Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Golden Age of the Roman Empire known as the Pax Romana has captured the imaginations of artists and musicians throughout the ages. Whether it is the musical grandeur the Respighi’s Pines of Rome portraying the legions marching forth along on the Apian Way, or the visual spectacle of Charleston Heston’s Ben-Hur or Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus, audiences are taken by the power and authority of Ancient Rome army. Sometimes people are even enchanted by the humor of Roman soldiers. Perhaps, you’ve heard, “A Centurion walked into a bar and said, “I’ll have a martinus.” To which the bartender replied, “Don’t you mean a martini?” The Centurion responded, “If I wanted a double I’d have asked for it!” Or there was the legionnaire who walked into a Bar, held up two fingers, and said, “I’ll have five beers, please.”
For roughly 200-years, from the ascension of Emperor Augustus in 27 BC to the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, peace dominated the Roman world. It was known as the Pax Romana. Steady improvements were made in technology in building aqueducts, bridges and roads across the Roman empire. Prosperity increased through trade. Rome’s regional expansion had been solidified, and its inhabitants enjoyed relative peace. And at the heart of Empire’s rule and power was its great army. There were 25 legions spread across Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle-East, accounting for nearly 250,000 men who were prepared to defend the Empire.
On the top of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, where the Temple of Jupiter once stood in ancient times, rises one of the last vestiges of the Pax Romana – a nearly 14 foot high bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius riding a horse. It is the oldest equestrian statue in the world and has served for centuries as an inspiring example of what a leader riding a horse should look like. Marcus Aurelius has his hand raised in salutation as was common practice by the emperors speaking to the armies or legions. In 1538, as the city of Rome was preparing for the visit of the Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, Pope Paul III commissioned the artist Michelangelo to reposition the historic square to look out towards St. Peter’s Basilica away from its historic vantage point over the ruins of the Roman Forum. Michelangelo was also to place the statue of Marcus Aurelius in the center of the square. It was all to create a visual perspective on the church’s power and authority that would impress Charles V.
By the standards of his time, Emperor Marcus Aurelius was a lenient and humanitarian ruler, but still he regarded the Christians as enemies of the state. So it might be surprising that the statue of the Emperor even exists or that a pope would order the placement of a pagan emperor at the heart of the city. After all the Romans were practical. They purposefully created statues with detachable heads. As the political winds shifted, and the emperors and generals changed, the heads on the statues were replaced just as quickly. It was beneficial in the year of 69 AD, the year of the four emperors. It was also customary to melt down the bronze statues of previous rulers to make way for the new. Indeed, in 313 AD, when Christianity became the preferred religion of the Roman Empire under the Edict of Milan, there were 20 bronze statues of former emperors. Only one would survive from classical times- and it was truly a matter of mistaken identity. Because the statue was located in a garden near the newly established basilica of St. John Lateran which was commissioned by Emperor Constantine, and since, the citizens of Rome didn’t know what their emperor actually looked like, they thought it was Constantine, the first Christian emperor. In fact, the statue was first documented in the 10th century and given the name “The Horse of Constantine.” Thus, the fabled Equestrian Statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius stood in the square outdoors until 1981, when after 1800 years a replica was recast and set in its place and the original was transferred inside into the Capitoline Museum atop the hill.
In spite of arrest and military transfer, St. Paul benefited from that golden age of the Pax Romana and the strength and influence of the Roman army. It was ultimately what allowed him to travel safely to Rome to plead his case before the Emperor and to write and preach in a protected place under house arrest for two years. And it all began by his relationship with the Centurion Julius whom he travelled with from Caesarea to Rome. Indeed, one of the most amazing circumstances reflected in the book of Acts is the manner in which Paul endeared himself to a variety of Roman officials. Almost without exception, these dignitaries came to respect Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, at the kind treatment Paul received in the imperial city. Rather than being housed as a common criminal, we read that the apostle was permitted to live in his own rented dwelling, though bound with a chain and in the company of a guard.
Of course, St. Paul could have easily given up and given in along the way, but instead we read in his Letter to the Philippians, that he rejoiced. He was able to see God’s hand spreading the gospel through him in spite of his chains. The religious leaders of the day did not seem to approach the Roman soldiers with the same level of humility or curiosity, as Paul did. Day after day as a new guard was assigned to Paul, and chained to him again and again, he could witness to the gospel anew. Yes, Paul rejoiced that regardless of his chains, Christ was being proclaimed. So Paul wrote, “What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.
The story of Paul and the Praetorian Guard should be just as surprising as the mistaken identity of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. After all, if you wanted a symbol of Roman power and strength you need look no further than the Praetorian Guard. They may have been tasked with protecting the Roman Emperor, and serving as his personal bodyguards and spies, but they were also the single greatest threat to his life. The Praetorian Guard was a major player in the webs of deceit that characterized imperial Rome, and they were willing to slaughter and install new emperors when tempted by promises of money or power. In 41 AD, disgruntled guards famously engineered the assassination of Emperor Caligula and the selection of Claudius as his successor.
I imagine, no man understood the irony of the gospel more than the Apostle Paul himself. Not so many years earlier, Christians across the Middle-East feared the name of Saul, and yet the gospel of Jesus Christ penetrated Paul’s stone-cold heart. One day on the road to Damascus, his rage-filled eyes were blinded and then enlightened to the truth, beauty, and joy of the gospel. That is exactly what happened time and again in the lives of the Imperial Guard.
Now, you may be wondering: So what is the lesson that we are to take away today from these stories of ancient Rome? First of all, I think the stories should remind us that there are strident opponents to the gospel even today. They may not be wearing the uniform of a highly trained, elite force. Instead, they may appear to be more indifferent to the church than violent. They write op-ed columns dismissing Christian values, or they discredit historical men and women by contextualizing and introducing their own contemporary mores. Or they choose to be as nonjudgmental and unfocused as possible by chasing after every new god and idea that comes their way and maligning any worshiping community that chooses to hold to a common confession. The problem is, and that is my second insight. Sometimes, we give in too easily to these voices and we begin to think that the gospel is not powerful enough to prevail? Paul’s witness is to embolden and encourage us to fight on.
It is interesting to see the ripple effect of Paul’s witness and the gospel’s inroad into the Praetorian Guard. In St. Paul’s same letter to the Philippians, he declares, “and most of the brothers in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much bolder to speak the word without fear.” The good news of Jesus spread throughout the Emperor’s House and Paul’s bold proclamation of the good news was contagious. These Christians were directly under the shadow of Nero, one of the cruelest of the emperors, yet, stirred on by Paul’s example, they were bold in sharing the gospel.
My friends, St. Paul’s experience with the Praetorian Guard should serve to give us hope and courage. The gospel of Jesus Christ prevails in the most unlikely of places. The challenge, however, is this: Do you believe the gospel is powerful enough to prevail and worth proclaiming? Or perhaps, you have decided that others do not need the gospel, or worse yet, that they do not deserve to hear the gospel? As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they believe in one whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim it?” The choice is yours. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.