For Paul to write in his letter that we should pray for kings is akin almost to Jesus’ commandment that we pray for our enemies.
When you consider the kings that we hear of in the New Testament – the Herods of infamy, murdering children and beheading Baptists – and the emperor with this idolatry of office, his “desolating sacrilege” – well, then we get some measure of how radical and unreasonable Paul’s plea for prayer might be.
It doesn’t come easily, that prayer for those with whom we disagree, or even for our enemies.
John Calvin, the famous Swiss reformer, writes in his commentaries of Paul’s instruction:
He expressly mentions kings and other magistrates, because more than all others, they might be hated by Christians. All the magistrates who existed at that time were so many sworn enemies of Christ; and therefore this thought might occur to them, that they ought not to pray for those who devoted all their power and wealth to fight against the kingdom of Christ, the extension of which is above all things desirable. The apostle meets this difficulty, and expressly enjoins Christians to pray for them also. And, indeed, the depravity of men is not a reason why God’s ordinance should not be loved.
The depravity of men should not undo the commands of Christ to pray for the good of all.
Paul and Calvin shared a concern to keep the peace even while they knew that they lived under imperfect rulers, far short of the godly ideal. Calvin had his own issues with authority; he considered that the best political system was one where he was in charge, and his church would recruit the civil services as enforces of law and order.
Paul asks us to pray so that “we might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Amos and the Gospel give an ethical framework within which to locate such godly and peaceable lives: simple stuff: be fair; be honest; be faithful.
The temptations of daily life to slip, to cheat and prevaricate are well known to us, and they become magnified in public life.
I don’t think there is any political system ordained by God outside of the kingdom of heaven; and we’re certainly not there yet. But I do agree with Calvin that we invest authority, delegate power to the civil authorities in return for the promises of protection, peace, and stability in our daily lives. The failure of some, or even of many to deliver on those promises cannot undo the commandment, nor the necessity, to pray for them.
So how are we to pray for “kings and those in high office,” especially in a contentious election season?
I know that there are serious flaws in our political system. I know that there are many of us who are angry with those in power and those seeking power, but the depravity of men is not a reason, Calvin reminds us, why God’s ordinance should not be loved.
I am bound by law not to get too specific from the pulpit about any one political official or candidate. I am saved from some serious internal injury at times only by referring back to my baptismal covenant, to promote the dignity and respect of every human being, no matter their personal deficiencies in my own eyes; remembering that this one, too, is made in God’s image; remembering the beam of wood in my own vision.
I am scarred and I am saved by my kitchen sink epiphany of mashed potatoes. I told you in the spring that I was brought up short by the sudden revelation of Jesus sitting at table with Pharisees and tax collectors and my least favourite candidate for public office; passing the food and sharing it together.
Calvin, again, puts it this way:
It is our duty, therefore, not only to pray for those who are already worthy, but we must pray to God that he may make bad men good.
I am encouraged by the prayers of others. Every so often – maybe once a year – I get a postcard in the mail from my seminary, telling me that on such and such a date, I was included by name in their intercessions. It is remarkable the effect that such a simple message has. It provides warm comfort. It provokes my conscience. It makes me a better priest.
When all else fails, I remember the opening scene from Fiddler on the Roof. A man asks the Rabbi,
“Is there a proper blessing for the Czar?”
“A blessing for the Czar?” the old man repeats. “Of course! May God bless and keep the Czar – far away from us!”
That we may lead godly and peaceable lives.
It is, as Paul says, God’s will that all people should be saved, and come to the knowledge of God’s love and grace demonstrated to us by the Christ, Jesus. It is our duty to pray that this should come to pass, not neglecting to offer thanksgiving for those who are faithful in their public service, and to pray for the encouragement, correction, and even the repentance of those who may need it.
It is such an encouragement to me to receive those postcards of prayer from my seminary successors that I thought we would offer some encouragement this morning to those who need it, following the directions of Paul to offer intercession, supplication, and thanksgiving for those in high office.
You are invited to write on a postcard the name of someone – elected or seeking election, or someone of great influence in your own community – someone who needs your prayer, either of thanksgiving or of encouragement; or someone for whom your own conscience would have you intercede. If you wish to add a blessing, or to sign your own name at the bottom, you may do that, too.
[At the Prayers of the People, I invite you to speak aloud the name which you have written down. Then, at the Offering, we will gather the postcards, and I will see to it that they are mailed to their intended recipients.]
For, “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.”