Scripture: Romans 1:1–17
DeWitt Clinton…Rufus King…Horatio Seymour…Winfield S. Hancock…Alton B. Parker… Wendell L. Willkie? Do you recognize any of these names? This prestigious list is made up of US presidential candidates…who lost. None of them immortalized on our money. No statues in the halls of Washington.
We love a winner. People talk about lovable losers, but they don’t really show up to cheer them on until they start to win. Would the Rocky movies be so popular if he got beat at the end of every movie? Do we proudly wear T-shirts that say “Kansas City Royals: AL Central Fifth Place Team 2022”? Our political system is based on the tyranny of the majority: the one who gets 51% of the vote (or technically 270 electoral votes) gets all the power and the loser goes home to be forgotten. You would recognize a few names on the full list of those who lost presidential elections, but mostly because they eventually won political office. Nobody loves a loser.
We internalize that message, and so we live our lives desperately wanting to win. Every year, in the cities where a sports team is a runner-up, there are acts of violence and grief and destruction in the streets. On a much grander scale, historians suggest that part of the reason that German citizens were willing to perpetrate such horrendous atrocities in World War II was a deep feeling of embarrassment that their national pride was destroyed after they were defeated in World War I. And much more recently, we have just seen played out on our screens on January 6, 2021, the result of those who simply could not believe the indisputable fact that their candidate had lost, and it led them to violence, insurrection, and a failed attempt to overthrow their own government. Nobody loves a loser.
Jesus was a loser.
Take a minute and examine the emotions that well up when you hear those words. Plain and simple, Jesus lost. Jesus rose to popularity on the promise of power and triumph, but quite bluntly, he lost to those who were more successful and delivered on their promise of power and triumph. The religious leaders won. The Roman Imperial power won. Jesus lost. Those two groups partnered to kill Jesus without blinking an eye. In the starkest terms, Jesus was a loser.
After his death, miles away from Jerusalem, in the heart of political power that was the city of Rome, there was absolutely no interest in following a person who lost. You see, Rome was a city for winners. In 146 BC, Roman armies defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Corinth, beginning an era of rule by Rome that would last hundreds of years. Soon after that military victory, Julius Caesar had consolidated that military and political power into what became known as the Empire of Rome. For five hundred years, that Empire grew to overtake the civilizations that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, including the relatively tiny nation of those who worshipped Yahweh, in their Temple in their capital in Jerusalem. Rome had no consideration for such a tiny faith and a tiny nation. Throughout this vast Empire, the most influential faith practice was an assimilation of the stories of the Greek gods, specifically in ways that supported Roman political power. N.T. Wright writes that the most popular and fastest growing religious faith was an imperial cult of Caesar-worshippers, a kind of nationalism that married religious practice with worship of those who won in the political arena. Then, just like now, we love those who win, and there is a triumphalism that is often interwoven with our faith. In that context, to be blunt, Jesus was a loser that didn’t deserve a second look.
It was in this context that a man named Paul wrote a letter to a relatively tiny collection of Jesus-followers, living in a city of over a million people. The vast majority of people living in Rome never paid much attention to any of the Jewish people living there, including to the even smaller subset of Jewish people who followed the Jewish man named Jesus. They simply would have no reason to pay attention to some random political dissident who a couple of decades earlier had been quickly dispatched by local religious officials, and was summarily killed by crucifixion. Nobody loved a loser, especially not a loser pretending to be king.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel!” These words by Paul are so arresting, precisely because he should be! Remember, this was a context when shame and honor meant the difference between life and death. On one side of Paul and his readers were Messiah-seekers looking for a winner king to bring back the good old days of King David and his winning ways, ready to kill those who threatened that agenda. On the other side were those worshipping a winning king in Caesar, ready to kill those who wouldn’t bow down to the power of the Empire. Despite every reason to say the opposite, some of the first words of Paul are profound: “I am not ashamed.”
I want to take a deeper look today at why Paul might have insisted that the Romans not feel shame. To do so, I invite us “pre-institutionalize” Paul’s words. Before the 2,000-year institution of the Church, what would his words have meant? We tend to read back into Paul what his words mean in our context, instead of the other way around. But while it is impossible to do this completely, I think it is worth the attempt to ask “what might Paul have meant when he wrote these words to a handful of minority voices living under the threat of majority power?”
In so doing, I wonder if there is something valuable to us, as we continue to live in what is increasingly a “post-institutional Church.” There are Christians today who lament the fact that the Church doesn’t tell the culture what to do anymore: schools aren’t teaching children how to pray, or kids’ soccer leagues aren’t avoiding Sunday morning games. Many of those Christians lament that lost cultural power and try to figure out how we can get it back. But I would argue that as the culture changes around us, we have more and more in common with the pre-institutional Church. So perhaps an attempt to hear Paul’s words in a pre-institutional way makes sense. So, let’s take a handful of Paul’s key concepts and unpack them a bit for our radically-shifting post-institutional Church.
Resurrection. This is the first word for Paul. And the last word. And just about every other word throughout his letters. For Paul, the Resurrection was everything. This is how Jesus moves from being a loser to the eternal winner. In Paul’s mind, if Jesus died at the hands of the Romans and Temple authorities, and that was the end of the story, he would not be worth worshipping. But the Risen Jesus, the Resurrected Jesus, is a king absolutely worth worshipping! It was a shift in definition. Most of the world defined Jesus by his death: an embarrassing and violent death of crucifixion. But for Paul, Jesus was to be defined not by his crucifixion, but by his resurrection! His argument was that they couldn’t trust their eyes; even though the immediate surroundings suggested that they should be ashamed that they worshipped a loser king, the true reality was the complete opposite. There was something bigger going on. The Risen King had triumphed over death itself, and he alone was worthy to be worshipped! Not some Caesar sitting on a throne. It’s an important reminder for us today, too. Just like those first followers, we must be identified by life and not death. When it looks like we should be ashamed of a Church that isn’t as big as it once was, or doesn’t hold the cultural sway that it once did, don’t trust your eyes. There is something bigger going on here. We worship a Risen Jesus who has triumphed over the power of death, and is at work bringing hope and healing to the world. Despite what your eyes tell you, the One that the world sees as a loser is actually the opposite: a risen king!
Which brings us to our second word: Christ. Again, we can’t read this word through our context, but have to listen to Paul’s. We usually use “Christ” like it’s Jesus’ last name. The two words are synonyms. But they weren’t to Paul. In his context, they would have carried with it a radical sense of political power that would definitely not have immediately been associated with some unknown and crucified Jewish prophet. For Paul to proclaim that Jesus was Christ meant he was messing with the political assumptions of the day. On one side, it was a direct affront to the Messiah-seekers who had already moved onto the next possibility. On the other, a direct affront to those who worshipped in the Empire cult. Calling Jesus “Christ” was a radical political move, and one that got Paul in trouble over and over and over again.
And maybe it should be getting us in some good trouble, too. In the same way, our insistence on the Lordship of Jesus, the Christ-ness of Jesus, means that we have to summarily reject the power and political structures of our day. The nationalistic Empire cult of our day. The values of violence and destruction that seek to overwhelm in our day. Our use of the word “Christ” should be an act of “poking the bear” of political power, of dismantling its authority in our hearts. Instead of lamenting the fact that we don’t get to sit in the seat of power and privilege and position anymore, maybe it is time to stop whining about it, and use our sidelined status to our benefit. Use our outsider status for all it’s worth! Paul knew that Roman Christians would need to stand over and against the status quo in their world. Maybe it’s time for us to do the same!
Which moves us to our third and final word: Gospel. Again, think about this word in post-institutional terms. Paul didn’t mean a book about Jesus, like the Gospel of Mark or Matthew or Luke or John; those wouldn’t even be written for a decade or more. And he didn’t mean “Gospel” in the sense of a packaged and institutionalized version of the faith; that didn’t exist yet, either. Paul used it in the literal sense of the word, as a message of good news. There was this tradition of a herald coming around and telling people that there was something to celebrate. It was kind of like how we would use a party invitation. Dave’s turning 90! Come eat tacos! Ella’s graduating from high school! Come to the party! It was an invitation to sharing in some kind of good news. So for Paul, “Gospel” meant an invitation to all kinds of people. Jews. Greeks. Wise. Foolish. Barbarians. And when the barbarians get an invitation to the party, look out! Everyone gets an invitation to this celebratory joy of good news.
It’s the same for us today. “Gospel” is for us an invitation to live in an abundant and joyful and hopeful way. It’s not unlike the relational evangelism that we talked about last week. In fact, the word translated as “Gospel” in Romans is the Greek word evangelion, from which we get our word “evangelism.” Paul invited the Roman Christians, whatever station of life they came from, to live out this infectious joy. We are invited to do the same.
Nobody loves a loser, right? Well, the short-sighted and small ways that the world defines winning and losing means that a lot of us feel like Rufus King or Horatio Seymour. We feel forgotten. Left out. Probably more often than we would like to admit. But the faithfulness of God reminds us that whenever we feel like a loser, we can remember that there was one who lost on our behalf. Lost according to the rules of this world, to show how insignificant those rules are! When we trust in that faithfulness, we are proclaiming the power of Resurrection. When we trust that faithfulness, we participate in the radical upheaval of Christ. When we trust that faithfulness, we encounter the joy of Gospel. Nobody loves a loser. Except God did. And God still does.
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