When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, long lines formed for the baptismal font. Think of the Apple store on the night before the newest version of the iPhone goes on sale. Everybody who was anybody wanted to join the faith.
To remain somebody now meant that you had to be a Christian. And everybody was scrambling to avoid becoming a nobody.
In previous decades, following Jesus had marked you for torture and as leonine snack food in the Colosseum. But once the Emperor had put a cross on his shield, marched into war praying to Jesus, and exercised his political might under the Jesus flag, everybody’s social, political, and economic status hinged on belonging to the Church.
No wonder deeply faithful women and men ditched the urban haunts favored by the elite and took up residence in the desert. These Desert Mothers and Fathers recognized that the cross was never about making you a social celebrity, a political big shot, or a financial power broker.
Status of that kind is empire stuff. The cross and empires simply do not mix. On the contrary, the cross dismantles empires—every kind of empire—and it ushers in the Kingdom of God.
Throughout the Bible God squares off against empires. The empires’ names changed. There was Egypt, then Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. Eventually Rome came along. Their political, economic, and social contours differed. Nevertheless, they all shared what Rob Bell and Don Golden call the empire’s animating spirit. They describe that spirit this way:
“Empires accumulate. Accumulation gives birth to entitlement, entitlement demands preservation… In empire,… you are entitled to that which you have accumulated.”*
As I would put it, a habitual movement of the human soul repeatedly animates a social order that God is dedicated to dismantling. Empires create a top and a bottom of the economic heap. There are political insiders and outsiders, social celebrities and social nobodies.
Democracies no less than tyrannies can be empires. The motivating core of empire is the human heart. An empire spirit pursues self-preservation and self-promotion above all else. It strives for significance in what it can accumulate and what it can achieve. It looks for fulfillment in consumption and comfort. And it seeks security through coercion and violence.
To paraphrase Jesus, the empire spirit seeks to gain the whole world. And by gaining the world, that spirit ruins itself. It inevitably seeks to make itself somebody by making others into nobody and becomes a nobody in the process.
The animating spirit of empire forgets that everything we have is gift and blessing. Driven to acquire and to consume, the empire spirit feels entitled to whatever it has accumulated. You can do whatever it takes to keep it and defend it. What you do with your accumulated stuff is up to you entirely.
Indifference to the want and the misery of others inevitably follows. After all, if you are entitled to what you have because of your own might or ingenuity or wit, then those who lack even the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clothing have only themselves to blame.
You owe the destitute, the oppressed, and the sick nothing. Someone else’s inability to pay for medical treatment or attend a quality school is their problem, not yours. Perhaps generosity is kind, but you have no obligation, especially if you think these people are lazy or stupid.
Jesus takes a vastly different view. He tells his disciples to take up their cross.
The Romans reserved crucifixion especially for rebels and for slaves. So when Jesus urges his followers to take up their cross, he is telling us to stand in solidarity with the outcasts and with the underclass. With the empire’s nobodies.
Jesus himself embraced the edges and the bottom of the power structure. He did not strive to occupy the powerful center and the comfortable top. And Jesus calls us to follow him there.
A familiar example of taking up the cross comes from St. Francis of Assisi. Too many of us have relegated Francis to what Richard Rohr calls the birdbath Francis, the safe patron saint of pet blessings. And yet, Franciscan spirituality shakes empires at their very foundation.
Francis forsook not only the trappings but the privileges of the power class and took up residence among the lowest of the low. Born into a rich silk merchant’s family, Francis chose to become a mendicant, a beggar. All of his earliest brothers were beggars.
The Franciscans held no property and depended entirely upon the generosity of others. They lived a life ever mindful of being at someone else’s mercy.
Francis neither condemned the rich nor naively elevated the poor to sainthood merely on the basis of their material deprivation. He never assumed that the simplicity of his lifestyle made him morally superior to or holier than anyone else.
Instead, Francis understood himself to be taking up the cross, inhabiting the Kingdom of God wherever it could be found. And as long as the world is ruled by empires, we will find God’s Kingdom by seeing the world from the edges and from the bottom of the social, political, and economic system.
The challenging question confronting middle class Western Christians like us is this: How do we assume solidarity with the marginal and the downcast? Should we, like Francis, strip the clothes from our backs and walk away naked?
Perhaps in some cases we should. However, most of us are not called to such spiritual heroics. Instead, we are called to inhabit the spirit of the cross in contrast to the empire spirit.
From the cross I can see how my comfort and leisure are sometimes connected to the deprivation of others. For instance, I want a cheap coat so that I can spend money on leisure and little luxuries.
And yet, there is something wrong in a world where people who make cheap coats for us to wear cannot, by making this coat, earn enough to clothe, house, and feed themselves and their family.
To take another example, I want my family to be secure, and the news media and the government make me ever mindful of terror threats around the world.
And yet, there is something wrong in a world where we respond to refugees by suspiciously protecting ourselves from them instead of sheltering them from danger, feeding their empty bellies, comforting their ravaged souls, and offering them a new start in freedom and dignity.
When we bear the cross we can no longer devote ourselves to pursuing our own comfort and securing our own safety even at the expense of others. We insist on the dignity of each person as a beloved child of God. Our happiness and well-being are bound up forever with the other.
In Jesus, the Kingdom of God has drawn near. Jesus is displacing the world’s empires, and he invites us to join him in that mighty work. Just take up the cross and follow.
*(Bell, Rob; Golden, Don (2012-07-24). Jesus Wants to Save Christians: Learning to Read a Dangerous Book (pp. 126-127). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.