In the year 312 a young Roman soldier was made Caesar of the Western half of the divided Roman Empire. The Caesar was 2nd in charge (‘heir apparent’) to the Augustus or Emperor. There were 2 Emperor’s – one for the Eastern Empire and one for the Western Empire. Each Emperor had a Caesar under him. Young Constantine was assigned to the farthest reaches of the Western Empire and based in the English city of York. It was from here that he began his campaign south and east to make a bid for power. Constantine and his soldiers marched towards their destiny. As he arrived at the Milvian Bridge that crosses the Tiber River in Northern Italy, Constantine had a dream or vision. In this dream/vision he is supposed to have seen the sign of the cross against the sun. He heard a voice proclaim: ‘You are to conquer in this sign!’ He assumed it to be the voice of the Christian God and applied Christian symbols to his soldier’s shields. Constantine led his army into battle against Maxentius and he was victorious.
In February 313 Constantine announced the Edict of Milan that ensured official tolerance towards Christianity within the Roman Empire. It was the first step towards Christianity becoming the adopted religion of the Roman Empire.
After Constantine became the sole Emperor of the Roman Empire and re-unified the eastern and western halves, the celebrations of re-unification were Christian in form and style. Although there are questions as to the extent or even reality of Constantine’s conversion, there is no doubt that this was a massive turning point in the history of Christianity and the practice of Christian faith. Constantine seems to have maintained a somewhat eclectic spirituality, embracing elements of Christianity along with various pagan spiritualties, most notably worship of Apollo, the Sun-god. Was Constantine actually converted or was he a brilliant politician who embraced a powerful and expanding minority religion within the Empire? The truth is probably somewhere in between.
For many, this was a triumph of Christian faith, where a small sect in backwater Jerusalem came to dominate Rome and Western Europe. The Christian Church went from experiencing major persecution to full acceptance in a period of 25 years! In a few decades Christianity gained a creed, a Bible and the Empire! Within a generation of Constantine, Christianity took on all the trappings and structure of a powerful, organised religion.
Was this a triumph of faith or something else? What might have been had Constantine not embraced Christianity fully into his program of Empire? What might the church have become outside the Empire? There are glimpses of this in the monastic movement of the 4-5th centuries that arose as a backlash to the massive changes as the church embraced the comfortable power of being aligned with Empire.
Why do I tell this simplified history of the conversion of Constantine and the alliance of Christian faith and Roman Empire? Our Gospel reading this week (Luke 13:31-35) begins: ‘Some members of the Pharisee party came to Jesus and said, “Clear off. Don’t show your face around here again or you’ll be killed. Herod wants your blood.”’ Herod was an official under the Roman Emperor – he represented the power and might, the culture and values of Rome. He was opposed to Jesus and Jesus’ way opposed Roman power, oppression, violence and injustice. There was no way for the Way of Jesus, of God, to compromise with the way of Rome. Ultimately Jesus was crucified as a political prisoner under Roman orders. He was a threat to the order and way of Rome.
The next part of our reading says: ‘Jesus replied: “You can go and give that vicious dog this message from me: ‘Whether you like it or not, I’m going to keep on booting out the demonic forces and healing the sick — today, tomorrow and the third day, until I’m finished.”’
These words of Jesus seem a long way from where his followers ended up as part of Roman Empire. The early church was a radical, subversive and even treasonous group of people who embraced those who were marginalised and excluded and brought them into an egalitarian community where possessions and money were shared amongst everyone. The power present was the power of love as expressed in God’s love for all people. This was a non-violent community who opposed injustice and often suffered for their faithfulness to God and the Way of Jesus.
1700 years ago (this month!) everything changed dramatically and the church was seduced by the power and glamour of the Empire. It must have been heady stuff! In 325 the Bishops were invited/summoned to Nicea for an all-expenses paid conference to make determinations on various points of Christian faith. For the first time, the Emperor was in the room and this undoubtedly altered the course of Christian history.
In the ensuing centuries Christian faith under the Empire embraced the power and violence of Rome and every subsequent Empire. Christian faith became the face of Empire and the form of Empire influenced the church. We think of the Crusades, inquisitions, holy wars – all conducted in the name of God although the clear image of God in Jesus is non-violent, loving, gracious and embraces all people. The church also embraced wealth and glory, things that Jesus shunned and the early church could never imagine.
For much of the last 1700 years we have shared the place of privilege and power. Over the last few hundred years science has gradually dominated and the alliance between Christianity and Empire has faded. The time, the age, of Christendom has ended and we are faced with the challenge of rediscovering what it means to be ‘Church’ in the Way of Jesus. This is an enormous challenge and a risky, dangerous journey. It is also an exciting challenge as we cast off the captivity to ‘Rome’ (wealth, power, glory and privilege) and follow the Way of Jesus. This is the way of God and the Spirit of God will lead us. It is a way that is about loving, including, opposing injustice and being a radical, subversive, even treasonous community under God, who alone rules – in love and justice, grace and peace – for all!