2 Epiphany A—1/19/20
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; John 1:29-42
Pr. Scott Kramer
We have just returned from a family visit to China, and are grateful for you, God’s people, for your ongoing faithful service as the Body of Christ in South King County and beyond! Grace and peace be with you all.
My wife and I are blessed to share the experience of life in two lands: China and the United States. Two languages, two cultures, an ocean apart, sixteen time zones and what sometimes feels like worlds apart.
What I have noticed on these regular visits over the past 30 years, however, is not so much how different our two nations are, but how similar. One of the most striking similarities is that these are two modern empires. China is an ancient empire, once again on the rise. The United States by comparison is a very young empire.
Life in Empire has been a fact of life for millions of people over thousands of years of human history. If you win the lottery of life and are born into Empire—especially if by accident of birth you are among the privileged—you have a lot going for you. But, maybe you were not born into Empire. Or, maybe you were, but not favored by the Empire into which you are born. If so, chances are pretty good that you have some personal experience of conquest and exploitation at the hands of Empire.
Life in Empire was the daily reality of Jesus and his people. They had no say in the matter. They were a subject people, conquered and ruled by Rome. We Americans, on the other hand, are the modern equivalent of Roman citizens. To be both a citizen of Empire and a follower of Jesus is, to put it mildly, awkward. Control, conquest and exploitation—whether of people or of the earth—these are values of all empires. This, in contrast to the basic command of Christ to love one another—even love your enemies, do good to those who hate you—these are most assuredly not Empire values!
Decades before Jesus was born, lived one who is probably the most famous Roman emperor, Julius Caesar. Following victory in battle, Julius Caesar is said to have written in a report back to Rome these words: Veni, Vidi, Vici—Latin for “I came, I saw, I conquered.” It’s pretty simple. It would make a great campaign slogan for modern people who want to “Make America Great Again!” It’s the language of Empire.
Power, control and conquest are the language of Empire. Against these things Christian discipleship and the language of love don’t seem to stand much of a chance. But from the earliest days of Christian faith has been what I will call the “genius” of the Holy Spirit. The genius of the Holy Spirit is not to fight the language of Empire but to embrace it, reinterpret it and thereby redeem it.
For example, the title of the Roman Emperor was “Son of God.” The Roman Emperor was understood to be divinely appointed; in fact, a god in human form. Early on, Christians used this language of Empire to identify the one to whom they pledged allegiance: Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Anointed, Jesus the Christ. You could get killed for using the language of Empire in this way, and many were killed. In today’s reading, John the Baptist takes that risk, “hijacking” the language of Empire for his own purposes. “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
It’s almost as if John the Baptist is riffing on Julius Caesar: “I came into the world, I saw that this is the Son of God…,” says John. But how would John finish the sentence? “I came, I saw, I…conquered”?? How does conquest fit the work of those who determine to follow Jesus, the Son of God? How do we finish the sentence? What does conquest look like for disciples of Jesus?
At minimum, we can say that “conquest” for Christians does not fit the Empire’s definition. It is not about the selfish accumulation of power and riches for ourselves. Conquest for disciples of Jesus begins with doing the hard spiritual work of conquering our fears. In fact, “Perfect love casts out fear,” our scriptures assure us.
At our best, disciples of Jesus understand the sharp distinction between the values of Empire and the practice of love. Most expressions of love are quiet acts of faithfulness among God’s people each day in all aspects of our lives. Sometimes, however, we draw inspiration from high profile representatives of God’s Kin-dom. One of those in our own time is the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and work we especially remember this weekend.
In your bulletin this morning you will find a quote from Dr. King. Here is an example of someone who understands that faith in Jesus Christ is at odds with the values of Empire: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” This is love language, even though Dr. King never mentions the word love.
Veni, Vidi, Vici. I came, I saw, I conquered. To be afraid is human. Striving to conquer fear for the sake of love is what followers of Jesus do. When this is our focus, we glimpse the love of God, and we recognize with greater clarity the enemies of love. Among them, as Dr. King stated, racism, materialism, and militarism—values of Empire.
When John the Baptist publicly proclaimed Jesus as Son of God, people began to follow Jesus, and he noticed. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” (Such a good question!) They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.
“Come and see” is Christ’s invitation to all of us. It’s the last part that’s the big challenge, which is: To understand what Christian “conquest” looks like, and to practice it. To conquer fear, to practice love, to live love, is the hardest work of all for human beings—impossible, in fact, except by the power of the Holy Spirit.
To be both a citizen of Empire and at the same time a follower of Jesus is, to put it mildly, awkward and problematic. Control, conquest and exploitation—whether of people or of the earth—these are Empire values. (Is there any among us here who is not a “consumer”?) This, in contrast to the basic command of Christ to love one another—even love your enemies, do good to those who hate you—these are most assuredly not Empire values! As the psalmist puts it, we see the steadfast love and truth of God, and in gratitude strive to imitate it.
People of God, citizens of heaven, followers of the Son of God—you have been called by name. You are the Body of Christ, the embodiment of love for the whole world. Grace and peace be with you as you endeavor to do this good work in the week ahead!