All Hail The King
"[...] if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9 ESV)
For people living under the Roman Empire, this was not a neutral statement. In the days of the early Christians under Rome, "Jesus is Lord" was a play off of a common political slogan.
“Hail Caesar! Caesar is Lord!” was the cry of loyal Roman citizens, heard throughout the streets of the empire in the first century. The fact that Christians in this time began to declare that there was a different Lord, who had a higher and greater authority than Caesar, made them a target of fear and suspicion. To say that there was another king was to underhandedly threaten the status quo, the way of life for citizens under Caesar. How could the people consider these Christians loyal citizens when they were proclaiming that there was another king, even in the very capital city of Rome itself?
But the Kingdom that the Christians in Rome were proclaiming was not like the Roman Empire. While the Empire was multicultural by virtue of conquering diverse lands and forcing them all into the Roman way of life, the Christian Church declared that the Kingdom of God could be multicultural by way of love and acceptance. People from all places and all ethnicities could find acceptance with God and with each other without any threats of violence or conquest. The Church was becoming an alternative way of life in an alternative kingdom to that of Caesar's.
Above all else, the religion of the early Christians was one that taught people to live at peace with each other and with God because of love and grace. They taught that God would freely forgive people's faults and sins without cost, because Jesus had died as one final sacrifice for all people. Rather than believing in ongoing rituals, sacrifices, and ceremonies to gain the favor of the gods, God had performed one sacrificial act on the cross to cover everyone, so that people all over the world could be forgiven and welcomed into God's family. Paul wrote to the church in Rome, telling them that they could receive God's love simply by believing in him: “the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 3:21-28) It was the opposite of the ritualistic and power-hungry religion of Rome.
For hundreds of years, the followers of Jesus suffered frequent violence under the empire. This went on until one day when one Roman Emperor, named Constantine, had a dream about the Cross, and decided to become a Christian, making this religion legal throughout the Empire. Now, all the Christians who had lived and practiced their faith in hiding were free to live it out loud.
But then things began to change. The oppressive power of the Roman government took on Christianity as its official religion. The military would show up at churches to install their own choice of bishops and pastors. The previously pagan Roman Empire became known as the “Holy Roman Empire," and even though the Empire would soon collapse from its original form, it would still exert an enormous amount of cultural and social influence over Europe and parts of Western Asia for generations.
But the form of Christianity that now began to spread throughout the world looked a lot like the Empire that had come before. A strict and ritualistic religion dictated by the state, centered around the power of a few influential people, and often engaged in often violent military attacks on various parts of the world, this new face of Christianity looked so different from the gracious and gentle way of Jesus that had begun. The Apostle Paul had warned that the end of the world and the expected return of Jesus would not take place until a great "falling away" happened in the church (1 Thessalonians 2:1-4).
This corrupted Christian empire held power in Europe for over a thousand years. They created new rituals and requirements, loading up spiritual burdens on people and making the journey to heaven seem difficult and frightening. People were required to pay money, go through elaborate ceremonies, fight in wars, and often suffer in many ways in order to gain righteousness and the promise of heaven. It was a system that created burdens for many.
This went on for generations until one man in Germany named Martin Luther started a revolution. Returning to the very same book that St. Paul had written to the first Christian Church in Rome, Luther declared that “the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 3:21-28).
Luther returned to the book of Romans - and the rest of the Bible - and discovered a message that had been lost: that it does not take endless good works, religious rituals, monetary payments, or other outward actions to become right with God. The message of the Bible had always been the same: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:23-25a ESV)
While Luther and the Reformers of his day did not completely change every element that had gotten warped within the Christian religion, they did begin to challenge the spiritual power of the Roman Empire acting in the disguise of the Church. Christ was the only true Eternal Emperor. It is not human systems or authorities that define who we are in God’s eyes, or who mediate God’s grace to us. Jesus and the Spirit bring God’s presence close to each and every one of us who has faith in God and trusts him for forgiveness.
No human system can act as an mediator between people and God. Nobody can demand that we perform acts that the Bible does not command in order for us to please God. Jesus is the only ruler that we owe ultimate allegiance to, and his acceptance is a gift received by faith.
Jesus is the true King, the same today as he was to the early Christians in Rome. Nothing, no powers or systems, can separate us from his love and his kingdom.
In Romans 15:22-29, Paul tells the church in Rome that he is preparing for a mission trip to Spain. In those days, Paul may have thought of Spain as being as far West as someone could go - truly the ends of the earth. Where in the world are you from? How did Christianity arrive in your part of the world? Did it come peacefully, with great violence, or under some other circumstances?
Considering what you read in Romans 15, look now at Acts 19:21-22, 20:18-24, 21:7-15, 25:1-12. Paul mentions that he is looking forward to this journey in Romans 15, but in Acts we get to see the details of how Paul actually arrive in Rome. Does it seem like it was an easy journey? Given this story, why would Paul need the church in Rome to be ready for him to arrive and not be fighting amongst themselves?
In Romans 1:13-17, Paul notes that the kingdom of God is multicultural, and that he is meant to share the good news with Greeks, non-Greeks, Jewish people, and non-Jewish people. Think about the Christian Church in your area. Is it multicultural? Are people from different nations and ethnicities welcome to join with them? Beyond that, is there more than one form of cultural expression in the church community (music, clothing styles, languages, food, worship styles, etc.) or do they all have to conform to the dominant culture? What do you think Paul would say about this?
Looking at the content covered in this video and blog post, what can you conclude about the relationship between Christianity and politics? Does it seem like it is a good thing when Christianity is mixed with political power? On the other hand, does the Christian religion have nothing to say at all about politics? What lessons can we learn about the relationship between politics and faith from this discussion?
Read Acts 28:11-31. This is the story of Paul arriving in Rome, being placed under house arrest, and using this as an opportunity to preach the gospel. What can we learn about how God's servants can spread the gospel from this passage? What can we learn about the journey of following Jesus?