Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Constantine, Cross, Empire, Imperialism, Jesus, Lent, Obama, Rome
Luke 1: 46-55, Luke 18:18-30
Last week, Pastor Peterson regaled us with the adventures of Paul as he traveled around Asia Minor and Europe, sharing the gospel. He started communities of folks following Jesus’ teachings and met with others communities that had been formed by others. The message of God’s love and forgiveness made known through Jesus Christ was getting out, inspiring people, and forming networks of Christian communities throughout the region.
This week, we’re jumping ahead to check into the Christian scene 300 years later. Christianity is continuing to spread. New communities are emerging and others are growing. Some Christians are rejected by loved ones because they join this community. There are periods of persecution. Much of this persecution comes from Christian’s refusal to acknowledge the Roman Emperor as a god. Despite, or perhaps because of this persecution, Christianity is flourishing.
The Roman Empire that occupied Palestine in Jesus’ lifetime is still strong and covers a wide territory stretching across Europe and Asia Minor. In fact, it’s gotten so large, that three different men control three regions. Let’s get this picture: control of a vast region is being shared by three rulers, who have a taste of power, but can’t get it all because of the other two. Perhaps you know enough of history and humanity to guess that this is a recipe for war.
One of these men is Constantine. He is in battle with the other two rulers, as each struggles for sole power over the empire. One night, as he and his troops rest before going to battle, he has a dream. He sees his troops marching to battle, their shields emblazoned with a cross. He hears a voice urging, “in this sign, conquer”. His troops win the day, with the cross of Christ leading them into victory.
Constantine claims power and becomes the emperor of Rome. He declares himself a Christian. He not only makes Christianity legal, he uses the power and resources of the state to build churches and employ clergy. Christians find themselves to be the favored group of the empire.
We cannot know the true faith of Constantine’s heart. His mother, Helena, had a strong faith expressed in her own stories and pilgrimages. Did Constantine have a religious experience that led him to legislate Christianity? Or was this simply the political maneuvering who would do whatever he could to secure his position of power?
All we can see are the results. Christianity, connected with the power of the empire, was able to spread and grow. People could benefit by being a part of this state-sanctioned religion. But, I wonder what was lost.
I choose two readings from Luke for us to look at as we ponder what it means for Christianity to become an empire-sanctioned religion.
Our first is Mary’s song, the Magnificat. It’s a beautiful expression of her sense of God’s presence in her life and in the lives of her people. She and her people have not known what it is to live as free people, under self-rule, for generations. Her experience of God is of one who breaks into situations of oppression and frees the oppressed, fulfilling promises of mercy and care.
Her song and the hopes expressed therein may have been the song that could express the experience of the early Christians. They could share Mary’s experience of feeling lowly, poor, powerless. But by the time Constantine declares Christianity the state religion, things are changing. The powers, the empire, is funding the church and its clergy. Clergy are serving as advisors to the emperor, even to the point of advising on such issues as war.
Our second reading was from later in Luke, as Jesus is going around the country, teaching. A man named only as “a certain ruler” comes up to Jesus, wondering about his life, perhaps seeking affirmation of his piety. When this ruler declares he has upheld all the commandments, Jesus does not reject his claim. Jesus simply asks him to do something he is unable to do: to give up all this wealth, give it to those in need, and follow Jesus.
I think Jesus is asking something more of this young man than to simply share his resources. Jesus recognizes that this ruler has a passion to follow God, he’s already followed the commandments. Jesus is asking him to give up his identity as a ruler and put on the identity of a follower of Jesus. There seems to be something incompatible with these two identities.
So when we have Constantine claiming Christ as the sign in which he has conquered his way to power, what can we say? Is he able to be a follower of Christ even while surrounded with the incredible power and wealth that is his as the leader of the greatest empire? As I said before, it is not for us to judge his heart.
But it is for us to live in the legacy that Constantine has left. Constantine began an era of Christianity being synonymous with conquering empire. The thirst for power that belongs to the empire rubs off onto the Church. It was this tryst between Christianity and the worldly powers that shocked Martin Luther. His experience of the simple monastic life left him with a naiveté about the Church that was smashed with his trip to Rome. The Church had become greedy, loving the shows of power and riches that used to belong to the pagan empire. The selling of indulgences, paper documents declaring a soul released from purgatory, that set Martin Luther off on his rant of 95 theses, were being used to fund the building of great basilicas: the Church’s answer to the great royal castles. Constantine’s legacy was a generation of European and American missionaries who brought their own cultural values along with the gospel, forcing their empire over those to whom they were called to preach freedom.
Constantine’s legacy is the Church today, uncertain of its role and message. It is our belief that the church is about the status quo. It is our willingness to believe that wealth, power, and prestige are signs of the depth of our faith. It is our need to have a Christian president and the reason false rumors of Senator Obama being a Muslim could cause such unrest.
When the church has, for so long, colluded with the forces of political power, we forget what our identity is. We forget who we are. We are God’s children, claimed and marked with the cross of Christ. Not a symbol in which we conquer others or claim power over them. The cross is a symbol in which we are united with the One who put aside power, who took on suffering, rejection, and death.
We are the body of Christ, active in the world. We are called to work in our communities, working with and in the political structures our nation has set up. We’re called to work in whatever setting we are placed: in our office, our school, our government, serving God in our vocation. We’re called to work in the public world. But we are never to forget the center of our identity, Jesus Christ.
We are Jesus’ followers, magnifying the Lord into the world. Constantine’s reign made it easy for the Church to magnify itself, growing in power and wealth, matching the greed of the empire. God does not let our identity fade into the history of a dying empire. God continues to come to us today. To challenge us to hear the ancient words of scripture, of people’s experience of God in their lives, and consider how God is active among us today. God is pushing us out into our communities, to be the serving and welcoming hands of Christ. God unites us around life-giving elements of bread and wine, turning strangers into brothers and sisters.
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