3 Epiphany 2009

Pray for Whom?

The Conversion of Saint Paul
& the Third Sunday After Epiphany
January 25, 2009
“But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests? But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ.” – Acts 9:21-22

Saul was of the Pharisee party and scrupulous to a fault with regard to keeping all the Jewish religious law and in observing its myriad of regulations. Saul was zealous for the God of Israel and the Hebrew Faith, and would not personally tolerate anything or anyone whom he felt opposed, diluted or apostatized from the Faith of Israel. Hence he quickly became an ardent persecutor of the new Jewish sect known as the ‘followers of the Way’ (the followers of Jesus Christ soon to be known by the term ‘Christians’). We know that he was present for and consented to the stoning of St. Steven, the Proto martyr.

This morning’s account records his Conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, Ananias’ initial reluctance to go to him for fear of him, and of the reluctance of the Church to accept him in light of his reputation as a former persecutor of the Church of God.

Not only did he face reluctance by the Church to accept him; but as a Jew who formerly had influence with the Jewish leadership and enjoyed popularity with the Jewish people, he quickly became unpopular both with the Jewish leadership and people, and was labeled an apostate, was detested, pursued and became a target for assassination.

He faced opposition both by the Jews, and opposition by many of the Jewish converts to Christ. Although he gradually achieved status amongst the Apostles at Jerusalem, by many others within the Church he was misquoted, mistrusted and misunderstood. He had constantly to contend with ‘Judaizers’, or the ‘circum-cision party’ within the Church who insisted that Gentile converts to Christ must first submit to circumcision and adhere to all of the Jewish law and its regulations to be eligible to join the Church.

Rejected by the Jewish community, and not particularly popular in the Christian community, Paul went on to become the great Christian Missionary to the Gentile world. And in the writing of his copious letters to the many churches he established, helped formulate much of what eventually became the Church’s theology regarding Christ.

Now some of the things he taught and enjoined upon his newly formed congregations were unpopular at first introduction. One such unpopular and difficult teaching must have been when he enjoined Christians to pray for the Roman Emperor. He speaks of prayer for the emperor in his Epistle to Romans, written between 54 and 58 A.D.

It will be worth our while to list the Roman emperors, beginning with the reign of Augustus from 27 BC – 14 AD, within whose reign Jesus was born, and Saul was a child or early teen. Next in line, during the first half of Saul’s lifetime, between 14-37 AD, Tiberius was Emperor.

About the time Saul began to persecute Christians on the home front the notorious Caligula, who ruled Rome from 37-41 AD, began a vicious persecution of Christians at Rome. Claudius was Emperor from 41-54 AD, just prior to Paul writing the Epistle to the Romans. But most important to us this morning is the fact that from October of 54 to June of 68 AD, NERO was Emperor, during whose fanatical reign, Paul wrote Romans. Nero’s many atrocities included having Christians tarred and set ablaze to light his garden by night! He also put the blame for the burning of the city of Rome on the Christians. Let the fact sink deep into our conscious-ness: Romans was written during ruthless Nero’s reign! Coincidentally and ironically, Nero was the Emperor to whom Paul would later appeal for a just trial toward the end of his life.
See with near daring, Paul enjoining the Christian community at Rome to behave thusly: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment….Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good, but if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. There-fore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

(Following a word about the duty to pay taxes) Paul adds, ‘Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:1-7). Paul is fully mindful to whom he is writing: Christians who have seen their loved ones set ablaze!

And Peter also writes: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right….live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:13-17)

In the Old Testament Daniel had to face off three different kings, Nebuchadnezzar, who put three Jews: Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego into a burning fiery furnace. Belshezzar, who was slain the very night Daniel had interpreted for him the handwriting on the wall. And finally Darius, who had Daniel cast into the lion’s den.

That the authority exercised in the kingship is of God’s ordinance: Interpreting a dream for king Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel began, “You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the sons of men, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air, making you ruler over them all…”

When later King Darius cried out to Daniel, ‘O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions? Daniel said to the king (in the identical words that the king’s own courtiers and even his queen had uttered on numerous occasions), ‘O king, live forever!’ (Dan 6:21)

Returning to the New Testament we find the Faithful honoring the orders of the king, as the divinely appointed power and legitimate authority of state. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled and all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and linage of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was great with child.” Joseph and Mary were obedient to an emperor’s decree.

(Tiberius was emperor) when Jesus was asked is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? To which Jesus replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus recognized the legitimate demands placed upon all citizens of the empire by its legitimate head of state.

And finally, against his Jewish accusers, Paul pleas before King Agrippa: “If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death; but if there is nothing in their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Born within the conquered outskirts of the Empire, he therefore was born a citizen of Rome! As a Roman citizen he exercised his right to have his case heard by the Emperor himself. Paul felt he would do better being tried by Emperor Nero than being tried by the Jews who were opposing him and keen to be rid of him. He felt Nero would give him a fairer shake!

Later, after arriving in Rome, and under house arrest whilst awaiting his appeal, he writes to the Church at Philippi and in conclusion adds, “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.” This, evidence there were Christian believers, numbering a few members of the family, but primarily slaves waiting and serving within the walls of Nero’s palace!

Paul felt no compunction about instructing the Faithful, in Rome as well as at Philippi, to pray for the Emperor, who Paul (as do elsewhere the scriptures) viewed as the legitimate ruling authority, even though many of them had been corrupt, some were deranged and others were currently persecuting the Faithful and the Church of God. Paul enjoined such prayer because he knew and believed that no one is beyond redemption: not even a tyrannical emperor, not even such a one as himself who formerly persecuted Jesus Christ and his Church. For Paul it was truly, as the hymn attests, “amazing grace that saved a wretch like me!”

Pray for them! Emperors, monarchs, even presidents. Albeit, sometimes even an unpopular one! Nevertheless, that is why down through generations, the Church has continued to pray for the legitimate author-ities within the State. Because their authority to govern comes from God according to the Holy Scriptures!

In the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church, we petition Almighty God: “We beseech thee also, so to direct and dispose the hearts of all Christian rulers, that they may truly and impartially administer justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.” More especially in the American Prayer Book, in the Litany we petition: “That it may please thee so to rule the heart of thy servant, the President of the United States, that he may above all things seek thy honor and glory.”

In the Office of Morning Prayer we find two optional prayers for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority; and in the Office of Evening Prayer a third optional prayer which includes petition for the Governor of the State. In a collection of prayers found on pages 35 & 36, we find prayers for Congress, a State Legislature, the Courts of Justice and for Our Country, and on pages 41 & 42 prayers for our Army and Navy, and beginning on page 47 the all inclusive Bidding Prayer.

From George Washington down to Barack Obama, whether in peacetime or in time of war, there has never been a single President of these United States of America that did not need the prayers of the people he has been elected and appointed to serve!

I’m aware that for some this seems to ask something of them they can not bring themselves to do under the present circumstance: They did not vote for the man. They disagree with, and perhaps even denounce, many if not most or all of his avowed policies and proposals, and they fear the direction in which they believe he is going to take our country.

Others voted for him, welcomed his inauguration and eagerly await the eventual outcome of his term in the presidency. Whatever our feelings may be, collectively they are all the more reason we should pray!

Personally, I always vote, not for a particular party, but for the individual candidate I think will best govern the American nation. Whereas I did not vote for Mr. Obama, I will pray for him and for our nation daily. And I will do so because St. Paul, St. Peter and many texts from the Scriptures teach one owes it to the leader of one’s country and homeland to do so. St. Paul could pray for Nero, and instructed the churches he established to do so also!

We can most certainly pray for our nation. We can unite in prayer for God’s continued blessing, pro-tection and direction of our country. We can pray for the President and Vice President’s personal safety and that of their families. We can pray for the members of Congress. And especially for all those who serve so bravely and honorably in the various branches of our military stationed throughout the world. We can pray that God will guide us through the financial debacle we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Again as regards the President, we should pray in all things for GOD to direct his heart toward doing not what we think he should do, but toward what GOD would have him to do! Praying in that way would best please God, best serve our nation, protect the lives of the unborn and best help determine the outcome of many equally important moral issues.

Scripture says and teaches those who rule are, after all, chosen to serve as God’s instrument! Pray! We owe it to a Leader of State as much as we owe it to God!