The New Testament calls Jesus our Lord and Savior very, very often. If you flip to any random page in it, you will be very likely to find at least one of these words used to describe him, and 2,000 years later, they have become so commonplace that we almost don’t even notice them anymore. Of course Jesus is our Lord and Savior. That is Christianity 101, so we don’t need to dwell on it too much. We have that part of our faith down pat….or do we?
I would actually suggest that we don’t. See, when the New Testament uses these titles, it is not just expressing a nice religious sentiment that we can be happy about for an hour or so once every seven days. No, it is making a bold statement about what our priorities in life should be. If Jesus really is the Lord of our lives, then there is nothing more important than him. There is nobody above him, so our allegiance to him should take precedence over any earthly allegiance, no matter how precious it may be to us.
But even that has become a bit sanitized over the two millennia of Christian history. We can repeat till we’re blue in the face that Jesus is the absolute, highest, most supreme Lord of our lives, but there is still one place where too many of us forget that or, even worse, willfully ignore it: politics. In America today, it is almost blasphemous to say that religion should have a place in public life. Our separation of church and state has become so robust that a lot of people think we need to check our faith at the door when we enter the public square and talk about political issues or take any sort of political action. They think politics is the one place where the Bible’s teaching about Jesus’ authority over our lives doesn’t apply, but they couldn’t be more wrong.
Jesus vs Caesar
The New Testament doesn’t just make nice, generic statements about Jesus’ lordship over us. If we read it carefully in its cultural and historical context, we can see that it directly contrasts Jesus’ lordship with that of the highest political authority in the Roman empire: the emperor.
In ancient Rome, the emperor was often called “lord” and “savior,” so on the most basic level, the mere use of these words to describe Jesus sets up a direct contrast between the two, telling the first generation of Christians that Jesus is Lord and, in a very real sense, the emperor was not. They couldn’t separate their allegiance to Jesus from their public lives and check their faith at the door when the government told them to do something. No, Jesus was the absolute Lord over every aspect of their lives, and their fidelity to him took precedence over any political loyalties they may have had.
Now, that is the basic idea, but the New Testament doesn’t stop there. It goes even deeper. In particular, there is a passage in one of St. Paul’s letters that makes this point with surprising clarity and force. Let’s start by looking at a seemingly unexceptional exhortation:
“Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us.” (Philippians 3:17)
Like I said, this verse seems pretty mundane at first. Paul was a tireless defender and promoter of the Christian faith, so he probably just wanted his readers to imitate those qualities, right?
“Forgetting what lies behind”
Wrong. If we read this passage in context, we can see that Paul actually had something much more specific in mind. Just a few verses back, he tells them what exactly he wants them to imitate:
“[F]orgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded” (Philippians 3:13-15)
For our purposes here, the important part is this idea of “forgetting what lies behind.” That may seem a bit vague at first, but if we go even further back in the chapter, Paul’s meaning becomes clear as day.
“Loss” and “Refuse”
In some of the opening verses, he describes his former life as a strict Jew (Philippians 3:4-6), and then he says something remarkable. He tells the Philippians:
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:7-8)
St. Paul had all the credentials a good Jew could have wanted in the first century, but he considered all of it “loss” and even “refuse” compared to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” This is what he wanted his readers to imitate, but there is a problem here. The Philippian Christians were mainly Gentiles, not Jews, so they couldn’t leave behind a strict Jewish way of life the way Paul had. So what exactly did he expect them to do?
Our Heavenly Citizenship
The final piece of this puzzle comes at the very end of the chapter. Paul writes:
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)
Many residents of Philippi at the time were Roman citizens, and like the rest of the Roman world, the people of that city also considered the emperor their “lord” and “savior.” With that background, we can see that by using the words “citizenship,” “savior,” and “lord” all within a single sentence, Paul was subtly telling the Philippians what he wanted them to leave behind.
He was telling them to treat their former lives of faithful Roman citizenship as “loss” and “refuse,” just like he considered his former life of strict Judaism. He wanted them to give up their absolute loyalty to Rome and the emperor because their true citizenship was in heaven, and their true Lord and Savior was Jesus Christ.
Obviously, all of this teaching is couched in very culturally and historically specific terms, but it is still quite relevant to us today. For starters, it means that Jesus is our Lord even in the realm of politics. His authority over us extends to every aspect of our lives, and there is no place where we can check it at the door.
To take just a few examples, we cannot support things that are explicitly condemned by our faith, such as abortion and euthanasia, no matter what our government says. Likewise, Catholic soldiers cannot engage in unjust uses of military force, such as attacking innocent civilians, no matter what their superiors say.
This also means that we cannot be fanatically attached to political figures, movements, or parties. Whether it is Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or anybody else, we should only support politicians to the extent that their words, actions, and policies line up with our faith. If they do something that contradicts our faith, we cannot turn a blind eye to it simply because they’re “our guy.” And the same goes for political movements and parties. We have an obligation to oppose them when they go against our Catholic faith, and we can only support them inasmuch as they conform to the Church’s teachings on social issues.
Patriotism in Context
On top of that, it has one more implication as well: it means that everything associated with our most precious earthly loyalties, including the symbols and institutions of our country, is disposable and expendable. It means that if our love for God some day requires it, we even have to view our flag, our national anthem, and our country itself as garbage. Simply put, nothing related to our political allegiance is sacred or inviolable, so if any of it ever gets in the way of the Gospel, we have to dispose of it.
Sure, we can (and even should) love our country. Patriotism is a real virtue. However, our country, like everything else in this life, is secondary. We need to get our priorities straight, and when we do that, God takes first place in our lives, and everything else, no matter how precious it may be to us, becomes “loss” and “refuse” if it gets in the way of our duties towards him. This is what it truly means for us to profess that Jesus is Lord.