Sunday, February 14, 2016
First Lesson: Mark 11:12-19
Children’s story: Matthew 22:15-22
We’re not sure who had started the church in Rome, or exactly when it was formed, but it was certainly before the year 50 – about twenty years after Jesus died. Which means that it was one of the very earliest Christian Churches outside of Jerusalem. It actually may have been started at Pentecost – when all those people from all over the world were in Jerusalem for the holiday. They all heard the sound of a loud howling wind and came from everywhere all over the city, running to see what had happened. They came to the house where Jesus’ friends were sitting and they saw the flames of fire on their heads. And among many others, people from Rome came running to see what was happening – merchants and business people or Roman military personnel who were in Jerusalem at the time. And you may remember that Peter preached a very eloquent sermon on Pentecost Day and that three thousand people were added to the church in one day. So it may be that some of those folks from Rome came to believe in Jesus that day and carried their new faith back home to Rome with them. But whoever was the first pastor of that church and however it was, we’re pretty sure that it wasn’t Paul. And we’re pretty sure that he’d never been to Rome before and didn’t actually know the people he was writing to. Even though, as usual in his letters, he’s full of love for them.
We think that there were wealthy people in that church in Rome, people who belonged to the aristocracy, people connected to the Roman government – high ranking soldiers, people who were politically powerful. And Paul had heard reports about that church in Rome – very good reports. And he was hoping to go to Rome.
Paul wrote this letter at the height of his career – maybe in about 54, or 55 or 56, and really his dream was to go to Spain, and to stop off in Rome and maybe stay there a while. So he sent them this letter of introduction.
He introduced himself in the very first sentence and then he gives a short summary of the entire letter he’s about to write to them: about Jesus our Lord, the Son of God.
And in his very first sentence, he makes the very strong point that Jesus the Son of God. And that Jesus is our Lord.
So think about that with me for a minute. We could easily miss this. Paul is writing to the church at Rome. Where the Emperor Caesar Augustus had had his ornate palaces and his courts and his military headquarters from which he had ruled the entire western world. People all over the world had called him the son of god. Caesar was actually known as the savior of the world. He was considered to be the god who had brought peace over the whole world. On the front of the coins that I showed the children was the picture of Caesar and on the back were the words, in Latin – “son of God.” That was in Jesus’ time.
And a few years later, in the year 54, about when Paul was writing this letter, the great Emperor Nero was the Emperor in Rome. And he was called by the whole world – the divine Nero. Nero was actually called the “very god who rules the nations.”
And in that environment, to people who believed that Caesar was god and that Nero was the son of god, Paul writes in his very first sentence, “Jesus Christ is the son of God. Jesus Christ is our Lord. God is the one who gives us peace.” It was a very bold statement, and eventually it cost him his life, along with other things he said and did. He never made it to Spain, and some of the very smart people that we consult think that both Paul and Peter were executed in 64 or 65 – when Emperor Nero slaughtered masses of Christians in Rome.
Jesus Christ is our Lord. Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
A few minutes ago we read a very short excerpt from the Theological Declaration of Barmen, which is one of the creeds of the Presbyterian Church. Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, and at first a great many Christians there supported him. But then he began to do things like this: He abolished all civil rights. All the military and government officials were required to take a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler. He tried to get rid of portions of the Old Testament with all those stories about Jews and huge portions of the New Testament. There was to be no talk of Jesus and his crucifixion. Next, he proclaimed himself to be head of the church and took upon himself the name “Der Fuehrer,” the supreme leader.
But as you have just heard, in May, 1934 in Barmen, in Germany 139 Lutheran and Reformed pastors and lay people met to ask this question: “Who is the Lord? - God or the government? God or Hitler?” Who is the supreme leader? Jesus or Adolph Hitler? In answer to those questions they wrote the document we have just read, and they said, emphatically and very boldly, that there is only one Lord, and that Lord is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Lord in every area of life and the church obeys him and him alone. He is the supreme leader and no other. All 139 people present signed it and for that bold statement some of them were repeatedly imprisoned and put in concentration camps.
Jesus Christ is Lord. Only Jesus Christ is Lord.
Why does Paul make such a point to say that in such dangerous times? Why were he and the Germans pastors and elders so determined to make that statement when they knew it would cost them dearly?
What does it mean to us when we say that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior? We say that all the time. We say that when we join the church and when we are ordained to be elders and deacons and when we baptize children. But what does that mean?
Here’s what that looks like for us. It means that we spend a lifetime getting to know Jesus and his priorities. We watch how he made decisions, and what and whom he favored. We notice what made him furious. How he spent his time. Whom he spent his time with. And over a lifetime, we learn to be like him. To think like him. To act like him. To value what he valued and give our time to what and whom he gave his time to. Over a lifetime, we become followers of Jesus.
We read scripture with others and we learn what it means for us. We hear him say, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” So we give food and clothing to those who are hungry and cold and we welcome refugees. We read the stories about Jesus healing people with hideous diseases and talking with women whom everybody else avoided. And we ask ourselves which unlovable people have we loved lately – maybe even members of our own families. Or people whom we work with.
We spend our money with Jesus in mind. Jesus, who said he had nowhere to lay his head at night and who continually accepted the hospitality of strangers. We vote with Jesus in mind. We learn to think like Jesus and act like Jesus. Adolph Hitler doesn’t tell us how to live our lives. Barack Obama or Rick Snyder don’t tell us how to live our lives. Jesus tells us how to live our lives. Jesus Christ is Lord. We live as though we are the hands and feet and arms and legs and minds of voices of Jesus in this world – which we are.
Which means that we go against the grain a great deal of the time. Because a great many others we know are not consciously trying to follow Jesus. Our politicians are not trying to follow Jesus. I can tell you that. Maybe the people we work with are living under a different set of assumptions too. Maybe our friends don’t know or care much about Jesus and his priorities. Or don’t take him very seriously. So sometimes it’s a lonely business – having Jesus as our Lord – the supreme authority in our lives. He wasn’t very popular when he was here and sometimes we know how that feels.
This is hard stuff. And we could become exhausted and discouraged from thinking like Jesus and doing like Jesus every day. He was often exhausted himself. So we do what he did - we spend time away from it all – with God, in prayer. We bring our lives and our days and our minutes to God and we talk them over with God.
We spend time with God. Actually, consciously, spend time with God, regularly. We collapse in prayer in front of God when it all becomes too difficult. And God’s Spirit guides us and we make decisions. We ask for the wisdom to be angry about what Jesus angry about and gentle when Jesus was gentle – which may mean a great turnaround in our thinking. And we have conversations with friends who support us.
We behave like Jesus not because we are such noble, or generous or kind people. We behave like Jesus because he is the Lord (ultimately authority) in our lives. When Jesus Christ is our Lord we give our allegiance to him – our entire allegiance. We hear him only. We listen for his voice only. We acknowledge that he is the center of our lives. We spend a lifetime of lively richly with God and a lifetime of patterning ourselves after Jesus.
And we call ourselves by his name: Christian.