Pastor’s Blog: The Left and Right Hands of God

In order to keep clear the proper distinction between God’s two words, Law and Gospel, the Lutheran confessional documents remind us there is a difference between civil righteousness and spiritual righteousness. Is that just a lot of theological mumbo-jumbo, or does keeping that distinction matter? It does if you don’t want to waste the death of God’s incarnate Son Jesus!

Civil righteousness is all about how we live on a day to day basis with our neighbors at work, at home, and at play in the particular countries where we have been born or have chosen to live. If you are a Christian living in a country that is hostile to the Christian faith, you still have to pay taxes to Caesar and obey his laws or be punished. The role of those who govern is to keep order, to protect their citizens, to reward good, and to punish evil. This is God’s left hand at work. This is what St. Paul talks about in Romans 13 when he writes that all authority is from God. Now the Eastern (Orthodox) churches have had to live more under non-Christian rulers than those in the West (although change is underway), and that has kept them from confusing God’s left hand from His right when it comes to living daily life in a particular time and place. If you are living in a predominately Muslim, Hindu, or atheist culture, you never pretend you live in a Christian nation. You never confuse civil righteousness with spiritual.

Spiritual righteousness is that which can only be given by God’s grace in Jesus Christ through the washing of Holy Baptism, where we are joined to Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. This is God’s right hand at work. We are not born from above by asking Jesus into our hearts in the safety of our living rooms or by an emotional decision in a churchly setting. We are not saved by being well thought of by our neighbors and by winning a Nobel prize or Time’s person of the year. We are born in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. If we are to be made righteous before God, that must be done for us by God’s beloved Son Jesus, truly God and truly human. That’s not a me-and-Jesus thing. That’s a Body of Christ thing, where I am baptized with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the community of God’s people. Holy Baptism is the whole enchilada, because I cannot by my own reason or effort believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him. The Holy Spirit has to join me to the Lord Jesus’ saving death and resurrection for me to be made righteous before His Father. If I can make myself righteous in any other way, I don’t need a Savior. I am wasting the death of God’s beloved Son Jesus!

So far, so good? Our vocations (our callings) are all about where God has placed us in particular families, regions, countries, et cetera. Genetics has a major influence on vocation. If your biological parents (the ones who got you here) are both athletic or musical or academically gifted, there’s a good chance you will be, too. Recessive genes account for some surprises, but, then, the homes and communities in which we are raised also are influential. That’s where adoptive parents and the influence of a parent by marriage can make a huge difference. Many of us have had that one teacher or mentor, who literally changed our lives by their encouragement and coaching. God calls us to use our gifts and talents for the well-being of all. That’s the stuff of civil righteousness. We are NOT saved by winning the Academy Award, being elected to office, or being well thought of and loved by our families, friends, and neighbors. The difference for Christians is we know where we got what we have and we know we are going to give an account for how we have used God’s gifts of life, time, talent, and treasure.

People on the left and on the right, quite apart from faith or unfaith in God, often confuse civil and spiritual righteousness. The United States of America is not a Christian nation nor is it a “secular” nation (secular meaning there is no place for religion in the public square). This country was founded by people who were overwhelmingly Christians, but most did not want to have a state-supported church. Now, Virginia was largely Anglican, Maryland was predominately Roman Catholic, New England was largely Puritan (Calvinist pilgrims), and Rhode Island was largely Baptist. When the Declaration of Independence spoke of “inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it made clear that these were “endowed by our Creator” and not given by an all-powerful government. Search the American constitution, and you will not find anywhere a word about separation of church and state. In fact, the first amendment makes clear that the government needs to stay out of religion NOT vice versa.

The horrible government of Nazi Germany tried to coopt the churches and placed the Nazi flag in state churches. The horrible governments of the former Soviet Union and of present-day China and North Korea have been organized to control what churches believe and how Christians practice the faith. These are examples of confusing the left and right hands of God. But, again, people on both the political left and right in the USA often promote the same kind of confusion precisely because they insist America is either “secular” or “Christian.”

Some of my ancestors came to this land centuries before my predominately white European ancestors. My Cherokee ancestors ended up in North Carolina long before I did. My more recent immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents wanted a better life for their families. They came here legally, and they assimilated into the wider English-speaking culture. At home, they spoke German or Italian or an Albanian dialect spoken in the part of Sicily from which some came. They worshiped faithfully. They obeyed the laws of this land. They taught their children to be “good” Americans (civil righteousness), and many of their descendants served in the military.

This week, we celebrated Independence Day not only at the noon Wednesday Eucharist, giving God thanks and praise in song and prayer for this land in which we can practice our Christian faith without fear, but also at home with a family dinner and by watching the marvelous Capital Fourth celebration on television. It beats fighting the crowds said the old guy.

I am glad to be a Lutheran Christian living in the United States of America. I am grateful that both my ancient and my more recent immigrant ancestors chose this place to live. I don’t confuse civil righteousness with spiritual. I don’t mind having an American flag in church, since this is where I live out my Christian faith and because I know the USA will cease to exist with all the other kingdoms of this earth. My highest allegiance belongs to the God who has marked me with the cross of Christ in Holy Baptism, and, when I participate in the American political process, I never forget that God has called me to be a good neighbor and a good citizen here. If those who govern fail in their left-handed duty, I vote against the bums. If they do well at keeping order, protecting their citizens, rewarding good, and punishing evil, I vote to keep them on the job. If there is corruption in government, media, academia, or, yes, the Church, it only proves our bondage to sin and daily need for a Savior!

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt

szumwalt

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt has worked in churches for 42 years and in May 2018 celebrated the 37th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ministry. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (www.societyholytrinity.org). In 2004, Pr. Zumwalt moved with his family to Wilmington from Texas, where he served for 23 years as pastor of small, midsize, and large congregations.