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The Separation of Church and State

Rev. John M. Edgerton
Nov 26 2017


It was early in the morning and Pontius Pilate was tense. It was the Passover festival in Jerusalem and so 100,000 people from all over Israel had descended on the city, to remember the story of when the God of Israel smashed the power of an empire and set them free. The Roman Empire looked on this celebration of the smashing of an empire with great suspicion. That’s why Pontius Pilate was there, he was the Roman governor of Israel, and he was in Jerusalem with an army to personally oversee security.

Passover was the most fraught and dangerous time of the year, if ever someone in Israel were to try to start an uprising, this would be it. And as the day was dawning on the most fraught day of the most fraught time of year, Pontius Pilate saw that there was a crowd forming outside his headquarters. Pilate didn’t like it.

The crowd was agitated, insisting that Pilate come out and talk to them personally. There were religious leaders and a lot of local police, and they refused to send representatives inside the headquarters because—of course—the Passover rules forbid it. They insisted that Pilate come out from his fortress, out into the public street and talk to them there.

What was going on here? Was this some kind of set up?

Pilate went out to the crowd, and talked to one of their leaders. What was all this about? They were to bring him a criminal. Pilate was incredulous. Pilate wasn’t there to play traffic cop, he was there to make sure nobody started a war. “A criminal? You all have courts, you have police, take him yourselves and judge according to your own laws.” No no no, the religious leaders replied, this man claims he’s a king. This is a death penalty case. If we’re not mistaken, Roman law says only Roman authorities can impose the death penalty, Roman authorities like you, Governor Pilate. 

What was going on here? Claiming to be a king was treason because—surprise surprise—that sort of thing could start uprisings which was exactly what Pilate was there to prevent so … he was stuck. Pilate didn’t like it but he had to deal with it.

Pilate’s soldiers drag the man into the fortress so that Pilate could question him and it is … some guy. He sure doesn’t look like a king. He looks like a laborer. And he doesn’t look like he has ever led any armies, he didn’t even look like he got good meals all that often. And so Pilate asks him straight out, so are you claiming to be some kind of king or what? But the guy answers in riddles, saying his Kingdom is not of this world and that’s why his many followers aren’t fighting to get him out. So, are you a king or not? Just more riddles, he says he’s here to testify to the Truth. 

The truth, what is this guy talking about? 

What is going on here? Why had the religious authorities brought this riddle-talking man to him? It wasn’t out of loyalty to Emperor Tiberius, that’s for sure. This was starting to seem like some kind of set up. Maybe the religious authorities were trying to manipulate Pilate into executing this innocent man, because that was exactly the sort of thing that might get 100,000 people mad enough to do something stupid. Maybe the religious authorities were trying to start an uprising and this guy was in on it. Or maybe it was some grudge over succession to the high priesthood or a disagreement over obscure theological claims.

Pilate hoped it was just some petty grudge, it would be a lot simpler. But Pilate had a way to test that. If this was all over a grudge, maybe the religious authorities would be satisfied if Pilate roughed him up a bit. Pilate ordered his soldiers to take Mr “I am the truth” and have him beaten and whipped and dressed up like a mockery of a king and then dragged back outside.

But the religious authorities weren’t satisfied. They kept calling for Pilate to crucify the man. 

Crucifixion? Pilate didn’t like it.

It wasn’t just the death penalty. It was a public execution. They wanted Pilate to execute this guy, in public, on the Passover? If anything was going to start an uprising it was unjustly executing a popular religious leader on the Passover!

This is exactly the sort of thing Pilate wanted nothing to do with, so he shoots back, you want to kill him, do it yourself, I find no case against this man. The religious authorities say, no no no. You have to do it. This man says he’s the son of God. “If you release this man, you’re no friend of the emperor.” Pilate didn’t like it.

The Son of God?

Son of God was Caesar’s title, Princeps Senatus, Pontifex Maximus, consular imperium, Tiberius Caesar divi filius, son of God. This was a serious charge, Caesar was almost a god himself, that’s why he ruled the known world. The world was full of all kinds of petty kings, but if this man was claiming to be the son of God, he was claiming to be a worthy challenger to Caesar’s own throne. 

Pilate goes and talks to the man again, who are you, where are you from? But the man won’t answer at all. Pilate grows angry—what’s wrong with you, don’t you understand I have the power to either kill you or set you free?

Pilate didn’t like it, these religious authorities had manipulated him perfectly. Everything that had happened, having Pilate come out of his headquarters, arguing with Pilate in public, the choice of sedition charges, the choice of a Roman form of public execution, the choice of the day the Passover was beginning, all of it was quite strategically chosen to back Pilate into a corner. 

If he released the man, Pilate could be accused of disloyalty to the emperor. He had to execute the man, and risk sparking a revolt on the one day of the year when it was most likely. 

He put the man to death. The religious authorities had wanted the man dead, and they got what they wanted. But Pilate got what he wanted too, there hadn’t been a revolt. The Passover came and went and—other than some strange rumors—it was just like any other year. 

Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, also called Christ the King Sunday, when Christians acclaim Jesus as the ultimate authority over the whole world. And while this sounds like a good idea on the surface—why wouldn’t it be a good thing for the values of Jesus to be triumphant over all the world—while it seems like a good idea this is actually one of the most difficult and dangerous ideas we have as a religion. Throughout Christian history this is one of the most fraught questions there is—what relationship should we Christians have to the government? 

Because if I look at today’s story what strikes me immediately is that in terms of how to deal with the government, I share a lot in common with the religious authorities.

They had something they wanted the government to do because they thought it was right, they organized a big turnout of local people, they understood the rules and regulation that bound the governor and tailored their request to fit what the government could do, they understood and appealed to the government’s own interests, and did it all at a time and place that maximized their influence. I’m not surprised that the religious authorities got what they wanted, they had played it smart. It’s just that what they wanted was the death of the son of God. What is the proper relationship between people of faith and the government? Today’s story is why the Christian Church should never settle comfortably on one single answer to the question. 

And we as a faith haven’t settled on one answer to this. 

Some people are like the Mennonites believing the best thing to do is to withdraw as much as possible from the world and live like a colony of heaven on foreign shores. Others are like the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, seeking to have the power of the church counterbalance the otherwise unchecked power of kings and nations. Others still in more recent centuries believe that there ought to be a clean separation between church and state, affording temporal matters to the government and spiritual matters to the church. Others yet find this distinction artificial and either banishes religious people from democratic discourse, or else forces them to pretend that they have secular reasons for pursuing policies actually grounded in religious conviction. 

There is no one definitive answer of how we as Christians ought to relate to the government. But, friends, you must take this question with utmost seriousness. In times of public moral crisis, when people can’t agree on right and wrong and lives hang in the balance, Christians must be well versed in the scriptures, well rehearsed in our ethics, conversant with the lives of saints and prophets. So join one of our many Bible studies, or commit to reading the sermon on the mount once a week every week until your next birthday, or take up a daily prayer practice examining every moral decision you made that day held up in the light of Christ’ love. Take your moral life with utmost seriousness.

Because learn this too from our scripture and the history of the church. People of faith have tremendous power to shape the world. You have tremendous power to shape the world. It may seem that the world is too big and complex for the church to have an impact on it. Don’t believe it. You can change the world, we can change the world. We’ve done it. Without this specific congregation, it is possible that the American Revolution would not have occurred as it did, the sweep of history has turned on hinges as slender as one congregation. I’ve said this before from the pulpit, being a Christian means getting called up to the moral and ethical big leagues.

You must be ready to step into public life ready to do what is right, humbled by the possibility that you may be wrong, but taking up our work because it is in keeping with the way and cause of Christ, Christ to whom ultimate loyalty is owed, Christ whose reign on earth shall surely come. Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, we must recommit ourselves to shaping the world and recommit ourselves to being shaped by Christ.