thing? Does religiously based advocacy violate the first amendment?

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