Pastor Note #112: America in Theological Perspective–a July 4th Sermon

America in Theological Perspective: A Sermon
Pastor Gary Chorpenning
1 Peter 2:9-17
Preached July 4, 2021

So, do they have the Fourth of July in England?  [Pregnant Pause]  Of course they do.  They have the fourth of July, the fifth of July, the six of July.  They have all the days of July in England, same as we do in America.  That’s a terrible joke. You’re welcome steal it. But I have to warn you that it work best on young children. [Which may explain why most of the people in congregation mouthed the punch line back to me as I said it.]

photo by GAC

So, anyway, this is the Fourth of July, and it’s also a Sunday.  As you’ve probably noticed, I almost never like to import civil holidays into the worship of the church.  That’s because the Church is not American, nor is it German or Nigerian.  The Church of Jesus Christ is a nation unto itself.  That’s what the apostle Peter insisted on in the passage we just read.  We are “a holy nation, God’s own people.”

You and I are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God before we are citizens of any human or earthly nation.  Because of that we need to be careful about how we import Americanness into our worship.  It’s awfully easy for us to get confused about our primary loyalties should lie.

We are Christian who happen to be Americans, not Americans who happen to be Christians.  But we are American Christians, and so I think today we should think a little about how to be Christians who also happen to be Americans.

I’ve been preaching lately on the Lord’s Prayer.  This week we come to the part of the Lord’s Prayer that isn’t actually in the Bible:  “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”  I usually try not to preach on things that aren’t in the Bible.  But today I’m breaking all sorts of rules.  Still the fact that governing authority and power and honor belong to God alone is a very biblical idea.  And thinking about that as American Christians on this day of American celebration seems to me like a good thing for us to do.

So, here’s our question:  how should God’s people think about America and its history?  I want to suggest to you that how you respond to that question might very well serve as a kind of diagnostic test to see whether your Christian faith has gotten off track.

First, if you think that this question – “how should God’s people think about America and its history? – is primarily a political question, then I would suggest to you that your faith has gotten sick.

Politics should never guide what Christian people think about anything.  What God’s people think about anything – even America – should never be a political question.  What we think about anything should always be a biblical question and a theological question.

Any Christian person who has to check with some political party before they can decide what to think about some topic is a Christian person whose faith has gotten dangerously sick.  It’s my personal view that political parties as such are bad—every one of them.  That may sound like a radical opinion, but the truth is that pretty much every one of the Founding Fathers of America believed that too.  To a person, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, all of them warned against political parties and considered them to be very dangerous to the health and well-being of a nation.

It is also true that before very long, all of the Founding Fathers with the exception of George Washington formed and joined political parties.  I think they all came to the conclusion that political parties were inevitable and an unavoidable, necessary evil.  But let’s be very clear, they all thought that political parties were bad things.  And I agree with them.

And in any case, as Christian people, we need to remember that a political party will never tell you how to follow Jesus.  If you follow a party line, you will end up in the wilderness not in the kingdom of God.

I’m not a member of any political party.  I don’t think any political party would want me.  No political party would trust me.  Nor should they.  I can’t be relied upon to follow any party line.  My loyalty can’t ever be to a political party, because my loyalty is to my King.  Since no political party is loyal to my king, none of them can have my loyalty.

Now, I’m not telling anyone that they should not be a member of a political party, but I am saying that if you think your party is Christian, you need to check your heart.  Your loyalties are out of place.

Okay, for those of you who haven’t gotten so mad at me that you’ve stopped listening to me, let’s go back to the question I asked a few minutes ago.  What should God’s people think about America and its history?  As I said, if you treat that question as a political question, you’re likely to end up in a heated argument that goes nowhere.  But as I’ve just said, it isn’t a political question, and we shouldn’t treat it like a political question.  It’s a theological question and a biblical question.

The Minuteman Statute in Lexington, MA; photo by GAC

If we as Christian people approach the question of America and it’s history from a biblical and theological perspective, I don’t think it is a very complicated question or a very controversial one.

Let’s start with some fundamental theological truths.  First of all, human beings are created in the image of God.  Part of what that means is that we are capable of the most remarkable acts of beauty, goodness, and creativity.  It was always God’s intention that we human being should be his partners in maintaining and advancing his creative work in the world.

The second basic theological truth to consider is this:  human beings are fallen.  We have fallen into sin and evil, and so we no longer possess the goodness and beauty we were originally designed to possess.  “All have sinned,” the apostle Paul says, “and fall short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23 NET]  King David, a man personally well-acquainted with human sin, wrote this:  “They are all morally corrupt.  None of them does what is right, not even one.” [Psalm 14:3 NET]  What does Jesus say?  “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.” [John 3:19 NET]

We human being—all of us—are now fallen, bent, twisted, prone toward sin and evil.  Now, as I’ve told you before, this does not mean that we are as bad as we could be.  Nor does it mean that everything we do is evil.  But it does mean that there is a bend, a bias in our character that makes us prone to use our remarkable, God-given creativity to do evil—often very creative and terrible evil.

This bias, this bend toward evil in human beings is not merely the potential for evil.  We human beings engage in evil actions, and we do it often.  And you understand, I’m not talking about those other human beings out there.  I’m talking about you . . . and me.  I’m talking about all human beings.  All of us engage in sinful, evil behavior.

This is basic, straightforward Christian theology.  Nothing I’ve said here is strange or shocking.  Every preacher who has ever preached from this pulpit has preached this same theology.  This is all classic, Christian doctrine.  There is nothing strange or controversial about this for Bible-believing Christians.

All human beings, as bearers of the image of God, are capable of acts of beauty and moral goodness.  But also, as the apostle Paul says, every human being sins and falls short of the glory of the God whose image they bear.

Now, let me be very clear and add two and two together for you.  Everyone of the American founding fathers was a human being.  Every one of them was a sinner.  Every one of them fell short of the glory of God.  George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, yes, and every other hero and heroine of American history was a sinner and fell short of the glory of God.  They sinned and fell short not just in their private lives but in their public lives and public service as well.  You can claim that the heroes and heroines of American history were sinless saints, but only if you reject the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.  I don’t want to do that, and I don’t think you do either.

Let’s do a little more theological arithmetic.  America and all the nations of the earth are the creations of human beings.  Every nation on earth, from the beginning of history right down to the evening news, has been created and maintained by human beings.  Nothing that human beings do is untainted by our sin and fallenness, even the best of our efforts.

No nation on earth is perfect and pure in all its ways.  Every nation’s history is stained with examples of evil and injustice that have been perpetrated by its people and its government.  As that is true of all nations, it is true of America, because America like all nations was founded and maintained not by angels but by human beings who were capable of great goodness and beauty because they were made in the image of God and also who, because they like all human beings were fallen and sin-sick, were capable of great evil and injustice.

This is not a political statement.  This is a biblical and theological statement.  If what I’ve said bothers you politically, I would urge you not to let your politics teach you theology.  The fallenness of all human beings is not a politically liberal idea nor is it a politically conservative idea.  It is a biblically theological truth.  We do not want our politics to teach us about theology.  We want our theology to teach us about politics.

So, one last time back to my original question:  what should God’s people think about America and its history?

When we look at the great documents of America’s founding—the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution among others—when we look at later great documents and speeches by such great Americans as Fredrick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln among others, we see expressions of breathtaking beauty and goodness.  America was founded on and has sought to live out the highest ideals and aspirations of justice, equality, and freedom.  Often we’ve achieved what we have aspired to and in doing so have been a shining example of great human achievement.  Those are things we need to celebrate and remember and be inspired by as we live into the future.

That’s what we celebrate today, and those things are worthy of celebrating.  These expressions of goodness, justice, and decency are possible because we human beings are created in the image of a good, just, and decent God.  So when you celebrate these things, remember that you are celebrating God’s presence and working amongst us.  We celebrate America without worshiping America.  And so, we celebrate it all with a humility as befits the people of God.

Old North Church, Boston; photo by GAC

That humility is important because it also will help us to recognize that America has not always lived up to our ideals and aspirations.  This is not because America and Americans are somehow especially evil.  But it is because like all human beings Americans and the institutions and structures that they create are fallen and damaged by sin.  As I’ve said already over and over, this is not a politics.  This is theology.  This is the Bible.

What does the Bible tell us to do with our sin?  We are to acknowledge it, confess it, repent of it, and strive to live better.  What we do as individuals we should also do as a nation.

That, I am convinced, is how God’s people should think about America and its history.  We celebrate America but with honesty and especially with humility.  We celebrate America while also acknowledging our failings and the sufferings those failings have caused.  Our failings have caused and continue to cause suffering.  Part of celebrating our ideals is acknowledging that we fail to live up to them and because of that people get hurt.  We celebrate American ideals while admitting that we can do better at living up to them.

Can we not find ways to join together all of us to strive to make America better?  Is that maybe a goal we can all unite around?

(c) 2021 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.

See also:

Pastor Note #76: Citizenship in the Only Christian Nation on Earth

Quote of Note #69 — Our Allegiance to our King not some Party


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