Fr. Andrew Armond – The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2022
The first century AD was a good century for Rome. The century before that was not. You may remember from school the story of Julius Caesar and his assassination and the struggle for power that emerged in its wake. Octavian, later known by his title Augustus, meaning “great-souled one,” came out of that struggle as the first Emperor of Rome, about 25 years before Jesus was born. As Emperor, he quickly consolidated power and brought the entire Empire to heel, making plans for expansion and conquest at the same time. But he still had enemies, and so he commissioned his friend Virgil to write a poem for him, celebrating his accomplishments and tying the concept of his Imperial Rule to the great Roman heroes of Old, the Trojans.
As part of that poem, Virgil employed flashbacks and flash-forwards in order to tie together the story of his patron, Emperor Augustus, to the ancient Roman hero Aeneas. This “ancient hero” is given a prophecy at one point in the poem about how great and wonderful Augustus will be.
As part of that prophecy, Aeneas sees that his descendant Augustus will one day rule the world, parading the peoples he has conquered behind him. The poem says that Augustus will “examine the gifts of the nations, hanging them on the proud gates” of Rome. And then “the conquered peoples [will] walk past in a long line, as diverse in language as in weapons, or the fashion of their clothes.”
This was the dream of the Roman Empire: to conquer all the nations of the world, allowing them to retain a certain “flavor” of their own culture, as long as they all agreed to become Roman in key respects: in language, in government, and, most importantly, in allegiance. A multinational, multiethnic Empire all united under the God-King, the One they called “Lord and Savior,” the Divine Emperor Caesar Augustus.
It meant something for Paul, as a Roman citizen who followed Jesus Christ, to call Jesus the Lord and Savior. It meant something for him to say that the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily in Christ, not Caesar. It meant something for him to call Jesus the “head of every ruler and authority.” And it certainly meant something–something rather threatening and dangerous to Rome–for him to say that Jesus, through the apparent defeat of the cross, “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them.” While we don’t know the precise conditions under which Paul was martyred, we can imagine that words such as these certainly didn’t win him any favors with the Roman authorities that eventually killed him.
We should keep the image of Augustus from the Aeneid in mind as we think about those words. In the realm of the Empire, the conquered nations were disarmed. The conquered nations were made a public spectacle, paraded in chains behind the Emperor. Rome triumphed over them through military might and political power.
In this way, Paul is reminding those early Christians, those inhabitants of Rome, the center of the Empire and the most powerful city on the planet, that the Kingdom of God is bigger than the Kingdom of Rome. That the Kingdom of God has triumphed over every earthly power through Jesus’s free offering of himself. That Jesus is Lord and Savior, not only of Rome, or of the Earth, but of the Entire Cosmos; the Whole Universe belongs to Him.
“Thy kingdom come” thus becomes a powerful statement of what we believe as Christians. We desire the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of justice and peace, the Kingdom of righteousness and goodness, the Kingdom of true freedom and joy, to be present here and now in our lives. In Luke’s statement of the Lord’s Prayer, it becomes even more obvious, since he leaves out the familiar “as it is in heaven.” The emphasis in Luke is on the transformative power of God’s Kingdom for the world we currently inhabit, this world that desperately needs Good News.
In 2010, the Roman Catholic Church issued a revised form of the Mass, which changed many of the English texts that had been in use since the 1970s. One of those changes came in the words that the priest uses to introduce the Lord’s Prayer. Instead of saying “let us pray with confidence,” he now says “we dare to say.” The equivalent in our liturgy is “we are bold to say.”
This idea comes from Jesus’s parable about how we can and should approach God. While the image of God as a tired parent who doesn’t want to be bothered because he’s already tucked in for the night is humorous, as I’m sure Jesus meant it to be, the heart of the matter comes in verse 8: “because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” This word “persistence” is also translated as “shameless audacity,” “impudence,” “importunity,” “shamelessness,” or “boldness.”
Even as a Roman citizen, you couldn’t just approach the Emperor. True, you could gain an audience with him, but as someone considered the Divine Father of the Roman People, he wasn’t exactly accessible to ordinary citizens.
Jesus tells us that our Divine Emperor is always accessible. That we can and should approach God’s throne with boldness and audacity. That we can and should DARE to bring our concerns and grievances before God, the very Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. And not only to bring them to God once, but over and over again. In God’s role as a Divine Parent, God desires to give us good gifts. In God’s role as a Ruler, God desires to lead us into justice and peace.
Just look at the audacious verbs in the Lord’s Prayer! Come, Give, Forgive, Do not Bring. And in Jesus’s discourse following the prayer: Ask, Seek, Knock! We approach the throne of grace, as the author of Hebrews says, with confidence, with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. We pray out of weakness, not strength; out of necessity, not plenty; out of love, not obligation.
When we ask, seek, and knock, God will give us not whatever we want, but an even better gift: the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Our audacity and boldness, then, is not merely about asking, seeking, and knocking. It is about inviting the Divine Presence to dwell in our lives and in our world. In doing that, we are truly daring, since we are asking God to overturn our assumptions, to rearrange the furniture of our lives so that it aligns best with God’s will, with God’s justice, with God’s peace.
When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” we are not simply asking God to sweep in and fix everything that is wrong. We are asking God to use us–us, stumbling and fallible humans–as God’s own Divine Agents in the world. And yet, at the same time, we are asking a generous God to give us gifts beyond our wildest imagination, especially the Gift of the Holy Spirit, that will enable us to, as one of our post-communion prayers puts it, “do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”