God’s Kingdom in the Midst of Empire, Part 1 of 5

Some people much smarter than I like to debate to what degree Luke was interested in addressing the Roman empire in his gospel.¹ I believe the problem with this debate is that for many it focuses only on Luke’s gospel account and excludes the book of Acts. On one hand the clear separation between Luke-Acts is warranted as we do not have any manuscripts in which they appear joined together nor did the early Church leaders treat them as one single volume.² Only until the last few decades have scholars pressed us to attend to what they call, “the literary unity” of both volumes, including stylistic, structural and thematic elements.³ I suggest that it is within the stylistic and thematic elements that we find Luke’s implicit and at times explicit interest in how God’s kingdom pushes against the empire. But it must be said that Luke’s primal aim was not to contrast and compare imperialism with the gospel or the empire with God’s kingdom. For Luke it is the implications of Jesus as King and Lord that create the themes that naturally speak to the reality of living in and between two prevailing governmental and social systems.

I think Luke’s writings can be summarized this way. He tells as one story God’s promises to Israel fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the birth and spread of the church as witnesses to God’s kingdom. For Luke this re-describes humanity and re-orders all social systems from Jerusalem and beyond, to include all people, Jew and Gentile. Inevitably this narrative will eventually run against the narrative of the Roman empire.

My position is that in the single witness of Luke-Acts, Luke announces what God is doing in Jesus and the church for the sake of the world, and tells the story in such a way that “what happens with Jesus foreshadows the church’s experience and what happens in the church finds meaning as the continuation of Jesus’ story.”Luke’s Plot Line

Lets revisit the plot line so we can see our text more clearly over the next 3 to 4 posts. Bear with me as this may seem a little heady, but I think it is critical. Luke begins his account by detailing the birth story of Jesus emphasizing that God is bringing to fulfillment the promises He made to Israel (1:1, 45, 55, 73), including the forerunner (John the Baptist) that He promised would prepare the way (1:17, 76). Curiously, Luke moves from bearing witness to God’s providential and redemptive action to intentionally naming Roman emperors and officials (2:1-2; 3:1). Considering that providence is a common first-century belief in an empire’s ideology, Theophilus is reminded that Augustus may have the power to issue decrees but only the God of the Jews (3:23-38) has the power to exercise history affirming, future-changing providence (1:46-51; 2:29-32), even the toppling of thrones (1:52, 71). This is revolutionary!

Luke goes on to specifically connects these events to the house of David (1:32-33, 35, 69) coupled with royal language most likely familiar to Theophilus in order to help him see that the result of this event is the birth of a new King who is Lord.5 Of course, this makes sense in light of a holy and infinite God who as Ruler operates in ways far different from other rulers, and does so on His own terms. Finally and most notably, Luke refers to Jesus as King more than Matthew, Mark or John, almost two-hundred times in Luke-Acts and about one-hundred in each. It is as if Luke is systematically and creatively developing Jesus as both King and Lord as the confession of his Gospel. In Luke’s gospel this is the road Theophilus walks along as he makes his way to the steps of the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus preaches His first sermon in Luke 4:16-30.

But before that, here is a possible takeaway. Luke reminds us that the implications of Jesus as King and Lord will at times naturally put us at odds with the prevailing governmental and social systems that surround us. The values and ethics held sacred in our society will often run contrary to what King Jesus holds sacred. The key is knowing the difference and remaining faithful to our pledge of allegiance to His Lordship.

As we will see in the audience’s response to Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4, this is nothing new. We will listen to his sermon next time. In the meantime, enjoy the footnotes. 😉

1. Dean Pinter, “The Gospel of Luke and the Roman Empire.” Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, Edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013) 101-15. If you want more details on the nature of this footnote drop me a message and I will sent them. I didn’t want to tie down this post with the details of academic scholarship.
2. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, (London: SCM Press, 1999) 213.
3. Ibid. 214.
4. Ibid. 215
5. Language such as “Son of God,” which was not only a preferred title of Caesars but a title Augustus, son of Julius Caesar, was particularly fond of. “Sovereign Lord” alerts Theophilus to Jesus as “King” and “Lord.”
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Restoration Place – an Emergency Shelter for Rest and Restoration

Friday 3e Restoration Incorporated experienced the joy of celebrating the blessing and opening of two rooms called, Restoration Place. We were joined by pastors, members of many local churches, 3e ministry leaders, and a number of community partners, including Community of Faith Mission, Greater Williamsburg Outreach Mission, Williamsburg Community Chapel-Agape Ministry, United Way Community Resource Center, Colonial Behavioral Health, Colonial Community Corrections, Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, James City County Police Department, James City County Department of Social Services, Harrison & Lear, Inc Property Management, Williamsburg Department of Human Services, other friends of 3e, and the most amazing staff at the Pineapple Inn and Housing Center.

Below is the manuscript (unedited) of the speech I gave and offers a description of what these rooms will do and how they will bless the socially displaced coming out of hospitals or into eviction.

Dr. Walter Brueggemann once said, “Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.”¹

Today signifies a new day for 3e Restoration. Today is a day that 3e begins a new season of compassion inspired truth-telling—truth-telling about what is happening in our own locality concerning people living in homelessness, suffering from mental illness and living with intellectual disabilities. We will take every opportunity to tell the stories of our neighbors living through social displacement in the forms of homelessness, mental illness and intellectual disabilities. And where there are no opportunities we will create them.

Today is also a day that 3e Restoration begins a new season compassion inspired truth-embodiment—further embodying gracious hospitality by moving advocation to implementation to bring about the change our neighbors desperately need so that James City County can live in to the motto it proclaims where all our neighbors can find, “a great place to live, work and play.”

A great place for neighbors like my friend, and I will call him Jack, whose discharge from the hospital meant a ride to the local hotel, paid only for one day. Eleven days earlier, Jack had emergency surgery for an intestinal obstruction. He was critically ill in the intensive care unit. His problems grew worse when he was discharged with a list of community resources that he would have to navigate on his own, despite the fact he could barely find the strength to stand while also knowing that in one more night he would be back on the street. Four days after his hospital discharge he ended up back in the ER and was readmitted to the hospital for a surgical wound infection.²

I could tell you of the neighbors who showed up to our church building with hospital bracelets or in mental health hospital socks—all signs pointing to a discharge with no place to go. I could tell you of the neighbors who experienced evictions from apartments of houses they rent with no places to go. I could tell you of the neighbors who are living through something as critical as cancer and had no where to sleep but their car, but their ‘cases’ got tied up in the system from over technicalities and the nuances of policies. I could go on but I won’t. Instead I will celebrate that in God’s good grace people of faith came together to make what you see happen today. And it is only the beginning.

And just in case I am leaving with you the impression that this is only a challenge to our community, catch this.

A study from 2012 published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that 67 percent of homeless patients surveyed spent their first night after hospital discharge at a shelter. Worse, 11 percent spent their first night after discharge on the streets.³

Some might argue that it is not the hospital’s responsibility to solve the social problems of its patients, or that hospitals lack the resources as non-profits needed to address patients’ housing situation at discharge. However, ignoring the issue creates more expensive problems in the future. Yet, as patients living through homelessness leave the hospital, whether medical or mental health, are discharged with no place to go, a revolving door of costly, inefficient and dangerous care is created. They will move from the hospital to the streets or hotel and then back again.

People living through homelessness visit the emergency department and are hospitalized at rates up to 10 times higher than low-income-housed patients. Once in the hospital, homeless patients have longer stays and cost on average $2,500 more per hospitalization than housed patients.

Virginia ranks 31st in the nation in spending on mental health services and invests much lower money to fund community-based resources that help mental health patients safely transition back into society. Across the country, almost 30 percent of the money spent on mental health goes to state-operated hospitals. Community-based services generally get the majority of the remainder. In Virginia, 46 percent of mental health money goes to state hospitals, resulting in little more than half going to transitional services. Consequently for those living through homelessness and social displacement, they are much more likely to have no place to go upon discharge. We’ve seen it and we want to offer a better way.4

Discharging our neighbors with little regard to where they will go misses the compassion that originally provoked the creation of our world’s healing institutions. As a means of caring for those who were ill, St. Basil of Caesarea founded the first hospital (AD369). Christian hospitals grew apace, spreading throughout both the East and the West. By the mid-1500s there were 37,000 Benedictine monasteries alone that cared for the sick. There is no doubt that the Greeks and Romans made great contributions to early medicine, but as Albert Jonsen, University of Washington historian of medicine, maintains:

“the second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and concludes at the end of the fourteenth century, with medicine well ensconced in the universities and in the public life of the emerging nations of Europe.”

Hospitals of all kinds were meant to care for the vulnerable, the suffering and the hurting, one person at a time. They were meant to preserve the dignity and worth of each person, not treat them as cases to be managed. Restoration Place is our very meager attempt to fill a gap.

Today we celebrate two separate rooms have been remodeled and decorated with the comforts and familiarity of a one-room apartment offering a clean, safe, 24/7 emergency shelter. The Restoration Place will offer on-site access to emergency stabilization services. Guests will be provided with an on-site food pantry, as well as meals based on health-related dietary needs when necessary. Home health care services will be coordinated for guests discharged from hospitals.

The Restoration Place is provided for the express purpose of serving as a temporary shelter while staff work toward locating permanent housing and returning guests to holistic-sufficiency.

3e Restoration, Inc works with community partners through formal care coordination agreements to quickly establish medical and behavioral health care, while focusing on permanent housing options. Based upon the assessment, the guests will access the 3e Coaching Network of providers of services such as job training, legal aid, mental and physical health care. These providers include a variety of medical professionals. We will also provide on-site computers so the guests can apply for employment and have access to other possible resources to help them transition into a permanent housing situation and move closer to holistic sufficiency.

3e Restoration, Inc. works to equip, empower, and encourage the local faith community to walk with individuals and families as they transition from homeless to housed and holistic sufficiency. Part of the process is to establish a lasting network of friendship and support long after temporary rental assistance and care management has ended.

We give thanks and praise to the Lord and Lover of all lives, especially the vulnerable. And we thank you for joining us today.

1. The Prophetic Imagination, p 88.
2. You can read the code concerning discharge policies here. Situations like Jack’s are most often denied, but it is a well reported phenomenon on national levels. Furthermore, 17 years of walking with people living through homelessness in four different localities has taught me better. https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title32.1/chapter5/section32.1-137.03/
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22707359)
4. http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/government-politics/ready-to-leave-the-mental-hospital-but-nowhere-to-go/article_c4352a4b-9940-5f0e-8fc1-4e4793f3fcd1.html
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Lament and a Prayer

I hear it on the news,
on the internet,
in the neighborhoods,
in the schools,
and in the city streets.
It is ringing in my my ears,
the groaning is all around us.

The pain.
The cries.
The violence.
The sighs.
The sickness.
The screams.
The fear.
The grief.
The groaning is all around us.

I remember the violence
of a blood stained cross
so many witnesses
believing all was lost
in the neighborhoods,
in the schools,
and in the city streets.

I remember hearing
about an empty grave.
We need witnesses
to help us cling to faith
in the neighborhoods,
in the schools,
and in the city streets.
For some its hard to believe,
that there is a Savior that surrounds us.

His steadfast love.
His grace.
His mercy.
His holy face.
His compassion.
His faithfulness.
His sovereignty.
His holy justice.
There is a Savior that surrounds us.

He will deliver us
even from ourselves.
May His Kingdom come,
His will be done,
on the earth
to make us well.

Three of the worst mass shootings our nation has ever seen in the past five months. 18 shootings in our nation’s schools since January 1, 2018. This is my lament. This is my prayer.

May God be with the families who wake up this day with lives unimaginably different from what the experienced the day before yesterday. Lord, grant them peace and have mercy on us.

May we put our hands and feet to our prayers and do what we must to bring about change.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

When my faith began to change my life

Over the last few weeks I have been embracing intentional moments of self-examination. I think I have been able to pinpoint when my faith began to shift and my understanding of what it means to embody my confession that Jesus is Lord. I think it was when I realized that:

1. I was no longer the prodigal son, but the son who complained.
2. I was no longer the one leper that returned to Jesus but one of the nine that never came.
3. I was no longer one of the ‘least of these’ but one in danger of becoming a goat (and *not* G.O.A.T.).
4. I wasn’t one of the folks on the margins as a religious outsider but one in the center of power as a religious insider, and at times a citizen of Rome.
5. I also wasn’t the one living on the edges of town who received the invitation to the party, but one of the folks who was too busy to come.
6. I was no longer the one lost sheep but one of the 99.
7. I was no longer the woman Jesus met at the well but one of the village people she was avoiding.
8. I was also no longer the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with tears, but more like Simon the Pharisee.
9. I could no longer read the Scriptures as one of the victims of religious or socio-political oppression, but rather as one who has been privileged with position and a certain amount of socio-political and religious power as a white male living in these United States.
10. I was loved by Jesus all along, and still loved by Jesus just as I am and not as I should be.
11. I am in desperate need of God’s grace, a renewed mind and a transformed way of loving myself, my family, my neighbors and my enemies.

It seems to me that if the Church is going to be a prophetic presence in society then we must allow God’s Spirit to be a prophetic presence among us. It begins with me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Beauty of Advent Will Save the World

Advent reminds me of Dostoevsky’s famous maxim from “The Idiot,” that beauty will save the world. Except I would say that the beauty of Advent will save the world because I am reminded of the beauty of God in Christ, and how beautiful the Church could be. If we were to commit our lives to discern and bear witness to the presence of Christ through an active embodiment of what we proclaim as true and good we would display a life-altering beauty.

I think about it this way. The Christian Church holds it to be true that all are made in God’s image and every human from every nation is of divine intrinsic worth. Therefore, a particular kind of love, namely the kind of self-giving love seen in Christ, for neighbor and enemy alike, is the only acceptable good. Fear, hatred, retributive justice and violence are not.Another way I think about it is like this. The Christian Church holds it to be true that all are loved, pursued and welcomed by God the Father who is able to redeem all things and refused to abandon us to our own death-dealing ways. Therefore, welcoming and embracing all people no matter their past or present, ideology or religion, ethnicity or sexuality, is the only acceptable good.

Advent reminds me that a community of people who claim to know truth and what is good should embody its proclamation by practicing self-giving love that reasons with the world through faithful presence, humble rhetoric and if need be, courageous martyrdom—never by coercive force. I would suggest that if it doesn’t, it does not hold tightly to the truth and its proclamation of what is good lacks credibility.

The Christian Scriptures remind those who are to be guided by them that before truth is to understood as a proposition or position, it must be understood as a Person–Jesus, who claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life.¹ Jesus as the Word Incarnate is what God has to say to humanity. We would do well to listen and interpret all other propositions and positions in light of what we see in Him.²

Jesus is the embodiment of all that is true, good and beautiful. May His Church be faithful and by His Spirit put His truth, goodness and beauty on display for all to see.

¹ John 14:6
² John 1, 14; 5:39; Colossians 1:1-20, 27-28, 2:2-3, 9
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Heroic Acts & Alternative Facts

There was this one time when Jesus said:

“But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks you, and from one who takes your things, don’t ask for them back.Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them.  If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” Luke 6:27-36

The other day a friend of mine, and new Christian, asked me if I was keeping up with national politics. He then said, “They keep talking about ‘Evangelical Christians.’ First off, what is that? That isn’t who we are, is it? And second, why is that the people they introduce and interview as Evangelical Christians talk more like the way I used to think, and still struggle to think, than the way Jesus talks?” He went on to name names.

Our conversation left me heavy hearted. He’s right, you know. Texts like Luke 6 should be put on display in today’s Church. It should be described in the conversations the Church has when they gather. But my friend is right. The teachings of Jesus he has come to know as found in the gospels seem so foreign to what’s often put on display by the Church. It’s like the stories of the gospels have been replaced with alternative facts that create alternative narratives. Here’s what I mean.

In Mark 8, the story goes:

“In those days there was again a large crowd, and they had nothing to eat. He summoned the disciples and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they’ve already stayed with Me three days and have nothing to eat.If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a long distance.”


The way some of us talk you might think it goes something like this:

“In those days there was again a large crowd, and they had nothing to eat. He summoned the disciples and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they’ve already stayed with Me three days and have nothing to eat.But they should have made better plans, so just send them away. They can fend for themselves.”


The alternative narrative reminds me of the type of things we say when hearing about people in need of financial help.

In Matthew 9:26-28, the story goes:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed Him, shouting, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When He entered the house, the blind men approached Him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I can do this?” Then he touched them…and their eyes were opened.

But you might think it goes something like this:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed Him, shouting “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” When He entered the house, the blind men approached Him, and Jesus said to them, “What have you done for yourself? I need to be sure you’re not taking advantage of me.” They responded, “I —” Jesus interrupted and said, “And if you weren’t born blind, could you have done something to avoid it? If so, that’s on you.” And He shut the door.

This reminds me of the type of things we think when encountering people living through homelessness, or even through addictions.

In Matthew 8:5-7, the story goes:

When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony!” Jesus told him, “I will come and heal him.”

But you might think it goes something like this:

When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony!” Jesus told him, “I could but since you’re not one of my countrymen I can’t. Besides, he’s your servant anyhow. Sorry.”

This reminds me of the type of things we do when hearing about refugees, immigrants or people living in impoverished conditions in other parts of the world.

My work as pastor and president of a non-profit often leads me to Christians who offer the kind of push back that reflects these alternative narratives rather than the actual ones. I could offer reasons as to why I think this is the case, but I’ll just settle to say that it seems to be a predominant way of thinking for a particularly influential brand of Christianity in the U.S.

How else can I explain to my new christian bro the Evangelical Christians he’s seen that openly support people claiming allegiance to Jesus while their character and witness seems anti-Jesus? It’s one thing to quote a stanza from the Psalms, and quite another to live the verses found in the one of the gospels.

Here is what we concluded. Thanks be to God whose faithful love is driven by a stubborn refusal to give up on us and to treat us better than we treat one another. 

But that’s not all.

We also concluded that in a society seduced by power, position and privilege, taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he says is a heroic act of resistance. In a society dominated by fear, indifference and violence, taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he says is a heroic act of defiance. In a society determined to push aside the weak, marginalize the vulnerable, and exclude the stranger, taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he says is a heroic act of protest. And in a society that makes it permissible to profess an understanding of Christianity that allows it’s adherents to belittle others because of their religion, sexually harass women (or explain it away or dismiss it), downplay or deny racial tension or white supremacy, let fear drive out christian love (along with refugees and immigrants), taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he says is what the Scriptures call faithfulness.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Love is the Witness

I made a confession.
I cannot make a concession.
I will never quit this.
Love is the witness.

Defend the displaced,
With a bold embrace.
Welcome the unwanted,
With a grit undaunted.

Plead for the poor,
By giving what is yours.
We cannot quit this.
Love is the witness.

Though the anger rages on,
And the arrogant are strong,
Though denial is the school,
And many play the fool,
We will never quit this.
Love is the witness.

~ O. Fred Liggin IV, 2017

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments