by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod was Tetrarch of Galilee; Philip, his brother, was Tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was Tetrarch of Abilene.” — Luke 3:1.
I hope it will not come as a surprise to you if I say I study Scripture. Aside from the fact that I am a pastor, why study Scripture? After all, being a pastor does not qualify me and me alone to study Scripture. It’s something we can, all of us and each of us, do.
In fact, one of our Pilgrim ancestors, John Robinson, said this just before leaving Europe: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of the holy Word.” That’s the short version as to why one should study Scripture— seeking light, seeking truth— these are there and yet to break forth.
Back to the thought that I might study Scripture and, more to the point, as I studied this week, I was looking at the specific verse I recited. This is precisely the place from where light and truth seemed to break forth for me. So let me explain that.
I need to start by saying chapters and verses are inventions of the 13th and 16th Century, respectively and are not a part of the original manuscript. Still, the text has a specific structure. There clearly are sections to the story.
And, as was indicated when this reading was introduced, the overall story seems to restart at this point. That restart is more obvious and pronounced than we might think.
You see, in the first verses of the first chapter of this Gospel we find an erudite introduction. It copies the form of great classical Greek and Latin writers. Further, the work is addressed to one Theophilus, clearly a Roman of high station.
Once the introduction is out of the way, the story begins. But to whom and how this work is written is pivotal when one recognizes how the next two sections start.
You are, unquestionably, familiar with the first words of the second section. (Quote:) “In those days the Emperor Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the Roman world.” This is not just a clear reference to Rome. This states a time, a place within the context of Rome.
Then we get the opening words of this section, the words we just heard. Yet again, this is a clear reference to Rome, a statement of a time, place within the context of Rome.
So, what’s significant about that? What is the import of citing Rome at the start of the first three sections in this work? (Slight pause.) If nothing else is clear to you about the New Testament, this should be: from beginning to end, from the Letters of Paul, the earliest writing in the New Testament, to the Gospels, to the later writings, Christian Scripture is an indictment of the Roman Empire.
Hence, that these first sections, all three of them, start with references to Rome is not happenstance and should not be a surprise. It also needs to be said, if the reader knows nothing about the Roman Empire, then it’s not easy to understand some of the issues being engaged in this text.
Let me illustrate that with one fact many gloss over when reading the New Testament. The Army of Rome occupies the land of the Jews. The Romans set up Herod, a Jew, as a puppet ruler.
They needed only a small garrison of soldiers in this place in part because they maintained order by killing people, by crucifying people. Jesus is, unquestionably, crucified. Jesus is crucified not by the Jews but by the Roman Empire.
But we also need to recognize Jesus is just one of probably ten thousand Jews the Roman Empire crucifies in the land of the Jews each and every year in an effort to terrorize. Instilling fear and committing acts of violence is a modus operandi, a method of operation, an institutional way of doing business for the Roman Empire.
Here is an unfortunate truth. Fear and violence are a modus operandi of any empire. Fear and violence are an institutional way of doing business which extends from the Romans to each and every empire throughout the ages to this very day.
And let us not think, even for a minute, that we fail to have empires today. Further, for we humans, fear and violence seems to be a way we organize ourselves, especially when that organization is matched with the self-aggrandizing thirst for power and domination associated with empire. To be clear: empires always practice violence, all kinds of violence— economic violence, social violence, structural violence, physical violence— there are all kinds and shapes of fear and violence practiced and empires are outstanding practitioners.
Which is also to say, when we look at Scripture, when we study Scripture, one aspect we need to examine is not just the fact that Scripture condemns fear and violence. Scripture is especially vocal in its condemnation of the fear and the violence associated with empire— any empire. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in Luke/Acts in the section commonly referred to as Luke: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod was Tetrarch of Galilee; Philip, his brother, was Tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was Tetrarch of Abilene.” (Slight pause.)
To this day all over what was the Roman Empire there are inscriptions on ancient public buildings with these words: “Peace through victory.” Those words represent and display the theology of the Roman Empire.
Make no mistake about it. What a theology of ‘peace through victory,’ means is this: if we crush the spirit of those we encounter with fear and subjugate them with violence we will attain the peace we want. The peace we want is safety for us and only for us. Others do not count. (Slight pause.)
The choice offered by Scripture seems clear. It asks the question ‘are we to buy into the reign of empire, a reign of terror maintained through fear and through violence or are we to heed and to seek the reign of God?’ Given that analysis it is, you see, hard to not view the entire New Testament as a challenge to the reign of terror, the reign of fear, the reign of violence imposed by empire.
Why did that reign of terror, that reign of fear, that reign of violence exist in the empire? It seems to me we humans are both addicted to violence— economic violence, social violence, structural violence, physical violence and we strive to perpetrate on each other and the world in which we live economic violence, social violence, structural violence, physical violence.
If you’ve been reading the headlines in the last couple of weeks, you know that. If you’ve been paying attention to what Scripture says, if you study Scripture— the Bible which was written between three thousand and two thousand years ago— you know that also.
And if you pay attention to the reign of God rather than the reign of empire you understand that to use fear or violence is never an appropriate response to the world. (Slight pause.) So, what tools might that give the people of God? (Slight pause.) People who strive to adhere to the reign of God attempt to use compassion, attempt to use judgment, attempt to seek hope, attempt to pursue joy, attempt to embrace love and attempt to work for peace— true peace— the peace of God. (Slight pause.)
This is the day on which the church, in its wisdom and in its tradition, celebrates the peace of God. That begs the question: what is the peace of God? Certainly the peace of God is not about empire. But is the peace of God the absence of violence? (Slight pause.)
The promise we hear in Scripture is that the peace of God is with us, present. Indeed, one title for Caesar was Source of Peace, sometimes called Prince of Peace. So, in using Source of Peace/Prince of Peace as a title for the Messiah, Scripture is not just mocking Rome and mocking empire. Scripture is making a claim about the Christ.
The claim is Christ lives. The claim is Christ is with us. The claim is Christ is among us. And, indeed, the claim being made is that the peace of the reign of God is present to us because in Christ God is with us.
God walks among us. God is at our side. Put another way, the claim which says the peace of God is real is a claim which says the presence of God is real. (Slight pause.)
Given the fear and violence we see around us, there is a theological word that covers what we need to do. It is a word that’s fallen out of favor on both the theological left and the theological right.
This word has fallen out of favor because no one understands what is means anymore. The word is repent. The word means we need to turn toward God. Repent: we need to turn toward God, work toward and cultivate the reign of God— the meaning of the word repent. (Slight pause.)
Perhaps in so doing it is we who will be empowered to make the crooked straight and the rough plain. But we need to repent.
In a moment you will hear a song which has these words: “Stay close by My side / Keep your eyes on Me / Though this life is hard / I will give you perfect peace.”  God… is… with… us.
That God is with us should reenforce the idea that we need to work for justice, participate in the justice of God— the justice God wants and the justice God sees for all. And that justice is not the justice of empire. The justice of empire is about who has what and who controls whom.
The justice of empire is about violence. The justice of empire is about fear. The justice of empire is about victory.
The justice of God, the justice of God is about love, joy, hope, trust, freedom. And, indeed, the justice of God is about peace, God’s peace— the presence of God. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is a précis of what was said: “I said earlier we can see the entire New Testament as a challenge to the reign of terror, the fear and the violence perpetrated by the empire. Here is further proof of the challenge of the New Testament to empire. This is a list of titles: ‘source or prince of peace,’ ‘son of god,’ ‘the one to be worshiped,’ ‘savior of the world.’ No these are not the titles of the Christ. These are the titles of Caesar. The fact that these are, in turn, applied to the Christ is meant to mock the fear and violence of the reign of Rome and to proclaim the reign of God.”
BENEDICTION: Let us be present to one another as we go from this place. Let us share our gifts, our hopes, our memories, our pain and our joy. Let us go in joy for God knows every fiber of our being. Let us go in hope for God reveals to us, daily, that we are a part of God’s new creation. Let us go in love, for we rest assured, by Christ, Jesus, that the love of God is steadfast. Let us go in peace for God is with us. Amen.
 Perfect Peace by Laura Story, Sung by Mary Williams.