We Kneel At The Altar And Wave A Flag, For We Are Citizens Of Two Kingdoms

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Several years ago when I was in a former church as an Associate Pastor, I came into the sanctuary one Saturday evening and saw two women knelling down by the altar.  They were not praying, but were up to something else. I said to them, “Good evening ladies, what are you up to?”  They jumped up, turned a little red, and then proceeded to tell me that they were making adjustments to the flags located by the altar.  It turns out that the Senior Pastor of the church was a little concerned with how close the American flag was to the altar.  Well, long story short, the Senior Pastor didn’t want to offend anyone so he had asked these two ladies to move the flag one to two inches each week when they came every Saturday night to set up for the Sunday Morning Service.  These two ladies giggled as they shared this with me and showed me that they had made it about 40 inches over the last 6 months.  You could actually see the marks on the carpet where it used to be and see how far they had moved the flag.

Even though this is a funny story to think about, it does bring forth the question of why the Senior Pastor wanted to move the American flag away from the altar.  Why the concern?  Later that week, I came to find out that the Senior Pastor was concerned that the American flag was overshadowing the altar.  From the right side of the sanctuary seating it was actually blocking the people’s sight of the communion elements that were placed on the altar, because it was so close.  Furthermore, he wanted the congregation to understand that the church and the state are a part of different realms, the right and the left kingdom, with different functions that ultimately serve God.

Using this example and fun story, if we can think about the altar as representing the church or the kingdom of heaven, and the flag as representing the state or the secular-governing sphere, the question that arises for us to consider today is this: Do we cling to the altar or the flag?  Where is a Christian’s allegiance: the church or the state?  Is it good, right, and salutary to give money and allegiance to the state when we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven?

What say you?  Which one will it be, the altar or the flag? 

This either-or choice was a very similar choice that Jesus faced some two thousand years ago as the Herodians and the Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus.  Let me be a little more specific.  In today’s Gospel reading we read that the religious leaders approached Jesus and asked Him, “Tell us, then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  In other words, this question was attempting to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place.  If Jesus would have said, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, to the Roman Empire!”, then Jesus would have been aligned with the Roman Empire, an empire that most people despised during that day and age.  If Jesus would’ve said, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, to the Roman Empire!”, the religious leaders would have then conveniently reported Jesus to the Roman Empire as one who was attempting to promote insurrectionist ideas against Rome, which would have gotten Jesus arrested.

My friends as we contemplate this question raised from today’s Gospel reading, we need to realize that the religious leaders were posing an either-or logical fallacy.  In other words, they were attempting to pit both of these realms against each other and trying to make Jesus choose one or the other. 

We too face an either-or logical fallacy when we pit the altar and the flag against each other, as I presented to you in the beginning of this sermon. 

Jesus though, understands something that the religious leaders did not understand.  He understands that both the realm of the state and the realm of the church are from God; they are both instituted by the Lord.  Simply put, the flag and the altar belong to the Lord and are under the Lord’s authority. 

Since both the altar and the flag are under the Lord’s authority and instituted by Him, that means that the altar and the flag are not adversaries, but serve each other.  One protects, one grants forgiveness, for the mutual benefit of humankind.  “Both are ordained, established and blessed by God, that all might come to know Jesus Christ and return home to their true heavenly Eden.”[1] 

Consider this for a moment.  The Lord has obviously instituted the church, where the Gospel is proclaimed and the Sacraments are rightly administered.  The church is not a manmade invention, but something that is put together by God.  The church is where the Word of God and the Sacraments are present and where people are gathered for that purpose.  We also see that God has instituted governing authorities, authorities that rule with the sword against injustice to keep good order.  The state operates on the basis of the Law.  It does not offer salvation, but is to be respected according to the Fourth Commandment, for when it runs smoothly it upholds God’s will and keeps society from sinful anarchy.  Indeed, the church rules by proclaiming the message of forgiveness of sin and the state rules by the power of the sword, that is, force.  The state curbs society and keeps order while the church proclaims the Holy Gospel.  Both are instituted by the Lord and both are under God’s authority—for our good.  They are gifts to you and to me, to bind and to loose. 

Therefore, when Jesus said, “’render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's,’ he was telling us that Caesar and all government is God's instrument at work in the physical world.”[2]  He was also telling us that the church and state are not against each other because they are both under the Lord’s control and authority. 

So, practically speaking, what does this means for each and every one of us?  It means that each of us have two birth certificates.  We have a birth certificate that was issued at our birth showing that we were born in a particular state at a particular time in a particular county.  The birth certificate testifies that you are a citizen of the United States of America.  We also have another certificate, and that is a baptismal certificate.  Our baptismal certificate is a testimony that we are a citizen of God’s Kingdom.  At your baptism, Christ claimed you as His own; the Lord delivered you from the dominion of sin, death, and the devil; He rescued you from a citizenship of demise and made you a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, because you were physically born of a woman and spiritually born again by the baptismal font, because you have these two certificates—these two births—you are citizens of two kingdoms, two realms, at the same time. 

As a citizen of God’s Kingdom of grace and truth, you have a heavenly citizenship.  As citizens of heaven your beginning, end, life, movement, identity, and so forth is in Christ and the His Resurrection.  As citizens of heaven the Lord continually bestows on you the gifts of salvation; washing, feeding, and declaring you forgiven of sin. 

As citizens of the state, you are called to walk in the laws of our land and to be citizens of a community and country; as you pay your taxes, vote, do community service, work on the local school board, go to precinct meetings, follow speed limits, follow state laws, and possibly take up arms to support and defend your nation. 

This means that as Christians you and I have one foot in the state and one foot in the church.

Therefore, you and I do not have to choose between two realms, two citizenships, as if they are diametrically opposed.  The reason being, both are instituted by God and both are derived by God’s authority—for our good.  They are gifts to us from a good and gracious Lord. 

Like the church, the state is God’s servant.  Whereas the church dispenses the Word and Sacrament, the state dispenses the sword upon wrongdoers so that we might have order in our society.  The state keeps order while the church proclaims the Holy Gospel.  Therefore, we “render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s”[3] and consider this all gift!

But what of the times where the flag overshadows the altar or even when the altar replaces the flag?  What happens when church becomes the state and the state tries to become the church? 

Tragically, these two realms can be confused at times or blurred, which bring forth a whole host of problems. 

For example, the church is the church and it is not a mere political action group working within the state.  Thus, we should not confuse the ministry of the Word and Sacraments with the political realm of the state.  Listen carefully, we do not need: Christian judges, Christian policemen, Christian congressmen, Christian voters, and so forth.  Rather we need judges who are Christians, policemen who are Christian, congressmen who are Christian, voters who are Christian, and so forth.  The church is all about the Word and Sacraments, which means that the church is not the state, yet the church speaks into the state on basis of God’s authoritative Word. 

Conversely, upholding the teaching of ‘separation of church and state’ means not that the church is kept out of the state, but that the state needs to be kept out of the church.  History has shown us that when the state gets too close to the church that the church is typically the one that suffers. 

The church does not rule by the sword but by the Word and Sacraments.  The state does not rule by the Word and Sacraments but by the sword.

Thus, as Christians we give unto Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God’s.  This means that we engage within the realm of the state underneath our vocations as American citizens.   As citizens who are blood-bought and baptized Christians, we are called to work in our culture to uphold and promote that which is right, good, and salutary according to God’s Word, if only in a small way.  As citizens who are Christians, we are continually formed by the Word of God in the church so that we might advocate for what is correct and noble and helpful and true in the state.

Through our vocations as citizens of the state, we go as informed and redeemed Christians to speak into the culture.  We don’t vote merely as uninformed citizens, but rather we vote as citizens who have been bought, purchased, forgiven, and informed by the Lord.  Our conscience is bound to the Word of God, a conscience that is exercised in our daily lives within the church ‘and’ the state. 

But what of the times when the state violates the Word of God?  As American citizens—yes you baptized saints—you work diligently and faithfully to correct the problems of the state through running for office, demonstrating, and debating.  In other words, when the state enforces laws upon us as citizens that purposely cause us to violate conscious and violate the Word of God, with all tactfulness we obey God rather than man and thus oppose the state.[4]  “The bottom line is our loyalty to God is always first.  The Apostle says as much in the Book of Acts.  When the governing authority overstepped its God given role, when the Apostle's were forbidden to preach and teach in the name of Christ, they responded, ‘we must obey God rather than men.’ [5]

Simply stated, in our baptisms, the holiness of God invades us, which means that it invades both the realm of the church and the state.  This means that you baptized saints, with all of your failures, live and walk within the realm of the state as forgiven pilgrims; pilgrims who travel alongside people still operating as if this world were the only world.  You walk with the power of God’s Word and Sacraments that give a whole new outlook on life in the church and in the state. 

As we go to the polls in the upcoming weeks, we do not go as individuals belonging to only one sphere, but we go to the voter’s booth with both of our feet in two kingdoms; we go as citizens of two cities, two realms.  We go and cast our vote knowing that this is a good thing to do as citizens of the state and we vote being informed by our heavenly citizenship. 

In the end, the altar and the flag, the state and the church, are two different realms that we live in, both must be sharply distinguished and yet they do not contradict for they both find their origin, operation, and essence in the Lord.  They work harmoniously side by side for they are servants of the Lord almighty.   

Altogether, God is at work in your lives through the governing authorities to keep order—for you.  God is also at work in your lives through the church giving His Word and Sacraments—for you.  Therefore, as Christians you “may indeed wave the flag and not only sing but pray [before the altar], ‘God bless America.”[6]

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Joshua Reimche. A Scriptural and Confessional Summary Of the Lutheran Understanding of the Two Kingdoms (2013 North Dakota District LC-MS, Fall Pastors’ Conference), 3.

[2] James T. Batchelor, “Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost Sermon” http://lcmssermons.com/index.php?sn=2430 (17 October 2014).

[3] See Matthew 22:21.

[4] See Acts 5:29.

[5] Alan Taylor. “Our Feet in Two Kingdoms.” http://lcmssermons.com/index.php?sn=2432 (17 October 2014).

[6] Gene Edward Veith. “Called to Be Citizens: America is caught up in feelings of patriotism and national unity.  Is it really OK to “wave the flag”?”  http://pastormattrichard.webs.com/CalledtobeCitizens5.pdf (17 October 2014)

CLICK HERE to join in the conversation on Facebook.
CLICK HERE to follow on Twitter.