St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is the first great work of Christian theology; and Karl Barth – a giant of Reformed biblical theology – wrote that the Epistle to the Romans is Paul’s greatest (that is, longest, most closely argued & most powerful) statement of Christian doctrine. So we should not be surprised if our epistle reading confronts us with something central to our lives as Christian people. The reading does not disappoint.
Even in that short extract, Paul gives it to us straight. What we have, buried in our English translation, is a statement of the earliest Christian creed. The first Christians (so early, they did not even call themselves by that name) said: Mar-ana tha. It’s Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke and one of the languages that Paul spoke. Mar – Lord; a great person, one who, for example, would have a large household of slaves. (By the way, the Greek language of the New Testament does not distinguish often between a slave and a servant – it’s the same word almost always). So Paul calls himself a slave or servant of the great Mar, meaning Jesus. But, in writing to Christians in Rome – ethnic Jews and some Gentile converts, few, if any, of whom he had met - Paul refers to this primitive Christian creed. Though writing in Greek, rather than the original Aramaic, he cites Mar-ana Our Lord, the original Aramaic prayer that goes on to say tha: Marana-tha- Our Lord, come. He writes to those Romans – ahead of meeting them personally – “if you confess with your lips ‘Jesus is Lord (Mar)’ and believe in your hearts that ‘God raised him from the dead’ you will be saved”. In full, that first creed says: “Our Lord is Jesus, Jesus, raised from the dead”. There you have it: the basis of the first ever work of Christian theology dating from about the mid 50s in the Christian era, and the first written summary of Christian core belief.
But Christian theology is not primarily about statements of belief. What matters is what flows from such belief, and what in our lives leads us to such belief. Paul’s meanings are clear: Jesus is the head of the Christian household and we, who are baptised, as we say, into his death and his life, are his slaves, his servants. We are part of his household. We do his bidding because we are part of his household. He owns us, but, paradoxically, if he owns us, we are free. We are free because he takes responsibility for us. We act in his name, but the comeback stops with him. We act in his name and we carry his warrant to act and to speak just because we are his servants / his slaves. We are stamped with his authority: it is not our own, of course, and we have to answer to him if we abuse it in any way. But, if we do not abuse his authority, we are free to act powerfully.
And that is what those temptations were all about, the ones that featured in the reading from St Luke’s gospel. Jesus saw himself as the slave or servant of God: indeed he relied greatly on the texts from the prophet Isaiah which spoke of God’s slave or servant who was despised and rejected, but remained faithful to his commission as God’s servant. That was to be his power: he acted, he spoke with authority that was not his own as a man, but which came from God. He might have had other possibilities. He was tempted to act differently. The Adversary – that is what the Hebrew word Satan means – put it to him that he could do great good work by other means. He could aspire to world influence by the use of miraculous powers. He could feed himself – and presumably the hungry of the world – by supernatural means. That would certainly bring in the punters.
But, no. Those were not the means that Jesus chose. That would not be in accordance with the God he served. He refused to give his loyalty to the Adversary, whatever the prizes on offer – and they were not obviously evil prizes, but desirable ends, goals that could lead to widespread religious adherence and so forth.
Jesus had to decide where his first loyalty lay and he chose the path of submission to God’s will. He put that before more obvious considerations of what could work; of what would bring surefire results; of what would bring about political change. He made his choice because he saw himself as a human being in right relationship with God, because he saw himself as a servant or slave of God.
Which leaves us with some questions. Where do your (or my) first loyalties lie? I’ve recently heard some people say: my first loyalty is to my company’s shareholders. My first loyalty is to my Queen and country. My first loyalty is to my family. They’re all a tough call. After all, we would expect that a Christian banker or company director would put loyalty to shareholders high on her or his priorities. Many of us citizens, members of the armed services, police officers, even priests have sworn allegiance to the Crown and think that a high duty. And yet, there is a higher loyalty. Think of the Confessing Church and its opposition in the 1930s to an elected National Socialist government in Germany (or more recently, the opposition by many Christians to our part in the invasion of Iraq). Think of those bankers who have felt compelled to speak out against practices they know to be too risky, exploitative and plain immoral, even if profitable. For the Christian, there can be no first-equals loyalties. Even loyalty to family must sometimes come second: think for a moment of the mother who discovers her child has committed a serious crime against another person. Where must her first loyalty lie?
Of course, neither Jesus nor Paul said that our families don’t matter: after all if you can’t love your family as yourself, you’re going to have a hard time as a Christian trying to love the rest of the world as yourself! But Jesus was uncompromising about where his disciples’ first loyalty must lie. We are members of the Lord’s household. We are his: we do his bidding, and in that lies our freedom and our glory.