Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In May, as a part of my continuing education, my wife Janna and I visited the city of Rome. My summer sermon series in the Footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul is based on that visit. This morning we turn to Roman Forum and St. Paul’s Prison Epistles.
The Roman Forum or Forum Romanum was the center of daily life in ancient Rome, the site of public gatherings, trials, elections and gladiatorial combat. Markets and shops lined the narrow alleys and streets along the main plaza where temples and government buildings known as basilicas as well as the city’s grandest monuments stood. The teeming heart of ancient Rome has been called the most celebrated meeting place in the world, and in all history, and yet it is surprisingly small. The rectangular area is approximately 420 feet by 160 feet which is no larger than 5 acres. Located in the small valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, it was created by effectively draining the marshland in the 7th century BC and building on top of it. Today, however, it is a magnificent collection of ruins which English writer Charles Dickens described in 1845 as, “The most impressive, the most stately, the most solemn, grand, majestic, mournful sight, conceivable.”
If Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was its destruction. Rome’s decline had already begun in 330 AD when Emperor Constantine moved the administrative and ruling center of the empire East to Constantinople. Waves of Barbarians in the 400s left the city in tatters and the population diminished. When the Goths destroyed the aqueducts in 537 people moved from their ancient residential neighborhoods towards the river as the fountains, baths and sewers were no longer working. Monuments and temples were soon cannibalized for building materials and open, unused spaces were re-purposed—sometimes simply for rubbish and fill. By the 800s AD the Roman Forum was severely dilapidated and was finally finished off by an earthquake. It came to be known simply as the “Campo Vaccino” or the cow field.
The great Forum Romanum thus suffered the same fate as the conquering Roman generals of antiquity. In the closing scene of the World War II movie, Patton, the general narrates the story of parades through the ancient Forum. “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”
In the time of the Republic, it was the Senate who awarded the conquering generals the honor of a triumph, but with the slave whispering, “Memento homo,” Remember you are a man. Patton, however, was wont to say, to “All glory is fleeting” was from the time of the Empire, which was shortened from “Sic transit gloria mundi” Thus passes the glory of the world.
St. Paul would have understood both phrases, Memento homo, and Sic transit gloria mundi. “You are a man, and All glory is fleeting.” After all, Paul himself had received noble hospitality and been treated as a king, but he had also been persecuted, beaten and arrested multiple times. Even under his two year house arrest in Rome, he was limited in movement by his chains. Yet, from there he still penned some of his most liberating writings. Each focused on the Christian call to live a life worthy of worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And for the Apostle Paul, that honorable life is not a private matter best kept to yourself in a prison cell, but it was a life to be lived out in the public forum for all eyes to see.
For Christians in the Roman world, the apostle Paul served as the slave whispering into the ear of the community to be humble. Instead of encouraging believers to climb the proverbial ladder of success and power, which is always fleeting, Paul taught them to follow the example of Christ himself. Jesus did not consider his equality with God something to be exploited, but instead he took the form of a slave, and humbled himself by obeying God even to the point of death- even a death on the cross. To the Roman world, this was a shocking challenge. Paul was encouraging Jesus’ followers, even those in the emperor’s own household to deny themselves, yes, deny themselves of the very privilege they had as Roman citizens. Legally, they could not be crucified on a cross. Yet for his obedience, Christ was highly exalted and given a name above all names, Jesus, to whom every knee would bend and every tongue would confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The late Chuck Colson, who served in the Nixon Administration and founded Prison Fellowship, noted that in the first century, if you stood in the Roman Forum and cried out, “Jesus is God!” no one would be upset. But if you shouted, “Jesus is Lord!” you could start a riot. The Roman Empire did not persecute Christians because they believed in the deity of Christ, nor that Jesus was the promised Messiah, nor that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. These were not the “religious beliefs” that threatened the Empire. But when Christians declared, “Jesus Christ is our Lord above all other” that was a was a direct attack on the worship of the emperor, and the orderliness of the Empire.
It is just as true today when we live out our faith humbly in the public Forum of life offering our allegiance to God above all others. There will be voices in society shouting you down. They will disagree and belittle you. They will call you naïve, altruistic, simple and old fashioned. But as a follower of Jesus Christ, you are to proclaim an allegiance and a way of life that is different from that of this world. Yes, you may suffer along the way, and there will be challenges and trials and care for your neighbors and serve them with humility. Some who call themselves Christian, may scoff at you and instead believe that they can escape these trials out of privilege and entitlement. But my friends, we are called to be of the same mind as Christ.
You and I ultimately belong to another kingdom which will not pass away. The ruins of that kingdom will not be toppled over in an empty Forum Romanum. No, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So what word of warning do need to hear? “Memento homo. Sic transit gloria mundi. You are a man. All glory is fleeting.” Or perhaps, the word that you need to hear is this, “Jesus Christ is Lord and your allegiance belongs to him.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.