Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
September 10, 2017
Text: Romans 13:10, O.T.: Psalm 149 N.T., Romans 13:8-14
The University of Paris was only 29 years old when she faced her first crisis with her students. It was the night before Ash Wednesday. Students were celebrating Mardi Gras by drinking in a local tavern not far from the University on the Seine’s West Bank.
Fat Tuesday was and still is a time for revelry. As the students became inebriated, they spilled into the streets. Parisians were upset with the unruly young men and a fight broke out.
The students were protected with Church dispensations from most civil litigation since the University was ultimately supervised by Rome. Students were granted privileges unavailable to the average Parisian. They thought they were exempt from the law.
Across the river from the University sat the palace of the King of France, Louis IX. Louis was only a 15-year old. His mother, Blanche of Castile, was temporarily directing the country until her son came of age. She was incensed by the unruly behavior of Paris’ so-called scholars and demanded their punishment.
Several students were arrested and subsequently killed by government troops, including innocent classmates who were not part of the Mardi Gras disturbance. The campus rose to protest their peers’ unjust deaths. Neither faculty, administrators, nor bishop would punish the protestors. In the absence of law and order, the Pope ordered the University of Paris to disperse – students, administrators, and faculty.
The chaos that surrounded the University of Paris serves to highlight several principles from Romans 13 about the spiritual purpose of civil government and the law.
First, Paul frames the entire discussion of law within the principle that God institutes governing authorities. Whether civil authorities act justly or unjustly is not Paul’s concern. God appoints rulers over people. Civil rulers won’t threaten people whose conduct is good. They threaten those who don’t practice good conduct.
Paul argues when civil officials threaten those practicing bad conduct, they do it on behalf of God’s concern for the community’s peace. Good conduct leads to a peaceful community. Bad conduct isn’t just dishonoring the authority of civil leaders, it’s resisting the peace of God’s community.
Paul reassures the Church in Rome – you have nothing to fear if your conduct is good. Live honorably and all will be well with you.
In the illustration that began our sermon, if students at the University of Paris hadn’t started a fight with townspeople by being out of control from drinking, they wouldn’t have faced the wrath of France’s Queen Mother. She was performing her God-given duty to keep order. The students were originally ignoring the Apostle Paul’s counsel in verses 3 and 13. Then they were ignoring the queen’s God-given authority in verses 2-4.
If they were theology students, and most of the School’s students were at that time, they were ignoring God’s Word in the Scriptures. But then the faculty and administrators were also ignoring the Apostle Paul in Romans 13. They wouldn’t discipline the unruly students. Their indifference was as much an affront to God’s authority as the students.
Paul makes clear, it is our collective responsibility as Christians to honor those whom God has appointed to have authority as rulers. You have nothing to fear if you are doing good. Civil, university, or Church rulers – all have received their authority from God and represent God.
Second, Paul discusses the law in terms of the conscience in verse 5. The Greek word for conscience is suneidēsis. In Greek Neo-platonism, the conscience is that part of a human soul which knows the moral difference between good and bad acts and intentions. The conscience prompts a person to do the good and condemns or prohibits what is bad.
The conscience is the God-given governing mechanism inside the sinner that bridles the passions. It is that part of each Christian that can know God’s goodness despite our sin and honors God’s goodness by living a good or Godly life.
Civil government authorities are God’s servants. The conscience commits a Christian to honor government authorities’ service by giving them their due compensation for their labors. Our Christian conscience honors God through honoring civil servants.
Third, the whole point of government and its laws is we need them to live as a loving society. God gives us government and laws to live peaceably with one another – which doesn’t happen when our passions are dominated by sin. When we’re passionate about sinning, we stop being loving to others. Our passion for sin is disobedience to God and shows how independent we want to be from God’s governance of our conscience.
God gives us law so our capacity to love one another is maximized. Law teaches and bridles each conscience to agree with God’s good intention that we live in a community at peace.
The University students, the faculty, and school administrators gave up on Paul’s teaching on the law, for Mardi Gras revelry that was not honorable. They gave up honoring God’s goodness. They gave up listening to their conscience. They gave up loving their neighbor. They gave up living by God’s law. They were more concerned about gratifying their desires than honoring God. They were more intent on revelry and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, which led to quarreling and jealousy that became a public disturbance.
Theology students were willing to give up honoring God’s goodness for the chance to party before the fast of Lent began. Faculty were willing to give up their responsibility to teach God’s goodness by administrating the law and calling the students to accountability. The towns people, who had a right to be upset with the students, but not to the point of open fighting in the streets, gave up their responsibility to teach the law of love by calling the students to account through a petition to the University’s administrators.
And what does Paul say are the wages of sin, in Romans 6:23? The wages of sin is death – which the government administrated beyond what was necessary with the law of love guiding its conscience. But it administrated it none-the-less. And the aggrieved students then complained they were victims of government injustice, which wouldn’t have happened if they were in any way repentant in the face of dishonoring God’s goodness.
That is what ultimately happened, in Paris, at the beginning of Lent, in the year of our Lord, 1229. Students died, partly because they gave up on the discipline God expects of Jesus’ disciples to model the law of love, partly because the faculty and administration failed to act with a God-given conscience to call the students to repentance, partly because the townspeople failed to act with a God-given conscience and engaged in fighting, and government employees failed to act with a God-given conscience to use force justly from honoring love as the law’s intention. We’ll give the queen a pass because punishing the students did not necessarily mean their deaths.
Had genuine God-given love been practiced all the way around, the queen would have first negotiated with the administration to do its job as Christians in teaching God’s Word at the University as part of its curriculum by holding the students accountable for dishonoring God’s Word.
If those negotiations had failed, then government employees would have sent to jail school administrators as accessories to the crime of civil disorder to teach them the value of repentance in the law of love.
Then, government employees would have identified and reached students who began the problem and demand they make reparations to the towns people who were affected. And, civic leaders would have attempted to identify the towns people, who also gave up living by a Godly conscience to fight with the unruly students, and call them to repent of their sin.
Finally, the government employees would have contacted the pope, who was forced by bad decisions all around to disband the University since the student body, faculty, and administration were unrepentant.
Instead, government officials would have asked the pope to discipline the University by teaching personal responsibility for the common good without destroying the school.
But who has the patience to make peace that way? When passions are raging with public outrage and deaths have occurred, when is the overall community good really being considered in depth?
Use the sword, punish offenders, destroy the institution of learning, bring into question the government’s justice, defile God’s goodness with ill-thought reactions that bring death and destruction, and marginalize Church leadership to make it irrelevant for society’s good – so everyone is at peace.
This is at stake every time the loss of God’s goodness is abandoned by the collective conscience of a nation. Failure in the conscience of a few threatens a domino effect that tempts every person in a society to sin and fall short of the glory of God.
- Whether it’s just a few students going out for the weekend to party whose conscience is unbridled by passions;
- Or school faculty or administrators who avoid dishonoring of God by failing to teach repentance to honor God’s goodness;
- Or civil servants who fail to represent God’s goodness under the pressure of public disdain for law enforcement because the public treasures freedom from the law more than responsibility to uphold the good for everyone by obeying the law;
- Or church members and leaders whose silence or avoidance condones civil leaders whose poor administration of the law marginalizes the teaching of God’s goodness and righteousness.When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we need to show God and each other we mean what we say, and we do what we mean. We speak up and are counted in the courtroom of the law of love. It’s our mission as Jesus’ disciples. We shouldn’t need students to be killed, faculty and administrators to lose their classrooms, an institution of Christian learning to be destroyed, trust in government lost, and Church leadership marginalized to repent of sin and fulfill the law’s intention by upholding the law of love.We should not need natural disasters for God to get our attention. He gave us a conscience. He showed us how to love in Jesus and taught us when to love through Jesus. It’s our responsibility to fulfill the law by the decisions each of us makes, to the glory of God’s goodness. Amen.
- It should not take hurricanes to destroy our cities and homes for our consciences to be pricked and for each of us to willingly assume responsibility to live with God’s goodness by loving our neighbor.
- Compromising on the basics of God’s law of love that Jesus Christ has shown us, and the Apostle Paul teaches us, contributes to the cultural collapse of the peaceful civilization God intends for us. He sent Jesus Christ to transform the world into a civilization where love for one another reigns.
- A society in which the majority claim to be baptized in Jesus Christ’s name must expect that loving your neighbor as yourself is the standard for every conscience regardless of a person’s role in a society. Every Christian is responsible for God’s standard being the standard for every member of a society where he or she lives. No one is exempt from accountability to God.