Resistance: The Call of the Church

Jesus is Caesar: Called to Resist

September 9 : Click to Listen to Sermon

Today we begin our series discussing the early church as a community of resistance. When we think of resistance, we might find that people have different perspectives on the meaning of this word. If you work with electronics you might be familiar with the term “resistor.” This device slows down an electrical current and can be adjusted based on the user’s needs. This resistor helps to slow down or resist a current. Others might think of protestors and that they “get in the way” or “hinder” the progress of a movement. One might have a negative view of resistance as one that leads to crime, chaos, and possible riots. Another group may think of the “French Resistance” a group in France that fought Nazi Germany by going underground and forming an organized movement to stop the Nazis in their own country. Still others might think of resistance in physical activity such as weight or fitness training. Pushing on a wall or lifting weights provides resistance so that our muscles might grow stronger.

Whatever definition you have for resistance, we understand that the purpose of resistance is to obstruct, oppose, or frustrate a larger entity. In some cases resistance may transform others from within a dominant culture. We may understand resistance as necessary or we might understand it as a problem. Yet resistance does what it was meant to do—it impedes progress.

Over the years at Agape, we have been trying to understand that the purpose of God’s church was to spread the knowledge of Jesus throughout the world. However, as the church was resisted in Acts, the body of Christ became a movement of resistance. Think about this quote from Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan:

  • There was a human being in the first century who was called “Divine,” “Son of God,” “God,” and “God from God,” whose titles were “Lord,” “Redeemer,” “Liberator,” and “Savior of the World.” Who was the person? Most people who know the Western tradition would probably answer, unless alerted by the question’s too-obviousness, Jesus of Nazareth. And most Christians probably think that those titles were originally created and uniquely applied to Christ. But before Jesus ever existed, all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus. To proclaim them of Jesus the Christ was thereby to deny them of Caesar the Augustus. Christians were not simply using ordinary titles applied to all sorts of people at that time, or even extraordinary titles applied to special people in the East. They were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant. Either that was a peculiar joke and a very low lampoon, or it was what the Romans called majestas and we call high treason.” Crossan, God and Empire, 28.

Crossan’s comments open our eyes to the reality during the time of Jesus. While we know that Jesus was Jewish and that Christianity began from Judaism; we also recognize that the church of Jesus grew during the time of the growth and expansion of Roman Imperialism. When the terms mentioned by Crossan were used of Jesus what message was being presented? What were the Christians stating by proclaiming Jesus as Lord, Son of God, Savior, or Redeemer?  Crossan, along with many other authors, indicate that Christianity was not simply a passive movement. The church provided a form of resistance to the ideology of the Roman Empire.

Empires communicate power to subjects through various means. First, military power displays the domination of an Empire. This power also communicates peace through victory. Second, political power illustrates the Empire’s control and management of cities, countries, and regions. Third, economic power reflects the tremendous might of an empire. This economic power is manifested through resources, finances, and provisions for communities. Finally, ideological power is the creation of the reputation and illusion that an Empire is all powerful and cannot be challenged. It is this Ideology of Power that Rome communicated to other nations that they “must submit,” or that it was “in their best interest to submit and serve their leaders.

But—what type of resistance was the Christian movement. During Jesus’ last supper with his disciples he proclaimed a different kingdom:

  • Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:25-30)
  • Pero él les dijo: Los reyes de las naciones se enseñorean de ellas, y los que sobre ellas tienen autoridad son llamados bienhechores; mas no así vosotros, sino sea el mayor entre vosotros como el más joven, y el que dirige, como el que sirve. Porque, ¿cuál es mayor, el que se sienta a la mesa, o el que sirve? ¿No es el que se sienta a la mesa? Mas yo estoy entre vosotros como el que sirve. Pero vosotros sois los que habéis permanecido conmigo en mis pruebas. Yo, pues, os asigno un reino, como mi Padre me lo asignó a mí, para que comáis y bebáis a mi mesa en mi reino, y os sentéis en tronos juzgando a las doce tribus de Israel. (Lucas 22:25-30)

Notice that Jesus critiqued the current rulers/reyes (Herod, Caesar, and others). He claimed that these rulers practiced authority over people in the empire and called themselves Benefactors. The Greek word is “good workers.” Imagine Caesar ruling over the “Roman world” and telling people “I am a good ruler because I rule you.” Yet that was the message he proclaimed to his subjects. He was called the “good father/patron” of the people. As Savior, Lord, and Redeemer he was proclaimed the servant of all Rome and it’s colonies. Even though he wielded a sword of violence, the Caesar was viewed as one who cared for his people. Temples were erected to honor, thank, and praise him and those who followed as Caesar.

Yet Jesus was a different Caesar. As he stated, a new Empire had already existed. This new Empire did not involve Roman might, power, violence, or promise of peace through victory. It was an Empire where the greatest served, was humble, and wanted to eat and drink with his subjects. It is an Empire that is the opposite of what we see in the world. It is this Empire Jesus spoke of when he boldly told the Roman governor Pilate, “My Empire is not of this world, if it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. My Empire is from another place.” (John 18:36). Jesus’ empire is one of peace, submission to God, love, and community. Jesus began to communicate a new ideology of power during his time on earth. His temple was the people and his memorial simple bread and wine.

This Empirical Ideology is illustrated even more in Paul’s letters to the Philippian Christians.

  • Haya, pues, en vosotros este sentir que hubo también en Cristo Jesús, el cual, siendo en forma de Dios, no estimó el ser igual a Dios como cosa a que aferrarse, sino que se despojó a sí mismo, tomando forma de siervo, hecho semejante a los hombres; y estando en la condición de hombre, se humilló a sí mismo, haciéndose obediente hasta la muerte, y muerte de cruz. Por lo cual Dios también le exaltó hasta lo sumo, y le dio un nombre que es sobre todo nombre, para que en el nombre de Jesús se doble toda rodilla de los que están en los cielos, y en la tierra, y debajo de la tierra; y toda lengua confiese que Jesucristo es el Señor, para gloria de Dios Padre. (Philippians 2:5-11)
  • In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)

Notice the contrasting pattern in Jesus’ modeling of a new Empire. Philippi was considered a “mini-Rome.” The city boasted of it’s similarity to Rome and was a popular location for retired soldiers and Roman governmental leaders. The Roman way was to:

  1. Move up (ascend) the social scale to gain honor
  2. Conquer others and call them to submission
  3. To honor the Emperor who was honored by Zeus

Yet the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians that the Empire of Jesus was much different.

  1. Jesus modeled the relationships that they/we must have with others
  2. Jesus was God but humiliated himself by descending the social scale by
  3. Becoming human
  4. Becoming a servant
  5. Murdered on a cross
  6. Because of his humiliation God gave him the name…
  7. The name above all is Yahweh—Jesus is God
  8. The great name is Caesar—Jesus is Caesar
  9. People will bow to a humiliated God/Savior
  10. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar

Jesus’ Empire models a completely different way of honor.

Today, we live in a similar society. The Empire of our world seeks to communicate that we must get more, move up the social scale, and avoid the “humiliated” of our community. Following Jesus sometimes seems to involve success, financial stability, self care, and outward appearances. Few Christians in our world would think that a crowded room of diverse people and slaves would be a reflection of the church—but it is the Empire of Jesus. Jesus not only served—he allowed himself to be humiliated. Jesus opened a door to a movement that embraced those needing love and support. The ideology of Jesus’ Empire communicates peace, love, mercy, and courage. This was manifested through the practices of the early Christians and the preaching and writing of its leaders.

  • Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor 1:26-29)Pues mirad, vuestra vocación, que no sois muchos sabios según la carne, ni muchos poderosos, ni muchos nobles; sino que lo necio del mundo escogió Dios, para avergonzar a los sabios; y lo débil del mundo escogió Dios, para avergonzar a lo fuerte; y lo vil del mundo y lo menospreciado escogió Dios, y lo que no es, para deshacer lo que es, a fin de que nadie se jacte en su presencia. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)

Paul reminded the early Christians that Jesus chose to build an Empire which gathered those who would be least welcome in our churches. He brought forth a new ideology—one that communicated peace through love, mercy, acceptance, and compassion. This New Empire or New Humanity is the message of Jesus. The early Christians who gave their lives to follow Jesus practiced a form of resistance to the dominant ideology of their world. Today, we have the same opportunity. We can worship, preach, live, and serve as a means to communicate resistance in a world that expects us to “fall in line and drink the Kool-Aid of consumerism, oppression, and greed.” As Tony Campolo once preached:

But, turn to the Christian Scriptures, and on every page there’s good news. The news is not personal salvation. No, Christ is risen, Christ is regnant, and God’s new order has begun. Doesn’t the apocalyptic apostle Paul propose that a new humanity has begun in Christ, the second Adam? He seems to be shouting the joyful news: With Christ the whole wide world is beginning again. Evangelism in our age may propose a “personal relationship to Jesus,” whatever that may mean, but in the first century the big news was social: it was news of a new creation. Loc 301 Preaching

Christianity began, not in a vacuum, but in Roman occupied Palestine. The birth of the new Messiah, ministry of Jesus, meals among the disciples, and growth of this movement reflected the values of the reign of God alongside the reign of Caesar. “Jesus is Lord” was not only a statement of faith—it was a political claim. Faith was not a feeling but an allegiance to someone greater. To believe and proclaim “one God” was an attack on the goddess Roma and her many “pseudo gods” which included the Roman emperor. Yet this movement exploded both in the city and rural areas. Worship, communion, songs, proclamation, and conversion all promised something that the current powers did not provide—hope. This new story of hope, transformation, salvation, and mercy competed against the kingdom of power and glory that offered peace but delivered oppression. Yet it could not squash this new Empire—where Jesus, the murdered lamb, reigned as the true Caesar.

How can the church recapture this same spirit of resistance and promise hope in a world that faces false empires, immoral leaders, power hungry ethics, manipulation, and exploitation of other humans? How can Christians resist the messages of a world that offers much but delivers little? How can disciples of Jesus once again call others to a movement that promotes peace, compassion, faithfulness, and courage? My hope and prayer is that we will answer some of these questions as we move forward.