As you may know, my father was a Minister, too. And, it’s both humbling and surprising to find myself standing here nearly 60 years after he entered Seminary, a Minister myself. It was not a career I had any wish or plan to pursue – ever!
But, things change…
Some of my earliest memories are of my Father leading a worship service. I particularly remember his voice booming out over the congregation as we sang hymns. But, I have no memory of this from when I was older!
When I asked him about this a few years ago, he told me the following story. You see, he was called to the church (that I first remember him in) when I was about 3. On Sundays, he’d sing from the pulpit as he’d always done in his other churches. But, in this new church something was different, something that he did not realize mattered.
His previous churches had no audio system. So, singing from the pulpit had never been an issue, he’d never thought about it. And, he didn’t think about it in the new Church either, because the speakers pointed towards the congregation, not towards him. He didn’t hear what everyone else heard.
As a three year old, I had no idea that hearing the preacher sing so LOUDLY was not normal. To me, that was just the way things were, and should be. My perspective was never challenged until that moment in my late 40’s when my Father told me how “Pony” Felch, the church moderator, took him aside one day. Then, in his wonderful old Vermont twang he said, “You know Reverend, we really appreciate your singing. But, the next time you sing a hymn from the pulpit, take a step or two back!”
Our world is always changing, and yet we hang on to our old traditions and ways of seeing and doing things. We just sort of muddle along: usually (but not always) aware of these changes happening all around us. It often takes a crisis or challenge for us to fully appreciate how things have changed: that the old ways no longer work, and that we must adapt.
We see this in this morning’s reading: the story of a man concerned for his slave. He was prominent and powerful in Capernaum: a Centurion, a Greek, an outsider, but also the man who built their synagogue.
There are two common interpretations for 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, and not just because miracles are often used to explain what we don’t understand: neither Jesus nor Luke claim that a miracle occurred. So, why do we think it was?
The other view is that Jesus is condemning the Jews for their lack of faith compared to that of this Gentile. I have problems with this, too. For one thing, it doesn’t make sense. If the Centurion is a nonbeliever, then how can he believe in God, which he clearly does? This view also suggests the faith of the Jews was flawed or weak, even though nothing else here hints of that.
Finally, both of these interpretations share a common flaw. They both pit one against the other, creating drama where there is none; just like our modern media does. Yet, it is obvious that all parties: the Jews, the Centurion, and Jesus, have great respect for one another. They care for each other. Judging the worth of one or the others’ faith obscures the lesson, which lies in the interactions between these people.
The Centurion is a believer. His faith is seen when he says “speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” He was one of the many foreigners in Galilee and elsewhere who had learned of the Jewish God. They became believers; abandoning the gods of their ancestors for this only and lonely God who was not an empty lifeless idol.
But there was a problem, to become a full-fledged member of God’s family, you had to be a Jew. For the Centurion, doing so meant expulsion from the military, because Jews could not serve. He might even be executed. His Gentile friends, who are mentioned in this passage, would become separated from him. They would no longer be able to enter his home. Just like how the Jews do not enter his home, because he is a Gentile. The cost of becoming a full member of God’s family was very high.
The Centurion and those like him were stuck between two worlds. They had abandoned the pagan faith of their fathers, but could not fully embrace the faith of the Jews’ fathers. They would not go back to the old, but were not fully accepted by the new.
And yet, because of his love for God, the Centurion built a synagogue for the people of Capernaum. He was an unusual man, one of deep faith, and he loved the people. The Jews appreciated his love for them, and knew he wanted to be part of their family. They also understood the tremendous costs his conversion would entail. Their intercession for his slave was one of the few chances they’d had to help him in return. They were loved him, too; but were also trapped by their past.
But, something has changed. A little thing, like my father’s microphone; Jesus revealed it when he said “not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Whoa! Wait a second – the Centurion has a better faith? How can this be? The Jews are God’s people. Their faith must be better, right? The Gentiles had to come to the Jews, not the Jews to the Gentiles!
The Jews knew that God was not theirs alone. God was also the God of the Gentiles, even of those who didn’t believe. The new revelation was that you did not have to become a Jew to be acceptable to God. The slave’s healing confirmed this in their eyes: 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. All that mattered was their faith in God.
This is a lesson we often forget in our modern battles of the sound bite and internet meme. What matters is whether The Other is earnestly and honestly seeking God, which is a discussion between them and God – not us. Their political views, their wealth, even who they love, is irrelevant. God loves us all, just as we are. And, if we are earnest in our faith we will find the Creator: the Creator who loves us more than life itself. Our expectations and judgments of others doesn’t matter. And so, as people of God, we are called to see God working within others and embracing them exactly as God does us.
This same revelation lies at the heart of who we are here at ARK Community Church. We are not here out of an unchanged and unchallenged continuation of our past into the present. On the other hand, we do not abandon our past. We honor it, but also listen closely to learn what God’s will is for us, what has changed. We are attentive to where God directs our steps. We are here because we believe, deeply, that God is still speaking, that God is still listening. We believe God always has and always will love us just as we are. We are convinced that we are called to love any one and every one else in exactly the same way. And, we are called to physically demonstrate that love through our ministry and care for others.
In this morning’s passage, Jesus does not judge the Centurion, nor the Jews. He loves them both, and his words show how the old ways simply aren’t working any longer. Something has changed. His words are a challenge: this Centurion is a man of faith, just like us. And, our joint status as loved and loving children of God, brings us together in ways we’ve never imagined; including my becoming a minister despite being determined not to!
Things have changed, and we are no longer stuck on either side of an unbridgeable chasm. Instead, we are finally able to sing together before God, in perfect harmony.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, September 18, 2016.
Luke 7:1-10 (NRSV) The Centurion’s Sick Slave
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)