Jesus and Caesar

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Jesus and Caesar. Colossae was a city in the Roman province of Asia. Epaphras who was a Colossian had come to believe in Jesus most likely during Paul’s missionary endeavors in Ephesus and went back to Colossae and started a church there. Paul has never met these Christians but he has heard about them from Epaphras and is writing them a letter to instruct them and inspire them as they live out their faith in that Roman colony. If we are going to hear the letter correctly and understand its huge importance for us in NYC, we have to hear it in the cultural context in which it was written. Paul was not some ivory tower theologian who was disconnected from every day life. His letters are relevant to the cultural air that Christians were breathing, and this letter is just as relevant for us today as it was to those early Christians in Colossae. The air that the Colossians were breathing was the air of the Roman Empire, the world of Caesar. Through military campaigns and brute strength the Roman Empire had conquered the known world and established the Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome. The world in which Paul and these Colossians lived was one in which Caesar held sway and exercised power not only through weapons but through worship. The Caesar was deified, proclaimed as a Son of the gods and worshiped throughout the empire as divine. Ancient inscriptions show us that the cult of Caesar was not just one new religion among many in the Roman world, but was the dominant cult in a large part of the Roman Empire. Caesar demanded worship and obedience, sacrifice and taxes. He was emerging as the supreme deity in the Greco Roman world and maintained his empire by developing a thriving religion. The Caesar was seen as divine and was the architect and preserver of the Pax Romana and was lauded as Lord and Savior, giver of peace. The “Good news” or “gospel” of Caesar was that Caesar, the son of god, was now lord of the whole world and in exchange for bringing salvation and justice to the earth, he required allegiance from everybody. If you resisted you were terminated, the most resistant by crucifixion. The whole system was based on power. Imperial images that told the story of Caesar and the version of peace he brings were found everywhere throughout the Empire, in public and in private and these images and icons reinforced the story of the regime, that Caesar is Lord and Savior and that peace and prosperity came from him.
    This imperial cult and ideology was part of the cultural air that Paul and these early Christians breathed. So we have to view his ministry and read this letter in that light. The Gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Savior and Risen Lord, not Caesar. Jesus is the one who brings life and flourishing and peace not Caesar. And he does this not through a military driven violent oppression, but through sacrificial love and self-giving; not through the display of power, but through the weakness of the cross.  When we understand that, we begin to see that Paul is not simply a traveling preacher inviting people to a new religious experience, but he is a representative, an ambassador of a King who has come and who is returning. He is a representative of a “King in waiting, and he is establishing colonies of people who are loyal to this other king” (NT Wright). They are ordering their lives around his story, having their beliefs and practices shaped by His rule and reign in their lives, and living in the peace and flourishing that he brings. So the letter to the Colossians, we will discover is a nothing more than a call to a quiet revolution, a treasonous and seditious letter calling people to subversive living that resists the ethos of the empire of Caesar and a letter that awakens the imagination to an alternative way of life under the rule of an a different King. Even the opening of the letter paves the way for this. He calls the Colossians saints in Christ at Colossae. In those few words we see the call to a quiet revolution.

At Colossae: living in the city, breathing this cultural air of the empire. Again, imperial images that told the story of Caesar and the version of peace he brings were everywhere - in market squares, on coins, theaters, baths, law courts, triumphal arches, public buildings. They were symbols of his reign plastered all through the empire, reinforcing the story that he is Lord and Savior and that peace and prosperity came from him.  Nero’s Coin had Jupiter on the back. Jupiter was believed to be the father of the gods. Those images and icons helped to shape the beliefs and practices of the people in Colossae. With this story of the empire comes cultural expectations and promises. If you submit to Caesar, if you live in the story of the empire and give your allegiance and loyalty to the emperor you can have peace and flourishing.

Saints and faithful brothers in Christ: He calls them saints. This is not merely an ethical statement. He is not saying, while you live in Colossae, be on your best behavior. It is an identity statement. He is saying you are saints (hagiois) – holy, separate, set apart. They had been set apart for an alternative King and an alternative Kingdom. You are a people living at Colossae, but belonging to Jesus. You have Him as your Savior and Lord. Your trust is in him; your loyalty is to him. Throughout this letter Paul will use Caesar and empire language when speaking of Jesus. He is saying, in Colossae, Jesus is Lord; Caesar isn’t. Caesar’s empire of which Colossae is a colonial outpost is a poor imitation. Jesus’s empire of which the Colossian church is a colonial outpost is the reality. What an audacious statement. This little group of people meeting in houses to worship Jesus as Savior and Lord are claiming to be a colony of a kingdom that is sovereign over Caesar and his empire. Paul is saying, Caesar is a sham, there is a greater King and a greater Kingdom that brings a greater peace that is worthy of your deepest affection and highest allegiance. Paul is reminding the believers in Colossae, “You have embraced a vision of reality very different from the one the empire is selling you. You have been captured by a different story that is shaping your beliefs and your values and your relationships and your praxis. And Paul says they were being faithful to that alternative vision of reality, that alternative king and Kingdom. In other words, they were resisting the story of the empire with all its ideologies and expectations. What the empire held out as true and as normative for life under Caesar, these Christ-followers rejected and did not embrace as normative for them. Their imaginations were not subject to the empire but had been liberated to lay hold of a greater reality. 

Grace and Peace among you: Hebrew ears: Shalom. Whole life flourishing – upward, inward, and outward. Paul is saying that true peace, this kind of whole life flourishing is found in Jesus and comes to us as a gift. Caesar’s peace must be purchased through taxation and earned through slavish fear. But the peace that Christ gives, this upward reconciling us to God the Father, inward (changing us into the people we were created to be), and outward peace (harmony in human relationships that transcend ethnicity and economics) that we will see in the letter, comes to us as free gift. It is a peace that Christ purchases for us, not one we purchase. 

Do you see how seditious this is; how treasonous? It is no wonder that Paul is writing this letter from Prison. This is the kind of thing that makes mob bosses order hits… to reach into the mobspeak of the Sopranos, this will get you clipped, whacked or popped by the crew. He has traveled throughout the empire proclaiming another king other than Caesar. He is saying that Caesar is a sham and that Jesus is the True King. He is saying that Caesar’s peace is not peace at all. That true peace, true prosperity, true flourishing is found in Jesus, the true Son of God, the True Savior, the True King. Allegiance to Jesus gives you life, not allegiance to Caesar. He is promoting a competing vision of reality, a comprehensive story that directly challenges the story of Caesar and calls people to resist the empire and all its ideologies and expectations.

But what does this mean for us. Caesar is not around. The empire no longer exists; or does it? We are calling the series, Jesus, The Church and the American Dream. The point is that you and I are breathing a cultural air as well. There are ideologies and expectations, group think and trajectories that are part of our culture. There are dominant cultural narratives, stories, that compete for our allegiance promising us peace and prosperity in exchange for our loyalty. We could call it the American Dream of Power, Possessions and Pleasure. Affluence and Consumerism (the monoculture of more). Climbing the ladder, increasing assets, establishing reputation, adding comforts and conveniences. Illus: talking to a friend over lunch about getting sucked into this until you just look normal – your breathing the same cultural air everyone else is, carried in the same current of the cultural dream, pursuing the things everyone else seems to be pursuing, drinking the cultural Kool-Aid, the drink of Caesar. Some reject that version of the dream altogether for a different version. They live for the empire of radical individualism or moral and sexual freedom or a political party, but regardless, there are empires all around us and Caesars whose images and icons are everywhere telling us this is the thing to live for, this is the thing to devote your life to, this is the story that needs to shape your thoughts and values and praxis and relationships and if you will let it, it will bring your peace and prosperity – flourishing. And the letter to the Colossians speaks to us saying, there is another way; there is a king superior to Caesar and a Kingdom superior to the empires of our day. There is a story that looms larger than all other stories, more beautiful and life giving than any other cultural narratives that brings peace, whole life flourishing that you don’t have to purchase or earn. It is a call to resists the Pax Americana, the empires of our day and all their icons and images that reinforce their claims and to let your imagination be awakened to a different kingdom, an alternative King who leads us into a different trajectory with a radically contrasting praxis and noticeably different relational expressions.
The question to end the beginning of this study is – can you imagine life in a community under the love and leadership of Jesus that looks very different from dominant culture of our day, that resists its ideologies and expectations. A subversive community that embraces a different vision of reality that consequentially changes the way they handle money, sex and power and relationships. A community whose imagination has been liberated from cultural expectations and can create new images and icons that display a resistance to the empire and hint at life in another Kingdom? This is treasonous and subversive. This is a quiet revolution that the text will lead us into.

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Sermon Speaker:

JR Vassar

Former Lead Pastor, Apostles NYC