Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Pax Romana, Power, and Christ the King

By the way, the "Living by the Word" segment for this week in the Christian Century by Leonard Beechy is very very good, and inspired this post, but is not available on the internet. Here is a piece from Beechy on the Theolog though--gives you a taste of his writing.

“Jesus Christ is Lord” means something to us today, but it meant something very specific in the ancient world.

To say “Christ is Lord” was to challenge the Roman empire. A common greeting in the time was “Caesar is Lord” There was also a cult of the emperor, a belief that the Roman Leader was a god on earth.

The imperial cult was strong in many of the cities that our that are the birthplaces of Christianity. Cities that had an imperial cult were given special status and benefits in the empire.

The cult made sense to the Roman mind. Who but a god would be able to achieve the things the Roman empire achieved? Jesus lived and the church was born during something historians have called the “Pax Romana,” the Roman Peace.

It was a time when the Roman Navy made the seas safe and clear of pirates and robbery The Roman legion patrolled the various regions of the Empire and were kept free of “inter-tribal” wars lawlessness.

Technological improvements were blooming, and roads were being built to serve the population. The average person, the average Jew, was appreciative of the world the Romans had created.

Rome’s goal was to bring about peace on Earth enforcing a peace on earth. Who but a god could bring about this reality?

This is why someone who rebelled against the Roman rule was called a Zealot. Zealots had let their zeal for the ancient prophecies of God cloud their rationality. It was so clear: The Romans had things pretty well under control. This is why the Sanhedrin (the Jewish sacred leadership approved by Rome) was threatened by rumors of his Jesus’ “Kingship.”

So, Pilate’s question to Jesus, and Jesus’ response should be heard in this context. Pilate was concerned about any threat to the Pax Romana when he interviewed Jesus. This is why he was interested in suppressing any “so called king.”

A new king would mean “inter-tribal” battles, (headaches for the Roman legions in the area assigned to keep the area peaceful.)

This is also why Jesus’ response is also to be heard in this context. “My kingdom is not of this world—this is why my followers do not try to stop you from arresting me.”

“My kingdom is not of this world.” I am not here to threaten the earthly rule of Rome. I am not here to invalidate the peace that has been created. I am here to qualify that peace. It is a temporal peace. I am here to establish everlasting peace.

I am here to proclaim a spiritual peace that only God can give.

Jesus had never made any claims to power. He took the opposite route. He made claims to service. He said he’d be the servant of all and if we wanted to follow him we’d take the lowest positions—the positions of slaves.

To display the rule of his kingdom, he got down on his knees and washed his disciples feet. What he was displaying was that everlasting peace—the peace that transcends space and time—is won through gentle acts of serving others.

It comes through opening your eyes to the holiness of those who are rejected by even the most gloriously peaceful empire that had been known.

This is why Jesus’ ministry was among those who had “fallen through the cracks” of the Pax Romana and the Jewish society upon which it encroached.

He defended an adulterous woman from being stoned. He put his arms around tax collectors (who though served the Roman empire, were shunned by their own communities for doing it.) and zealots (who were marginalized by the powerful and “polite” society). He lifted up children, and said they possessed the truth about the Kingdom of God.

Though temporal peace was and may be won by “enforcing the peace,” as the Romans did, Jesus shows us that everlasting peace is achieved through becoming vulnerable.

Vulnerability is finding humility. Vulnerability is taking the role of a servant. Vulnerability is opening up to someone else in love and covenant. Vulnerability is asking for forgiveness.

Jesus went to the cross in the ultimate display of vulnerability. As Paul says in Phil. 2, “He made himself empty.”

This is the ultimate expression of Kingship. Jesus showed that he is the King who brings everlasting peace by pouring out all the power that he possessed. He made himself completely vulnerable, and thus displayed supreme power.

What king has more power, the king who has to guard his power or the king who is so secure that he knows he can pour out his power among his people?

It is our heritage then to serve in the task of creating everlasting peace through acts of service. We pour ourselves out to those who have fallen through the cracks of the Pax Americana. We proclaim the greatest King when we get on our knees and wash feet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Education and the Poor

I was recently impressed with an article I read in the Higher Education supplement in the "United Methodist Reporter." In it two friends and frequent contributors to the UM Reporter raise some poignant issues about the church and the universities that our church has founded. What is the future of the relationship between the church and the academy?
Is there a lasting heritage that our church has imbued into the colleges and universities we built?

Today, my sister sent me a link from the NY Times about the prison education program at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. The selective school offers the same professors who teach at the university, which costs $51,000 a year to attend, to the prison population for free. The University is no longer affiliated with the UMC, but they point to the basis for their program being the example set by John Wesley's passion for prison reform.

In the UM Reporter conversation between Andrew and Eric, Andrew raises the issue of our educational institutions' service to the poor. I think the NY Times article gives a great look at a nuanced example. Here is a program that "distanced" itself from the institution in it's 1937 independence from the church, but still indicates an interest in upholding the principles of our heritage.

I love the college environment and the possibilities for spiritual life in that context, and worked at Occidental College for 2 years and UCLA for 1 while I was at seminary. At UCLA, I helped to organize a tutoring program between UCLA and an after school program in Baldwin Village. Students from UCLA would give 3 to 12 hours of their week to helping kids from a pretty gang-influenced part of the city learn to study and cultivate positive habits. The jr. high kids gave their attention and their willingness to learn to the UCLA students.

I think Andrew's diagnosis and desire to see more colleges employ their Wesleyan heritage is right on. He offers further thoughts in a blog post (Oct. 15--couldn't figure how to link it) after the article came out. Good work ya'll.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Everything Crash

Based on some things going on in my community, I'm going to take the Mark passage from the lectionary to preach with this coming Sunday. This is unusual for me, because Mark 13 is all about the apocalypse, and even though that seems to be a popular subject for preaching in this part of the world, I've typically viewed it as dicey material for sermons. (I did take a Jewish Apocalyptic literature class in college, and have taught bible studies on Revelation in churches--I don't ignore those sections of scripture, but have also viewed them as too prone to be heard literally to be used in a sermon.) Apparently, there is a church in my community that is getting people all worked up about 2012 and the end of the world. The movie 2012 also comes out this weekend.

So, I'm going to delve into Jesus' description of the apocalypse in this passage with special care to work in Jesus' admonition that "no one knows the day nor the hour." Jesus also says that those who claim to know are leading people astray (mark 13, 21-23,) so I'm calling the whole notion of whipping people into a frenzy about the apocalypse a bluff and a con, and questioning the motives of churches that indulge in that kind of stuff. Also, it may do well to dispel some of the theories about 2012, which can be found on wikipedia.

The whole 2012 thing was brought to my attention last year or so by a friend who wondered what I thought about it, being a minister and all. At that point, I hadn't heard of it at all and then found that a movie was in production, etc. etc. Unsurprisingly, the Movie Promotion channel (Discovery Channel) has done a whole slew of shows about 2012 too. (as they did with "the technology of Batman" and "Legends of the Crystal Skull" in anticipation of other movies). I wonder if they get paid by the studios to run those kinds of programming prior to big movie releases?

Jesus speaks of "wars and rumors of wars" and natural disasters as being "merely the birthpangs" of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps our role as Christians is to be a "midwife" for the kingdom. There is also "birthpangs" imagery in Romans 8: 22 that I may link to this text, to speak about "Creation herself, groaning out in birthpangs for her redemption." And the lectionary choice of Psalm 113 also has childbirth imagery as well. "He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!" We are those who are called to minister to the suffering, to stand in the midst of wars and famines and cataclysms and "share the gospel." (As Jesus says in Mark 13 must happen.)

I'm not referring to "sharing the gospel" as simply telling people about Jesus, I'm referring to it as showing people Jesus, showing people the gospel. "Faith without works is dead," says James.

So, in short, the idea of the apocalypse shouldn't prompt us to sit around and obsess about all the speculations that are proffered by the latest con artist preacher. (I say "con-artist" since preachers should know that stoking the flames of people's fears and anxieties about the End of Days is a cheap trick for cheap faith. If Jesus says that even he doesn't know the day nor the hour, then what would prompt a preacher to have the gall to believe that he or she does. Jesus himself warns against these kinds of cons in the passage. I admit, speculating about the apocalypse has an allure. It is mysterious. It is fun. It is intoxicating. And some people who are intoxicated on speculation about the apocalypse spew out some of the most hateful and anti-Christian things I've heard.

The idea of the apocalypse should instead prompt us to action for the sake of Christ. Jesus says "Be alert!" (Mark 13: 33) Being alert doesn't mean alert and alarmed about latest prognostications about an occasion that we can't possibly fathom, let alone predict. "Alert" means "awake" and "about the tasks that we were left with." That's the summation of the whole passage, in the parable about the man leaving his house to the care of his servants. We don't want to be caught sleeping or daydreaming.

Monday, November 02, 2009

St. Francis moment

Sunday afternoon was sunshine and beauty, so it was easy to "remember the Sabbath and keep it holy." My son and I dug in a sandpile, burying his Thomas train and then uncovering it like paleontologists. I remembered being a kid and wanting to dig up dinosaur bones for a living when I got to be a grown up.
I spotted a big grasshopper on the edge of the sand pile.
"Look at that," I told Wesley.
We carefully stepped closer to where we saw the grasshopper land and then blend into the grass. It sprang up again, waist high and landed a few feet away. Again we edged closer. It sprang up again and we followed, repeating the crouching stance of a cat. This time, we asked the grasshopper if he would let us look at him for a minute. I placed my palm up on the ground, and the grasshopper climbed on. I raised him close in front of our faces.
"See his green eyes, and see there under his legs: you can see him breathing!"
Wesley stood and watched in amazement.
"Why is he sooooo so green?" Wesley liked the idea of being green.
"He's green so that he can jump into the grass and be hidden from animals that want to eat him." We looked at the grasshopper longer.
"Look, see his big hind legs? That's why he can jump soooo high." The grasshopper takes the cue as we stand back up, and it jumps off my hand.
"If we had legs like grasshoppers, we could jump over those trees, or right over the church! We could just stand right here and decide, I'm gonna jump over that tree, and do it without even taking a running head start. That's how big we are to the grasshopper, and you saw how high he could jump." I turn around like I'm going to jump over the church, eying the steeple like I'm going to skip right over it, and then I jump as high as I can. Wesley laughs, and then jumps as high as he can.
"Like this?" He says and turns around with his shining eyes pointed at the top of the old pecan tree, and jumps.
"Yup," I say.
Then he runs around and jumps, enjoying his life as a grasshopper.