In 1630, as the Arbella was sailing to the New World with a ship full of Puritans who would settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Governor John Winthrop preached one of the most famous sermons ever given called, “A Model of Christian Charity.” In this sermon he preached that the eyes of the world would be upon these new colonies, and that this land and new nation represented an opportunity to build a nation patterned after Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. It could be a “city upon a hill” that could not be hidden. By this he meant that the people would develop a community characterized by deeds of mercy and compassion, as Jesus had said, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good [or beautiful] deeds and give glory to your father who is in heaven.”
You may remember that both President Kennedy and President Reagan drew from this Winthrop’s sermon and this same idea, describing their vision for America – that it might be the city upon a hill, known for our compassion and mercy and modeling for the world what a just nation should be.
I believe that both President Obama and Governor Romney would hope for this. The challenge is that when Jesus spoke of the “city upon a hill” he was speaking of the Church and the work his followers would play in shaping the world.
It is difficult to build Jesus’ city upon a hill unless you’ve first dealt with the human condition – by nature we’re selfish, self-absorbed, materialistic, prideful, and often indifferent to the needs of others. Theologians speak of this as our sin nature.
There are two ways to overcome this for the common good: One is government compulsion through laws and taxation. The other is spiritual conversion and sanctification that leads to a willingness to give sacrificially and to demonstrate compassion for those less fortunate.
This is why both the Church and the state are essential. The Church plays a critical role in creating citizens of the state who are selfless, compassionate, and loving. And because ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, when a significant number of our citizens are followers of Jesus we would expect that our nation’s policies, too, would strive to reflect this picture of a city upon a hill.
I find myself compelled to want to vote for those people and policies that are not only in my best interest, but that are also in the best interest of the common good, those which will make our country more like the city upon the hill. But I don’t expect the government can nor will, on its own, create such a city. It will also require the communities Jesus was referring to when he spoke of the city upon the hill: It will require communities of Christ-followers who will live as salt and light in the world.
We may disagree as to which candidates can best lead us towards Winthrop’s (ultimately Jesus’) vision. Regardless, I encourage you to plan to vote next week!