Reign of Christ | Christ the King
Last Sunday after Pentecost (C)
Martyrs Vs. the Empire sermon by Rev Fred Kinsey
The martyrs know it’s all about ‘death and resurrection.’ That is, about a life worth living, and the promise of something better, life with God, now and forever.
For the first three centuries in the life of the church, many a martyr was created. After Christianity was legalized, and everything changed, in the 4th C., the stories of martyrs were told, and retold, and often, truth be told, embellished a bit.
Saint Perpetua, one of the more famous, was martyred in the early 3rd C. She was a most eager martyr, practically begging her Roman captors to take her life, proud of her faith. Only in her 20’s, and with child, the authorities waited until she gave birth, and then somewhat reluctantly and clumsily, fed her to the lions. Hollywood would make us think every Christian was being rounded up for slaughter in these days, but, not true. There were a relative few. But their stories were told boldly, and retold and enhanced to make the point, and especially to uplift those who were going through persecution and wrestling with their faith. So, as the story is told, Perpetua was being attacked by lions, when a soldier interrupted the melee, intending to ‘do her in’ more quickly and spare her, but he couldn’t find it in himself to take her life. So Perpetua took and guided his sword herself, so that her life might be taken, and she gladly go, just as her Lord had, a witness to the faith, unbending and fearless of the same Roman overlords.
If you’re like me, this feels, uh, somewhat distasteful, extremist even, unnecessary. Parts of her story sound more like a suicide bomber, than the friends and family we know, who are believers. Yet, there is something helpful, even for us, about her faith: It knows who her God is. And she stands up to the empire, and its hierarchical controlling gods, because she sees the fulfillment of a more true humanity in the justice and way of Jesus. She believes in the Paradise that Jesus promises to the repentant criminal, who was crucified with Jesus. She finds purpose and meaning to her life, and is willing to sell the pearl of great price, to find great treasure.
There were two criminals hanged with Jesus. And both of them readily identify with him, for all three are convicted insurrectionists together. Crucifixion is the punishment reserved for making an example of a criminal who has acted against the State. The ones who most vocally oppose Roman rule, or perhaps in the case of these two criminals crucified with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left, who may have carried out armed opposition, perhaps murdered Roman soldiers, for them is reserved this unique punishment: to be nailed to a cross, and be hung the better part of a day or more, in a painful, public death. The message was made clear for all to see.
But, the gospel writers tell the story the other way around, from the perspective of the anti-hero, not the conquering Romans. By the time we have walked with Jesus through Galilee, all the way to Jerusalem, in the story of the Gospels, and now to the place that is called the Skull, that is, Golgotha, we see the crucifixion through his eyes. Jesus, as he is first hung on the cross, forgives, even his enemies. And Jesus has followers who are there, keeping watch, witnessing. From this perspective, we see the injustice and feel deeply for the followers, and Jesus, as the leaders and soldiers laugh, and taunt, and mock him.
And we get the criminals’ conversation. The first one seeing Jesus thinks it’s his lucky day. Here’s the Messiah, how great is that! The very day I’m getting crucified, they bring Jesus to hang next to me. And if he’s the Messiah, as many are saying he is, he can save us, if he wants. Wohoo!
We all have moments like this, looking for the easy way out, dreaming of winning the Lottery’s Jackpot. But the temptation and distraction of this way of thinking and acting, is a denial of the unique gift of ‘death and resurrection,’ Jesus brings. Rather than living in the present moment, knowing that the end of life, is our story from the beginning, we “eat, drink and are merry,” to forget. And perhaps the worst form of this sin of escapism today, is the denial of our responsibility to God’s creation, as if this is not the beautiful garden God has gifted us to be care-takers of, for us, and for our children’s children.
But the second criminal takes a different, a repentant stance –as much as anyone can take a stance on the cross– repenting and rebuking this very way of life the two of them have lived, seeing in Jesus a new kind of insurrectionist, that follows a new, non-violent path to becoming Messiah, a power that comes from trusting in God, and leading the way for us, that our humanity might be fulfilled in each of us, living life eyes-wide-open to death, the enemy death no longer our accuser, but death as a part of living and our humanity, with the possibility of Life, with God.
Jesus, being crucified unjustly, which the second criminal points out, is not shamed, as crucifixion was meant to do, but he is fulfilling his mission of living for the realm and kingdom of God, which never dies. Jesus understands death and resurrection, and will accomplish it for us, in his innocent death, the martyr who brings salvation, which witnesses to the world. The Greek word martyr, by the way, means “witness.”
How are we witnesses today?
We know the story of Jesus, the anti-hero, the martyr and witness to the kingdom of God, which though it isn’t a visible realm, is more real than the haughty and crumbling kingdoms of this world.
Rome, as the powerful portrayed it, was marketed as heaven on earth, just like Jerusalem and the Temple had, under King Solomon. But, full of corruption, built on lies and unjust systems of enslavement, they were overtaken, or imploded from within. We too live in a worldly empire today, that when viewed through the eyes of the powerful, the winners, the hero’s eyes, is a story we are all familiar with – “we are the most powerful nation on earth,” “a policeman to the world,” and “Wall Street is looking out for our financial well-being.” And at times, when asked to, or even not asked, it is tempting for the church to bless this. But if we do, are we still the church? Are we able to distinguish between the kingdoms of this world and the realm of God?
When we view the empire we live in, through the eyes of Jesus, the anti-hero, what do we see?
Which brings us back to Perpetua! Why did Perpetua stand up to Rome? Why did she trust so completely in the story of Jesus? What did she want more than her own life? I wonder if Perpetua, having been let down by the kingdom of her world, didn’t find a kindred spirit in the gospel story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears. That woman was scorned by all the powerful leaders in the room, but lifted up by Jesus as an example of the faithful. She broke open a whole alabaster flask of ointment, a most extravagant gift, to anoint him. And Jesus made a witness out her, proclaiming, “truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Perpetua clearly wanted to be a leader in the bourgeoning Christian movement. She threw herself into it headlong, being transformed by the saving power of the gospel story. Did she know her story, what she had done, would be told in remembrance of her? Perhaps, though we are never in control of our own stories after we’re gone.
We, are not likely to face persecution and death for our faith. But it is not too hard a thing for any of us to want a more authentic, better life, based on justice and love, lived in a community that watches out for one another. When need be, we may even die for it, though even in Perpetua’s time, that was rare. What is common to all people of faith, is transformation, being changed, from death to life, and, becoming a witness. What is common is the promise of the resurrection that Jesus offers to all. And today, Jesus -this one whom we adore- seated at the right hand of God, is our sovereign, all living one. So, let us sing joyfully with thanks and praise – to this crucified, reigning-from-the-right-hand-of-God, king.