Did you know that two of the most often-repeated passages in both public and religious life have something in common? We say them both wrong.
The "Pledge of Allegiance" doesn't have a comma between "one nation" and "under God," even though we almost always pause there when we say it. And the Lord's Prayer doesn't have a a comma between "be done" and "on earth" where we find it in Matthew 6:10, even though we almost always pause there when we say that, too. Just some trivia for you.
"Allegiance" is a concept Paul comes at in different ways throughout his letters. Here, he declares his devotion to the cross of Christ. He'll boast of nothing else, no qualifications of his own, no successes he's achieved. He will boast of, rely on and depend solely upon the cross rather than any earthly signs or symbols. His allegiance will be to the cross and the Savior it represents.
On a national holiday celebrating our nation's beginnings, it's worth a moment to examine the idea of allegiance because we focus on it a lot as we remember our country's heritage and history. Its roots lie with the same words that give us "ally" or "allied." We know that an ally is someone who's on our side, and we may remember probably the best-known use of the word described the nations that fought against Germany and Japan in World War II. England, France, the United States and the Soviet Union were the main partners in the Allied Forces.
On a personal level, we usually say "friends" instead of "allies," but some of the concept is the same. Our friends are on our side, or we may say they have our backs if we are dealing with difficulties.
We can be allied with more than one person at a time, even if those people aren't allies with each other. We all have friends who might not get along with other friends we have, and we know our nation counts among our allies nations that aren't allies of each other. Sometimes this can cause disagreements. Perhaps our two friends who don't like each other have an argument. They may ask us to choose sides, which we will probably avoid doing if we can, because we are smart and we choose not to be triangled into their dysfunction.
But if we must, we find ourselves choosing one allegiance over the other, for whatever reasons seem good to us. If we choose our allegiance because we know one friend is right and the other wrong, we do so not because we like one friend more than the other, but because we believe we owe still a third allegiance: To truth itself. We might call that a higher allegiance than the other two.
As Christian citizens of the United States, we owe allegiance to our God as well as to our country. Jesus describes this when he tells his questioners that they should offer Caesar the devotion which is due him and God the devotion which is due him. When those allegiances don't conflict, then we have no problems. But sometimes they do. And then we have to decide which allegiance we will follow, and that will depend on whether or not we understand what allegiance to God truly means.
When we ally with someone, we don't pretend they're perfect. The leaders of the free nations knew Josef Stalin's Russia was not a good place, but they allied with him in order to defeat the Nazis, who were an even worse evil at the time. We have to understand who someone really is in order to be a real ally, though, or else we might call on them for something they can't or won't do.
What Paul is telling us here is that if we understand who God really is, we will declare our first and highest allegiance is to him. Nothing can or will take precedence over him; in any case where there's a conflict between what God calls us to do and what someone else calls us to do, we will take God's side. No friend, family member or country can take God's place if we are declaring true allegiance to and reliance on the cross and the Savior it represents.
In our nation's history, we have seen that show up time and time again. Christian people declared that allegiance to God mandated opposing slavery, even though the laws of our nation permitted it. They declared that allegiance to God mandated equal treatment under the law no matter what the color of a person's skin, even though the laws of some parts of our nation prohibited equal treatment. They opposed those laws and in some cases paid the price with insults, harassment, fines, jail terms and even physical assault and death.
The laws of our nation permit capital punishment, but I believe my allegiance to God doesn't allow me to support that (Has to do with how I treat "the least of these," following Matthew 25 -- topic for another sermon). If I ever serve on a jury in a murder case I'll never vote to impose that punishment even though I could legally do so. Which means I'll be off that kind of a jury pretty quickly, of course.
I would live no other place in this world and would have no other country than this one as my home. But if God's plan of salvation for the world called for this nation to pass from the earth I would call for that too. If I'm going to declare real allegiance to God I can't do anything else.
Today, and hopefully every day, I'm proud of my American heritage and of my nation, and I celebrate both. But today, and hopefully every day, I remember my heritage as a sinner saved by grace, represented in the cross of Christ, and lift that banner higher than any other as I offer thanks for it.