Sunday, January 29, 2017
The power of a dead king
Sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Tomorrow, many Anglicans celebrate the Feast of Blessed Charles, King and Martyr, remembering that the reason that King Charles the First was executed in 1649 was because he upheld the Anglican Faith in the midst of Puritan fervour. It can be argued either way whether this was actually the case, but the execution of a king on the grounds of treason is certainly a strange matter. Did Parliament truly have the power and the authority to execute the king of England?
There is a difference between power and authority. Power is really about being able to do something. Authority is about having the right to be able to do something. Indeed Parliament had the power to execute Charles I because it did. Did it have the authority? What gives parliament the right to execute the king? What gives the king the right to do away with parliament?
St Paul offers us a bit of a quandary. He says to the Romans, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers; for there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
Whosoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good."
Charles I argues that Parliament does not have the right to try him on the basis of St Paul's words. If St Paul is right, then corrupt governments can never be brought to account because God has put them in power and given them authority to act as governors. The Christian is bound to be subject to these authorities. How can a corrupt government be removed if everyone is obedient to God?
Ah! That's the point. If God appoints someone to be ruler, then they have a duty to God to rule according to His wishes. If they do not, then they are not acting with God's authority. A Christian cannot object to the fact that their country has a ruler who may or may not be Christian. We can't say, "because I'm Christian, I won't obey the laws passed by Parliament because Parliament has no authority over me."
We can say, however, "the law that is passed is in direct violation of my Christian belief. I will resist it." This is exactly what Peter and John do when they are commanded by the Pharisees and Priestly authorities not to preach in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. "Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard." Later, they say that we ought to obey God rather than men.
This is the principle: we obey God first, and then all who are in His authority and command just laws.
But what if they don't?
The Christian is obliged to discern the authority of God. If the authority of man contradicts God, then the Christian must fight against it in the most Christian way possible, receiving cheerfully the punishment for resistance to ungodly laws. That is how many of the martyrs live and die, not by acting violently against their oppressors, but calmly and lovingly proclaiming the truth. Others fight and die in battle, struggling to protect others from the tyranny of unjust and violent people. They fight with the intention to bring the love of God into the world, by protecting that which is precious. They do not fight in order to kill, but only to defend.
Is Charles I a blessed martyr?
As in the case of many others, only God has the true knowledge of that. In fact, it's not really our business to know.
Are we a blessed martyr?
Now, that's the question we need to answer!