1 Samuel 8.1-18, Romans 13.1-7, John 18.33-37
A politician arrived with ten minutes to go before a big public meeting in a local church. Unfortunately the car park was full and there was nowhere obvious to park within walking distance of the venue. (I‘ve been there!) He looked up at the sky in despair and said, ‘Look, God, I know we’re not exactly well acquainted, but if you can find me a parking space I promise to lead a totally blameless life, committed to doing good, for as long as I remain in office.’ He looked down again and there, right in front of his car, was a parking space. He parked up triumphantly and jumped out. ‘Thanks, God, but the deal’s off,’ he said. ‘I managed to find a space myself.’
I tell the joke because it’s about sovereignty, who controls what happens, and because the question of sovereignty is one of the big issues of our time. The debate before and after the European Referendum has been partly about sovereignty, taking back control from Europe and not giving it away again to multinational corporations. But, as our Bible readings show, sovereignty is a very complicated idea.
The dominant model of sovereignty throughout human history has been an individual person, a king or a queen, a military ruler, a high priest or a popular dictator, who is the sovereign, the person who gets to decide everything. But individual sovereigns can be killed in battle. Or they grow too old, or become too ill, or sometimes are too young, to make decisions. To get around this problem, people often said that God is the real sovereign and rulers only borrow their authority from him.
This is what was happening, of course, in the time of Samuel. In theory God was the sovereign and that was all right when he was telling Samuel what to do. But when Samuel grew old and appointed his sons to be his deputies, they didn’t listen to God’s guidance. ‘They turned aside after gain.’
In this Samuel was strikingly similar to his predecessor, Eli, who also let his scoundrelly sons rule the roost, at least until they were killed in battle by the Philistines. No wonder then that the people had had enough of God’s rule through prophets like Samuel and demanded to be governed by a king instead. God told Samuel to let them have their wish, but to warn them that being ruled by a human sovereign would mean losing their freedom.
The Old Testament says that the nation of Israel rejected God’s sovereignty when they chose a king, but that’s not how St Paul sees it. For him kings and emperors, no less than prophets and Old Testament judges, are instituted by God. And many centuries later, a French lawyer called Jean Bodin also came up with a similarly unbiased interpretation of what had happened in ancient Israel. He said that God lends his sovereignty to all of us We all get a little share of our own. That’s why an English person’s home is his or her castle. We control what happens there and no one can take that sovereignty away from us.
One of our prime ministers, William Pitt the Elder, once explained this idea in a very colourful way. He said, ‘The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it. The rain may enter. The storms may enter. But the king of England may not enter.’ This gave rise to the joke that ‘an Englishman’s house is indeed his castle, but only until the queen arrives!’
However, what Bodin recognised was that, for this kind of sovereignty to work - for everyone to be the king or queen of their own little castle under God - we need to put someone in overall charge. That someone could be an individual person like King Saul, but it could be a parliament where the representatives of the people come together to keep law and order and make the great decisions of state. For St Paul this is the natural way things should be. ‘Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.’
No doubt Paul would have agreed with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said that without a sovereign, whether it be a person or a parliament, most people’s lives would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. So, in other words, unless we happen to have lots of strong muscles or be very good at martial arts, we very much need someone to be in control.
And that someone, whether it’s a king or a parliament, can’t behave in an arbitrary way like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, otherwise there’s no point in putting them in charge. The reason why we surrender some of our sovereignty, the right to do whatever we think God would let us do, is for the sake of peace and continuity, so that when we go to bed at night we can be pretty sure things will be much the same in the morning.
People have often assumed that Paul meant his readers to submit to the Roman Emperor and to see the Emperor as appointed by God. They object that this may have been fine when the emperor was a good person, or someone who at least encouraged good government. But what, they ask, about bad emperors, people like Nero who supposedly fiddled while Rome burned? If we read Paul a little more attentively, we’ll find that he’s careful to talk about the whole government - all the experts, and appointees and civil servants - not about the emperor ruling alone. He calls on the Roman Christians to obey the governing authority, or the authorities, or the rulers.
Perhaps he might have sympathised more than we imagine then, with two other writers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine, who both argued that it isn’t sensible to lend our share of sovereignty to an individual person, to a king or queen. Instead, it only makes sense to lend our sovereignty to elected representatives, to a parliament in other words.
Unfortunately, the last two centuries have shown us that the problem with electing representatives to govern us in a parliament is that first we have to hold a contest for power before we can supposedly come together again to be governed by the winners. It’s very difficult then to agree with Paul that we should be ‘subject to the authority because of conscience’ when a few days previously we might have voted, according to our conscience, for a totally different vision of how our country should be run.
That’s the problem which the followers of Bernie Sanders have have in reconciling themselves to Hillary Clinton in the race to become US President. It’s the problem which followers of Jeremy Corbyn have in imagining someone else leading the Labour Party, and - although it wasn’t a Parliamentary vote - it’s the problem which Remainers have after the Referendum. Even Paul says that, while we have to pay our taxes, we need only honour and respect those to whom honour and respect are due.
The Twentieth Century has also shown us once and for all that countries or governments can never be absolutely sovereign. Of course, Bodin never said that they could be. He argued that God was the absolute sovereign and everyone has to answer to him. But he also said that the Law is sovereign - that there are some laws which are so fundamental that no sovereign power can ever be allowed to overturn them.
Hermann Goering’s defence, at his trial in Nuremburg after World War II, was that the government in Germany had been elected and could therefore do as it liked. No one bought the argument. He was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity.
This is the ground where Jesus confronts Pilate, who wants to know whether Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews. Jesus’ reply is that he is sovereign, but he’s sovereign of more than just one nation or even of all people, alive and dead. He’s the sovereign of something far more absolute, far more fundamental. He’s the final arbiter of truth, the one who decides whether any of us - be we high and mighty or humble and lowly - have done the right thing. Everyone who belongs to the truth must listen to him. They owe their ultimate allegiance to him as their sovereign and lord. Amen.