Would St. Justin Martyr recognize us as Christians? After reading his, “Discourse to the Greeks,” I have my reservations. I doubt he would recognize me.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. It’s familiar to many. The story features a culture that treats people like commodities, valuing them only insofar as they produce wealth.
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.