Tag: Roman empire

Who Do You Trust?

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The epistle reading for today is Colossians 1:15-23. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae contrasting the good news of Jesus with the claims of the first century Roman empire.

In their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, authors Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat contend that Colossians contrasts the violence, inhumanity, and corruption of the Roman empire with the new imagination of Christian community centered around Christ.

As a Roman outpost, Colossae participated in the emperor cult which asserted that the emperor was the son of god and the deity around which the universe revolved. The Roman empire was also the undisputed example of political organization and military might. From Rome’s dominance came what was ironically called the Pax Romana — the Roman peace. However, the Roman peace was secured with overwhelming violence against those nations and city-states Roman legions pacified by force.

Paul challenges the ideas of the emperor’s supremacy, the empire’s legitimacy, and the Pax Romana with the assertion that Christ is the image of God, the creator of all things, the sustainer of the universe, the first-born from the dead, the head of a new community called the church, and the true prince of peace.

The point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was to contrast the misplaced confidence they formerly had in the Roman empire with the new hope they found in Christ. Prior to following Christ as Lord, the Colossians had placed their trust in the Empire for their security, happiness, and fulfillment.

Today millions have misplaced their trust, too. If Paul were writing the letter to the Colossians today, he might contrast the trust we place in power, money, and technology with the supremacy of Christ.

Power is still the currency of international relationships. Mao Zedong said, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That philosophy is shared by virtually all of the nation-states on the world stage today. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on earth, countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others project the power they have in order to influence international events. Just as the Roman empire used its military, economic, and political power to shape the course of history, nations continue to be seduced by the promise of power today.

The second member of our illegitimate trinity is money. China is relocating 325-million peasants — rural farmers — into newly-created cities. Why? Because China’s economy, according to the IMF and other economists, doesn’t have enough consumerism. The key to growth in the Chinese economy in the near future, economists say, is creating a new class of consumers who will buy TVs, refrigerators, cell phones, and cars. In a world where one billion people live on less than $1 a day, money is a seductive force, often coupled with power.

However, a new player has entered the arena as a close partner to power and money. Both power and the quest for money are being driven by technology. We now have the technology to instantly deliver books, newspapers, and magazines to personal computers, tablets, or mobile phones. In  2007 Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the iPhone and revolutionized the mobile phone industry. Today over 5 billion cell phones are in service, and 1 billion of those are smart phones.

The NSA surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden showed us that the US now possesses and uses advanced technology to track every telephone call, email, and cell phone location everywhere in the world; scan those communications for suspicious links to suspicious characters; track users by location; and, know who everyone everywhere in the world is talking to and what they are talking about.

Technology is our Pax Romana — both the new security savior and cyber weapon in our war to be safe from terrorism. Our trust in technology compels us to give out our credit card information, our personal history, our family and friend connections, the schools we attended, our workplace, our daily routines, even where we eat, shop, and travel. Why? Because we cannot live without the always-on, always-available world at our fingertips. We depend on technology for friendships, for commerce, for security, and even for our faith (yes, there are online churches and faith groups). Increasingly, we give away our own privacy in pursuit of friends, followers, page views, and search rankings.

But power has not brought peace, consumerism has not brought satisfaction, and technology has not brought with it the authentic life we yearn to live.

We have separated our faith from our function as human beings, believing that we, too, can place absolute trust in power, money, and technology. By doing so, we are letting those things shape us.

Paul reminds us that we ought to be shaped by the radical good news that this world system, whether the Roman empire of the first century or the internet of the 21st century, are not the legitimate gods of this world. They are the pretenders, the interlopers, and the pale substitutes for that which is real.

If you want to know God, Paul says, look at Jesus. If you want to know who the creator of the world is look at Jesus. If you want to know who keeps the world turning, look at Jesus. If you want to know who’s in charge of everything, even the things that are not acting according to God’s plan, look at Jesus.

If you want to know where real peace comes from look at Jesus.

Despite the fact that misplaced trust in power, money, and technology are found in every culture on every continent, Paul says the good news about Jesus is also ubiquitous.

The question then becomes: Who do you trust? After all, the Roman empire is no longer a world power, is it?

Sermon for Sunday, June 1, 2008: Living By Faith

Living By Faith
Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-31

16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. 29 Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

Becoming My Grandfather

When I was a kid, I remember going to work with my grandfather, who ran a feed-and-seed store in South Carolina. I was old enough to play on the hay bales stacked up in the back room of the store, so I must have been 7 or 8 years old. I remember watching the men who came into the store — farmers all of them as far as I could tell. Most wore bib overalls, and all wore some kind of hat. Now this was long before everybody started wearing baseball caps, so the hats these farmers wore were straw, because it was summertime. (My grandfather always wore a hat — felt in the winter, straw in the summer.)

I noticed one straw hat in particular. It had a wide brim, and set into the front of the brim was a green plastic piece like the plastic eyeshades card dealers wore. I had seen card dealers on TV shows, but I had never seen a hat with the green-tinted piece where the brim should have been. I thought, “That’s a really dumb looking hat!”  I would have been embarrassed to be seen in one when I was 8.

Now that I am 50-years past that experience, guess what I found one day at Southern States? A straw hat with a green plastic piece sewn into the front of the brim. And, guess what else? I bought it. My old straw hat, which I wear working in the yard and garden, had recently expired and I was in the market for a new one. Somehow when I saw that straw hat with the built-in eye shade, I knew that was the hat for me. It’s actually very practical because you can see through the green eye shade when you look up, which you wouldn’t be able to do if the brim were solid.

So, I have now become that old man that as an 8 year old I made fun of!

On The Other Side of the Fence

When we lived in Greensboro, our girls were both in high school and attended Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point. For one of Amy’s first dates, which was a school function that was highly chaperoned, I had to drive her and the boy she was with to the school. She had warned me ahead of time not to embarass her with any parental comments. So, I was on my best behavior as a father, trying not to embarass my daughter, who was already embarassed by just having to ride to the school with her father.

At the time, we owned a Buick Rivera, which Debbie drove, and I drove a much smaller Nissan Stanza. So, I was somewhat unaccustomed to the wider path the Buick needed. (You can see this coming, can’t you?) As I pulled into the school driveway, and attempted to position the car to stop right in front of the door, I miscalculated, and rode the right front wheel up on the curb and onto the sidewalk. The car bumped up on the sidewalk, and then bounced back down as I corrected my turn. Needless to say, I heard about my poor driving skills after the date was over. I had embarassed my daughter despite my best intentions.

So, two stories from my own life illustrate today something of what Paul was getting at in Romans 1.

Paul Is Not Embarassed By the Gospel

Which brings us to our text today, Romans 1:16-17, and then a portion of Romans 3. The key statement Paul makes in the first chapter is,

I am not ashamed of the gospel…

Paul has spent the first part of this chapter recalling what the gospel story is. For a quick refresher, let me remind you here that the word “gospel” simply means “good news.” We could translate Paul’s assertion as –

For I am not ashamed of the good news…

The question, then is, Why would Paul need to say this? Why would anyone think he was ashamed of the good news?

What is the Good News?

To answer that question, we first have to answer the question, “What is the Good News (gospel)?” Most of us might equate what we call “the plan of salvation” with the good news. A good example of a plan of salvation is the Four Spiritual Laws, distributed widely by Campus Crusade for Christ. The Four Spiritual Laws go something like this:

  1. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
  2. Man is SINFUL and SEPARATED from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
  3. Jesus Christ is God’s ONLY provision for man’s sin. Through Him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
  4. We must individually RECEIVE Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.

But, while the Four Spiritual Laws contain some of the Gospel, or Good News, this really isn’t the good news. The good news for Paul, and for the entire first century world was — God keeps His promises. Let’s look at Acts 13:34. Here Luke quotes Paul, and defines for us what the gospel, the good news really is –

32 “We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm:
” ‘You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.

The good news is God keeps His promises. The promises God made to the nation of Israel, the promises God made to Abraham, the promises God made to David. God keeps His promises, and He keeps them through his Son, Jesus. That is the good news.

Why Would Paul Be Ashamed of This Good News?

If the Gospel — the good news — is the story of God keeping His promises, why would Paul find it necessary to state “I am not ashamed of the gospel?” Growing up, I heard more than one sermon on this subject. Just about every youth camp or youth revival I went to the preacher would work this text in. It was a great text for teenagers, and the preachers encouraged us to live for Jesus, and not to be ashamed to stand up for Him in front of our friends and classmates. Which is a really good thing to encourage kids to do, but it is not what this statement means.

Here’s why Paul had to say, “I am not ashamed of the good news.” The gospel is a story. It is the good news of God. The good news that God keeps his promises. And God’s promises include blessing Israel so that Israel can be a blessing to the nations. God’s promises include “making all things new.” God’s promises include restoring the kingdom of heaven to God’s creation — “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So, the story, or narrative as social scientists call it, is the story of God creating, correcting, and redeeming his creation.

But, there was a competing story in Paul’s day. The story of the Roman empire. Paul, even though a devout Jew, was a Roman citizen. Paul had bought into the story of the empire. It was the Roman empire that had put this revolutionary called Jesus of Nazareth to death. For Paul that was a good thing, because the empire had used its might and power to help the Jews in Judea. The empire had done what the high priests and Sanhedrin had been unable to do — silence forever the voice of Jesus, who was a threat to the Jews and the Jewish way of life.

Until Jesus appeared as a dazzling light to Paul on the road to Damascus, the story of the empire was the only story that made sense to Paul. And, so Paul was party to the persecution of those who called themselves Christians — the little Christs. These Christians had to be eradicated just like Jesus was because they persisted in spreading the message of Jesus — that God had other plans for the Jews. That God wasn’t pleased with the religious leaders of the first century. That God had a new plan to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days. It was all blasphemous to Paul, and he went about living out his belief in the empire story.

But then Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus. Jesus, who identified himself to Paul. Jesus who made a point of telling Paul, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Paul just thought he was persecuting the followers of Jesus, but now Jesus says Paul is persecuting Jesus himself! Jesus gives Paul instructions to find Ananias who will help Paul understand that there is a new story, a story of good news, the gospel story. And the gospel story is in direct contrast to the empire story.

Not Ashamed of the Gospel

Of course, there are also competing stories in our world today.  Some are very much like the empire story that Paul grew up with.  Others are stories of consumerism, fear, exclusion, or conflict.  These stories are the prevalent narratives in our world today, and because we read about them, hear them, and see them in action, these competing stories are very easy to make our own.  But the story of the gospel, the good news, is that there is another story by which we can live.   A story of hope, of peace, of abundance, of good will, of love, and of service.  A story of God saving us from the other stories, the false stories, that can distract us from the purposes of God for our world and ourselves.

To be ashamed is to be embarassed by, to apologize for, to shift awkwardly in our seat when we hear the name of Jesus, or the story of Jesus. Paul was way beyond that. He had embraced the good news story with his whole being. Paul realized that the gospel story was in direct contradiction to the values of the empire. He realized that the emperor of Rome thought that he was god, and demanded that his subjects profess, “Cesar is Lord.” Instead, Paul realized that the new story, the story of God, the story of the Good News was the true story. And so Paul asserts dozens of times in his letters to the churches of the first century, “Jesus is Lord.” Why? Because Paul believes the story.

Paul believes the story of God, the good news, in spite of the fact that circumstances in the world contradict the good news. Paul believes the story of God, the good news, even though he sees little of it coming to pass. Paul believes the story of God, and not the story of the empire, and it changes his life. And the course of history. For the empire will yield to and embrace the story of God itself in less than 300 years, under the emperor Constantine. All because one man believed that the story of God was the true story, and it was indeed good news.  That is living by faith.  Living our lives around the story of God.  Living in the light of the story of love.  That’s what Paul did, that’s what Christ calls us to do.

When our lives center around an alternative story, the story of God through Jesus, then we are not ashamed of the good news.  We’re not embarrassed to be counted with the followers of Jesus.  We have found a new center, a real savior, a true story in the good news of God.