Christians live in two realities.
One reality is the world around us—the government, business, schools, work, bills. These things are temporal things, things that will pass away. As the psalmist writes, “Do not put your trust in the rulers of this world, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” These things are important things, to be sure. We need government, for example, for good order, for protection from danger. These things are gifts from God, and we Christians are bound obey the government, to be fair in our business dealings, to provide education, to work hard, to pay our bills because God has given these things to us so that the needs of this life are met just as well as we can help meet the needs others. Of course, like anything in this world, these gifts from God can be misused and abused, and so we must be constantly on the lookout for ways that our humanity corrupts God’s goodness. When we see such injustice happening, be it in the government, in business, in schools, or in work—we as Christians are also obligated to work to bring about change.
The second reality we find ourselves in is the reign of God, God’s reality. This is the reality that doesn’t pass away, and the one that we participate in because we live and move and have our being in the Holy One, in God whose very being knows no beginning or end. As Christians, we know that God’s reality undoes the corruption of this world with goodness, compassion, mercy, understanding, self-restraint…with love. It may seem like these two are in conflict with one another, and yet we Christians find ourselves living in both realities. We live in the tension.
And so as you listen more today to the sermon, and as you go about your day-to-day lives, I challenge you to consider how you best faithfully respond to the call to be a good citizen of the world and a good disciple of Jesus. And how does the tension between those two important callings lead you to a fuller, more abundant life?
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands…
For many American children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is a daily ritual. But few people know the history behind the pledge, though, or how it became a symbol of American patriotism, or how the pledge differs now from when it was originally written. Would you be surprised to learn that the Pledge of Allegiance was really started as a marketing tool? The pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, in conjunction with a magazine called the Youths Companion to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean. What he wrote, at that time, comprised 23 words. At the same time, the marketers of the magazine ran a campaign where they would give free American flags to children who sold subscriptions to the magazine. So the pledge has its roots in old-fashioned traditional American capitalism—which is ironically odd because Bellamy was a vocal, self-avowed socialist. He was even a founder of the Society of Christian Socialists, founded in Boston in 1889. And so his working with this magazine in this way was sort of an odd, odd marriage.
And what of the words “under God” in the pledge? Were they in the original? No. Not at all, in fact. As a Baptist minister, Bellamy believed in the strict separation of church and state, so for him “under God” had nothing to do with the secular government, its flag, or any pledge of allegiance to either one or the other. “Under God” was added by president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954 as a way to counter the outspoken atheism of the Soviet Union.
And what of the controversy today with kids reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools? We’ve all heard stories about that. Did you know the question about saying or not saying the pledge goes back to before WWII? It started with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses never believe in putting anything before God. Yet prior to 1935 it wasn’t actually a Jehovah’s Witness doctrine that they shouldn’t make a pledge to the flag. It was then that they said requiring the pledge violated their freedom of religion under the First Amendment. And so with this new doctrine in place, two Jehovah’s Witness children, ages ten and twelve, were expelled from public school in 1935 for refusing to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And then the parents took the school district to court. The Jehovah’s Witnesses won the first case. It was appealed to a higher court. The Jehovah’s Witnesses one that second case as well. And so it went up to the US Supreme Court. And in 1940, the Supreme Court ruled against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then all pandemonium broke loose in a sense that there was massive violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the early 1940s. By some estimates, around 1500 Jehovah’s Witnesses were attacked, their Kingdom Halls burned. There were tar and featherings. There were even lynchings.
And yet today, across the country, many school districts allow a time for children to say the Pledge of Allegiance, but if students don’t want to, for whatever reason, they may remain respectfully silent. And that’s also due to the Supreme Court reversing itself. As time went along, the makeup of the court changed, and in light of the violence, they decided that this can’t go on. It was believed un-American to have violence against your fellow citizens because they don’t want to pledge to a flag. By 1943, only three years later, the court asserted that compelling such ideological speech is antithetical to the fundamental ideals of the country. You cannot force a someone to swear something, to say anything, that goes against their beliefs.
And so you see, the Pledge of Allegiance is more complicated than you thought!
Today we begin a preaching series through the creed. A creed, most fundamentally, is a statement of beliefs. That’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. used that word in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963—“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Those truths that King cites are the truths, the central tenets of belief that undergird the United States, and chief among them that “all men are created equal.” The Pledge of Allegiance is another such creed in the United States. It lays out fundamental tenets of belief that are shared among the citizens of this country—belief in a republic, an indivisible union of states, liberty and justice for all.
In the church, as you’re well aware, we use creeds. Almost every week in worship we confess one of the two primary creeds—either the Apostles’ or the Nicene creeds. They are very similar, yet different. (We also, of course, have that Athanasian Creed, which is quite different in style from either the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds, but also was written for a different purpose.) The Apostles’ Creed is known as the baptismal creed, or the catechumenate creed. It’s considered the most fundamental statement that a Christian confesses to believe when they are joined to Jesus in death and resurrection through water and the Word. The Nicene Creed has a history that we can trace a lot more easily—that is to say, with more specific historical precision. First adopted at the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the Nicene Creed was later edited at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Interesting historical tidbit: it’s at Nicaea that St. Nicholas, bishop of Smyrna, came to fame when lost his temper and slapped a heretical bishop in the face.
Jolly Old St. Nick at Nicaea isn’t the only time that the creeds caused violence. Down through the ages, the creeds have been statements of faith that many Christians have been willing to die for. Christians have been martyred for their belief in the truth of the creeds of this church. Blood has been shed over the truths that these creeds contain. Our forefathers and foremothers in the church, many of them unknown to us, suffered all kinds of violence and persecution at the hands of the powerful for standing up for what they believed and confessed in the creeds, for confessing “Jesus is Lord.” In fact, in some parts of the world, that’s true for many Christians today. To this day, many Christians face violence, persecution, and even death for refusing to give up on this fundamental truth that we confess each week in the creeds.
That’s one of the reasons we confess the creeds in church—in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world. The creed is a symbol of our unity with one another in belief. We don’t confess the creed each week as a matter of rote liturgical choreography, but as an important connection with the fundamental truths that we hold worthy of dying for as Christians—namely, that we believe in God the Father who created all things, God the Son who him very self is the life of all things, and God the Holy Spirit who gives and sustains life to all things. The purpose of reciting the creed in worship each week is to help us enter into communion with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and also with the whole church across time and place.
And this confession is dangerous to those who take advantage of the ways of the world and seek to exploit others for their own self-indulgence. Why? Because by these creeds we clearly and uncategorically confess that this world is not our primary allegiance. Our primary allegiance is to God, and our citizenship is in heaven. As Christians, we participate in the world, but we are not of the world. We belong to a different way, and the creeds make a clear statement that we believe that. Our lives lived in love for one another state even more clearly that we believe what we confess. And so the creeds, and what we confess in them, are truly our pledge of allegiance, our statement of faith in God’s new world order, in God’s kingdom, in the kingdom of heaven.
We Christians are citizens of heaven, a mystical union of one another and God, not “under God” but God with us. We believe God is the true ruler of all things, and freedom comes not in seeking out only what is best for ourselves, but in living our lives as Jesus did—in love, devotion, and service to those around us. We believe that in all this, God strengthens us daily and gives us all we need to confess, in the face of all the trials and difficulties the world throws at us, “I believe. Jesus is Lord.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.