Easter Life: Engaging Empire

The Sunday Sermon:  May 2, 2021 – Fifth Sunday of Easter

Scripture:  Romans 12:1-5


Engaging Empire

We believe that in Jesus Christ the process of making the world a just place has already begun. 

We understand that Jesus, himself, disclosed the Kingdom of God on earth, not  proclaiming it “soon to come” but announcing it already here with more work to be done. 

We are called, like the disciples of old, to participate cooperatively with God and get with Jesus’ program.

And so we’re asking ourselves in these weeks of Eastertide, how can we do that.  To help us answer this question, we’ve been visiting some of the first communities that were gathering in Christ’s name and trying to figure out the answers to that same question.

In the Roman city of Thessalonica, the young “church” was trying hard to not to repay evil for evil but to always seek to do good to one another and to all.  Communities in the Roman province of Galatia were learning how their new freedom in Christ was a freedom to love and to serve, “to become slaves to,” one another.  And in Philippi, they were attempting 9among other things) to put other’s interests ahead of their own, and to be genuinely interested in one another, genuinely concerned about the welfare and lives of others and the world in which they lived. 

All three of these virtues – mercy, service, and humility – are absolutely essential if any community gathered together is to join with God’s program, revealed through Jesus life and teachings, of justice, peace, and love … on earth as it is in heaven. 

In our travels this morning, for the first time, we move outside the communities that Paul helped to found and that are gathering in Christ’s name, and we engage in the world itself.  We believe, you see, that in Jesus Christ the process of making the world a just place has begun not just a small community of like-minded individuals, but in the world.  We’ve been around the ancient world these past three weeks, but we’ve not really been in it.  We’ve been to Thessalonica, and Galatia, and Philippi – in the relative safety of like-minded brothers and sisters.  But this morning we travel to Rome to explore the heart of the message and the path taught by Jesus and later shared by Paul and how it engages the world, which for all intents and purposes for Jesus and for Paul was Rome and the Roman Empire.  And while we travel to another city this week, we do so not so much to engage some of its Christian inhabitants, but to engage its Roman ones with their own distinct theology:  Roman Imperial Theology.  What is a Christian to do in such a place?

Listen for the Word of God … Read Romans 12:1-5.  The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Nowhere in his writing is Paul more “on fire” than in this letter to the Romans.  The fate and future of the Jewish people, the role of the individual in the sweep of history, the morality of our human actions, and the responsibilities of the citizen to the government of the country in which he or she may live, and with which he or she may not always agree, are part of this letter to Rome.  

None of these topics, these conversations, can be avoided.  A letter to Rome was a letter to the political, military, social and economic capital of Paul’s world.  Paul could no more avoid the issues of first century social norms, economic policies, morality, and “discipleship versus citizenship” in his letter to Rome than could a truly passionate Christian apologist in our day if she were to write to Washington D.C. with the radical social, economic, and political implications at the heart of the Way of Jesus Christ:  peace through justice; love for all, and; the Lordship of God in the Way of Jesus Christ.  This letter to the Christians in Rome spoke to the very heart of the fledging faith during Paul’s time.  It still speaks to that heart today … or it should.  It should. 

It’s a daunting bit of communication to be sure.  We’re touching the roots of our faith when we deal with the authentic, radical, Paul anywhere in scripture, but especially here in Romans.  Other than the life of Jesus himself as experienced in the Gospels, this is the most systematic, point by point, thorough and comprehensive doctrine, or teaching, of what it means to be a disciple of Christ that we have today.  You should read the entire book of Romans.  It’s difficult to read, difficult to understand in many cases.  In comparison to the communities in other cities, say Thessalonica or Philippi, where Paul writes for “babes in the faith” (1 Cor. 3:1-2), he clearly feels the Christians in Rome, and the Romans themselves, need solid food!  And it doesn’t get more “solid” than the vast and intimate “food for life” that is the relationship of creation to its Creator Lord. 

You should read it.  Romans is lofty and high-browed and grand.  And yet … this letter is meant to be read and heard, to be understood by “lay” men and women in the church in Rome as well as by the Roman Empire itself.  It is intended as a letter for practicing Christians – then and now – and for all those who would “tolerate” these people of a new faith in their midst.  In other words it engages not only those already of the new Christian faith, this letter engages Empire, as well, those that continue to insist that there are ways to peace other than righteousness in our personal lives and justice in our political ones.

The process of making the world a more “just place” has already begun for us in Jesus Christ.  And the only way to “get with the program” and continue his ministry is to oppose anyone or anything that gets in the way of justice and peace for all in the world.  In the Roman Empire, that anyone happened to be the Roman Emperor.  In the Roman Imperial Theology of the first Century, the Emperor was God, literally God.  It had been so since Octavian, later actually named “Augustus,” conquered Antony and Cleopatra, bringing peace to the Romans after decades of violent civil war.  Emperor Augustus was considered the Savior, Son of God, God from God.  Peace in the kingdoms of earth had come through violent victory from the hands of the Emperor-God.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, Nero was emperor.  Our tradition says that Paul was executed under his rule.  Paul knew that his passion for the Way of Jesus, his zeal for the Love of Christ, and his dedication to salvation through nonviolent justice would have to engage Rome and its Emperor worship.  He knew the possible consequences.  After all, Jesus himself had been crucified.  But he engaged anyway.  So must we.

I want us to consider how this morning, and to learn once again from Paul.  How did Paul engage the Empire with “the program of Christ?”  What power did he or his peaceful Christian communities have against Nero and Rome.

It certainly wasn’t military power.  Paul had absolutely no control of force and no place for violence.  It wasn’t economic power.  Though some of his converts may have been well-off, he had no monopoly or control of labor and production.  And it wasn’t political power, either, certainly.  No, what Paul had and what he offered the world was not military, economic, or political, it was ideological and theological.  He came to Rome with different ideas and an alternative faith.

Paul understood, and he taught the first Christians, that to proclaim Jesus as Son of God was to deny the Emperor, in his time Nero, that highest of titles.  As we make that proclamation even today, when we say out loud or in our hearts that “Jesus is Lord,” we deny any nation or ruler on earth that title, including our own nation and our own leaders.  Paul understood, and he teaches Christians even today, that to profess Jesus as Lord and Savior is profoundly challenging to our worldly existence.  It forces us to ask the questions we’re asking this Eastertide:  Who is really “in charge?”  Whose Kingdom are we committed to? 

What are the structural and systemic differences between the gods of this world and the God of our Christ?  What are the religious and political differences between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God?  What are the ethical and economic differences between the “share-world” we are called to embody as Christians and the “greed-world” we live in as citizens?  The challenges of Christians two thousand years ago are still ours today. 

These questions are not easy to ask, let alone answer.  These ideas are not an easy “preach” to a 21st century Presbyterian community of faith.  Socially, economically, politically, we are, by and large, among the privileged.  Why would we want to be (in Paul’s words) transformed, or renewed?  We’re comfortable now, life is good, the status quo is working … for us.  And it is precisely because we are and it is, that Paul’s words to the Romans are so necessary for us today:

Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds … Whose Kingdom are we committed to? 

We believe that in Jesus Christ the process of making the world a just place has already begun.  How are we “engaging Empire” today and joining Christ’s program in our lives in our world?  By trying to “discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect”.  By renewing our minds by begin members one of another.  Let us prepare our table, share our meal and remember once again who is Lord.

Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor

Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 2, 2021