1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
This liturgical year, we’re in the year of Luke, and it’s been a while since we actually had a Gospel text from Luke, so I’m so glad to be back here! Because what I love about Luke, as a gospel author, is that everything he writes is so intentional. Luke is not in the business of telling us a story about Jesus just to listen to himself speak.
In Luke’s stories, every character is acting out of his or her social location, and we’re meant to notice that. And Jesus and the disciples are interacting across borders and through social boundaries, and we’re meant to notice that. The words and work of Jesus here are enmeshed in a society that did not have ears to hear or eyes to see, but that they do see and they do hear cannot be overlooked. The power of God to overcome our complicated human nonsense and bring a message of radical inclusion and social justice to a weary world cannot be overlooked. [Sometimes, I look quizzically at the lectionary compilers, and wonder just what common thread they’ve expected me to find between the texts they’ve selected. This week is one that restores my faith in them.]
As we journey through the history of the people of God in these texts, we hear first from Solomon the Wise, calling out to God and to his community that all should be welcome in the temple, that all should be here, offering their prayer and their praise in the name of this God, YHWH, who is the breath of their common life. That where you come from should not bar you from this community. Our God is the God of all people. The good news is for the whole people of earth.
It can feel a little sticky, though, in our postmodern world of political correctness, to proclaim that our God is the God above all other gods. And so a theologian named Diane Chen reminds us, for that reason, that we must not only tell the world of our God’s salvation, “but also be agents of that salvation in a hurting and unjust world.” I love best what she writes, next, “proclaiming God cannot be done at a safe distance,” she says. “Christians cannot insulate themselves from the ills of the world and settle for a holy huddle. God's compassion and justice are organic and tactile. They require engagement in the messiness of poverty, marginalization, exploitation, and all other atrocities human beings do to themselves, to one another, and to creation on individual and systemic levels.” She then asks if, now that we’ve talked the talk, if we’re willing to walk the walk. This deep dive into human ills is exactly where Luke’s stories of Jesus take us.
This story of the healing of the centurion’s slave could not be richer. Our cast of characters come from markedly different social locations. Jesus, a transient Jewish rabbi—the centurion, an authority of the Roman empire—the slave, the least powerful it is possible to be. We’re looking at a microcosm of this whole society.
This Roman centurion is unusual in a few ways. He’s seeking the healing of one of his slaves—presumably, he has many, and could just as easily be rid of this one and get a healthy one without another thought, but Luke tells us that this centurion “valued his slave highly.” And Luke also tells us that the centurion was a benefactor of the local Jewish community, having contributed to the building of their house of worship. That’s pretty unusual.
He sent some Jewish friends of his to talk to Jesus on his behalf, because that’s what someone with his civil authority would do. These Jewish elders implored Jesus on their centurion friends’ behalf, listing just how positive an influence he’d had on the community, and expressing his worthiness of having Jesus heal his slave.
Jesus had any number of options, here. He could have simply dismissed these Jewish elders because he didn’t have time, or because he was on his way to somewhere more important, or because he had no business healing the slave of a Roman centurion, or because he had no business communicating with a Roman centurion, or because he couldn’t be bothered to enter the ritually unclean house of the Roman centurion…
Instead, he notices that he’s not far from the place where the centurion lives, and will just head on over there and see what’s happening. Having been informed of Jesus’ impending visit, the centurion panics, sending more messengers to meet Jesus on the road and explain that Jesus should stop right where he is—the centurion cannot allow Jesus to enter his ritually unclean house, cannot imagine that Jesus himself would actually come out to his house of all places and heal his slave of all slaves, and says that certainly Jesus can just say the word, from out there on the road, and all manner of things will be made well.
A great thing is happening here. Simultaneously, Jesus’ willingness to come into this place makes the centurion fear that he is unworthy of the generosity and healing headed toward his household, and Jesus’ willingness to come has declared the centurion worthy. Jesus’ willingness to cross all sorts of social boundaries has rendered them all inert.
There are no roadblocks to the healing presence and life-giving word of Jesus, the Christ. The rules that govern this society—so deeply entrenched that the rules themselves make this story worth telling—have been bent and broken by the faith of this centurion—simultaneous cautious optimism and bold assertion of his place in the family of God.
We, as human people, have put walls between us and God, even though our own scriptures proclaim that nothing can separate us! Clearly, grace such as that is for others, who are more than worthy to receive it, but us? Oh, no, we have done something to render us unworthy. If you only knew just what it was we’d done.
Luke has written this story down so that we might be assured that the love of God in Jesus, the Christ, is not restricted by the boundaries we’ve constructed.
And now that we know that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come neither height nor depth nor all of creation can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord…now that we know that, we can proclaim ever-so-boldly, the freedom that is ours. Certainly, the weight of the world hangs over our heads, but the love of God liberates us from all of that. Untangles us from the webs we weave. Unmires us from the muck of oppressive systems set up to keep us down.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul warns against the dangers of the “nongospel” that he fears will ensnare them. We had some great conversations at Bible Exploration earlier this week about all the things that this “nongospel” could be in our world. We hear the prosperity gospel—the first shall be first and the last shall be last, right?—all day every day in our national consumer struggle to own everything. We are lured in to place our faith in the false gods of power, and money, and sex, and violence, and politics, and empire, and fear of other.
The human systems of Jesus’ social order were not designed for equity and neither are the systems of our social order. The impoverished, the marginalized, and the exploited are still as such. The violence we inflict on ourselves, each other, and our planet—whether we are directly complicit or simply do nothing to stop it—make our world heavy and dark.
We are drawn, therefore, to these nongospel gods, that promise us release from that darkness and weight. We are drawn to them by our secular world, totally, but we’re drawn to them out of the mouths of preachers, too. This myth of the gospel as individualist self-help manual comes to us from church after church. But this morning, His Holiness Pope Francis tweeted that, "the world tells us to seek success, power, and money. God tells us to seek humility, service, and love." And so anything preached as gospel that is remotely contradictory to “love your God and love your neighbor as yourself” should cause us to, at the very least, raise our eyebrows.
What’s alluring about these nongospels is that they sound wayyyyy easier than what the words of Jesus are calling us to do and be. The Apostle Paul’s loyalty to the radically equalizing gospel of Jesus the Christ leads him to admonish the church at Galatia for their quick and easy fall into the nongospel. He writes that he is, “astonished” that they are “so quickly deserting the one who called” them “in the grace of Christ.” But what he doesn’t write is that it’s going to be easy or popular to follow in the example left for them by Jesus, the Christ. Instead, he writes one of my favorite sentences in all of his letters. “If I were still pleasing people,” he writes, “I would not be a servant of Christ.” And by pleasing people, he doesn’t mean being friendly and nice—because certainly that is within the scope of being a Christian.
But that is far too soft. The message of Jesus the Christ—and with it the mission of the church—is to proclaim the radical notion that all of us are equally worthy of the love of God, and that we ought to express our belovedness in our love for and service of one another. And Paul is reminding the church at Galatia that this is a new way of being. This doesn’t sidle right up to business as usual. This is a new life. We are a new creation. This is unlike any community of which we’ve ever been part—and unlike any community from which we’ve ever been excluded!
At worship on Thursday, a song called “Ain’t No Reason,” by Brett Dennen, served as a companion to this Gospel text. In it, Brett laments that our current world doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, a whole lot of the time. He sings, “There ain’t no reason things are this way—it’s how they’ve always been and they intend to stay. I can’t explain why we live this way, but we do it every day.” He talks about a plethora of social ills that he could do without—poverty, hate, political corruption, odious debt, slavery, homelessness, the prison-industrial complex, weapons of war, sweatshops—but he croons in a breathtakingly simple, repetitive chorus, that love will come set us free. Though there is chaos and commotion wherever we go, he sings, we try to follow in the alternative way of love.
And so, like Brett, we know that the world is dark and dreary and heavy and that our own hearts can be dark and dreary and heavy. And our needs to be healed and to be freed and to be fed imply that there is sickness, and there is imprisonment, and there is hunger and thirst. The gospel we hear and proclaim to all nations does not suppose that these realities are covered up or sugar-coated or neatly-packaged. Or that you—or anyone—is not worthy of being healed, freed, and fed—but rather, the love of God in Jesus the Christ has brought about new realities of liberation and wholeness and community. Love has come and set us free.
Thanks be to God. Amen.