It is a great pleasure to be with you at St. John's this morning. I have long loved and admired this parish, and I'm grateful to your present dean both for his continuing the great tradition of leadership here and for the invitation to join you this morning.
I understand that you are working your way through Paul's letter to the Romans this summer. When I first heard that, I wasn't sure if I wanted to applaud or weep. This is tough stuff. Jesus tells stories. Paul writes philosophy. I think we preachers stepped away from him because we quail in the face of so powerful a mind working through such sophisticated arguments. It's easier, frankly, to say a few words about weeds and wheat.
We lose a lot when we stop talking about Paul. Paul was the first Christian to understand all the implications of the Gospel. He was a foundational genius, like Shakespeare or Freud or Darwin. He thought it all through for the first time, and though he got some of it wrong he got so much more right. I wouldn't have delved so deeply into Romans if I hadn't been asked, but the more I've thought about this provocative letter the gladder I am that Mark gave me this assignment. So here is my attempt to add to your summer exploration of what Paul is up to in his letter to the Romans.
Much has been written in recent years about Jesus and empire. If you think about the world in which Jesus lived and taught, it was dominated by Rome politically, economically, and militarily. Palestinian Jewish peasants, of which Jesus was one, were taxed mercilessly by the Romans to support their empire. Not only that, most of their food went to support Rome's gigantic standing army as well. Jesus's people were both poor and hungry. One way to understand his teaching is to see it as a way to live an abundant life even in the midst of scarcity and oppression. Rather than isolate and hoard what is yours, join with others and share what you have. Radical then and radical now.
The problem, of course is that empires demand absolute loyalty which Jesus (and Paul) think appropriate only to God. Caesar pretends to be divine and demands that you worship him. The empire is like a bad family, treating its subjects abusively and then expecting worship and obedience in return. To Jesus, the emperor's claims are both arrogant and blasphemous. The great New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan sums up Jesus's teaching with this sentence: "In your face, Caesar!"
So what? Why does it matter that Jesus and Paul want us to learn how to live in an empire? Well, first, we need to remember that before there was Christianity, there was Judaism, a religion which also got its start as a critique of absolute power. Just as Jesus's followers gathered around a teacher who showed how to live freely even in Roman oppression, the Jews came to being during their escape from slavery in Egypt, an event we call the Exodus. When Paul uses words like "slavery", "bondage", "freedom", and "hope" he is pointing his readers and hearers back to the earlier story of Jewish, Exodus, liberation. Just as the Jews were freed from bondage in Egypt, just as Jesus's disciples found a community that liberated them from slavery to Rome, so the new, dispersed Christian community that Paul addresses can find hope and meaning even under the oppressive conditions of empire. They do that, in Paul's analysis, by coming together in community and compassion. They do that by recognizing Jesus, not Caesar, as their king.
The earliest Christians were martyred in the Roman world because they were seen as a challenge to the cult of Caesar and therefore politically dangerous. They refused to worship the emperor and proclaimed that Jesus was their lord and king. The Romans understood just how subversive this teaching really was. It held up the world the empire projected as false, and showed its values to be counterfeits of God's values. To Jesus and Paul, Caesar was merely a parody of God— power masquerading as authority, privilege pretending to be justice, aggression calling itself love.
But the good news, for Paul, is that "the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God." When he says that "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us," he means not only that we will be personally saved. He means also that what we experience in the life and teachings of Jesus and in the community that gathers around him—what we together have in community and compassion--will ultimately free the world. "In your face, Caesar!"
As Paul says, "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us." The good news from Paul this morning is that you and I are on the same Exodus journey from slavery to freedom walked by Moses and Israel, by Jesus and his companions, by all the great visionary leaders from Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez to Nelson Mandela. Let us join with each other and with everyone who is up against it—those in hospital rooms, in prisons, at the border, the homeless, in our cities, in Gaza—and get on that road with Jesus. Let us hold on to each other, bear one another's burdens, and live the expansive and abundant freedom of life on God's terms.
The only way to survive living in an empire is to join together and walk toward freedom. So with Paul, with Moses, with Jesus, let's you and I get back out there on that Exodus journey. Liberated resurrection life holds real satisfactions that the tempting values of empire can never deliver. We step into them now as we gather at God's table. "In your face, Caesar!" Jesus and the God he calls his father are the ones who deserve our real allegiance. Amen.