It is good to be back among friends, to once again worship with the Christian Community that embraced me as one of their own when I first moved back to New England in 2006. Your love of me brought healing, hope and eventually new love and new life into my life, and I am glad that I have been able to bring my wife and son, the fruits of the love you cultivated in me, here with me today, and I am blessed that you continue to support me in my call to the ministry through your invitation to have me speak here today – and so I extend a deeply felt “Thank You” to Lael, and all of you, for this opportunity.
And it is about embracing the stranger that I wish to speak of today. In today’s world, we see increasingly extreme cases of violence and brutality afflicted by those with power upon those who have little or none. And, our public discourse has degenerated from a dialog for finding common ground for action into a strident battle over whose demagoguery is the most pure and right. The quarrels and injustices grow ever more daunting; and the gaps that separate us seem wider, every time we turn around. All of these are examples of how rejecting those who are different, placing those who are foreign or strange – those not of our “family” – on the other side of a gap that has been opened between us and them.
And once it’s there, no matter whether we created it or others, it seems like there is nothing we can do to bridge that gap; to rebuild relationship and trust once they have been extinguished. We can’t fix it. Change for the better has never seemed so out of reach as it does now. These strife-laden gaps make it all too easy, and reasonable, to retreat into protecting our own turf: responding to differences with others’ by hardening our positions, and demonizing them in return.
Please join me in prayer…
Lord, open our eyes and hearts here today. Work in us to set aside our truth for your truth. Open my mouth, Lord, that I may be a faithful witness to your Gospel; that your Holy Spirit, working through my voice, and in the hearts of all of us here today, is made manifest. And, in turn, make us ready to share your gospel with all whom we encounter, and all who seek to know you and your boundless love and grace. Amen.
I began by naming how we create gaps between ourselves and others, gaps that promote so much misunderstanding, conflict, and injustice in so many places. And so I wonder, how can we fix this? How can we, as people of faith, reach out with the message of love and compassion and respect for our fellow human beings that is at the heart of the teachings of Christ to bridge these gaps?
This question was much on my mind as I meditated upon this morning’s gospel reading: the story of a Centurion concerned for his slave. A man of power in Capernaum: a Greek, an outsider, and the man who built their synagogue. A man who had profound respect for those over whom he had the right and might to dictate how they lived their lives, and perhaps even whether they lived at all.
Now, we usually 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, nor did he say one occurred. Nothing here says this is a miracle, and in fact the slave’s healing is mentioned only in passing at the end of the story. So, it seems this may have been seen as a confirmation that God loved the Centurion, and the slave, as much as God loved the Jews, but to push it a half step further to say that God loved the Centurion more than the Jews is not supported by what we read here, and conflicts with the Bible’s most fundamental message, that God loves us all, unconditionally and equally.
The other popular interpretation is that Jesus is condemning the Jews for their lack of faith by extoling the faith of a gentile. I have problems with this, too –because it places the primary focus of the narrative on the failures of the Jews, which is not at all a theme here – nothing touches upon such an idea.
Both of these interpretations share a common flaw, and the biggest problem of all, which is that they seek to pit one party against the other, looking for conflict where none is to be found – something we still see happening constantly in today’s world. They both seek to identify conflict despite the obvious great respect and care that all three parties – the Centurion, the Jews, and Jesus – have for each other. These interpretations judge the worth of one or the others’ faith, and obscure the primary message, which is found in the interactions between these people.
The Centurion was a believer. We see his faith when he says “speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” We see it in how he responds to Jesus and the Jews – not as subjects to be coerced, as Pilate and Herod would do, but as fellow human beings worthy of love and respect. He did so despite the huge gaps in culture, faith, upbringing and power that divided them.
This Centurion was one of the many Greeks that flooded into Galilee as a result of the Roman conquest. The Jews in Galilee, for the first time in centuries, had neighbors who were foreigners, and nonbelievers. We know that many of these foreigners, such as this Centurion, came to admire the Jewish God, and became believers themselves, abandoning the gods of their ancestors in favor of this only and lonely God who was not an empty and lifeless idol.
Many Jews, as much as they could, welcomed these strangers: accepting them into their lives and communities, although others resisted the changes, sometimes violently. The Centurion clearly did not label all Jews as terrorists simply because of the actions of some. He sought to build bridges. He did not choose the easier path of keeping the peace with the sword, rejecting the common practice of his peers and superiors. Instead, he respected and loved his subjects, even seeking to become one of them, as much as he could.
But to become a full member of God’s family, you had to be a Jew, conforming to their laws and lifestyle in every respect. You had to become one of their tribe. For the Centurion, in particular, doing so would have meant expulsion from the military, because Jews could not serve, and risked arrest and perhaps even execution. 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 the Jews, including Jesus, could not do when visiting him.
He could not bridge the gap on his own.
So, this Centurion, like all gentile believers, was stuck in the gap between two worlds – they had abandoned the faith of their fathers, but were not accepted as full members of the faith of the Jews’ fathers. They could not go back to the old, but were not fully embraced by the new – even though this Centurion built a synagogue for the people of Capernaum. He was an unusual man, and one of deep faith. He loved the people, and treated them with respect and fairness, despite the gap between them.
For the Jews of Capernaum, such love from one with the power of life and death over them was rare. They knew he wanted to be part of their community, and they understood the tremendous personal costs that doing so would have entailed for their friend. I’m sure their intercession for his slave was one of the few times where they had a chance to help him in return. They wanted to do more for him, but their faith and traditions would not allow it. They were trapped too. The gap could not be bridged.
But, something changes. Jesus said “not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Jesus did not judge the Centurion, nor the Jews, he simply stated that they both had faith, and that there was something new, and exemplary, about the Centurion’s faith. God loved them both. But, Jesus’ words were also a challenge: this Centurion has embraced God. What are you going to do?
The historical and archeological record, although sparse, gives us hints as to how they responded: the Jewish and Christian communities in Capernaum existed side by side for centuries. Even today, the remains of the synagogue’s main entrance are only steps from what is thought to have been the house of Peter, and – centuries later – a church. And, they even seem to have shared the Centurion’s synagogue. Capernaum’s synagogue and Jews also survived the retribution that followed each of the failed Jewish revolts against Rome, apparently refusing to allow the gaps others were creating to afflict them. The people of Capernaum supported and cared for each other, despite their differences, and despite the conflicts, controversies and growing pressure to reject the other that pressed in all around them.
We see this same resolve in the words of Justin Martyr, a pagan who became one of the great Fathers of the Church, born in Judea just a generation after the destruction of the Jewish temple following the first revolt, and who was a young child during the second revolt. He was converted and grew in the faith through the teaching of some who had been mentored at the feet of St. Paul and the other Apostles, and he wrote this to describe what lay at the core of Christian faith and practice in his day:
“[We] who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.”
He is saying we are called to love one another and to pray for our enemies, to be familiar with them – to know them, not reject them, and most importantly, that fixing what we see as others’ shortcomings is not in the Christian job description.
Jesus’ statement is based on the same principle: God honors all faith. No one can claim exclusive access or privilege because of who they are, what they believe, or what tribe they are from. All that matters is our faith in God.
We all too often forget this in our modern world of verbal bombs via the sound bite and internet meme, or of wars fought like video games; a world where it is all too easy to demonize your opponent from a distance and make them into an enemy, rather than seeing and embracing their humanity. Our expectations and plans for the other are totally irrelevant, we are not called to “fix” them or their problems, they are not made in our image. We do not stand where they stand, and therefore cannot see things as they do. Therefore, their path is not our path, just as their truth is not our truth. Their truth is not wrong, just different; because ultimately the only real truth is God’s truth, not ours, and God embraces all of us.
We are simply called to love and extend our hands towards the other, not to regard them as enemies, but to reach as far as we can across the gap. And, when they earnestly and honestly seek their Creator, they will do the same. The rift will be healed, the gap will be crossed on a bridge that is not just of our making, nor just of theirs, but of God’s, too.
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).