Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
It's always interesting to come back after being gone so long, to see if
I still remember how to do this :).
There are a few thoughts and pictures that I want to share with you from
our World of Paul Pilgrimage that we just completed, as I reflect on
what it all meant.
But first, I want to share with you the introduction to Paul's letter to
the Romans. Many scholars think it's likely the last letter he wrote,
certainly the most important. Writing to that community in anticipation
of his visit, he says:
called to be
his Son, who
be Son of
whom we have
the sake of
7 To all
Grace to you
from God our
There's a line from the final song in
that great musical of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, Jesus Christ
Superstar, in which Judas, looking back from the perspective of the
present time, asks: "Why did you choose such a backward time and such a
It's actually a very good question, and a question that we don't reflect
on very often. I want to suggest this morning that it is a question that
is actually very central to a complete, full understanding of the
John Dominic Crossan says: "If you don't get your history right, you
won't get your theology right". That is, our understanding of how God is
active in history. And indeed, one of the reasons that Harold Camping,
the now discredited prophet of the May 21st "non-Judgement" day, has so
badly mis-read his Bible is because he has so badly mis-read God's
involvement in history.
As I indicated, my daughter graduated on Judgement Day (May 21st), and I
told a number of folk that if Jesus came back before she graduated, I
was going to be really ticked off :).
So, why was Jesus born in the time in which he was born?
First, I have to take note, that in that song it says something about
'why did you choose 4 B.C.?', in a time when there was no
mass-communication. And hence my title, 4 BCE, depends on your naming
convention -- B.C. for Before Christ, or BCE for Before the Common Era.
The point being, that is the commonly accepted year as the most probable
for the birth of Jesus, given what we now know about the history of that
time period. But still, it's an educated guess at best, we can't be
absolutely certain of the precise year.
To answer that question then, of why that year, why that time, I need to
take you to three countries, with the help of some pictures. Those three
countries would be: Turkey, Greece, and Italy.
What do you know, those are the three countries we just visited! How
'bout that :)
First of all, let's start in Turkey, and more specifically in Priene, an
archeological site from the world of Paul that is seldom visited. Just
look at that road:
In which you will find few tourists other than the bovine type:
Makes walking through there very
interesting :) And while Paul, unlike these cows, never set foot in
Priene, it's still very to our understanding of that time period, for
two reasons. First of all, there is the Temple of Athena:
Very typical of the Roman period, built by the people of that community,
and according to this beam that lies there in the ground (that
originally was overhead at the entrance of the Temple), it was dedicated
to "the world-conqueror Caesar, Son of God, the God Augustus" (if you
could read the Greek).
I told the group when I visited that site for the first time in 2003,
that that was the beginning of my conversion to a new understand of, and
appreciation for, the Apostle Paul. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus
Borg, who led that tour in 2003, told us to take a picture of this beam,
of this site, bring it back and show it to our congregations, which I
did at the time. But then I decided I wanted to go a step further and
bring my congregation to that site (at least a sub-group). And the group
will tell ya, I got a little choked up talking about that, and that they
all chose to go on this trip with me.
The second reason Priene is important for our understanding of the world
of Paul, is another inscription that was found on a tablet discovered
right there in that site. The tablet now resides in a museum in Berlin:
It describes a proposal made by the Roman Governor of Asia Minor, one
Paulus Fabius Maximus, to honor "the most divine Caesar", and the day,
he said, we might "justly set on par with the beginning of everything"
(being his birth). He goes on to say on that tablet: "Since the
Providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her
energy and zeal, and has brought to life the most perfect good in
August, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind,
bestowing upon us and our descendents as a Savior, he who put an end to
war and ordered peace. And since the birthday of the God first brought
to the world the good tidings [and the word for good tidings is "evanggelion",
which you should recognize as the Greek for 'good news' or 'gospel' --
it's the word Paul uses here in the beginning of his letter to the
Romans, this is the gospel, the good news, the "evanggelion". That's the
word this Governor uses to describe the birth of Caesar -- the good news
delivered to the world]. For that reason, for good fortune and safety,
the Greeks of Asia have decided that the new year in all cities should
begin on the 23rd day of September, the birthday of Augustus".
So please note, 4 centuries before Pope Gregory decided that time should
begin with the birth of Jesus (and hence the re-numbering of our years
beginning at that point), this Roman Governor decided that time should
begin with the birth of Augustus.
In other words, what Christians decreed in the designation "BC" (Before
Christ), AD (in the year of our Lord), and about Jesus as the "Son of
God", this Paulus Maximus decreed about Caesar as Son of God. That he
was Lord not just of Empire and Earth, but also Calendar and Time.
From the west coast of Turkey, we went to the west coast of Greece, to
Nicopolis, an ancient city established by Augustus Caesar, where we went
to see the Monument of Augustus, only to arrive and discover that due to
the economic crisis in Greece, they did not have sufficient staff to
keep the site open, because it was so rarely visited by anyone, it is
such a 'minor' site. But it was the whole reason we went on this
There were a number of sites we had already passed up, such as the
Temple of Augustus in Ankara, which would have required an 8-hour
bus-ride, and I decided that was more than the group could tolerate. And
places like the tombs in Hierapolis:
. . . that I mentioned in the sermon before we left, and the Theater in
An incredible site, both of which we had to just drive by and look out
the windows because we didn't have time to get off the bus and explore.
And then there was the island of Delos that is an archeological site
unto itself--the entire island is an archeological dig, from the first
century before the common era (BCE), was abandoned shortly before the
birth of Jesus. The only way to get there is from another island,
Mykenos, only when we got to Mykenos, the winds were so great, the seas
were too high, for the small ferry that takes you to Delos. So this was
as close as we got to Delos, flying over it:
Oddly enough, the group didn't seem to mind :) Not visiting a desolate
archeological dig with no modern conveniences, and being stranded at
this resort in Mykenos :)
I don't understand their lack of disappointment :)
In any event, when we learned that the
Augustan Monument was closed, I was not to be denied. So I took us up
this back road behind the monument where we could look down upon it:
This is the site where Caesar Augustus camped, this is where he had his
tent, overlooking the sea battle that took place on September 2nd, in
the year 31 before our common era (31 BCE). It was called the battle of
Actium, in which he defeated the forces of Anthony and Cleopatra, that
ended nearly a century of civil war in the Roman Empire, making him the
undisputed head of a united empire, and hence the beginning of what we
call "Pax Romana", the peace of Rome, the golden era of prosperity (at
least as far as the Romans were concerned). I think the subjugated
people who experienced the military might of Rome would say otherwise.
But anyway, to commemorate that victory, Augustus built this monument:
Adorned with the battle rams from the ships of Cleopatra. And along the
front side of the monument (unfortunately we couldn't see it on our trip
because we would have had to jump over a fence to get there), there is
this inscription, now only partially visible, which Crossan calls the
second most important inscription in all of antiquity, for understanding
the imperial theology which was the glue that held together the Roman
empire. And that inscription says:
That quote succinctly sums up the Roman program under Augustus. First
comes religion -- consecrating this to the Gods Mars and Neptune. Then
comes war. Then comes victory. And then comes peace.
In other words, peace through victory. But victory at what cost?
And for that, we go to Rome. Where one can see the grand-daddy of all
the war spoils, the Colosseum:
Built with the spoils of the war on Jerusalem, including 7,000 Jewish
(and likely a few Christian) slaves, brought to Rome to build this
Colosseum. And it is commemorated in the Arch of Titus:
The conquering general who would soon become Emperor, in other words,
the path to lord-ship, divinity, comes through war. Peace through
victory. And inside of that Arch of Titus, you see the spoils of war
being carried off by the Roman soldiers:
There's the menorah, being taken out of the Temple in Jerusalem, brought
to Rome, presumably melted down to help pay for the Colosseum.
The last stop of our tour, two weeks ago, and also today, was yet again
a place relatively few people visit (those are the places I love the
most), the Ara Pacis of Augustus, or the Altar of Peace of Augustus:
It was built by the Roman Senate to commemorate Augustus' victory over
Spain and France in the year 14 BCE, for annual sacrifices to the Gods.
It was re-built, interestingly enough, the pieces were re-assembled
under Mussolini (think about the meaning of that). And it portrays a
very pious royal family:
That's Frank Reitz, and if that's the picture of piety, then you are all
It portrays the pious royal family engaged in their religious duty,
making in this procession towards the sacrifice:
And it provides a graphic image of what the world of peace looks like,
thanks to the military victories given by the Gods.
Outside of the Altar of Peace, facing
the Mausoleum of Augustus (where he was buried), you can find a modern
copy of that most important inscription from antiquity, for
understanding Roman Imperial Theology, and that is the Res Gestae Divi
Acts of the Divine Augustus:
His autobiography that he wrote, and
directed that it be spread throughout the Empire. You can find it in its
original setting in that Temple of Augustus in Ankara. But here the
entire thing is displayed, and it begins:
of the Divine Augustus, by which he gave the whole world to the
So here's my point: the reason
for going to see the world of Paul, is so that we may get history right
in order to get theology right.
To cite John Dominic Crossan:
"Before Jesus the Christ ever existed, and
even if he had never existed, these were the titles of Caesar the
Augustus: Divine, Son of God, God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer,
Liberator, and Savior of the World.
When those titles were taken from
him, the Roman Emperor, and given to a Jewish peasant, it was a case of
either low lampoon, or high treason. Since the Roman authorities did not
roll over in their toga's laughing, we may presume that Pilate, acting
for them, got it precisely correct: he publicly, officially, and legally
executed Jesus for non-violent revolution against their imperial power".
This, then, is my contention and my conviction: the birth of Jesus, son
of God, Lord and Savior of the World, was God's necessary response to
the proclamation of and by Caesar, son of God, Lord and Savior of the
The message of Jesus about the Kingdom of God is the counterpoint to the
message of the Kingdom of Rome.
The message of Paul about lordship of Christ is the counterpoint to the
message of the lordship of Caesar.
I chose this introduction to Paul's letter to the Romans because of its
ambassadorial tone, in which Paul writes as if he is representing a new
Empire. And in the text that we used in the class that I taught right
before we left for our pilgrimage, the authors of the text, citing this
introduction to Paul's letter, say:
"This is what the
ancients considered a polished style. The letter to the Romans has
entered into competition with the elegant sounds of the Empire. Such
formality of speech would represent an intention to demonstrate that
the subject matter of the discourse was on equal or greater footing
with Imperial claims. In these opening words, Paul is establishing
himself as an envoy in a new and alternate regime, and his rhetoric
matches his mission, offering to the Roman communities the
opportunity to become co-conspirators with Paul in acknowledging
that a regime change had occurred, and that they proclaiming the
true ruler of the universe".
In sum, Jesus and Paul come
precisely when they did not in spite of the Roman Empire, but because of
it. More specifically, because of that claim by and of the Emperor
echoed throughout the Empire, that this is what the son of God looks
like. This is what it means to be divine. This is how God intends the
world to be -- peace through victory, on earth as in heaven.
The question for us, of course, is not just about then, but what about
now? What do we believe about what it means to be divine? And how God
intends the world to be?
Do we believe in peace that comes not through judgment, war, and
victory, but through compassion, non-violence, and justice?
It all depends on how we read history, and God's involvement in it. If
there's any truth in the claims that I have made, then I hope for the
sake of God, and for the sake of all of us and the earth, we get it
[Applause from the
[At the close of this
sermon, one of the World of Paul pilgrims, Leitha Meneget, read the
The sound of a holy hush descends on the bus for morning prayer.
Outside the bus window, olive trees dot green fields scattered with red
poppies swaying in the sun.
The poppies follow us even inside ancient ruins. At Ephesus we pass
under stone arches where Paul walked to the marketplace to preach.
A few miles away we celebrate communion and do it again a second time
in Corinth. We feel the presence of all those who have gone before--
celebrating this same ritual in these same places.
Something special happens. Dan has brought his flock across the
world to see the site of his Paul conversion experience: a huge fallen
marble beam that dedicated the temple to ďThe World Conquer Caesar, the
Son of God, the God Augustus.Ē Danís tears make ours flow.
Ginny sweetly struts down the aisle of the bus as she models her 50th
wedding anniversary present, a new leather coat. Applause, whistles,
In such near memory our treasured child, Kelly, now grown to youthful
bloom, keeps us in tune with her ukulele and pure voice.
Tears flow . . . sometimes in awe:
We marvel-- a Catholic High Mass wedding upstairs, a Russian Orthodox
worship service downstairs, simultaneously taking place in the same
Our rich, full acappella Alleluia fills the domed chapel in the
ancient catacombs. Once again we feel the presence of those whoíve gone
before, singing this same sacred word in this same room. Surely the
Presence of the Lord is in this Place, we sing, as we exit each country.
Day after day weíve experienced over and over what St. Paul was up
against: emperor worship, oracles, idol worship, a world pre-occupied
with pagan rituals. Yet Paul with his rag-tag groupings of people
changed the course of history. His voice rings out: Gentile and Jew,
servant or free, woman or man, no more. Peace through Justice. The
Body of Christ, he calls the Church. Itís not something you attend.
Itís something in which you participate, he says.
We end our pilgrimage with this song. St. Paul, we learned to
love you, as we traveled on this journey.
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