in hoc signes vinces

No, this doesn’t mean that Vince had to pawn his wife’s engagement ring. “In this sign, conquer” is the usual translation, and it refers to the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, supposedly as a result of his vision of the cross that preceded the Battle of Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312.

But was Constantine truly a Christian? We can’t know whether God truly called him, but we do know that Constantine basically turned the Gospel of Jesus on its head, by merging the state and the faith in the risen Lord. For better or worse, this has been the norm in the 1700 or so years since Constantine’s epiphany.

Jesus was pretty clear that his message wasn’t about earthly power. He specifically rejects earthly power, when Satan offers him the world in Matthew 4:

8…the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.'”

Now, one could have (at least) two interpretations here. The first, and obvious one is that Jesus will not serve Satan, period, but that he had no other problem with being a mightier version of King David. That is, a secular ruler. But it is also clear that Jesus was not about worldly power. He rejected it, and purposely chose, in his ministry, to favor the powerless, the weak, the humble. Hardly a power-hungry messiah, he.

Jesus’ ministry, and his Passion, give the lie to any thought that he was sent to us to become our worldly ruler. Jesus willingly submitted to the secular authorities, even though he knew it meant heinous torture and a (supposedly) shameful death on the cross.

In the Lord’s words to Pilate, John 18:36:

My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.

Now, fast forward to the pagan Constantine. He sees that God has, indeed, sent Jesus to die for our sins. But Connie takes only part of the message, and, before you know it, in the “Emperor is always right” Roman tradition, everyone becomes a Christian. Which then became the model for the Roman church, as well as for any number of so-called national churches (e.g. the Armenians, who claim to be the first nation to have converted en masse in 301 AD).

Mass conversions appear to be the norm, at least until the Reformation allowed (some) Protestants to exercise freedom of conscience, and allow the Lord to call them…or not. It’s impossible to know what was in the hearts of all of those millions upon millions of those who became Christian because their emperor, king, or liege lord were. And, it’s certainly possible that this is how the Holy Spirit worked in history. Possible, yes. Likely? I have my doubts.

Perhaps the national churches, including Constantine’s Roman church in the fourth century, are part of God’s plan for our salvation. Perhaps. I’m skeptical, given what Jesus himself has told us. My belief is that salvation is a personal matter, between us and God, through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, that we may know Jesus Christ as our Lord. Our only Lord. Not to be confused with any secular government or title.

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