Imagine with me, if you will, that we are living 2,000 years ago, in the Greek city of Corinth, at the heart of the Greco-Roman world. It’s a highly commercial city, buzzing with activity, dominated by freedmen from the Greek East who display a clear commitment to Roman culture. And so as we walk the streets we pass by monuments set up in honor of the one who more than any other embodies the glory of this world order: Caesar. And next to these monuments are inscriptions that celebrate the decades of peace we have experienced in world, the so-called pax Romana, ‘the peace of Rome’, which has been given to us by the grace and beneficence of Caesar, who is declared to be the ‘Son of God’ and ‘Savior of the World’.
Now we have been invited to the home of a fairly wealthy person with some social status, let’s call him Crispus, who is hosting a gathering of anywhere from 30-50 people of all ages and economic means to celebrate what they call the Lord’s Supper. These are a peculiar people, they are small in number, and they practice a particular kind of washing as an initiation followed by a shared ritual meal that simply have no comparisons in the rituals of the wider GR world, and therefore, they believe, these practices bear witness to the breaking in of another world; this other world was nothing less than heaven itself, which has broken into the world through the unification of heaven and earth in the life, death and resurrection Jesus Christ. And these ‘Christians’ are not just in Corinth; there are gatherings just like theirs all over the Mediterranean coasts (Philippi, Ephesus, Antioch, Galatia, and especially in Rome and Jerusalem), all communities established or visited by a man named Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
And as we come into the midst of this gathering, we find that when they open in prayer and read their Scriptures and partake of their meal, we are immediately struck by the kind of language that they use. For example:
- The prayers and meals and Scripture readings are all done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and suddenly we are very nervous. And this is because in the Roman world, you can call your gods whatever you want to call them, but you don’t call them ‘Lord’; there is only one ‘Lord,’ and that’s Caesar. And we know enough Greek to what the term Christ or Christos means, it means an anointed king, and yet we know that there is no king who is called Lord but Caesar.
- Next we notice that these Christians claim that this Christ Jesus brings ‘grace and peace’ (charis kai eirine) to the world. However, as we saw outside this house on the streets, there are ubiquitous inscriptions proclaiming Caesar as the great benefactor of peace to the Roman people. Grace and peace come from Caesar, not from this Christ, we think to ourselves.
- And then we hear these Christians talk about the ‘gospel of Christ’, the ‘Son of God’ who is the ‘Savior of the world’, and we know that term, euangelion, ‘gospel’, is reserved for the announcement of the good news of Caesar’s reign when he is enthroned or on his birthday, for he is the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
- We also notice that these Christians refer to themselves as the ekklesia, what we call today ‘the church’. We note that this is a very odd choice of terms, because the Greek term ekklesia designated the gathering of citizens of a city to conduct civic business. The ekklesia was in fact the heart of the polis or the Greek city-state; thus these Christians were gathered not so much for some kind of religious ritual, but as the Church, the ekklesia, they were gathering as the embodiment of a new polis, a new Jerusalem, a new political order. Indeed, one of the ways this new political order was expressed was in their refusal to offer sacrifices to the state.
- But, then, we hear the most disturbing, indeed the most shocking, claim of all: these Christians say that one day, ‘every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,’ and we realize what that means; every knee and tongue includes the knee and tongue of Caesar. And suddenly we realize that we are in the midst of a people who are in a very real sense committing treason.
It is this treason of the gospel that we see characterizing the church in the following century after the writing of the New Testament. One of the first extant letters describing Rome’s attitude toward the Christians is the early second-century letter written by Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan. The letter describes Pliny’s interrogation of Christians and his forcing them to renounce Christ by offering a sacrifice to the image of the Emperor. Another document from the second century, what is called the Martyrdom of Polycarp, describes the execution of the 86 year old bishop of Smyrna because he refused to say publically, kaiser kyrios, ‘Caesar is Lord’, and instead declared Christos kyrios, ‘Christ is Lord’.
Such was the political significance of the church at its very beginnings: this was not a private club or association, it was not one of many different mystery religions scattered across the Roman world; faithful members of the church understood themselves by and large as representing an alternative social order, comprised of a redeemed humanity and thus a true public which challenged the reign of Caesar as nothing more than a parody of the true Lord of the world, Jesus Christ.
The gospel was therefore not merely a promise of personal and private salvation; the gospel was instead a declaration announcing that the entire cosmos has been incorporated into the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which was expressed in shared life-worlds of mutuality, self-giving, and fellowship. As such, the ‘truth of the gospel’ was considered a thoroughly public truth. Christian truth was not merely personal persuasion, but was in fact a revelation of reality which was socially recognized as absolute and unquestionable.
Indeed, perhaps the single most political element in the letters of Paul is the glaring absence of any attention whatsoever on the person and relevance of Caesar! Caesar, the most powerful political force the world had ever seen, has in effect been rendered irrelevant by the victory of Christ; all powers, principalities, and authorities are nullified by the true rule and reign of God in Christ. Because the totality of the cosmos has been incorporated into the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ, earthly kings are no longer the definers of rule and law; they are rather fellow subjects, and have as it were been demoted simply to the position of no more than divinely ordained punishers of evil, what Paul calls an ‘avenger to visit wrath on the wrongdoer’.
Caesar has been made irrelevant in light of Christ’s rule which has ushered in a new creation as proleptically witnessed to by the shared lifeworld of the church. Thus, as we read in the letters of Paul, the language associated with Caesar has been disassociated from the emperor and recalibrated around Christ. Caesar is no longer Lord of the world, he is no longer the Son of God, he is no longer the object of the gospel, he is no longer the benefactor of grace and peace, and he is no longer the pontiff who sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the citizens of Rome; now Christ is all of this: he is the Lord of the world, the Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, whose once-for-all sacrifice takes away the sins of the world.
Caesar in effect has been reduced to a mere servant, a punisher of evil. No more, no less. To the extent that Caesar operates according to this relativization, he is to be revered and obeyed. To the extent that he violates this relativization, there are no more severe critics of his diabolical tyranny than the church.
Now, the defining moment of this new relationship between the church and the state was the incident between Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, and Emperor Theodosius I, who ruled from 379-395, in what is known as the ‘Massacre of Thessalonica’. Theodosius was a devout Christian, and in the year 380 he proclaimed Christianity the official faith of the imperial realm, and by 382, most if not all the pagan temples were converted into museums or churches.
But in the winter of 390, Theodosius was sojourning in Milan where Ambrose was bishop. It came to Theodosius’ attention that there was a riot in Thessalonica in response to the imprisonment of a favorite local charioteer. When the public’s demands for his release were rejected, there arose an armed rebellion which brutally murdered the imperial governor and his assistants. Now, the old Roman order got the best of Theodosius, who interpreted such an act as an insult to his authority. And Caesars have a certain way of dealing with insults to their authority. Theodosius ordered his soldiers to go into Thessalonica and bring back a number of heads, regardless of guilt or innocence, and that is precisely what they did, and 7,000 people were indiscriminately slaughtered.
News of the massacre came to Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, who subsequently sent a letter to the Emperor (Letter 51). In it, Ambrose told Theodosius that what he did was akin to King David’s sin of murder and adultery, and that like David, Theodosius must publicly repent of this crime. Until then, Theodosius would not be admitted to communion in the church.
Theodosius was devastated and quite ashamed over the bishop’s words. And so, after several months had passed, to everyone’s shock, Theodosius entered the church, in common clothing, and laid himself prone upon the floor and prayed for forgiveness. And, rising to his feet in penitence and contrition, Ambrose gave Theodosius communion.
Commenting on this historical scene, theologian David Bentley Hart writes:
This was unprecedented. The old cults had certainly never wielded any power like this or arrogated to themselves a sacred office higher than that of the emperor himself. Here, though, for perhaps the first time in the history of the West, the supreme power of the state surrendered to the still higher power of the church, and a spectacular demonstration was given of the transcendence of divine over human law. It was now clear that the one true sacred community was the church, of which even the temporal sovereign was only one member, and of which even the empire was only one ‘local’ region. This same drama, or one very like it, would be played out again and again throughout the history of Christendom, and often – though not always – the temporal power would emerge victorious over the spiritual. Still, a principle had been established on the day of Theodosius’s penance: the state could never again enjoy the unquestioned divine authority or legitimacy it had possessed before the rise of Christianity. (Atheist Delusions, 195-6)
For the first time in human history, the supreme power of the state was voluntarily surrendered before the powerlessness of the crucified one. The love of the sacraments had in fact relativized the power of the sword; the emperor was brought to his knees by a shepherd. From this day forward, a new public order had dawned, and the world would never be the same.
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