BY RORY COONEY DIRECTOR OF LITURGY AND MUSIC
About ten years ago, Terry and I went to hear biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan give a lecture at the Presbyterian Church of Barrington. He told us that in the first century there was a man known throughout the world as “son of God,” “light from light,” “prince of peace,” and, simply, “God.” Who was that person? He asks rhetorically, and then he tells us: Caesar Augustus. Crossan’s point is to remind us of a simple fact: in the Roman Empire, there was room for only one emperor, one king, one god, and that was Caesar. Anyone claiming that title, or announcing another kingdom, or laying claim to the loyalty of the emperor’s subjects, was an enemy of the empire, and the full force of Roman military might was brought against such a person. The gallows reserved for those who preached this infidelity, this sedition against the Pax Romana, was the cross.
The Roman Empire, like empires before and after it, offered a version of “peace” to civilization. That peace was based on military victory, upon force and threat of force. In exchange for the peace and protection of the legions, subject states were allowed a measure of civil and religious autonomy. Paying for the presence and readiness of those legions was not inexpensive, however, and tribute taxes were collected from every subject in every country to pay for the salaries and expenses of the occupation forces as well as to fill the imperial coffers in Rome. The Pax Romana worked pretty well for the Romans. Less so for the rest of the world.
This was the world into which Jesus was born. As we heard on the first Sunday of Lent, his message was that “the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Jesus’s proclamation offered an alternative to the empire of Caesar. The empire of God offers peace not through violence and coercion, but through equality and justice as revealed and mediated in the stories of the exodus, creation, and the Torah. The empire of God and the empire of Caesar are alternatives, not parallel courses. Either violence or justice. Either domination or equality. “No one can serve two masters.” One has to “repent,” that is, change one’s mind, or turn in the opposite direction, to move between the two worlds.
At the center of Mark’s narrative, Jesus asks the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer to Jesus, “You are the anointed,” sounded right, but wasn’t, which is why Jesus silences him. We know it is the wrong answer because Peter rebukes Jesus about the path of surrender he is about to take. Peter’s vision is of an anointed one like Caesar, an empire like the empires of this world. Jesus tells him, with words that reveal the temptation that he himself must have felt, that Peter is not going in the right direction. “Get behind me,” Jesus says. Follow me. God goes a different way.
The choice of the cross reveals to us the paschal mystery of God. The death and resurrection of the Messiah demonstrate that, just like the empire of God is not like those of this world, the God of Jesus is not like the gods of this world. Jesus revealed God to be as a beloved father. This is not a God who covets divinity, but pours self out in creation and incarnation, sharing the divine spirit with the universe. The raising of Jesus from the death inflicted upon him by the “god” Caesar reveals to us which of these powers is the stronger, so that in this life or any other, we “walk in the presence of God in the land of the living.”
Mark’s story of Jesus began with those enthralling words: Here begins the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The announcement of the arrival of the kingdom of justice and equality, the “good news” for the poor, is just the beginning. The choice of Jesus to be its prophet and vanguard and revelatory incarnation is just the beginning. The reaction of the empire against Jesus was the cross. The cross, too, is thus “the beginning of the gospel.” How the empire of God’s peace and equality and non-violence will grow is determined over and over again by the choice of us who are baptized into the sign of the cross. The empire of God asks the church in every age to answer the question: Who do you say that I am? With the apostle James (Jas. 2:15-18), we answer that question not with just words, but with lives lived in peace, mercy, and justice, whatever the political cost in a world still dominated by Caesar.