Scripture: Luke 7:1-10
The world was shocked a couple of weeks ago at a statement made by the Pope. For some his statement barely registered but for many it turned everything upside down. What was that statement?
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ — all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone. ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist.’ But do good: We will meet one another there.” (The Washington Times)
This is a very profound statement. I do not even know if I am able to fully grasp what Francis is saying. Even the Vatican spokesmen are trying to explain it. This one statement has turned a thousand years of tradition on its head.
Over the past few years there have been many statements made and books published that have challenged the traditional understandings of what it means to be a Christian. Two years ago Rob Bell wrote a book called “Love Wins” which challenges our understanding of Heaven and Hell. He met stark criticism from the many because of what he wrote in those pages. Others have faced challenges as well. Brian McLaren faced similar struggles when he penned the first book of a series called “A New Kind of Christian” This series challenges basically everything.
Why do I bring up these dark issues today? I mention them because the Christian community as a whole has gotten excited about these challenges being made by leaders within. Over the past 10 years a movement has emerged out of the church that may become a forerunner to the next big thing in faith. Leonard Sweet calls it a perfect storm. I have mentioned from the first Sunday that I have been here that there is a new age on the horizon and that the Friends Church is going to be a part of it. I say this because there is a change in the air, the wind is blowing and in many cases it is blowing in our direction. For the past few centuries we have had scholars telling us what to believe, how to believe, how to act, and what our responses should be. These things do not work well in a postmodern culture. People are leaving churches because of this, but that does not mean that they are not hungry for the gospel. The culture today is just as hungry if not hungrier for the gospel than they have ever been. But they do not want to see a gospel of word but one of action.
In today’s scripture reading, we have a gospel of action. Someone needs healing, someone can provide the healing, and the caregiver seeks out the one that can provide the healing. On the surface it seems like so many stories we hear of Jesus, but this particular one is packed full of revolutionary theology. The characters present in the narrative are a slave, a military leader, Jesus, and the established religious leaders.
Of all the healing narratives in the gospel this is near the top of my personal favorites. I like it because it does not really fit with our traditions. First off the military leader is a Roman Centurion. The Roman Centurions are the leaders of the most efficient military force on the planet at that time in history. The legions are a group of 1000 men, broken up into 10 groups of 100 men. These groups could lock their shields together and effectively become a human tank pushing into battle. The Centurion is the leader of these tanks. The legions, with these centurions, are what gave Rome the power. And if the legions are present in an area that usually means that the place is not exactly on good terms with Rome.
Israel and Rome are not exactly on great terms with each other. Throughout the New Testament of scripture and really throughout the history of Rome, this province in the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire have had problem. History has shown that the reason Rome pulled out of the British Isles correlates with rebellion in Israel. So the Jewish citizens and the Roman citizens are not that friendly. This makes this story so much better. Because this military leader is not opposed to the Jews, in many cases he loves them. The leaders of this community actually tell Jesus that this guy is ok. He even built their synagogue. At first glance we may think that he was accepted, as part of the community but that would not be the total truth. He was still considered a Gentile. He was not accepted into the community completely. Why, because he was a centurion. As long as he was a leader in the army that opposes Israel he could not be fully accepted.
So this guy has a slave that is sick. A slave. In today’s world we often forget what slavery is. We believe that slavery was abolished centuries ago, but that is not exactly the truth. There are more slaves today than there were just prior to our civil war. But that is not the point. A slave is a person that does not have rights. They are seen as subhuman by the ruling classes. They are exploited because they have no other options available to them. But this particular person meant something to this Roman soldier. Yes he was still a slave but this person was somewhat in between, he was almost considered a member of the family. He was treasured enough that the loss of this particular slave would have devastated the household of this soldier. Not many of our employers would care for us if we were sick. If we work or have worked in the corporate world our lives are not treasured by our employers beyond the value of the labor we can give them, yet to this man this slave was important. So he sought out the great healer.
The surprising thing is that Jesus heard about this slave, and immediately set out to go to the man’s house. There was no real discussion as to if this man was worthy of grace. Jesus heard about a need and He responded. This response surprised the Roman Centurion, so he sent out a delegation. This Roman knew that if Jesus were to come to his house, there could be consequences. He respected this rabbi and did not want to tarnish His reputation. The delegation relayed a message to Jesus from this man saying in short, “I understand authority, I understand power and your power is greater than mine. But as I give a command and things get done, I know that you only have to say a word and your command will be done.”
Jesus looks at those around him and is really impressed with this Roman. His faith in God is greater than the faith of those in the community claiming to be the people of God. So he says the word and the healing takes place.
It is a great testimony of the power of God. A man that is not even accepted into the community shows greater faith than those that have been blessed by the community. A man that is seen as an enemy of God is actually found to be a greater friend of God than even the disciples of Christ. This man understood things. He challenged the traditional understanding of the religious people and through him Jesus showed the world that God is not only for the Jews but also for all humanity.
At times we as religious people can get bound up in traditions. I am not saying that traditions in themselves are bad or wrong. I love traditions when they are still providing something vital to a community. But often traditions need to be challenged. It is in those tradition-challenging times where we actually have renewed growth. In the 1517 a man by the name of Martin Luther challenged the traditions of the church by nailing a document to a door. This action sparked a fire that ignited into wild fire of reforms throughout the Church. Although these reforms ultimately resulted in a violent struggle for power many very good things came out of it. The religious community had to examine their faith, determine what was important and live it out. This fire of reformation did not only give the world the protestant churches free from the oversight of the pope but it also prompted reforms within the Catholic Church as well.
The greatest divide in the western church could have been one of the most important things in history. From that moment in time everything about faith changed. This promoted some of the greatest religious scholarship; many of the things we believe today came directly out of this great divide. But does that mean that God finished His work with us? Absolutely not, there have been movements since this period of time that have awakened growth and challenged our traditional understandings of God. With every change or shift in culture the church goes through a period of reformation. This is why there are Episcopal and Presbyterians, Quakers and Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans, Dominicans and Jesuits. All of these movements are responses or challenges to the traditional understanding of God; with each of these movements there has been a renewed love for God.
The Pope said, “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ. – All of us, not just Catholics, Everyone…even the atheists. Everyone.” Wow… that is some crazy universalism. The Pope along with the emerging church pastors that have been critizised over the past few years, I believe, are onto something amazing. Our theology does not really matter if our theology is not prompting us to love people more than those without any theology. The Pope and the emerging church ministers are both promoting a missional church. A church that is willing to walk to the house of the enemy military leaders house to pray for the healing of one of their servants. They are urging us to stop talking about Jesus and start living like Jesus. They are urging us to become passionate about service to others and meeting people along the way. Meeting with them, serving with them, and living with them.
This is what Jesus did. He went out and lived among the people, he healed the people and taught them where they were. Have you noticed that most of Jesus’ sermons are not spoken in the synagogue, but on a hillside? Most of his teaching is not in a formal worship setting but along a road walking from one place to another. And to top it off not one of the people he lived among believed the same things that he believed. They all had their own views of who he should be and what he should be doing.
A Roman Centurion has more faith than all of Israel, the Pope says that even the Atheists have been redeemed by the Blood of Jesus, the traditions we have had for over a thousand years are being challenged by pastors and leaders all around us. People are saying that the end is near and I agree, the end of an age is coming to a close, and it is ushering in a new age filled with hope. It is ushering in a new kind of Christian for a new kind of Church, A Church that is focused less on how many people can fill the pews, but how many people they can serve. They are encouraging us to be a church that is Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the Love of Christ with others. Some of us may be fearful of the coming days…but the perfect love of Christ casts out all fear, and with a word He can bring hope and healing to your life.
As we enter into this time of open worship I encourage each of us to open our bibles again to Luke 7 and slowly read through these 10 verses yet again. As you read consider what in your life needs a healing word from Christ, what tradition or understanding of God do you hold that may be challenged today, and in whom are you basing your hope?