What the Romans Get Right that Many Christians Don't

In heart of the Basilica of Maxentius, the largest building in the Roman Forum, stood a colossal, forty-foot statue of the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great. For perspective: the head itself measures taller than eight feet. If you walk five minutes in any direction from the Forum, a plaza of important ancient Roman buildings, you will certainly stumble upon a church, at the heart of which typically is a painted image or a statue of Jesus suffering on the cross. The contrast is staggering: might and power on one hand, and compassion and suffering on the other.

While it is tempting to simply celebrate the overturning of Greco-Roman values with Judeo-Christian ones, we may we have lost something that the Romans understood to our detriment. 

Today's pastors, especially those who attract a younger and more urban demographic, love to emphasize how "human" Jesus is, by which they typically mean, how vulnerable he is. "Look, he wept! He struggled! He empathized! Oh, how human," they cry. What they inadvertently mean is that to be human is basically to be weak. How in need we are, then, of saving. 

In contrast, let's read the inscription that is said to have been below the statue of Constantine, himself a Christian convert: "Through this sign of salvation, which is the true symbol of goodness, I rescued your city and freed it from the tyrant's yoke, and through my act of liberation, I restored the Senate and the people of Rome to their ancient renown and splendor."

Yes, this is a rather bombastic declaration of human ability. But it is, in a way, not so far off from what Jesus himself came to declare about humans. As JD Kirk, associate professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, argues, much of what Jesus did that we call "divine" -- all the miracles, declarations of authority, etc -- actually speak to what humans themselves are capable of.

Jesus exorcises demons–like David did. Jesus brings the dead back to life–like Elisha did. Jesus controls the waters–like Moses did and Joshua did and Elisha did and the promised messiah of Ps 89 would... God’s work in creation, whether you’re looking at Gen 1 or Gen 2, is to have humans play the part of God on the earth.

The story of Jesus is not so much the story of a strong, loving God saving us pitiful fools, as much as it is the "story of God trying to create a people who can live up to the majestic role that God assigned people in the beginning." It is no wonder that Jesus called himself the "Son of Man" over 80 times in the Gospels, Kirk points out. It is also no wonder that Christ says "whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these he will do." In light of these remarks, Constantine's inscription does not seem as arrogant as before. 

Today, we Christians have mostly mastered the art of pulling God down onto earth, of making him relatable and "human." We sing songs calling him "friend" and even "lover." We are good at "descent." But perhaps the next move is ascension: not of Christ, but of us humans, especially the Church, who is not just united with him but is one with him - the same person - as his body.

"For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." (Romans 6:5)

"If we endure, we will also reign with him." (2 Timothy 2:12)

Maybe this means that when we pray, we will not just lament, "Dear God, please intervene and save me from this, for I am full of flaws," but, "Dear God, I am full of flaws. Help me become whom you made to be." Our story is a story of God who helps us attain the fullness of what it means to be truly human. 

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Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York City, she blogs on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.