Why would a good and loving God be described in imperial terms? Could even empire play a role in God’s vision? If God in Jesus has created everything for a helpful purpose, perhaps it is only our twisting of God’s good creation that has turned empire into a destructive force.
I need a word of hope.
In verse 1 of chapter 2 of Luke’s gospel we are introduced to a word of hope, a person who in the ancient Roman empire was referred to as “Divine, Son of God, God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer Liberator, and Savior of the World” and his name is…
No. Not Jesus.
All these terms are first used of Caesar Augustus. We use them in reference to Jesus because the gospel is a counterclaim against every other power. Every Christmas carol is a protest song. That is, every Christmas carol is a protest song if we realize Christmas isn’t about God’s ticket to escape the world and its pain. Christmas instead is the powerful way God shows up "in person" to transform the world and our pain.
Both imperial Rome and the early church claimed that their good news came from Heaven. Both announce a gospel of peace, here on earth. The Roman Empire believed it of Caesar Augustus — the early church believed it only of Jesus the Messiah.
For some, today’s Bible reading with its talk of empires is too political. For others its talk of angels too spiritual. But today’s gospel reading wants us to open our eyes to the empires and open our ears to the angels and their protest songs.
Last week I spent a few days in Rome with, among others, Tony Jones. As someone who hasn’t ever been to Rome, it was particularly helpful for me to have a Christian historian along. It’s easy enough, having seen one amazing display of ruins after another, or cathedral after awesome cathedral, to lose some perspective. So along the way, Tony would stop and point out the historic significance of various landmarks. Then of course, we’d go grab a bourbon and talk.
Both of us, at one point or another in the week, thought of the Monty Python scene from Life of Brian, in which the disgruntled rebels exclaim, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” So of course, some wise guy in the group starts rattling things off, like the aqueducts, roads, education, and so on.
So this led to a minor debate between Tony and me about the benefits of empire. Now, keep in mind that Tony is never one to pass up an opportunity to serve as the antagonist, but his argument as outlined in his blog post cheekily titled “In Praise of Empires,” is that it’s en vogue to trash empire, both present and past.
To put a finer point on it, we chatted about whether Constantine, the Roman emperor responsible for establishing the Nicene Creed, was an ass-hat.
Editor's Note: This post was originally a sermon in our monthly Sojourners chapel.
Friends, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Around the time I started middle school, my church acquired a series of books called The Left Behind Series. These books chronicle the final days of earth as outlined in the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic biblical texts. I won’t offer any commentary on the theology of these books, or even their literary value, but, as a middle-schooler, they were fairly impressionable.
The entire series begins with a dramatic reinterpretation of the rapture. People are going about their daily lives — driving to work, flying airplanes, making breakfast — when all of a sudden, people who had been there just seconds before are gone. Simply vanished into thin air. Of course, chaos ensues, because who is driving the car? Flying the airplane? Tending the stove? The world they leave behind is shattered, broken, and chaotic! This seminal event — the rapture — shapes the rest of the series as those who have been “left behind” work to win the ultimate prize — a place in heaven where they are no longer left behind.
We love a good parade, don’t we? All that celebration, the noise, the crowds, the jubilation … It’s exciting and contagious and a little amazing how a good parade can impact us.
No one understood this like the Romans. These are the people of bread and circuses after all, and no one in the ancient world did empire better than the Romans. The Romans were incredibly good at subduing those people they had conquered. They celebrated the festivals of, raised up leadership from, and generally ingratiated themselves smoothly into the lives of those they ruled. But rule they did.
There certainly were people in Jesus’ time who thought Jesus’ work would be to overthrow the Roman oppressors — establish a political kingdom. Scholars surmise that Judas, the disciple who would betray Jesus to the empire, was one of these. Think of Judas as someone who saw the evils of the Roman Empire and desperately wanted Hebrew rule returned to the region. What we might today call a freedom fighter.
But throughout his ministry, Jesus talked explicitly about the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven that is not of this world but is omnipresent, always at hand, constantly among us. And God’s. Period. A very different image of kingship, of dominion.
Among my must reads are the Sunday New York Times Book Review and other book reviews I come across in various media outlets. There are too many books being published that I would love to read, but just don’t have the time. So, I rely on reading book reviews as one way of keeping in touch with what’s being written.
Here are my picks in this week’s books of interest:
Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday in our church year.
I always find it a strange feast to celebrate in a democracy, in which the whole point is that we do not have kings, but shared authority vested in the people and temporarily delegated to elected leaders. What does thinking about Jesus as a King mean to folk like us?
This year it is particularly strange, for, with the exception of the marriage of William and Kate, this has been a bad year for kings. Monarchs, tyrants, plutocrats, and autocrats of every stripe have found themselves under assault from a powerful wave of populism, as the citizens of country after country have risen up to hold their leaders accountable for their stewardship of their nations. Throughout the Middle East and in parts of Europe and the United States, the official narrative of power has been held up and judged against another set of ideas, one that speaks of fairness, liberty, and raising up the poor. Ruler after ruler has heard a cry that translates, roughly: “as you did it to the least of us, so shall it be done to you.”
Christ is a different kind of king, and his authority always calls our leaders to account, whatever the form of our government or our political preferences. Christ embodies a form of leadership that is rarely seen in our world. In the ordinary scope of things, our leaders wear nice suits and inhabit the corridors of power and cut deals with the wealthy and the powerful. Christ, however, threw in his lot entirely with those whom the doors of power shut out. He would talk with anyone, eat with everyone, and, in the end, died among the refuse of his people. He was a leader who led from below.
With the scandal around Rupert Murdoch growing by the day, a full-fledged boycott of News Corp. has been launched on the internet, according to the Washington Post.
The website Boycott Murdoch also has Facebook and Twitter pages. While the boycott has received coverage on many mainstream news outlets, it has yet to gain much traction. The Facebook page has less than 700 fans and the Twitter page is approaching only 1,000 followers. To make even a small dent in Murdoch's bottom line, the boycott will need to metastasize, and quickly.
Smack dab in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, obscured by old translations and otherworldly assumptions, is a radical cry for Jubilee justice