In today’s gospel the term “good news” appears twice, once coming from Jesus’ lips. The “good news” of God was clearly integral to his call to his disciples. It was apparently so attractive that they dropped what they were doing immediately to follow him. It is, of course, a familiar term to anyone who counts themselves as a Christian, but I wonder about the extent to which we have any real idea of what it means. If someone were to ask you what the good news of your faith is, how confident would be your reply?
This morning I want to spend some time reflecting on its meaning, stressing straight away that the good news of God as revealed in Jesus is, just like God, bigger and more wonderful than we can ever imagine. But just as there are certain things it most definitely DOES NOT mean, there are things that we can say with some confidence it DOES mean and the one I want to focus on has a special relevance for today, this solemn Remembrance Day.
Let’s think for a moment about something else we are very used to saying as Christians and that is that Jesus is the Lord, he is the Lord Jesus Christ. Again it’s so familiar in usage that we tend not to think about it too much. It may therefore come as a surprise to learn that there was someone else in J’s day who was also referred to as the Lord. Indeed he was not just referred to as the Lord but also:
- Son of God
- God from God
- God incarnate
- Saviour of the world
What’s more, he was so named long before any of these titles were conferred by Christians on Jesus. That person was none other than the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus who reigned in Jesus’ time. Greeks and Romans, while believing in immortal Gods, also believed that exceptional human beings could be raised to divine status. But even among them Caesar Augustus was exceptional in Roman eyes thanks to his military prowess. Listen to the Roman poet Horace, clearly the Roman equivalent of our Poet Laureate wrote about him:
“Upon you, Caesar Augustus while still among us, we already bestow honours, set up altars to swear by in your name, and confess that nothing like you will arise after you or before you.”
So what is going on here? The simple fact is that the early Christians stole all these terms from the Romans and applied them to Jesus. It was the most outrageous, blatant act of cheek, the best example you will ever find of “cocking a snook”, of “pulling the tiger’s tale”.
Bear in mind here that to say, as Christians did, that Jesus was the Lord, not just their Lord, but the Lord of the whole world, this was nothing less than treason, and we all know what the Romans did to such people. So this was no bit of fun. To proclaim that Jesus was the Lord in 1st C Palestine was a lethally dangerous thing to do.
So why did they do it? Why not create their own terms for describing what Jesus meant to them after the Resurrection? Before I attempt an answer to that question I want to reflect on what this tells us about the Resurrection. As we know, there are different interpretations about what happened at the Resurrection. Was it a physical resurrection, the kind of thing you could have filmed with a video camera? Or was it an inner spiritual experience of those who were to become the first Christians? It is impossible to be sure, but what this act of cheek can leave us in no doubt about is that the Resurrection, whatever it was, was powerfully REAL for the first Christians. Why and how else would you take the risk of calling Jesus the Lord if you weren’t completely confident of it?
Back to my question: why didn’t they invent their own terms? The answer has something to do with what the Romans so valued about Caesar’s military prowess. It brought them peace and the Romans – like us – valued peace and security. BUT – and this is the key point – their peace and security was achieved by firstly, military defeat of their enemies, and secondly brutal repression of those they conquered – hence their predilection for things like mass crucifixions.
In Roman thinking, the whole point about religious worship was that, if you did it well enough and with sufficient devotion, you would get the gods on your side. You could then go to war in confidence and secure peace through military victory and repression. So now you may be beginning to see why the first Christians did what they did. All of Jesus’ teaching was focused on achieving peace through justice and non violence, not warfare.
He was, in other words, the polar opposite of Caesar Augustus and that’s why the first Christians appropriated all those grand titles from him and applied them to Jesus. The Resurrection had shown them that Caesar and his bully boys had feet of clay. It was an act of not just cheek but subversion: the real Lord of the universe ruled through love, forgiveness, compassion and justice.
This is good news, indeed it’s the best news possible but it’s all too easy to lose sight of in a world that is not short of Caesars and would be Caesars – Assad, Mugabe, Kim il Sung, ISIL. The list goes on.
Yet, in the midst of all this darkness, the light of the good news still shines in ordinary acts of every day goodness. As George Eliot wrote in the closing lines of Middlemarch:
“….that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Just look around you: the distressed child comforted by a loving if exhausted parent in the middle of the night; the old gentlemen helped with his heavy load of shopping; and the beggar not ignored or dismissed, but his humanity restored when engaged in conversation.
Jean Vanier, the Canadian philosopher and theologian put his faith into action by inviting two people with disabilities to live with him in his home and on that basis founded the world-wide wide l’Arche communities. These communities have done so much to enhance the status of vulnerable adults across the world. It is an extraordinary achievement but, as he stresses, a life lived in faith is not one of grandiose ambition, but one focused on the every day and the personal. Of this he says:
“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.”
The remarkable thing is that God works with us and through us, imperfect though we are – if we will but let him – to achieve his purposes, whatever they may be. Most of us are, as George Eliot understood, called to live faithfully a hidden life and we may well rest in unvisited tombs. Some, like Vanier, will be recognised for their efforts. A very few will, indeed, make the rich, the powerful and the tyrannical tremble at the exposure of their injustice,for this is assuredly, the world of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King every bit as much as it is the world of any modern day Caesar.
Which of us knows what God’s intentions are for us? But if we can but rest in the endless forgiveness of God and allow ourselves to focus on just doing ordinary things but with extraordinary love, then rest assured that the extraordinary will follow, whether or not we ever live to see it.
And that, I suggest to you, on this day when we remember those who have fallen in wars caused by human sin and vanity, is good news for us and good news for the world.