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The Word in Your Heart

Sermon - 2/25/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 10: 8b-13

This is the first Sunday of Lent, and typically in each Lenten season I look for some theme for the Sundays leading up to Easter.  This year I decided to focus on the lectionary readings taken from the epistle readings -- the letters of the new Testament.  This year, all of those readings are taken from the letters of Paul.

The selection for this Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, is from Paul's letter to the Romans, which is the first letter in our New Testament.  Not because it was the first to be written, indeed, most scholars believe that it was most likely the last of Paul's letters to be written, and consider it his 'last will and testament' so to speak.  But it is placed first in the New Testament because of its significance, its weightiness.

In the text for this morning, Paul compares the righteousness that comes from observing the law to the righteousness that comes from faith in Christ, to support his claim for the sufficiency of the latter.  Martin Luther called this 'justification by faith alone'.  And he quotes from the Torah, the Jewish law, from Deuteronomy 30, in the passage for this morning, saying:

‘The word is near you,
   on your lips and in your heart’
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved'.

 

There are more themes in those five short verses than I could cover in a month of Sundays, and I'm under strict orders from our planning committee for this afternoon's event to keep it short J.  So I'll not try to do that.  Instead I just want to focus on what is the meaning of this confession of the heart and of our lips, that Jesus is Lord.

Those who have been in this congregation for awhile, hopefully will know by now of the importance that I place on understanding the context of any passage of scripture.  And even though we can read Paul's letter, particularly this passage, without any knowledge of that context and we can glean much from it, I think that we gain so much when we understand that full context.  The extra effort and time and energy it takes to understand that context is well worth it.

For most of my ministry, I have tended to focus on understanding the context of Jesus' teaching, that of first century Palestine in ancient Israel.  But for the last few years, I have found myself focusing more and more on understanding the context of Paul's ministry a couple of decades later in the Roman world.  Why?

Well, consider the difference.  Jesus was a citizen of a small, occupied country, with no military, a country that had little influence beyond its own borders, and whose religious traditions were often in conflict with the occupying power.  Paul, on the other hand, is a citizen of an empire that was the only super-power of its time, that had an enormous military, and a religious tradition which blessed its world domination as manifest destiny.  

I ask you, which of those two contexts comes closer to our own?  Surely it's that of Paul.

Indeed, I'm so convinced that we have so much to learn from how the early Christian movement interacted with the Roman world, that is, the world of Paul, that I submitted a proposal last year (with the encouragement of our Pastor/Parish relations committee and support of the Board) to the Lily Foundation for a sabbatical in which I would immerse myself into that world of first century Rome.  Now, of course, that would mean I'd have to travel to Italy, and Greece, Athens, visit the beaches of Greece where I know Paul took his vacations and things like that J.  The whole point of that proposal was to prepare for a pilgrimage for the entire congregation.  Not that we'd all be able to go, but that a sizable group -- 20, 30, 40 of us -- would make that journey and spend a couple of weeks in that world.  Travel to Italy and Greece and Turkey, that we might fully better understand that context.

Well, the grant was turned down L.  We talked to the folks at Lily, they said 'You know, sabbaticals are supposed to be about renewal, relaxation, recharging your batteries.  This sounds like a lot of work!'.

So, we thought maybe we'll rewrite the proposal and if I have to spend more time on those beaches of Greece in order to meet their requirements. . . . . somebody's got to do it, right?  We'll see how that comes out.

What I wanted to do this morning was to illustrate with this text what we have to gain from understanding that context.  

Paul writes:  "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved".  Now we take for granted that we know what it means to say "Jesus is Lord".  We don't often ask -- what did Paul mean?  That phrase "Jesus is Lord", or "Christ is Lord", or "Lord Jesus Christ" or "Lord Christ", or "Lord Jesus", whatever combination you want, occurs a little over 100 times in the New Testament.  70 of them occur in the letters of Paul.  None of them occur in the gospels.  The gospels do refer to Jesus as 'Lord', but not with that particular combination.

In other words, this is Paul's shorthand for the message of the good news -- Jesus is Lord.

Now, I have known for most of my adult life that 'Lord' was a title used for Caesar, as I suspect most of you do.  And that to say "Jesus is Lord" is a way of saying "Caesar ain't".  But the significance of that confession really did not hit home until I made that pilgrimage of my own (with the encouragement of Leitha and Mel after they did it) to Turkey in 2003 with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

I've shared bits and pieces of that pilgrimage with you in the last few years.  Those of you that have attended any classes I've taught in the last couple of years, including the current class on the life of Jesus based on Marcus Borg's latest book, have seen some of the pictures that I want to show to illustrate just precisely what it means to affirm that Caesar is Lord.

Julius Caesar -- a little history lesson here, in case you're a little rusty on your Roman history -- was assassinated on the Ides of March in the year 44 before the common era (44 BCE).  That July, his adopted son, Octavian, sponsored games -- you might think of a precursor to the Olympics -- in Rome to honor his slain father.  It turned out to be impeccable timing, because in the middle of the games, in the night sky, there suddenly appeared a comet.  And Octavian pointed to that comet and said 'See, it is a sign that my father has ascended into the heavens and has been welcomed as one of the Gods'.

Now remember after the assassination of John F. Kennedy he became more popular, and the whole mythology of Camelot emerged?  So too the assassination of Julius Caesar.  He became more popular, so much so, that within two years of the appearance of that comet, the Roman Senate had to give in to the wishes of Octavian and they officially deified Julius Caesar.  Named him as a God.

And so that star, depicted here on this coin (below), that proclaims the divine Julius, and with his son on the front of the coin, that star became the symbol used by Octavian thereafter to not only proclaim the divinity of his father, but what does that make him?  Son of God:

 

Octavian went on to defeat the assassins of Julius, Brutus and Cassius, and then ten years later Anthony and Cleopatra.  He then became Caesar Augustus, and Augustus from which we get the name of the month of August.

He coined a new set of coins when he became emperor, those depict August Caesar on the front of the coin, and on the back of the coin is Lady Victory.  And on each of the backs of those coins, in Latin, appears "The Divine Son of God".

 

And then Octavian, or Augustus, went on to begin his brutal campaign to subjugate the rest of the Mediterranean world and much of western Europe to the Roman Empire.  

Now recall the beginning of the birth story of Jesus in the gospel of Luke.  When Luke says that a decree was issued. . .by who?  Emperor Augustus.  That the whole world should be enrolled.  The scope of his reign is depicted in this inscription found in stone as far away as Egypt, that proclaims of Augustus:

  

 

And then in Priene, Turkey, where we visited in 2003, there is a road with a series of little street vendors.  And in this particular location, they found another stone that was a decree issued by the Governor of Asia for the entire region.  In that decree, it states:

 

[Notice the word in Greek for "good tidings" is "euaggelia", that is the word from which the English word "Gospel" comes]

This is, then, the Roman gospel.  Caesar is the God of time and Lord of the world.

In Ankara, Turkey, you will find this temple (below), erected shortly after the death of Augustus (erected by the next Caesar).  Augustus died in 14 C.E., would have been about the time in Luke's gospel when Jesus traveled as a young boy to the temple in Jerusalem.  We think there were four of these that were erected around the Mediterranean world -- it is a temple to the Goddess Roma and the God Augustus.

And around the base of the temple in Latin and Greek is Augustus' autobiography that he instructed should be distributed throughout the world, that tells of all his great deeds.  And it begins, in part:

 

And then, in Ephesus, there is this gate, built in the time of Paul.  Paul would have traveled underneath these arches, on his way to the port of Ephesus:

 

And at the top, in the left-hand side, there is a dedication to the "Divine son of God, Augustus":

 

"Divi Filius", abbreviated "Divi F", meaning in Latin, divine son of God.

Then, finally, back in Priene, in Turkey, there is a temple to the Goddess Athena.  A large marble beam above the entrance of that temple says:

 

Now, I want you to think seriously about this.  About that inscription (above), and all of this that you have just heard.

Dominic Crossan says:  "Something special happens, we are convinced, when you stand on the heights of Priene in the Mediterranean sunlight and read that huge fallen beam from the temple once dedicated to the Emperor Caesar, the Son of God, the God Augustus".

Think carefully of what it means to live in a time and place where everywhere you go -- the coins you carry, the things you see, everything you hear -- there is one message:  there is 1 God.  There is 1 son of God.  The Lord of the Empire and of this world.  The spoils of his victories, the roads and ports of his kingdom.  The economic prosperity of his peace.  All of this points to his reign as our Lord.

And then someone comes along and says to you:  that guy on the throne?  The one with all the power and glory?  He's just a sham.  He's not the real thing.  The real Lord of all, the one God raised from the dead, is not Julius.  Not Claudius, not Tiberius or Augustus or any of the rest.  But the Jewish peasant, crucified by Rome in the occupied city of Jerusalem.

Who would believe such a claim?  With all the evidence of Caesar's power and divinity, what evidence was there for this Jesus of Nazareth?

And Paul's answer would have been:  hear the story of this humble man of God, how he changed the lives of ordinary people.  Not with might and economic power or rule of law, but with the power of love.  And come and meet the people who follow him, who share their food and possessions with one another, who watch out for each other in a community where all are equal -- Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.  And then look to your own heart for who you would call the Lord of your life.  And confess on your lips the Lord of this world.

And here we are now, 2,000 years later, living once again in a time of empire.  Where everywhere you go, you can see the influence of the American way of life -- economically, politically, socially, militarily:

 

Thus the question we must honestly face is this:  who is our Lord?  Who do we trust in our hearts and confess with our lips?  Dare we be as courageous and bold as Paul, refuting the very basis and legitimacy of the power of Rome by claiming that God raised Jesus, not Julius, from the dead, and made him, not Caesar, the Lord of all.

What power, who's authority, does such a claim challenge today?  Do we embrace Rome's vision for the world as seen through the eyes of today's Caesar's?  Or God's vision as seen through the eyes of Jesus?

Who or what has the ultimate claim on your heart?

For Paul, proclaiming "Jesus is Lord" was not mere lip service.  It was the something, the someone, to which he literally gave his life, in Rome, against Rome, for Christ.

And what about us today?  Are we not called to do the same?

 

 


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