There is an arch in Jerusalem called ‘The Arch of Titus’, that commemorates the victory by the Romans over the Jews in the CE70 revolt. The arch was constructed in CE80 by Titus’ brother Emperor Domitian. The arches south panel is adorned with a relief of the spoils of the Jerusalem temple. The arch was inspiration for much later arches commemorating victories, including the most famous of them all, the arc de Triumphe in France. Indeed the arc de Triumphe bears a striking resemblance to the Arch of Titus (but the latter is much larger). The Arch of Titus was an imposing structure and a daily reminder of the might and power of Rome, and was freshly completed when Luke’s gospel was being written and distributed. The Romans certainly knew how to rub in their victories. Along with the complete destruction of the Jerusalem temple and mass crucifixions, the people had to daily walk under a reminder of their failure to protect their most precious possession- the temple and its contents.
It is in this context that Jesus makes his final remarks to his chosen. In ancient traditional Mediterranean societies, the condemned were prescient and could reveal matters concerning the future of those close to them. Luke uses this belief to have Jesus ‘predict’ the future troubles of Jerusalem. Who was Jesus prescient to on the eve of the events of his own destruction? He was prescient to those close to him, that is to all who were his followers. It was Luke’s way of saying that all was not lost, all was not chaos and anarchy. Luke’s Jesus did not see the awful events of CE70 as catastrophe and total loss. He was in control, and all who loved him would prevail. Not that they were in for an easy time of it. Earlier in Luke we discussed the idea of Jesus followers leaving their biological families to become part of a new Jesus family. In Luke 21 we are made aware of some of the consequences of this leaving- biological families who felt betrayed and insulted by this leaving would now exact revenge on the Jesus family- even at the expense of their own kin. The Jesus of Luke also foretells this eventuality.
The writers of Luke would also have been aware that members of the Jesus community were dieing and being put to death. This was a problem as there was a common belief that Jesus was coming back and would return very soon. When Jesus followers, like Jesus himself, were dieing, some were losing heart. Luke’s Jesus addresses this concern in verses 16-19. Jesus states plainly that some followers would die, but his reassurance was beyond human interference- all those who endured would gain their lives (presumably in an afterlife with Jesus).
Throughout history people have faced great adversity – from persecutions to genocide. Faith though is beyond human touch. It is the one thing the persecutor cannot take from the persecuted. Faith keeps people alive when they should have lost all hope and perished. Faith maintains morale when all seems lost. Faith is the untouchable glue that binds us together and says that there is light at the end of the tunnel and hope for a future. Faith is not scientific, or even logical or sensible. It stares at dead ends and imagines paths forward. It stares at locked doors and imagines them opening. It stares at utter darkness and imagines light. It stares at a cross of crucifixion and imagines that very implement being the vehicle of salvation. The challenge of faith is to live in that faith place, even though all around us seems faithless. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about the kingdom, the realm of God, already being with and amongst us. Faith is not some distant prize we get when we die, it is the choice we make to believe in a better world each and every day, and to choose to live in that better place as if it was already here.
You may feel shock and disbelief at this moment like me, my family and friends, at the US presidential result, and what seems at this time of writing to be the inevitable election of Donald Trump. What will this mean for the global economy and Australia’s economy in the light of Chinese trade? What will it mean for the Korean peninsula if Trump does what he said he will do and remove troops from the DMZ and South Korea feel the need to militarise and develop nuclear technology? What will it mean in the Middle East if the US removes troops and leaves the Iraqis on their own? What will it mean for gender equality when a right-wing high court judge is placed and the issue of the legality of abortion is raised? What will happen in the US when ‘a great big wall’ or something akin to it is built across its southern border and illegal immigrants and their potentially completely legal children are arrested and removed? What will the investigation and possible arrest and trial of Hillary Clinton do to the stability of the country and US politics? What will ‘trickle-down’ economics and the tectonic change in the US tax system do for the poor and, what will those disenfranchised do once this policy starts to bite?
The answer to all these questions is we don’t know, but as I listen to the Australian ABC I hear that the election has just been called for Donald Trump.
Today’s reading has just come into sharp focus- Jesus followers were living in a volatile society where they were the victims of prejudice, violence, hatred and murder. Jesus called his followers to rise above and live as if the realm of God were already on earth. On this scale, our current position in the 21st century is a little less dire. Our obligation though is the same. We are called to be people of hope and light, and when things start to look dark, it is then that the light shines all the brighter. So, as W. H. Auden penned in his stunning “1 October 1939” poem, we must “show an affirming flame.”