Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is said that all roads lead to Rome, which means a little humor has travelled on those roads to the Eternal City as well. So while Janna and I were in Rome, I wrote down these few examples of Roman humor. What do you call a Roman with a cold? Julius Sneezer. Why don’t they sell GPSs in Italy? Because all the roads lead to Rome. What cut the Roman Empire in half? A pair of Caesars. What did the Roman say when his wife was eaten by a lion? Gladiator.
Today, many Protestants, including most Lutherans, do not believe that any road needs lead to Rome. We follow instead Luther’s own example. In 1510 Martin Luther made a fateful trip to Rome to represent his Augustinian monastery in a legal dispute. After a long and difficult journey, walking the entire way of 700 miles by foot, Luther was in awe of the city’s splendor, crying out “Be greeted, thou holy Rome, truly holy because of the holy martyrs, dripping with their blood.” He would, however, soon grow distressed at the state of the city’s religious life.
Luther immersed himself in the holy sights of Rome, but he became increasingly disenchanted. He wondered if these objects really were that important. He observed greed and hedonism… and very little true spirituality. It seemed that each spiritual favor came with a price. Corrupt monks and clergy were abusing both their powers and the trust of their parishioners. And Luther bristled at the pope’s lavish lifestyle and vanity projects funded by the sale of indulgences. Reportedly, as he climbed the steps on his knees at St. John Lateran known as the Santa Scala, or Holy Steps, believed to be the steps Jesus himself ascended to speak to Pontius Pilate, he stopped on each step saying the Lord’s Prayer in order to free his own grandfather from purgatory. Reaching the top, Luther stood up and thought, “Who knows if this is actually true?”
Regretfully that is how many Protestants look upon Rome today, myself included. They recognize the cultural, artistic and architectural importance of Rome, but they completely dismiss its historical role in defining the church. Rome is a holy land, like Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Greece. Jesus may not have walked there, but his holy followers did. St. Peter and St. Paul lived there, taught there, were imprisoned there and died there. They were followed by countless martyrs. St. Paul wrote his powerful and commanding Letter to the Church in Rome and, he penned several of his letters from his prison cell there. Mind you, not all the stories of the early church are recorded in Bible. Some are recorded in other apocryphal writings, and some have been passed on through tradition. If you want to learn about the early Church, you need to be open to all these sources, and that is what I would like to share with you in this summer sermon series. Today, we begin with the imperial roadways and Christ’s great commission, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The disciples were certainly not thinking about Rome when Jesus greeted them after his resurrection on that wind swept mountain in Galilee. Rome was 1400 miles away. All roads might lead to Rome, but the length of the journey depended on the time of the year. In the sailing season, it was a journey of 2-3 weeks, but in the winter months, the overland journey could take up to two months.
Oddly, it was the Roman roads that made the Great Commission of proclaiming the good news and making disciples possible. The apostles may not have known the significance of the roads, but the Holy Spirit did. The network of roads made long-distance travel fairly safe and easy- even for travelers from the remote provinces of the Empire. The people who lived under Roman rule along the way spoke a common language for travel and business. It was Latin or Greek. This made it easier for the apostles to share their ideas and Jesus’ teaching. Another reason for the spread of Christianity was that it appealed to the masses – especially to the poor, the slaves and the disenfranchised. Christianity promised a life after death and more importantly a better life after death. It gave people hope, something that the Roman religious practices could never do. Christians taught that people’s sins could be forgiven, and they could enjoy a new life now. There was also an amazing sense of Christian community, where members of the early church took care of the needs of their members. Roman was a hugely hierarchical society. There was the divine Emperor, the Senate, the aristocrats, the military, the traders, the laborers and ant the slave. They each played a part in Roman society, and they knew their place. Christianity was revolutionary. Followers were taught to treat their neighbors as brothers and sisters as equals. Most importantly, Christians spoke of a God who was loving, forgiving and encouraging and who had walked the road of tragedy before them. And was present even in their suffering.
This new Christian faith was a powerful movement, but it also met many roadblocks. Proclaiming this message of Jesus Christ in the Roman Empire was a dangerous venture. Faith may have been significant, but religion was very important. And by religion, I mean correct, political, civil practice. Romans thought of themselves as a highly religious society and attributed their success as a world power to their collective piety in maintaining good relations with the gods and honoring multiple deities. Their religion was practical and contractual, based on the principle of do ut des, “I give that you might give” Roman religion depended not on faith or dogma, but on the correct practice of prayer, ritual, and sacrifice. And that was the challenge for Christians. They were taught instead that Christ had been offered as a sacrifice once and for all. There was no need for any further sacrifices- certainly not to the emperor. Jesus had brought peace with God. That was the teaching that turned the Roman crowds instantly against them. The Christians simply weren’t participating in the religious rituals that were good for the nation.
Surprisingly, many Christians today face the same challenges as the early disciples did in the time of the Roman Empire. For much of our world it is easier to be religious and to embrace the rules of the society than to be faithful. It is easier to follow the crowd than to be a unique voice of hope and forgiveness. Yes, it is mightier to criticize those who embrace a different ethos and philosophy and tell them to fit in, than to live faithfully as God would have us live. We are no different than the citizens of Rome who found it expedient to be political and ideological rather than faithful and righteous. Alarmingly, many of our own churches are not filled with people who consider themselves disciples, or followers of Jesus at all, but rather they regard themselves as protectors and defenders of the right rituals
My friends, that is why the city of Rome should not be overlooked by Christians today- especially by Lutherans who are afraid of repeating Martin Luther’s misadventures in the Eternal City. The apostles, however, knew the potential of the roads that lead to Rome and the power and authority of their call. Within 10 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostles had gone forth baptizing and teaching and making disciples from many nations and attracting enthusiasts for “the Church” from Jerusalem to Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Cyprus, Crete, Alexandria and, from the Imperial City. The early church in Rome itself became a model where Jews and Gentiles alike gathered together, often secretly, and where both Peter and Paul felt it was important to visit.
That is the beginning of our summer journey in the footsteps of St. Peter and St. Paul. For indeed, all roads do lead to Rome. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.