When I was a child, we began every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance. In doing this we declared our love and support for our nation. I doubt if I really understood the implications of my pledge; it was just something I said every morning as school began. Only later, when I got older, did I begin to understand what it means to give my allegiance to my country. I also learned that not everyone agreed on what allegiance means. Do I, for instance, have to love it or leave it, as the old bumper sticker suggests? Do I have to agree with everything our government does in order to be a loyal citizen?
With these questions about loyalty and allegiance circling in our minds, Christians face another question – is allegiance to the nation the ultimate allegiance? Or, does our allegiance to God trump our allegiance to family, to community, to nation? As we think on these questions, consider for a moment those who risked their lives in the 1930s and 1940s to hide their Jewish neighbors or smuggle them to safety in defiance of German law. Or consider the people who participated in the Underground Railroad, shuttling escaped slaves north to Canada, and in doing so, broke the Fugitive Slave Law. These folks believed that there was a higher law than that of the nation. So, to whom do we owe ultimate allegiance?
1. THE POWER OF EASTER
As we meet this morning on the far side of Easter, we hear the story of the choices that faced the earliest Christians. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have had to choose between their allegiance to God and their allegiance to culture and nation. In every age and culture, leaders have appealed to patriotism, nationalism, and loyalty to the fatherland or to the clan. And yes, this is true even here in this country, where we hear demagogues stir up crowds with the words: “Let’s take back our country.”
The Easter story reminds us that our loyalties go beyond family, clan, or nation. Whatever our national allegiances might be, we are first of all citizens of God’s kingdom, who acclaim Jesus, the one who has risen from the dead, as “Leader and Savior.” We are here today, because of the resurrection. It is the risen Christ who breathes the Spirit upon the disciples and commissions them to share the word of forgiveness (Jn 20:22-23). It is also the risen Christ who commissions the church to carry the message of God’s grace to the ends of the earth – once the Spirit empowers them (Acts 1:8).
This morning we move directly into the post-Easter world. Acts 5 describes a jail break of epic proportions, but, the jail breakers didn’t flee very far. No, they went right back to the Temple and began to preach, knowing that they would likely face arrest again. So, now they stand before the authorities, having to answer the question: to whom do you owe your allegiance?
2. A QUESTION OF LOYALTY
From the day of Pentecost until the time of Constantine, being a Christian was dangerous if you lived in the Roman Empire. To be a Christian was considered an act of treason, and thus arrest and even martyrdom was common. And, why was being a Christian considered an act of treason? Being a Christian was deemed an act of treason, because the Romans didn’t believe in the separation of church and state. If you were a loyal Roman, you proved it by offering sacrifices to the emperor, who was proclaimed the divine Lord of the empire. Now, this was a problem for Christians, because they had only one Lord, and that was Christ. So when they refused to sacrifice and give their ultimate allegiance to the emperor, the government had no choice but to suppress them.
The Romans tried to suppress the Christians by crucifying them, beheading them, burning them at the stake, or throwing them into the arena to face wild beasts and gladiators. They hoped that these violent acts would be a deterrent, but history suggests that this persecution didn’t work. History is full of stories about people such as Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch, who gave up their lives for their faith. But it wasn’t just men who faced martyrdom – there were also many women counted among the martyrs.
Consider the story of Perpetua. She was a new mother, but she refused to deny her faith, even if that denial would save her life, and allow her to be with her baby. Perpetua wasn’t even a full member of the church when she was martyred. She was still preparing herself for baptism, when she gave birth to her child in prison, and watched as her pagan father took the baby away from her. The father hoped Perpetua would give up this crazy idea and come home, and care for her baby. But, she refused and the authorities sent her into the arena to face a wild bull. She was severely wounded, but she wouldn’t give in. The account of her martyrdom is simply amazing.
Perpetua was tossed first and fell on her back, She sat up, and being more concerned with her sense of modesty than with her pain, covered her thighs with her gown which had been torn down one side. Then finding her hair-clip which had fallen out, she pinned back her loose hair thinking it not proper for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair; it might seem that she was mourning in her hour of triumph. [“The Martyrdom of Perpetua,” in Amy Oden, ed., In Her Words, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 35-37].
When the bull failed to kill her, a gladiator’s sword finished the job. But that happened only when she guided the sword to her own throat. As the writer records: “Perhaps it was that so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not have been slain had she herself not willed it.”
Another woman named Crispina, was beheaded during the reign of Diocletian. At her trial, the judge tried to get her to sacrifice, but she refused, even when the judge threatened to have her beheaded. Crispina replied, “I should thank my God, if I obtained this. I should be very happy to lose my head for the sake of my God. For I refuse to sacrifice to these ridiculous deaf and dumb statues” [Oden, In Her Words, pp. 45-46]. This call to embrace death as an act of loyalty is summed up in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous phrase: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It was sixty-five years ago this past Friday that Bonhoeffer’s choice to defy the leaders of his own nation, led to his martyrdom.
The stories of Perpetua, Crispina, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all give an answer to the question: To whom do I owe my allegiance? If we come back to Acts 5, we hear Peter give his answer to this question. When the chief priest and the members of the Sanhedrin demanded that Peter and the church submit to their authority and stop preaching about Jesus, Peter answered for the church: “We must obey God rather than human authority.” When asked: To whom do you owe your allegiance? Peter replied, I owe my allegiance to the one whom God exalted to his “right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (5:31-32).
3. OUR ALLEGIANCE
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are often ridiculed and condemned because they refuse to pledge their allegiance to the flag. Many people see them as unpatriotic, but they might be on to something. They refuse to say the pledge for the same reason early Christians refused to sacrifice to the Roman emperor. They believe that the flag is an idol and a symbol of a rival claimant to their allegiance. They have asked and answered the question: How can you pledge allegiance to a nation, when you have pledged your allegiance to God? I might not agree totally with their solution, but there is truth in their question.
Although I’m proud to be a citizen of the United States and have no desire to live anywhere else – though Canada doesn’t seem such a bad place to live — my allegiance to nation must come second to my allegiance to God and to Christ’s church, which extends far beyond national borders.
Peter is asking us the question: To whom do you owe your allegiance? Can we say with Peter, and with all due respect to the laws of this country: “[I] must obey God rather than human authority.” Am I willing to count myself among those early Christians who left the council and “rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name?”