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Sermon for 26 April 2015

 

Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18


Politics and religion have always had a complex relationship, sometimes too close, sometimes too distant, often uneasy. And there have long been those who have suggested that religion and politics should have nothing to do with each other - politics they say is about running a country, religion about how we behave.

But today, with the General Election only 2 weeks away, I want to talk about why faith and politics are intricately bound together, and to suggest some broad biblical principles to use when you decide where to put your mark on May 7.

Let me be very clear about one thing first - I am not going to tell you who I think you should vote for.


First then, to these uneasy bedfellows. Desmond Tutu once said ‘I am puzzled by which Bible people are reading when they suggest that religion and politics don’t mix.’ and he was right. If there is one message that the Bible consistently puts, it is that God is Lord of everything. The Old Testament uses the word ‘jealous’ to describe his character. In Exodus 20, as Yahweh lays out his vision and laws for Israel, he tells them ‘I am the Lord your God….. I am a jealous God.’ 

Jealous in this context doesn’t mean that God is always checking us out in case we misbehave, it means that he wants our total allegiance. God is the Lord of everything and there can never be a sphere of human activity or interest that does not come under his sovereignty. There is nothing that is not his. 

And that means that the church fails to live up to its calling whenever we allow ourselves to be limited to an interest in ‘churchy’ stuff or morality, or when we accept that religion is a private matter. It’s a failing that contemporary western society tempts us with all the time, and it’s a temptation we often give in to - that it’s fine to be a Christian, so long as it doesn’t have an impact on anything outside church. But the bible simply won’t let us accept that. If God is a jealous God, who wants our full allegiance, and if He is sovereign over all things, then that means everything is his - including schools, hospitals, the economy, the transport system and how we deal with other nations.

And that view is emphasised in the gospels. Jesus’ primary concern is not to tell us all to behave better or to be nicer to each other, it is to establish a new kind of society - the first words that he speaks in Luke’s gospel are often called The Jesus Manifesto - ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Those two sentences, which sum up Jesus’ vision, include a series of subjects dear to the hearts of politicians even today - including economics, prisons, the health service and justice. 

Jesus has come to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has arrived - in him a vision of a new world is turning into reality and it is to do with real people and their real concerns. He wants life in all its fullness for everyone, and that includes all the areas and issues that our politicians are talking about at the moment. 

That means, of course, that these issues are our issues. Jesus’ didn’t come and talk about this impressive vision and then disappear to heaven - he came to get the kingdom going, and to found a new community, which we call the church, to get on with building it. That means that what we think of as issues that are for politicians are our issues. Being involved matters. Politics matters. Voting matters.


So what should our approach to voting be? The bible isn’t a tidy manual, with an index that tells us about God’s policy on the European Union or on Trident or on Tax rates. But it does lay out some clear principles, and it is those that can help. And the absolutely central principle is that given by Jesus, Love God and love your neighbour. So the key question that we have to ask as we decide who to vote for is, which of these parties will most help me, and which will most help us, to love God and love our neighbour. 

More specifically than that, here are 4 biblical themes that we might want to bear in mind as we decide who will best enable love of God and neighbour.


First, the bible makes it clear that God is deeply concerned with individual people. He cares about you and me personally and intimately. He does not treat us in bulk. But he does not see us simply as individuals. We are always part of something bigger - part of a network of relationships - a community. Our society tells us, in a thousand ways, that we are autonomous; that our individual choices make us who we are; you only have to watch the adverts on tv for 5 minutes to see that. And politicians appeal to this self interest, but the bible is interested in us as relational beings. It knows that we are only who we are because of our relationships - with our families, our friends, in local neighbourhoods. 

To love God and neighbour means recognising that we are not just individuals, who get to make our own personal choices about things. We are part of something bigger. We should therefore carefully consider which policies and which parties will enable us to flourish, not just as individuals, but as communities. In Catholic teaching, it’s called The Common Good. So for instance,  we should be suspicious of policies that might be good for our pocket, but which we suspect may harm others. And we should be wary of Political Parties which promote a sense that it’s ‘all about you’. Because the Kingdom of God is about individuals who are part of a much bigger society.


Secondly, the bible is clear that God gets us. God knows that we are broken and sinful people - people who are always ready to mess up and to get it wrong. I always enjoy it when Matthew 7 is read in church.  Jesus tells us to ask, knock and seek, and he talks about the Father giving good gifts to his son and he says this ‘ If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ Jesus gets to the point - ‘you, though you are evil’. He knows that our sinfulness isn’t just a matter of a wrong choice here and there, it is a way of life for us. It’s our default position.

But he also knows that isn’t the whole story. There is hope, because Jesus came to bring forgiveness and the change that goes with it - Jesus was in the transformation business, and we should be too. 

So we should be looking for politicians and parties that are totally realistic about human nature - that understand, without having to demonise or scapegoat, that people get things horribly and disastrously wrong all the time. We are not rational beings, who make sensible choices, we are messy and broken and we find it hard to change.  But we should equally be looking for politicians who believe that change can come and that individuals and communities can be restored and made whole. We should endorse policies that are hopeful and transformative.

We should be wary of those who tell us they can make everything perfect. We should be equally wary of those who tell us anyone, or any part of society, is irredeemable.


Thirdly, the bible has a healthy suspicion of power, and especially power that is accumulated in the hands of authorities and governments. Israel of course, had good reason to be suspicious. Made slaves by the Egyptians, overrun in turn by Babylonians, Persians and Romans, they knew what powerful countries and Empires are capable of. And Jesus suffered from those who had power too, whether it was at that hands of his own religious leaders or from Pilate and the Empire that he represented.

That’s not to say that we should all rush off and call for revolution and the end of government. The bible is clear that there is such a thing as ‘right authority’, and that we are to support those called to lead us, and to pray for them.  

But power belongs fundamentally to God, and whenever any group tries to claim too much of it for themselves and allows themselves to think it belongs to them, trouble follows - and usually it’s trouble for those who are the weakest and the most vulnerable. 

We should therefore look for policies and parties that are ready to give away power, rather than accumulate it. And we should look for and pray for political leaders who show us that they understand the temptations that power brings, and that they don’t believe it belongs to them, or that it is their’s by right. 


Finally, the bible makes it clear that God has a particular interest in those on the margins of society.  He has what has been called a Bias to the poor. That doesn’t mean that God loves those who are poor more than than people who are wealthy, but it means he has a very particular concern for the weak and the vulnerable. It’s like being a parent - when one of your children is suffering, they become a particular focus of your attention. You don’t stop loving your other children, but your concern to end that one child’s suffering means you will be particularly involved with them and their issues. So with God. 

Over and over again in the Old Testament and the New, the bible makes it clear that God’s desire is to lift those who are on the edge back into the centre - whether that is the economically poor, or those who are edged out through illness, poor reputation or stigma, God wants them to know abundant life - as he does for us all.  

So we should be looking for politicians and parties who show a similar concern for the poor, and whose overriding concern is to enable them to discover fullness of life. And we should be wary of anyone who stigmatises those on the edge, or who ignores them.


So there we are, 4 broad areas to bear in mind as your pencil hovers over your ballot paper:

  • Who will promote the common good, not just my own good?
  • Who understands that we are all sinful, but that there is always hope?
  • Who is ready to give away power rather than grasp it?
  • Who shows a bias to the poor?

I encourage you to look carefully at the policies and manifestos - to get below the surface of the media froth and the soundbites, and to really ask which party, and which politicians will help us to build the kingdom of God. And as you do so, pray for everyone seeking high office, and for those who will be elected.

Amen

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Posted: 27-04-2015 at 09:08
Church Office & Vicar - 01580 211739   hugh.nelson@ymail.com