Since most of us have grown up with the Thanksgiving Holiday it is easy for us to assume that this is the way things are and should be but it has not always been so nor is it necessarily so. The American Thanksgiving holiday is the result of a series of presidential proclamations. It became a federal holiday in mid-20th century. The apostolic churches in the first century, however, experienced no such national or official affirmation of their faith. The Apostle Peter called the Christians of Asia Minor “strangers and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11). Indeed they were. They had much for which to be thankful. Peter reminded them that they had been redeemed (1 Pet 1:18-19) by the blood of God the Son incarnate.
The modern American national civil religion, which many seek to defend and which many assume as a given, is largely the result of Cold War reactions to Soviet communism and rising and justifiable fears of aggressive secularism at home and abroad. It would be a grave error, however, to mistake that bland mid-20th century, civil piety for Christianity.
The Apostolic church did not face this temptation. The civil religion of their day was not a weak, watered-down version of Christianity. It was obviously pagan. Whether it was acknowledging the deity of Caesar or putting a pinch of incense of a fire or giving pro forma honor to the Roman gods (essentially the same as the Greek pantheon) there was no confusing it with the trinitarian faith of the Christians who worshipped, in the power of the Spirit, a crucified Messiah, whom they confessed to be God the Son incarnate raised on the third day and ascended to the right hand of the Father.
Even though they hadn’t moved an inch geographically, the Christians of Asia Minor became strangers and exiles the moment they trusted Christ and repented of their unbelief and idolatry. Their alien status was ratified when the minister baptized them in the triune name of God and it was sealed by the low-level persecution they suffered at the hands of family, former friends, and employers.
In a few decades, however, that unofficial, low-level persecution would become more official. A dull bureaucrat, Pliny the Younger, would gain literary immortality for describing in a single letter to the emperor how he had arrested Christian servant girls and had tortured them to gain information about this “dangerous” new sect. Why were the Christians deemed “dangerous” in the early 2nd century? Because they refused to give formal religious honors to Caesar and to the gods. They refused to go along with the national civil religion. They refused to confuse “cult” (religion) with “culture (civil, common life).
Mind you, no one expected them to believe the cultural religion. They only had to conform but some of the Christians of Asia Minor refused and it cost them dearly. They only had to deny that they were Christians. Those without Roman citizenship who refused to submit were murdered on the spot. Those citizens who refused were sent to Rome for trial. Christianity was regarded as sedition and treason; aliens and exiles indeed. How easy it would have been to say the words, “I renounce Christ” or to say the words, “Caesar is lord” or to put a pinch of incense on the altar. Some Christians did. The rationale is easy to imagine: “We all know that Caesar isn’t a god. It’s just a formality. It’s harmless. It’s just words. I love Jesus in my heart.” Some of the Christians, however, understood that Christ is Lord of our hearts and our mouths and that, though it’s true that Caesar is no god, nevertheless we cannot say that he is. Many early Christians understood that civil religion is idolatry and that it’s not an option.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat and enjoy your meal today nor am I saying that you should not give thanks. You should. I am encouraging, however, to be very careful to distinguish your transient civil citizenship from the permanent citizenship you have in heaven. Be careful not to confuse the Christian faith with “Christian America.” The Apostle Paul did not advocate for a “Christian Empire.” He advocated for the Kingdom of God (Rom 4:17) that is a heavenly (eschatological) kingdom (1 Cor 15:50) that has broken into history, in Christ, in the gospel, and that is manifested every sabbath in the Word, sacraments, and discipline.
In light of those transcendent realities he reminded another congregation is Asia Minor that they had once been “strangers and aliens” (Eph 2:11-19), not to the powers of this age, but to the covenant of Yahweh. Now, however, as he wrote to the Philippians (3:20), we are citizens of the city of God and sons of God and members of the covenant of grace and those relationships far transcend all civil religion, even that civil religion which today may seem friendly and harmless.