As most of you know, my father, Allen Vander Meulen Jr., was once a Minister here. It’s humbling and a bit surreal to stand here nearly 50 years after his first Sunday here; and I am happy to report that both he and my mother are here today! Thank you, Rev. McFadden, and all of you, for inviting me to speak here this morning: it is a blessing and an honor. I am deeply grateful.
My earliest memories are connected with this church. One of the first, I think, is hearing my Dad’s voice boom out over the congregation during hymns.
You see, he’d stand here and sing as he’d always done in his previous churches. But, in coming here something was different, something that he did not realize mattered. Those previous churches had not had one of these [TAP ON MIKE]. So, singing in full volume with his powerful voice had never been an issue before, he’d never had to think about it – and didn’t think about it because the speakers pointed towards the congregation, not towards him – he didn’t hear what we heard.
And I was three years old – I didn’t know any different. I had no idea that hearing the preacher sing so LOUDLY was not normal, not even at those times when I recalled it decades later. It had been cemented in my mind as the way things were, life as normal. My perspective on it was never challenged until a moment of revelation – in my forties, I think – when I finally heard the story of how “Pony” Felch, the church moderator at the time, took my Dad aside one day and said in that wonderful old Vermont accent of his “You know Allen, next time you sing a hymn from the pulpit, take a step back!”
Our world is always changing, and yet we hang on to our old traditions and ways of seeing things. This doesn’t always work well, and we often don’t realize it. We just muddle along, often somewhat aware of the changes going on around us, but perhaps not having thought through their full impact. It often takes a challenge to our views and memories for us to fully appreciate what has happened, and how those changes affect us and what we are called to do.
I see this in this morning’s scripture reading: the story of a Centurion concerned for his slave. He was a man of power in Capernaum: a Greek, an outsider, but also the man who built their synagogue. In this reading, we see a man who has profound respect for those over whom he has the right and might to dictate how they are to live their lives, and perhaps even whether they live, or die.
Now, usually we see one of two interpretations of this story. The first is that the great faith of the Centurion results in a “reward” from God: a miracle, the healing of his slave. I’m skeptical. For one thing, Jesus did not claim to have performed a miracle here, nor did he say one occurred. But also, an abundantly clear theme I see in the Bible is that God doesn’t play favorites. If God performs miracles as rewards for good behavior, then in effect we are God’s pets instead of beings worthy of respect and love. Therefore, I see most miracles as metaphor rather than fact.
Another interpretation is that Jesus is condemning the Jews for their lack of faith by extoling the faith a nonbeliever. I have problems with this, too. For one thing, it doesn’t make sense. If the centurion is a nonbeliever, then how could he have had faith in God, which he clearly has? For another, it places too much focus on the flaws of the Jews, which is not at all a theme of this passage – nothing else here touches upon such an idea.
Both of these interpretations share a common flaw, which is that they seek to pit one party against the other, looking for conflict where none is to be found, even though it is obvious that all parties: the Jews, the Centurion, and Jesus, have great respect for each other and care for each other. These attempts to judge the worthiness of one or the others’ faith obscures the primary message: the lesson lies in the interaction between these people.
And the Centurion was a believer. We see his faith when he says “speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” He was one of the many Greeks that flooded into Galilee in that era as a result of the Roman conquest, and Jews in Galilee – for the first time in centuries – came to develop deep relationships with people foreign to them, with nonbelievers. And, we know from what we read throughout the New Testament and from other ancient sources, that many of these foreigners, such as this Centurion, came to admire the Jewish God, and in fact became believers, abandoning the gods of their ancestors in favor of this only and lonely God who was not an empty lifeless idol.
But there was a problem, to become a full fledged and respected member of God’s people, you had to be a Jew. Men had to undergo circumcision, and everyone had to conform to the laws and lifestyle of a Jew. For the Centurion, in particular, doing so would have meant expulsion from the military, because Jews could not serve. He might have even been arrested and executed. It also meant that his Greek friends, who are mentioned in this scripture, would be separated from him. They would no longer be able to enter his home, as he acknowledges Jews have to do when visiting him, since he is still a Gentile. The cost was too high.
So, this Centurion, and most Greek believers, were stuck between two worlds – they had abandoned the pagan religion of their fathers, but could not do what it took to become full members of the faith of the Jews’ fathers. They were unwilling to go back to the old, but were not fully embraced by the new, either. Because of his love of God, the Centurion built a synagogue for the people of Capernaum. He was an unusual man, and one of deep faith, he loved the people, and must have treated them with respect and fairness.
For the Jews of Capernaum, such love from those with power over them was rare. They knew he wanted to be part of their community, and they certainly understood the tremendous personal costs that doing so would entail for their friend. I’m sure that their intercession for his slave was one of those few times when they had a chance to help him in return. They wanted to do more for him, to embrace him fully, but their faith and traditions would not allow it. They were trapped too.
But, something has changed, and for the first time the change is named, confronting the Jews of Capernaum with a challenge. It was just a little thing, like that microphone was. It begins when Jesus says “not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Whoa! Wait a second – the Centurion has a more perfect faith than that of any Jew? “How can this be?” The Jews are God’s people. Their faith must be better, right?
I think this was one of those moments of Revelation: God was with the Centurion, too. And, the historical and archeological record seems to confirm this. After Jesus’ lifetime, the Jewish and Christian communities in Capernaum existed side by side for centuries, and even seem to have shared the Centurion’s synagogue. What’s even more important to note is that Capernaum’s synagogue and Jews survived the retribution that followed both of the two great failed revolts against Roman rule. The two communities must have been supporting, and caring for each other, respecting each other despite their differences.
Jesus’ statement, that this man had faith, and then finding the slave healed, showed the people of Capernaum, Gentile and Jew alike, that God honored all people of faith. What mattered was not who they were, how they’d come there, what their social status was, or what their faith had once been. What mattered was their faith in God.
And, I think this is a lesson we all too often forget in our modern world of political battles via the sound bite and the internet meme. What matters is whether the other is earnestly and honestly seeking God, not their political views, their wealth, or who they love. If they are earnest in their faith, they will eventually find their Creator, just as we have, a Creator that already loves them more than life itself. Our expectations for them are totally irrelevant. God loves them just as they are, and so, as people of God, we are called to see God working within them and embrace them exactly as they are, welcoming them into our lives just as God does.
In this passage, Jesus did not judge the Centurion, nor the Jews, he simply noted that life was different, the old ways weren’t working any longer. His words were a challenge: this Centurion is a man of faith, just like you. And, it was that commonality, that joint status as loved and loving children of God, that brought them together in a way that had not been imagined previously. They were no longer stuck, they were finally able to sing together before God, in perfect harmony. Hallelujah!
Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).