Notes from the Sermon by Rev Heston Groenewald 28 July 2019
The UK has a new Prime Minister and government. So it’s a good time to ask – what have the Romans ever done for us?!
Well, there’s the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health… J There is a lot of ambivalence in our scriptures and tradition about ‘Empire’ – or established, centralised power.
Empire can be a force for good- and although the Jewish people started their life as a theocracy, they soon demanded a king, and embraced Empire with all its benefits and prosperity. And this prosperity looks similar in all Empires anytime and anywhere. So accounts of Solomon’s wealth and power read much like Virgil’s rosy poems of Pax Romana life- or indeed like the promises we’ve heard this week about a no-deal-Brexit golden age.
BUT prosperity is usually the view from the corridors of power. And even if the Jewish kings and religious authorities bought into this vision of empire, the Jewish prophets refused to. They consistently called out all this golden-age talk as propaganda- no more than imperial spin. The prophets offered an alternative view of Empire- from the margins- and insisted that from this perspective Empire is BAD. Solomon’s military industrial economy extracted taxes and resources from subsistence farmers and made the elite in the city rich rich rich. And the urban elite consistently denied the voices and rights of anyone who wasn’t rich and powerful. As for ancient Israel, so for modern Britain…?
And so the prophets resist Empire, considering it a power/agency of ‘death’ – in opposition to God’s power which is all about life. And in Colossians we’ll read about God pronouncing a death sentence on death and all its minions.
God has a different social agenda- God loves everyone stickers!
God’s kingdom is a kingdom of loving-kindness and social justice. God is not itching to exploit people or stop their benefits or deport them as soon as there’s a chance. Unlike most of the emperors of the ages, God is a loving parent who is longing for good things for ALL her children.
And this vision of God is what the prophets and Jesus lived out, to show what God’s authority looks like in human life- authority to bring about healing and justice and fullness of life. The gospels talk about Jesus having authority to teach, authority to heal illnesses and possessions of all sorts, authority over the weather, authority over demons and the devil, authority over Herod and over Caesar- Matthew 28 says he has all authority in earth and heaven. And then through the gift of the Holy Spirit, he shares that authority with his disciples…
Go’s approach to power is radically different to Empire’s. But Empire demands full allegiance through its rituals and flags and anthems. Empire can’t really handle opposition- and so the imperial machine inevitably killed the prophets and Jesus. Death is the ultimate power play of the Empire- killing someone is the most extreme display of authority over someone- we say you die and you die.
And so through the eyes of empire, Jesus looks like a failure. A messiah who is crucified can’t save anyone from anything. This power of love is WEAK compared with the military power of empire. BUT here’s the hopeful and extraordinary thing at the heart of our faith- God sees the empire’s power play of death and thumbs his nose at it- trumps it with an even bigger better power play. Jesus’ resurrection is the coolest act of civil disobedience ever- when the empire said die, he refused to submit to their authority and stay dead. Because he has a greater power on his side- God the source of all life and love.
And similarly today through the eyes of empire, the power of LOVE can seem like such a weak, ineffectual thing. But if we choose to see God’s reality through eyes of faith:
There is no difficulty that enough love will not conquer, no disease that enough love will not heal, no door that enough love will not open; no gulf that enough love will not bridge; no wall that enough love will not throw down; no sin that enough love will not redeem. If only you could love enough you would be the happiest and most powerful being in the world. (Emmet Fox)
That’s Jesus. And his resurrection is God’s power set loose into the world. The Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transfiguration of the world (Patriarch Athenagoras) Life and love are on the rampage- that’s what the Lord’s Prayer is all about (your will be done on earth) and that’s the ultimate power in this universe.
But this gets hidden from us by the Empire’s impressive alternative show. Guns and armies and buildings and ceremonies which wow us and demand our allegiance. And so the prophets invite God’s people to see through all the smoke and mirrors, and with eyes of faith see what REAL power looks like- take a peek into God’s throne room- the command centre of the universe. And what you see there is the throne of heaven and on it a Lamb that has been sacrificed. God doesn’t put ultimate authority into the strongest hands holding the biggest guns- God puts ultimate authority into hands that have scars because they’ve been through pain and suffering and vulnerability.
Empire says look at our guns and our money- vulnerability is a weakness. But God says look at Jesus- vulnerability is a wonderful strength. Because (Joan Chittister) if we need one another, we live looking for good in others, and without that we ourselves can’t survive, won’t grow, cannot become what we have the potential to be. With a crucified human being on the throne of heaven, vulnerability is part of the way God rules the universe. This is what REAL authority looks like.
This is the vision God gives us to see with the eyes of faith- to be captivated by and to shape our lives around. And we Western Anglicans have an interesting position in this whole power dynamic. We live in the midst of empire, and we’re deeply bound up with its power structures and privileges. The Romans have done tons of good stuff for us. But the prophets warn us- don’t be completely seduced by the empire and its comforts! Save your primary allegiance for God and God’s political agenda- peace and justice and GOOD FOR ALL- which is much bigger and bolder and more visionary than even a Labour or Lib Dem or Green Party manifesto. We Christians of the establishment have an opportunity to use the voice and power we DO have to stand with our neighbours who don’t have. Who are hurt by the laws of the land. And sometimes that means challenging the laws of the land (on behalf of asylum-seeking friends) and laws of the church (on behalf of LGBT+ friends) if these laws lead to anything less than fullness of life for all God’s people.
Through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, God has given a death sentence to death and all its minions. But that sentence needs to be put into effect: in Greta Thunberg’s words, Hope is something you have to manifest into the world. And we get to do that- by offering our allegiance and our lives to this God whose power is self-giving love that bursts the chains of despair and isolation and poverty and death. As we stand up to death and its minions, we release resurrection into the world- we release HOPE into a world that is starving for it.
You call us, God
You call us out of a captivity and into freedom
You call us out of despair and apathy
into a vision of another way of living
You call us, Jesus
You call us into hope and friendship
You call us to build your kingdom
You call us to break bread with you and with the hungry
You call us, Holy Spirit
You call us to transformation
You call us to shine into the darkness
You call us into the world to change it
Give us the strength to follow where you call.