The Way of Jesus Has a Whole Different Set of Priorities

At Christmas time, we sing a lot about something we’ve never experienced – peace on earth and good will among “men,” as the old lyrics go – which, come to think of it, is probably more accurate than not. After all, women have been in charge how much in our history? Right. Never. So peace on earth and good will among men – might as well be waiting for Santa to somehow find his way into your house from your actual chimney.

Have you all seen the movie, Scrooged? It’s an ‘80’s update on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Bill Murray living out the Scrooge experience in his character’s role of Frank Cross, tv executive. Frank Cross explained his thoughts on the meaning of Christmas to his brother, James, in these words; “It’s a crock, James. It’s for kids.” Believing in Christmas spirit, believing in the brotherhood of man is like believing in the tooth fairy, as far as Frank Cross is concerned. Then, of course, dear, dear Frank meets the tooth fairy in her guise as the Ghost of Christmas Present – as played by Carol Kane. Nothing like a good swift kick to get a guy’s attention, unless it’s that toaster to the jaw. Peace on earth. Good will toward men. A fantasy. Or two, if we’re counting. Carol makes sure Bill is listening.

I’d love to change the world myself. We all have our fantasies.

Back in real life, theologians have come up with different terms to express the way we actually operate. If I say, “Just War Theory,” do you know what I’m talking about? Briefly, it goes like this: You are good and innocent and minding your own business. Nothing you or your country does should seem in any way threatening or provocative to anyone who lives in another country. But, for no apparent reason, your country is attacked. You are fully within your rights to fight back. In fact, it would be irresponsible if your country did NOT counterattack. It’s war, all right, but it’s all right because you are waging a “just” war. Your only desire is to re-establish the peace that prevailed before your country was so unjustly attacked. No, you are not simply defending yourself. Your goal is to destroy your enemy’s capacity to ever repeat an attack on your country or anyone else’s. It is the only right thing to do. Yes, many more of your people will be wounded or killed before this is over, but that will be the price you have to pay to forever eliminate the threat and the destruction and the death your country experienced in the attack. Good guys and bad guys. No shades of gray, no seeing things from the perspective of the enemy. No negotiated give-some-to-get-some settlement. You win or your civilization perishes. Your cause is just and any just God would agree and back you. God is on your side. Of course, that’s the line both sides give to their people. The negotiations to end the War to End All Wars – now known as World War I – were going on in Versailles at this time one hundred years ago. The War to End All Wars. Well, we know how that worked out. The Great War morphed quickly into being called World War I because World War II followed so quickly on its heels. And war after war after war ever since. But surely they were all just and God was surely on our side every time. Which is what the other side always tells their people.

Luke has some thoughts on how to get around this situation.

Martin Smith points out that, whereas in Matthew and Mark, God’s spirit coming down like a dove on Jesus at his baptism, Luke puts this in concrete terms. It is, in fact, an actual dove, which descends upon Jesus at this moment of his commitment. So what? you may ask.

Here’s what. Every Roman emperor from the time of Augustus – long before Jesus’ time – every one claimed that an eagle appeared as he sought to consolidate his power. The appearance of an eagle signaled to the Roman mind that the gods approved of this man’s leadership. The gods were on his side. It’s – interesting, at this point – to consider how much of our current culture is still connected to the Roman Empire. What, for example, is our own national symbol? The dollar sign? No. The eagle.

When the President is sworn into office, what is the name of that ceremony? Inauguration. Its root is the Latin word augur. An augur was a state official. If an Emperor was in doubt about what course of action to take, he’d call in the augur. The augur would observe the pattern of a bird’s flight, then tell the Emperor what this meant. War or peace? New taxes or no new taxes? Or, when there was a change at the top, the people would know who should be the next Emperor, because the augur would see the eagle fly over the man the gods favored. So the augur’s role was very important. He’d tell people what the gods favored – or who the gods wanted to rule over them.

Do we take the gods that seriously today? Do we have augurs? Well, in a sense, we sure do. We have people kind of like that today. Their job is to make economic forecasts, which the government supposedly uses as guidance in determining the budget. I think of Alan Greenspan, who was known in his time as head of the Federal Reserve for uttering economic forecasts that could have come right from a Delphic Oracle. Here’s an actual quote from Greenspan: “I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I said.” Do we have a chair of the Fed this week? Whoever it is, that person is our augur. He watches the stock market and tells us by the pattern of its flight – up or down? Straight ahead or back-tracking? He tells us what the future probably holds for our economy and for our country. Presidents listen to their augurs now just as Roman Emperors listened in their own time.

Well, in Roman times, the augur’s job was a little more poetic. Rather than consult the ups and downs of the stock market for signs of what was to come, augur’s paid attention to birds. If a crow appeared, it meant one thing. If an eagle appeared, now THAT was saying something. Its pattern of flight, to the augur’s expert eye, indicated the way the future would unfold. Depending on which bird appeared when and how it flew – straight line, erratic – however - the prospective leader made his decision, made his power grab. The augur might proclaim that, yes, the gods favored Antony over Cassius, for example because an eagle appeared over Antony’s head and it flew strong and straight. But if other birds showed up, it was thumbs down on your bid to be the next Emperor. By the way, where do we get our word “inauguration?’ From “augur.” We inaugurate the one whom we believe has the best omens for running our economy and our wars.

Remember the old Victor Mature movie, The Robe? Or ever read the book? It’s the story of a Roman centurion who, in a dice game, wins the robe taken from Jesus at his crucifixion. His slave Demetrius becomes a Christian, but the centurion himself is a cynical drunk. So what if his slave wants to be a Christian? Who takes the gods – any gods – seriously? Well, Demetrius does. And when he becomes a Christian, his days of killing for sport as a gladiator are over. In a kill or be killed world, does the pacifism of Demetrius make sense?

That story is a fair representation of the early church. Christians refused to serve in the Roman legions. Early Christians refused military service. They refused to kill. Maybe you can’t control what the enemy believes, but you can certainly control what you do as a result of your own beliefs. So Christians chose between the way of the Roman Empire and the way of the Kingdom of God. Ever wonder why Christianity was illegal in Rome for the first couple of centuries? The Emperors were not the most understanding sort. Religion was not some private affair and Christians were not seen as just another religion; they were seen as a threat to national security. You can’t run an empire when all your men become pacifists. Stamping out this Christian nonsense made all the sense in the world to one Roman Emperor after another. Eventually, something had to give. It wasn’t the Empire, but Christians who decided that, well, maybe there really is such a thing as a just war that Christians should – in all faith, in all good conscience – support and fight in. Hence, Sergeant York and the War to End All Wars.

Most of us know that, just as triumphant Roman generals would ride magnificent white steeds at the head of victory parades, Jesus would ride a donkey into Jerusalem. This was high political mockery. Jesus was having his fun with the way Roman generals loved to display their power. He was mocking the Roman way. Well, it started at his baptism. What bird showed up at the baptism of Jesus – at his inauguration as head of a new religion? Was it an eagle? Luke says it was a dove. The spirit came down upon Jesus, not like a dove, as Matthew tells the story, but in the form of a dove. A real dove flew overhead at the baptism of Jesus, as Luke tells it. What was Luke’s message? To Luke’s first readers, this was like writing it in neon. If an eagle would symbolize the approval of Rome’s militaristic panoply of gods, so the appearance of a dove was all about sending a message. The dove universally symbolized tenderness and vulnerability and innocence. Luke’s message that it was a dove that appeared at Jesus’ baptism signaled that baptism in his name was not about coercive power and a right to use military might. The dove eloquently shifted the focus from the right to use force to maintain power and privilege to the commitment to live in vulnerable union with the god of love. Early Christians declined to serve in the military of the Roman Empire. They burned as martyrs to light the Appian Way rather than deny their faith by accepting the use of force as a just way to resolve anything. The general and the emperors can have their power. The way of Jesus has a whole different set of priorities. The risks are to come from reaching out to others, not from building walls against others. Luke’s audience would have seen the meaning of the dove’s presence as a mockery of Roman might. We sing of peace on earth and good will among men every year. But the fact that we in our time and place have chosen the eagle over the dove as a national symbol says all anyone needs to know about where our real commitment lies. Peace on earth. Good will. Are these mere fantasies? Or is God waiting for us to take our faith as seriously as we like to think we do?