Proper 16 (August 21-27)
Texts: Matthew 16:13-20;
Rom 12:1-8; Isa 51:1-6
JESUS’ POLITICS, PART 1: YES, JESUS DOES HAVE A POLITICS
Time Travel to the 1st Century Roman Empire
I’m a Trekkie. I think I come by it honestly. I’m actually old enough to have watched the Original Series when it first aired in the 1960’s. I faithfully watched those reruns, over and over again, for ten years until the first movie came out, and then almost ten more years for The Next Generation TV series.
I begin with Star Trek, because many of their most memorable episodes involve time travel, and I’d like for us to imagine ourselves time-traveling back to the 1st Century Roman Empire.
Last week, the most positive feedback I got involved the names Jesus and Joshua actually being two different renderings of the same name in Hebrew. This week, I’d like for us to freshly examine not the name Jesus but many of the titles we traditionally use for him: such as Savior, Son of God, Messiah or Christ, Redeemer, Lord. But we need to time travel to hear them anew.
First stop on our time travel itinerary in the 1st Century is the port city of Mira, Turkey. There’s a large inscription prominently displayed there that reads, “son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.” Is that to Jesus already in the 1st Century, right? No. It’s an inscription to, “divine Augusta Caesar.” Divine Augusta Caesar. And “Augusta” basically means, “worthy of worship.” This is the kind of inscription written all over the Roman Empire, prominently displayed in cities that wanted to make sure Caesar knew they were loyal to him — so that he didn’t come with an army to destroy them! (Reminds you of King George singing to the American colonists in the musical Hamilton, “We have seen each other through it all, And when push comes to shove I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love, Da da da da da Da da da da di ya da da da da di ya da. . . .”)
In short, Caesar called himself “son of God” and “savior,” and expected others to do the same.
Next stop in our time travel back is in the later half of the century. Jesus is ascended, the church is underway, and we are followers of Jesus in the Roman Empire. We call Jesus “Son of God,” “Savior,” and “Lord” — just like most others use those titles for Caesar. What are we doing? Are you beginning to see the significance in a new way?
For the next stop, right at the beginning of the 1st Century, we first bring in another familiar word to us today, “evangelism.” It comes from the Greek word euangelion, which we translate as “Good News,” or “Gospel.” In the 1st Century Roman Empire, the word euangelion was most often reserved for an imperial decree. Caesar would send heralds throughout the empire to announce Good News about his military victories and the like.
So now we are there on the First Christmas when the angel messenger (the word angel is in the word evangel!), or herald, says to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for behold — I am bringing you good news (euangelion) of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the liberating king, the Lord” — what is the angel saying? You are a shepherd — what do you hear?
One more stop on the time travel itinerary, about 30 years into the 1st Century. We are following a new rabbi, named Jesus of Nazareth, and he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; transform your minds, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). What is he saying? Is this rabbi making his own imperial proclamation about a coming new reign of God?
New Confirmand Paul Nuechterlein Time Travels Fifty Years into the Future
I’d like to shift the gears of our time machine and use it for going into the future, this time a personal story for me. Imagine me as I’m confirmed at Faith Lutheran Church in 1970 in Livonia, Michigan. I’ve gone to church nearly every Sunday all my life, enjoying hundreds of sermons, my home pastors inspiring me with their preaching of the Gospel. Let’s say that that Paul Nuechterlein suddenly time travels fifty years into the future and listens to Pastor Paul preach a sermon today — putting aside, of course, the potential chaos to the time continuum that could be caused by seeing myself in the future.
The greater shock or chaos might be due to my hearing such a different version of the Gospel than what I grew up with. Sure, many of the basics are the same. But there are many new emphases and focuses so that even the basics are reframed. Pastor Paul has had fifty years to gradually change his mind; Confirmand Paul would be uncomfortable, to say the very least, and would want to know where these changes to the Gospel have come from.
Some of you might be wondering, too. Perhaps some of this is new to you, as well. I hope you feel free to give me a call or set up a visit — using safe-distance rules, of course — to ask your questions. And I will continue to introduce you to introduce you a little at a time to these elements of a New Reformation while I’m here at Redeemer. I also plan to offer some education opportunities, probably via Zoom.
Let me quickly recap the first two elements that I’ve already introduced you to before highlighting today’s new element. The first basic shift I’ve talked about is less of a focus on the afterlife, and more Good News about life in the here and now. Keeping in mind that Jesus is truly human — meaning he’s the most truly human being ever — Jesus came not just to conquer death for us but also to show us how to truly live. He came to help us begin to live into nothing less than a new Way of being human.
Second, Jesus is also truly divine. So he came to reveal to us who God truly is, too. In the Reformation we got right the emphasis on the good part of who God is: that God is loving, forgiving, and gracious. But in the New Reformation that’s underway, we are also learning anew how to prune away the bad parts of our common misconceptions about God — especially that God would violently punish someone in hell for eternity. We are coming increasingly to know a God whose love reaches out to all and who is completely nonviolent.
Now, today’s new emphasis. The opening time-travel exercise is meant to help us put those two things together: that God in Jesus the Messiah came to give us a wholly new politics for living together in peace. It’s clearly going to take a while — two thousand years and counting. But being human means living in community with others, so it means having a politics — rules and guidelines for being able to live together. And so a new way of being human requires a new politics.
That’s why the early church, and even Jesus himself, used titles like son of God, Savior, and Lord — titles that Caesar used. It’s what got Jesus killed. And his early followers followed his lead by using these titles to challenge Caesar’s lordship! They were putting their faith in a new reign, a new kingdom, a new kind of politics. And it got them killed, too. Many were martyred.
The Acted-Out Parable of a ‘Nominating Convention’ at Caesarea Philippi
It seemed natural to introduce this emphasis on politics today because the Gospel Reading for these next two weeks is a case in point — Act 1 this week and Act 2 next week. It’s basically Jesus staging a nominating convention of sorts [in 2020 this sermon fell between the Democratic and Republican National Conventions] to lay out his candidacy as the Messiah, namely, as the promised liberating king.
First of all, he carefully chooses the site. Caesarea Philippi was regional capital for the Roman Empire. It was thirty-five miles north of Galilee, and this was the only time Jesus took his disciples this far north. Caesarea Philippi was also next to a high escarpment that had many niche carved out of the rock displaying statues of Greek and Roman gods — kind of a Mt. Rushmore and Madison rolled into one. There is no reason for Jesus to take his disciples there except for the political and religious significant of it.
So once there, Jesus pops the question, seeking their nomination, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Now, the title son of Man refers to Book of Daniel chapter 7, where Daniel has this wild vision of all these terrifying beasts who represent the violent empires who have oppressed the Jewish people over the centuries. And then a “son of Man” appears in the face of these empires, representing one who is truly human. God gives rulership over to the “Son of Man” — symbolizing the Jewish hope a liberating king.
After some disappointing answers from his disciples, Jesus gets more direct: “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Bingo! Right answer! ‘Blessed are you, Peter, you can be Vice Messiah, the rock on which I build my church.’
By now, I hope you can appreciate how political this exchange is. Peter nominates Jesus as the Messiah. And if Caesar thinks he’s the son of a god, one of their false gods, Jesus is the son of the living God, the true God. Peter’s basically saying, “I get it. Caesar isn’t Lord, you are. Caesar’s not the Son of God, you are. Caesar is not the authority under whom we should organize our lives; you are. You’re not just inviting us into a religion on the sidelines of Caesar’s kingdom; you’re inviting us into a new kingdom.” Jesus is giving him a choice between Lord Caesar and Lord Jesus, and Peter is choosing Jesus.
I said that this morning is only Act 1. Next week, we have Jesus’ nominating speech where he tells the disciples just how different his politics are. Peter’s great moment in the spotlight will fade as he goes on to completely misunderstand Jesus’ politics. But here’s the clear thing for today: It’s not that Jesus doesn’t have a politics we’re supposed to follow. It’s that they are completely different — easy for us to misunderstand like Peter, or even to miss seeing altogether. We’ll begin to see just how different next week.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer,
Racine, WI, August 23, 2020