One of the things that makes the Good News of Jesus so starkly dramatic in its powerful and transformational simplicity is the state of the world into which Jesus was born. The power of Empire stands in such stark contrast to the presence of Jesus in the world that Jesus turns the values of Empire – power dominance, subjugation of the weak, exploitation, human inequality – completely upside down.
Look for a moment at the world into which Jesus was born. Jesus came into the world of Augustan Rome, an empire consolidated under the power of the conqueror Octavian who became Augustus Caesar, wielding the power of a growing political and economic machine from some thirty years before Jesus’ birth until Jesus was a teenager. The situation of Empire only devolves from there. The emperor Tiberius who ruled from the common era year 14 until 34 – the latter date being around the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, was noted for his autocratic behaviour and sheer unbridled cruelty and disrespect of anything resembling positive human values. From his fortress on the island of Capri he arbitrarily took life in the most cruel and inhumane ways. The power of inhuman empire knew very little bounds.
His protege was Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, nicknamed Caligula “the one in little boots” because as the ultimate spoiled child, he lorded it over everyone from the time he was quite young. Learning at the feet of the depraved tiberius, Caligula was a figure of total depravity who wielded blood lust power for his own personal satisfaction from year 37 to year 41. If you’ve seen the “I Claudius” television series about Caligula’s uncle and successor Emperor Claudius, he was capable and not as cruel, a reprieve. But his rule was followed by Nero, whose reputation we know and during whose reign from 54-68, the Judean uprising began in year 66. Nero’s reign is known for intense Christian persecution, persecution of a way of life and human relationship that denounced everything that Empire stood for.
Into this world comes the challenge of Jesus’ message to redefine “life” as embracing “life” in the new age of God’s reign. The values of Empire promoted the hero as a conqueror, the taking of the weak by the strong. Jesus, in speaking of “life” in its broadest meaning that his hearers would her, tells Peter and the other disciples that true heroism is losing one’s life – yes losing- and journeying toward or “becoming” in a way that sees God transform the loss of self and self interest into new possibilities. Here is the heart of our Lenten journey.
In the Genesis account of Abraham and Sarah entering into a loss of self and entrance into new possibilities in embracing a new way – a journey with God – their very names change. Abraham and Sarah struggled to embrace this uncertain journey, but as Paul emphasizes in Romans, they hoped and believed – belief in the sense of “beloving” or embracing what God hints at for them. They had no theology to argue about, no statement of faith propositions to ascent to, but they embraced God. Thus, says Paul, Abraham was “accounted righteous” – or, we might say, in ‘right relationship’ with God. Sarah and Abraham let go of one kind of life in order to find “life” – journeying or “becoming” in its fullest Biblical meaning.
Another significant renaming is the new identity Jesus sees taking shape in Simon bar Jonah, whom he nicknames “Rocky”. Peter’s journey with Jesus was indeed a rocky one, never easy, but Jesus knew that eventually Peter would ‘get it’, even though in the 8th chapter of Mark we see a Peter who still sees the relationship of Jesus and the world in Empire terms – terms of conquest. Jesus lets him know in no uncertain terms that such thinking is a sidetracking hindrance to his mission – a ‘satan’ – a distraction and a delusion. Jesus knows in his own denunciation of Empire and its values that his own death would be inevitable. So again he extends the invitation to orient Godward – to be lost in changing the world – to make our lives count – to take on the new identity, as Abraham and Sarah did, and as Simon bar Jonah would grow into. In this, Jesus invites us all to drink the new wine of the Reign of God as we seek justice and human dignity for all – embracing the way of God over the way of Empire.
Historian Eamon Duffy points out that by the time of Peter’s death, his colleague Paul was groping his way towards a theology that spelled out the identification of the Creator God of Israel with the wandering rabbi Jesus, with whom Peter had walked the roads of Palestine, and whom he had loved, and denied, and loved again. The location of the great depths of human reality and potential that opposed the ways of Empire within a single human life, vividly recorded in the Gospels and profoundly reflected by thinkers like Paul, was a idea whose moment was come.
And that moment still comes to us today, as we embrace, particularly during our Lenten journey, the way of the cross, the way of losing life to gain life in all its fulness – as we Christians redefine and renew human relationships through a renewed and powerful new identity in God through Jesus.
Thanks be to God.
Reference: Eamon Duffy, Ten Popes Who Shook the World. Yale University Press, 2011.
Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and one of the blogmasters of New Westminster Anglican Blog. Your comments and contributions are always welcome.