May 29th, 2016
1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
What does it mean to encounter Christ? Imagine two people—one is a king, with wealth beyond compare, accustomed to command to be obeyed, who wears only the finest clothes and eats only the finest foods, who listens to new compositions of music and watches new plays from his own box in the theater. And imagine another man—a man who has lived most of his life with no written language, who often struggled to clothe himself, who spent every day of his life hunting and gathering food,, and who knows nothing about science or mathematics or ships. Would these two men have anything in common? Could, if they met, have anything to say to one another? Perhaps they would think of each other as gods and savages. But yet there is something, something all our texts tell us: Christ died and Christ lives for them both. If they were to be able to learn one another’s language and to put aside their mutual suspicion and their pride, and if they were to say to each other, “Christ has died for me, a sinner, and lives for me, a redeemed man,” they’d have a lot to talk about.
From a sociological perspective, our Gospel text today is either a gold mine or a mine field. It’s hard to tell. Scholars make a lot of assumptions to open the text—you’ll often hear, for instance that Gentiles and Jews never mixed, that Jesus was always crossing the boundary between unclean and clean. These interpretations often underscore our social justice exegesis, and provide a biblical warrant for welcoming the excluded and the marginalized. But that’s not very accurate.
Look at today’s Gospel passage, the account of Jesus’ healing a Centurion’s son. From a social justice view, this is a problematic passage—a Centurion is like a Roman platoon commander, in charge of 100 soldiers. And, one could say, the leaders of the village of Capernaum have collaborated with a paternalistic occupier: they have allowed him to build a house of prayer, and they honor him. The elders and the leaders of the community converse with him—the revolution, as they say, is not at all televised. Not to mention that this belies the common exegesis that Jesus was a radical boundary-crosser, since there is not only association but mutual respect between the colonizer and the colonized here. On Memorial Day weekend, I could even laud the military officer, and lift him up as an example of good military conduct. God bless our troops!
But this passage shows us this easy dichotomy is just too easy. Notice that there is a relationship between the two branches. There are always collaborators, there are always deals to be made, there are always men and women of honor and dishonor. This Centurion’s love for the Jews does not justify his presence there; but it does allow him to appeal, through the proper channels, to this healer, and find help for his slave. You could say that he’s using his privilege. And, well, there’s also that little matter: this is a land of slavery, a common fate for many common people. The master’s care for his slave is like the ultimate golden cage.
The more we look at this passage, the more we see how screwed up this whole social situation is: collaboration, slavery, colonization, military occupation. We see also the human side of all these people: the love and respect two different peoples managed to have, the love of one man for another, the ties of society that bind one groups to another, and constant presence of death in life, and behind all of this, like a stage backdrop, the curtain of greed and imperialism that let this whole story come to pass.
In other words, this is all messed up. But there is one other thing that happens in this story which changes the situation—it’s Jesus. To him the elders say, “Help this man, for he is worthy.” But to Jesus, the centurion’s message was, “I am not worthy.” Perhaps the centurion was, in the new vernacular, woke to his privilege and to his oppression of the Jews. Or maybe he was experiencing what happens when you love someone else: that the thing you feel when you love feels too pure for your body and your soul, a feeling that sears you with its purity, and that reduces you to a smoking heap, and you realize your own impurity and unworthiness. I’d like to believe that it is the latter, that love has made the centurion unworthy.
This is what happens to us when we feel God’s love. We feel profoundly unworthy of being loved so completely, and indeed we are. There is nothing that we have done that has caused God to attend to us in love. I think this is the most countercultural moment in this Gospel passage—the centurion makes no claim to be worthy, and it is precisely this naked plea, this simple faith, made with an awareness of unworthiness, that amazes Jesus. He calls this faith. It is trust that love is not in vain, and that the experience of being revealed as unworthy is worth the love that has reveals ourselves to one another.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age,” Paul writes. Galatians is a letter about freedom, and the freedom that comes us when God’s love reduces our worthiness to rubble. Galatians has a bit of a reputation—it is Paul at his most angry. But he has a reason—he has proclaimed the good news of freedom in Christ Jesus, the reduction of the evils of this world into rubble, and he hears that rather than exulting in freedeom, the Galatians are rebuilding their walls. No! Paul screams across the paper. No! Paul says, “I once persecuted you, and because of Christ, I know preach Christ.” This is his testimony about the power of Christ to break down every division and evil through love—God’s love of becoming human and taking away our sin. When God reduces us to rubble, God will build us into something new and beautiful—Paul will say, a new creation.
And this promise of Christ is for all people. It is an invitation for every single person who comes screaming into this world. Social justice is not chief aim of our faith, but rather a side effect of loving our enemies and believing that God is reconciling all things to himself through our Lord Jesus Christ. On Memorial Day weekend, we remember all the dead men and women who fought for our nation and our land, and we laud them for their sacrifice. But the freedom they won also allows us to rain down bombs on nations far away by drones, operated by young men in trailers in Kansas and other places. The freedom they won freed the slaves, after killing thousand upon thousands of their own brothers, but it failed to win the peace or even establish equality for all colors of human beings in our nation, even today.
But doesn’t the love of God spur us on? It is ok to admit, when the searing of love of God burns us, that as a nation we fall short of our ideals and do not honor the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers with our lives and our laws as well as our words. God’s love impels us to forgiveness and reconciliation, not only of our enemies, but also of ourselves. The cross of Christ stands in judgment over every part of our lives, the good deeds as well as the bad. But God’s love is not predicated on our deserving, but on itself, on God’s own will to love us.
When I was a child, I once traveled with my father by canoe to a distant village in Madagascar. I remember being warned not to fall out of the canoe, because of the crocodiles in the water, that often reached 8 to 12 feet. We finally came to church, made of palm leaves, and the sunlight poured through the walls. We sang and there was preaching, and together we worshipped Christ. What did I have in common with those people? Even as a third- or fourth-grader, I was probably better educated than almost all of them. I was rich beyond their imagining. I had been in an airplane and seen a computer. In the front of the church hung a cross, and among us, reducing us all and building us all, was the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack