Around the time Paul wrote our epistle from today, Ephesians, the Roman Empire was abuzz with excitement over the new emperor who had taken office. He was full of energy, popular with the common people, eloquent and charming. Since they didn’t have Twitter or cable networks in those days, in case you had somehow missed the news, coins were issued with his image, showing him wearing a crown symbolizing his divinity. Statues of him went up in outlying towns, so that you would remember whose subject you were. I think I should tell you his name: It was Nero, who became one of the greatest persecutors of Christians.
So the government sent heralds from town to town announcing the good news of this new emperor. And let me assure you that, as the NT scholar NT Wright has written, “when the emperor came to power, the imperial heralds did not go around saying, ‘There is this new experience you might like to try on for size, namely, you might like to give allegiance to Caesar if that suits you and if that’s where you are right now in your own personal journey.’ No, they said, ‘Nero is emperor! Get down on your knees!’”
It is into that world, which is not really so different from our world, that Paul wrote his own good news, which boils down to: “Jesus is Lord! Get down on your knees!” Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day when we proclaim the universal rule of Jesus Christ over all nations, all principalities, all powers, all time and space, and every domain of human endeavor. When we make the great Christian confession: Jesus is Lord.
Jesus is Lord. This is a phrase we can use without anyone troubling us if we mean by it only something private and interior. Now everyone knows that the Roman empire eventually persecuted believers, but one of NT Wright’s interesting insights – I’m going to be borrowing from him a fair amount – one of his interesting insights is that this empire had no problem with believers who talked only about a personal interior experience with Jesus, something private and spiritual that gave them comfort and strength.
There were believers like that, just as there are now, people who had a sort of breakaway church. To oversimplify drastically, one big part of what this breakaway group believed was that what you did on the outside, in the public sphere, didn’t really matter. You could surround yourself with wasteful decadence, or wipe out the livelihoods of your fellow countrymen with crooked loans, or have promiscuous sex, or exploit people of a different race or religion -- none of that mattered as long as you had a private spirituality.
Well of course, this was perfectly fine with Nero and the empire. No threat to their agenda at all. No reason you can’t say “Jesus is Lord of my heart, but the system I live under is the practical lord of the real world and determines everything I actually do.” The Roman Empire could behave any way it wanted, crush anyone it wanted, and the privatistic believers wouldn’t care because it didn’t have any relevance to their personal spirituality.
So the Roman empire liked the breakaway Christians fine. But the traditional Christians – now that was a different matter. When traditional Christians said “Jesus is Lord,” they didn’t mean ‘There is this new experience you might like to try on for size, namely, you might like to give allegiance to Jesus if that suits you and if that’s where you are right now in your own personal journey.’ No, they meant, ‘Jesus is emperor! Get down on your knees!’”
And this was something very different. This was a claim that Jesus’ lordship was for every realm of life, not just for your private comfort and interior spirituality, and that it just might come into conflict with something Nero or Rome was doing. And those were the Christians who got thrown to the lions.
The empire had proclaimed: There is a new world order! Nero rules! But Paul proclaims in Ephesians today: There is a new world order! And it broke into your world of death the morning Jesus Christ rose from the grave. Paul writes: God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
For mainstream Christianity, Jesus’ resurrection is the first installment of a new reality that has a public, not just an private effect. Real physical public resurrection entails belief in a God who acts to put real, physical, public things to rights. And that’s why we have Matthew 25 as our Gospel this morning, one of the Bible’s best known passages about serving the hungry and visiting the sick and making a real, physical, public difference in this age and in the age to come. In Matthew 25, we hear Jesus commending those who have already been living publicly Christian lives in the midst of the empire, for, he says, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
If Christ is King – if Jesus is risen from the dead and bringing his Kingdom into being, we cannot but do what those people in Matthew 25 were doing, act in the world as agents of that Kingdom. We cannot but love. We cannot but serve. And we cannot but do it, not in private but in public, in the real world, the world where Christ rose from the dead and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, in this age and in the age to come. Amen.