I know everyone prefers the Holy Grail, but have you seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?
It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.
There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.
Reggie finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”
To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”
And Reggie has no answer.
Not only did the Romans bring the world sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order and peace (by the sword), they also brought to the world a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
Caesar not only knew how to dig a sewer, pitch an aqueduct, and make a killer salad, Caesar knew better than most of you the fundamental claim of Christianity.
Around 112, a Roman civil servant named Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia in what is modern Turkey, wrote a letter to the Caesar of his day, the Roman Emperor Trajan.
In the letter Pliny sought to offer explanation to Caesar for how he’d decided to deal with these strangers and dissidents he had encountered. These people called Christians.
Some of these Christians Pliny punished.
Some he tortured and executed.
Still others, those who were Roman citizens, like Paul, he transferred back to Rome.
But not every Christian kept the faith. Not a few offered to go cold turkey and give up the faith in the face of persecution. What about them?
What did Pliny do with them? What did Rome require of them?
You can tell how Rome understood the key conviction of Christianity from what Rome required as proof of its renunciation.
To prove to Caesar that you forsook your Christian faith the Empire required that you offer a sacrifice of meat and wine and incense- in other words, a sacrifice of worship- before a statue of the Emperor.
And while you did so, before the image of the Emperor, you needed to confess.
To profess: “Caesar is Lord.”
And notice, Pliny didn’t invite renunciants to confess ‘Caesar is Lord’ in private.
Pliny didn’t ask them to make a personal profession.
Pliny didn’t invite them to close their eyes, bow their heads, and raise their hands if they accepted the Lordship of Caesar in their hearts.
No, he required a public display of loyalty.
He insisted upon a public pledge.
What Rome required of Christians to renounce their faith points out exactly what Christians affirmed when they converted to it.
Pliny saw with cold clarity what many Christians today miss:
that loyalty and obedience to Jesus as sovereign Lord is not only the climax of what God has done in cross and resurrection, confessing Jesus Christ is Lord is also the fundamental claim of Christianity.
So it’s not just roads and sewers and salads Rome has brought us; it’s also a clear-eyed understanding:
The core of being a Christian is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord.
What Rome required for Christians to exit their faith is exactly what St. Paul says is required for Christians to enter it.
Two chapters later in his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “If you confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord…you will be saved” (10.9-10).
And the word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means, literally: “a public declaration of allegiance.”
Notice Paul doesn’t say If you confess that Jesus fulfills the promise to Abraham, then you will be saved. Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God in the flesh then you will be saved. Paul doesn’t say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins. He doesn’t say you need to confess Jesus as your Substitute. He doesn’t say you need to confess Jesus as Sacrifice, Savior, Son of Man, or Son of God.
Paul gives an altogether different kind of altar call.
When it comes to salvation, Paul focuses squarely on a single, specific confession: the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Because, that’s the chapter in the Gospel story we now occupy.
That’s the point in the Apostles Creed where we all live. The incarnation and the crucifixion, the resurrection and our reconciliation to God- those are all past perfect events.
But right now, present-tense, Jesus sits at the right hand of God and to him the Father has given dominion over the earth.
“If you confess…
“If you publicly pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord…then you will be saved” Paul says.
Rome helps us see that Christianity is about choosing.
Choosing between rival claims upon us.
If Pliny understood that to swear Caesar is Lord was to forswear Jesus as Lord, then the logic follows:
to repent and confess that Jesus is Lord was to reject and condemn other lords.
And Pliny points out, you cannot offer allegiance in a vacuum.
To be allegiant is always and at once to be against. Like we rehearse in baptism, affirmation is always a simultaneous renunciation. The very act of pledging allegiance presumes other powers contending and vying for your loyalty.
The word allegiance is unintelligible without an enemy.
No matter how you’re accustomed to hearing this crescendo in Romans 8, Paul’s not asking rhetorical questions. It’s more like a fill-in-the-blank. The Apostle Paul has already supplied you with the answers.
If God is for us, who is against us?
Come on, that’s not even a Tuesday crossword kind of question.
If God is for us, who is against us?
The Power of Sin, that’s who.
Sin with a capital S, an alien, enslaving Power, whose power, Paul has already told us, we are all under and from whom not one of us is able to free ourselves.
Who will bring any charge against us? Who is to condemn us?
Again, they’re not rhetorical questions. The answer is obvious to anyone who’s been listening to Paul.
The Law will bring charges against us. Or, if it’s easier to understand, instead of Law call it Scripture or Religion. Scripture will condemn us.
Religion, the Law, which, Paul has already told us, the Power of Sin has hijacked and now wields like a weapon against us, so that now the very gift God gave to make us righteous only indicts us, all of us- all for short- as unrighteousness, indicts us, even, as ungodly.
Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?
The answer, obvious to anyone who’s been following Paul’s argument thus far: Death.
Death will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Death with a capital D, a Power, Paul says, that from Adam onward advanced through all the world like an invading army.
Death with a capital D, a Power that Paul makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, both of which, Paul reveals at the end of his letter, refer to the Power of Satan, whom Paul calls at the end of his summary of the Gospel the Last Enemy.
“For Christ our Lord must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.” – 1 Corinthians 15
Who is against? Who will condemn us? Who will separate us?
They’re not rhetorical questions.
The very reason Paul testifies that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers in the world at work against us to do just that.
The Power of Sin. The Power of Death. The Law.
All of whom- pay attention now- Paul personifies as reigning monarchs, as exercising dominion, as lords.
The same word Paul uses when he says: “If you publicly pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ as kurios…then you will be saved” Paul says.
Pliny understood that to pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord was to be against another lord, that to accept Jesus’s Lordship was to reject another’s.
But Pliny did not understand what Paul saw.
Caesar, Rome- they’re manifestations of a bigger, more cosmic enemy contending against God to separate us- indeed all of creation- from God.
Here at the end of chapter 8, after Paul has been speaking of life in the Spirit and the freedom we have in Christ, after Paul has led you to believe all this talk of the Power of Sin and the Power of Death is behind you-
Here at the end of Romans chapter 8 Paul doubles back again.
But this time spins it out onto a wider horizon, naming the circumstances where the lords of Sin and Death manifest themselves in our world:
Paul asks ‘Can these separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?’ because Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War- they don’t just happen- they are the ways that the rival lords of Sin and Death work to do just that.
Separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Because it’s easy to look at Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War and become disillusioned.
It’s easy to look at unending war in Afghanistan and terror in Europe and another shooting- this time in Little Rock- the opiod epidemic, hunger in school kids not two miles from here, homelessness no further, the Washington Nationals Bullpen.
Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War-
They are the ‘statues of Caesar’ before whom a Power who is not God would us bow in allegiance.
Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War- they don’t just happen, Paul says- instead they are the ways that the rival lords of Sin and Death tempt us to break faith.
To break allegiance. To become loyal to them. On Thursday, I went with my good friend Brian Stolarz, a member here at Aldersgate, to the steps of the Supreme Court for a teach-in against the death penalty.
There I listened to Brian agains the story he’s told here of getting an innocent man, a mentally handicapped man, a black mentally handicapped man, it usually goes without saying, off of death row.
There was a crowd of exonerees gathered there in front of the Supreme Court with stories similar to Brian’s, stories of persecution and racism.
There was a petition passed around to stay the execution this coming week in Virginia of a mentally ill man.
It’s hard to go to an event like that, where the injustice seems rampant and the odds for change seem long indeed, and not feel disillusioned.
Not feel like you’ve pledged allegiance to the wrong Lord.
On Friday, Dennis and I went to Mt. Vernon Hospital to be with Karla Kincannon and her family as Karla’s Dad slowly died.
We talked and we prayed and we kept quiet as Chuck’s wife of 70 years whispered to him and caressed his cheeks and kissed his forehead.
And watching her cry it became obvious what a lie we tell when we call death ‘natural’ or when we try to label a funeral a ‘celebration of life.’
No, that’s a lie.
Paul’s right, Death is an enemy.
And it surrounds us such that it’s easy to lose heart.
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 33Who will bring any charge against us? It is God who rectifies. 34Who is to condemn? 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If you just stick this passage from Romans 8 onto a Hallmark card, if you just gild it with sentimentally at a memorial service, you completely miss Paul’s point.
As my New Testament teacher at Princeton, Dr. Beverly Gaventa, points out, these verses here in Romans 8 it’s trash-talk.
It’s Paul trash-talking the Powers. It’s Paul talking smack against the Power of Sin.
Paul widens the horizon to encompass all of creation and there Paul sees all the tragic circumstances in which we live. And he sees behind them not the work of enemies like Caesar or Trajan or Pliny but the Enemy. And against the Enemy, the Power of Sin and Death, Paul musters up as much confidence as he can for his Roman Church and he declares defiantly that God will have the last word.
It’s Paul encouraging allegiance to Christ the Lord in the face of rival lords who would lure away your loyalty.
Because, let’s face, it seems like they’re in charge.
It’s Paul shaking his fist at the Power of Sin and Death.
It’s Paul talking smack at Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War.
It’s Paul staring them all down, thumbing his nose, and giving them all the finger.
None of you- not Death, not Famine, not Racism, not War, not Poverty, not Addiction- has the power to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
“No power has the power like Christ’s power!” Paul says literally in the Greek.
Or, as we might say, you’re going down.
You see, if Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War and all the rest- if they’re the ways that Sin and Death seek to lure your loyalty away from Jesus the Lord-
Then that means that to give in to despair or disillusionment, to lose heart, is to give your allegiance to rival lords who have been working against you for that very outcome.
You pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ, therefore, not with your head looking up but with your eyes fixed straight ahead at the world as it really is.
And you pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ not with your hand over your heart but with your fist shaking at the sky and your middle finger sticking straight out.
Flipping off the Powers and trash-talking all the other lords who would pull you away from the love of God in Christ Jesus.