The fire started on a dark, dry and windy summer night. What started as a small blaze in a local shopping district soon spread down a tight, winding road of apartments as people fled their homes in terror. The fire quickly spread in all directions, ultimately devastating three of the city’s 14 districts and damaging 10 in total.
Rumors about the arsonist spread as quickly as the fire and soon people speculated it was the emperor himself who started it. Nero, anxious to divert attention away from himself, blamed a controversial cult that had recently sprung up in the Roman empire. This fast growing group followed some crucified criminal from the outskirts of the empire and had caused Nero nothing but trouble. Blaming them killed two birds with one stone. And so Nero launched the most infamous persecution of Christians in church history.
This all happened in 64 A.D., around the time many scholars believe the book of 1 Peter was written. While it’s likely the book was written before the fire, there’s no doubt Peter was writing to a community of believers being increasingly persecuted for their beliefs. The message of Jesus had always been heresy to the Jewish community and was at best tolerated by a Roman empire that didn’t understand these monotheists who claimed their messiah was the one source of truth. But as 1 Peter was being written this tension was turning to hostility. Christians were scared. Should they fight for political power? Rebel against the empire? Betray their beliefs to not ruffle feathers?
It’s in this context Peter writes these words: So you must live as God’s obedient children … you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy.
And then: For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right … respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king.
Peter first reminds these small bands of Christ-followers they’ve been set apart. They are God’s kids now. Don’t compromise. Don’t give in. But then, remarkably, he tells them to respect human authority. Honor Emperor Nero. Respect EVERYONE, not just those people in your community but even those you disagree with and who feel like your enemy. And remember, Jesus is the King of all kings and Lord of all lords.
Today, those of us who are pastors are going to have a community that is either disappointed or elated by the election results. In some ways it will just be a relief this whole election season is over, but in many key ways the work of pastoring our people through this election will be starting fresh.
It’s so easy for our community to believe what they see on the news: that one way or the other the fate of the world rests in the right candidate or a Supreme Court appointee. Those things matter, and because we have the great gift of living in a country where we can participate in government it’s our job to advocate for truth and justice as we can. But when voting day passes and the dust settles, the sun will rise and the world will still be literally dying for hope. And that hope won’t be coming from our next president.
That’s why we as pastors have such a beautiful, God-ordained role starting Nov. 9. We get to tell the story of a group of Christ-followers who lived in a culture where they didn’t fit in. But they faithfully loved God, their neighbor and each other and the power of the Holy Spirit lit up the Roman Empire with an all-consuming fire, only this fire didn’t destroy, it brought restoration and hope. Nearly two thousand years later the Great Fire of Rome is just a story we learn in history class.
But the Church is stronger than ever, still shining in communities, cities and countries with the burning light of the gospel.
Tomorrow, that won’t change.