The Rock From Which We Are Hewn

KatrinaCrossAbraham1It is significant that Jesus had wandered over to Caesarea Philippi, deep in imperial territory, before asking his disciples who they thought he was. After they repeated a few rumors going round, Jesus asked who they thought he was. Simon Peter piped up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt. 16: 16) Jesus’ commendation showed that Peter had caught on to something important: it was not Caesar, whose neighborhood they were hanging out in, but Jesus, who was the real, true Lord. But what kind of Lord was Jesus?

When Jesus called Simon “Peter,” meaning rock, to honor his correct answer, perhaps Jesus was reminding Simon of the words of Isaiah: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” (Is. 51: 1–2) Simon Peter, like all Jews, was hewn from the rock of Abraham, the one called to leave his own idolatrous country for a land God would show him where he would make out of Abraham a great people. If Peter is a rock like Abraham, then Peter, too, will leave the idolatrous imperial culture surrounding him and will allow God to make yet another great, new people out of him and the other disciples. What kind of people? What kind of culture?

In writing to the Romans, Paul admonishes them to follow Abraham out of the idolatrous empire in which they live: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12: 2) And what does this transformed people with renewed minds look like? Paul has just told the Romans that such people present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [their] spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12: 1) The imperial culture is all about using power to make sacrifices of others for the sake of the Empire. The culture of Christ is all about making a sacrifice of self as did Jesus, so as to make all of our lives an act of self-sacrificial worship. Although emperors always think more highly of themselves than they should, Paul warns us not to think more highly of ourselves than we should, “but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Rom. 12: 3) Paul then goes on the enumerate the measures of faith as a distribution of gifts of the Holy Spirit so that each of us makes our bodies living sacrifices of worship in various ways, making up the Body of Christ.

Being transformed by the renewal of our minds entails a radical makeover. It’s not just a matter of changing one’s mind about what book to read next. Paul is writing about a radical turnaround in one’s attitude to power. The first step is to be very vigilant about the power we happen to have in relation to other people and how we use it. Even if some of us have rather little power we need to be acutely aware of how we use what little we have. Do we try to get an upper hand against other people one way or another rather than looking for ways we can lay down our selves in service to them?

It turns out that Peter himself hasn’t caught on to the kind of ruler Jesus is. When Jesus talks about laying down his life, Peter resists and is rebuked by Jesus. This turn of events should caution us about the difficulties of the makeover that is being asked of us. Like Peter, we are likely to revert to imperial thinking just as quickly as Peter did. This is not surprising since the default reflex movement is to act like an immovable rock if we are threatened. Yet Jesus says he is going to do the opposite of that. Which is to say, the rock we stand on in the culture of Jesus is the rock of being vulnerable to the forces of Empire. Whether we are going to take the way of vulnerability, the way of giving ourselves for the sake of others, even when such gifts of self are not appreciated or are even actively scorned is a question that presents itself to us day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. We can easily get tired of asking this basic question so constantly, but if we persevere even when we are weary, we will eventually find that God makes a living but vulnerable rock not only out of Peter but out of each one of us.

The Throne of David: Part Two

crecheThe celebration of the birth of Jesus is a time to put all political differences aside in glad agreement that this child is born. I wish! I have pointed out many times over the years when preaching on Luke’s nativity story that it puts political issues front and center, forcing us to confront our political realities if we are to confront the Gospel.

The key political words uttered by the angel who appeared to the shepherds are: “good news,” “savior,” and “peace.” These words sound innocuous to most of us but they aren’t. In Luke “Good News” is not a cheery feel-good article in the newspaper or on the Internet. “Savior” isn’t a cartoon super hero who knocks out the bad guys for us. “Peace” has to be understood rightly or it isn’t peace.

“Good News” or “Good Tidings” are the usual translations of the word euangelion. It also provides the title of Luke’s book. In Roman times, euangelion was the technical word for tidings sent out from Rome by the Emperor who was the only one who had the right to send out “good News” or “Good Tidings.” Caesar Augustus had recently sent out the Good News that he had won the long civil war triggered by the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive father Julius. This “Good News” made Augustus the “Savior” of the Roman Empire. Again, only the Emperor was allowed to be the “savior.” By winning the war, Augustus had brought “peace” to the Empire. Nobody else had the right to be the “peace” maker. But Augustus had brought and preserved “peace” through violence. Although many biblical historians have cast doubt on the likelihood that the registration ordered by Caesar Augustus happened right at the time of Jesus’ birth, it puts the whole nativity story under the shadow of the Emperor’s controlling power that enforced “peace” by keeping track of his subjects and pushing them from place to place if “necessary.”

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel promised Mary that Jesus would inherit he throne from David from his heavenly Abba and reign forever, He would, however, be a very different king than his forbear. Another angel is now telling the shepherds that the true Good News is that this child has now been born and this child is the one who can truly save us from our own violence and establish true peace. Jesus’ rulership has been expanded beyond the House of David to the whole Empire, which is to say, the entire world. Caesar Augustus is the one who has usurped God’s role of savior and bringer of peace.

This neat contrast between Jesus and Caesar, however, looks like a political campaign between the competing leaders of two political parties. This is our human way of looking at it. The mystery is that Jesus did not come into the world to compete with Caesar Augustus the way he competed against Brutus and Mark Antony or David competed with Saul. Jesus came to preach and live a totally different way of living than the way of Empire, a way not based on violent competition but on mutual support. Rather than inflict violence in humanity’s never-ending civil war, Jesus took the whole violence of all empires in all times on himself in the place of all those who have been and ever will be victims of Empire. That shepherds, social outcasts in their time, heard the voice of the angel and the song of the heavenly host but the ruling elite saw and heard nothing should serve as a warning to those of us who are relatively well-off in our own time.

I suppose I shouldn’t spoil our Christmas party by bringing up Jesus’ death, but it is Jesus’ death that we will shortly commemorate at the altar. Closer to holiday cheer: we also celebrate at the altar the risen, forgiving resurrected life of Jesus that opens us up to a new birth, a new life, based on the forgiving risen life of the child whose birth we celebrate tonight.

See also The Throne of David: Part One

Christian Community (4)

AndrewPalmSunday2I am becoming more and more convinced that we have to pay close attention to the historical fact that Christianity began in the shadow of an empire. Not just any empire but the Roman Empire, the biggest Empire in world history up to that point. This is also true of the Jews. Although they had a brief period of some independence under David and Solomon, the rest of the time, Juda was under the thumb of one empire or another at best and squashed by the boots tramped in battle at worst.

Of the Gospel writers, Luke in particular takes pains to locate the life of Jesus in history. He says that Jesus was born under the reign of the Emperor Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Some scholars have doubted the historicity of this particular census, but it is the sort of thing Empires do for the sake of social control and it sets the stage for the story. Later, Luke says that the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” (Luke 3: 1) Here we have a list of the very people who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. These were the builders who rejected the cornerstone, the body of a man who is the Body of Christ.

Most people don’t like to think of cold hard politics at Christmas time, but the angels’ song to the shepherds was a political statement. Augustus Caesar claimed to be the peace broker for the Empire. Luke claims that the new-born Christ is the real peace broker. Thirty-three years later, it becomes clear that the Roman peace is kept through tactics such as crucifixion. Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew’s version helps us draw the contrast between Church and Empire.

Jesus also draws the distinction between Church and empire in his reply to the question designed to entrap him: Must we pay taxes to the emperor or not? The most important element of this little story is that Jesus asks his questioners to bring a coin because he does not have one. He has withdrawn from the economical system. This reminds us that Empire isn’t necessarily about politics; it is also about economics. Jesus’ lack of a coin suggests that the Parable of the Talents, in Luke’s version that portrays the master as violent, the servant who buried his talent might be the figure of Christ who dropped out of the economic order and was cast out. (I believe we should make the most of the talents given us by God; I’m just not so sure any more that this parable, at least in Luke’s version, teaches us that Jesus does not teach that God demands that his enemies be torn to pieces—a sacrificial act.)

What Empire is about fundamentally is power that must be sustained by sacrifice. This brings us back to the first post in this series where I discussed the contrast between Jesus’ way of gathering people and the Empire’s. Empire isn’t just about size. We all know of little fiefdoms all over the places, including (especially!) religious institutions. Since Empire is all over the place in all sizes, we need Church (not limited here to a single faith tradition) of all sizes in all places.

Being Church is not about dropping out of an imperial society. Jesus was living in the Roman Empire whether he liked it or not (and he probably didn’t) and we live in empires whether we like it or not, which I hope we don’t like. The fundamental thing to do is live and act grounded in the love and forgiveness of Jesus, the Risen Forgiving Victim. Virgil Michel, a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Collegeville during the Depression years was a strong advocate of creating parallel economic structures that would be nurturing for everybody involved. If I remember a lecture I heard about him some years ago rightly, Michel invented, or helped invent the credit union. As a leading member of the Roman Catholic Liturgical Movement, he envisioned liturgy as a springboard to social action.

Most fundamentally, Empire cannot be resisted in the Empire’s terms, which is the use of violence of any kind. This is what Jesus showed us in his silence before Pilate. If Jesus really is the wedding guest thrown out into the outer darkness and the penniless servant thrown out in the same way, then we can all join him in the outer darkness which will then lighten up with some help from the Light of the World.

See also: Stupid Galatians, Stupid Us

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