This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Stronger Than Death.

Luke 7:1-17

            After Luke tells us about his representative sermon, Jesus goes back to Capernaum.  There he is met my some of the local elders, from the synagogue.  They tell him there is this centurion, of all people, who has a sick servant, and will Jesus please go and heal him.
            Their appeal is sincere, and, because it has to do with a centurion, that is, a commander in the occupying Roman Army, someone Jews were more likely to hate than not, they also give Jesus an extra character reference.  “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”  So, he’s a Roman soldier, but he’s a good Roman soldier.
            When the British had their Empire, and a British commander acted like this Roman commander is acting, they called it “going native.”  That is, he has fallen in love with the culture he was sent to conquer, subjugate, exploit, and destroy. 
            He is probably not a Roman himself, ethnically.  More likely he is from some nation that had been conquered by Rome.  He could be from Germany, or Tunisia, or Spain.  So there’s a good chance that he has in his background some experience or memory of what it is like to be part of a conquered, occupied, defeated nation.  So even though he has joined the winners, maybe he is still able to identify and sympathize with the losers.  
            Wherever he is from, he was recruited for the army, and he worked his way up to achieve the rank of centurion, an officer in command of a hundred men.  I don’t know the military very well, but perhaps that is like a captain or a major in today’s terms. 
            He is assigned to Judea.  But he comes to appreciate and admire Judaism and the Jewish people.  He would not have formally converted, but he observes Jewish life with respect.  He is the kind of person who would be attracted to the church a generation later, people whom Paul calls “godfearers.” 
            This centurion may actually have been retired, since historians attest that there were no actual Roman legions in Galilee at this time.  The Romans left governing to their puppet, Herod.

            In any case, it is interesting that Jesus entertains this proposal of going to heal the centurion’s servant.  The recommendation he receives about him from the Jewish elders is significant.  The centurion does not presume to summon Jesus on his own.  That would have looked bad.  The huge power differential would have outweighed everything.  Even the most humble direct request could not help but sound like a command. 
            But he shows respect and humility by approaching the village elders as mediators.  And the elders recognize their debt to him and how fortunate they are to have a sympathetic centurion in town.  They transmit his request to Jesus, even using the word axios, “he is worthy.”
            So Jesus agrees and begins to make his way to the centurion’s house.  Jesus is not concerned by the fact that the man is not only not a Jew, but an officer in the oppressing Roman army.  As usual, Jesus’ only agenda is to heal someone who needs healing.  Men, women, Romans, Jews, Pharisees, prostitutes, tax-collectors… it’s all the same to Jesus.  He is happy to heal anyone. 
            I can imagine Jesus remarking to one of these elders something like, “So, let me get this straight, you guys who are always complaining about how I associate with tax collectors and prostitutes, now you want me to do a favor for a Roman centurion?  A Gentile?  An agent of the emperor?  Jewish sinners are unworthy of healing, but now you decide that a Roman centurion is ‘worthy’?  How does that work?”
            And while they are walking along, the centurion sends some of his friends – friends, mind you, not soldiers – and the friends bring a message from him.  The message is: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you.  But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.  For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it.”
            This gets Jesus’ attention.  First of all, this imperial centurion refers to a Jewish holy man as “lord.”  That never happens.  Secondly, for all the protestations of the elders that he is worthy, he himself specifically admits that he is not worthy.  He is humbling himself before Jesus in a remarkable way.  The Romans maintained their authority mainly by terror and violence.  A centurion humbling himself before some obscure Jewish faith-healer would not have gone over well.
            But most strikingly, the centurion seems to assume that Jesus’ authority over diseases is analogous to the rule an officer has over his troops.  It is just a matter of making his will known and things happen.  Obedience is just assumed.  Say the word, and it is done.

            And Jesus is amazed.  He says, “Woah, even my own people don’t trust in me the way this foreigner does.”  Jesus doesn’t even have to say anything at all.  He doesn’t actually give any orders.  The messengers return to the centurion’s house and find the servant completely well.
            So even a foreigner, and an enemy soldier at that, can have faith.  The message here is that anyone can trust in Jesus and find healing.  And it is about that trust, more even than anything Jesus himself says or does.  If we trust in him, his power can work long-distance.
            The next day Jesus is coming to another Galilean village, called Nain, with a large crowd following him.  Near the village gate they meet a funeral procession going the other way, out to the burial ground.
            This funeral was particularly tragic because the deceased was a young man whose mother was still alive.  His death, aside from the sorrow of having to watch your only child die, also meant almost certain destitution for her.  She is probably inconsolable with grief as she walks along with the cortege. 
            Jesus observes all this and has compassion on the woman, telling her not to cry, even though she has every reason.  I suspect that what he meant is not that she repress her grief, but to trust him.  For her not to cry would be somewhat counter-intuitive.  If there is ever any time when tears are appropriate it is as the funeral of your only child.  Indeed, we would wonder about the mental health of anyone not crying in that situation.
            Jesus is enacting his teaching from chapter 6 about how those who weep now are blessed because, in the reversal of God’s new order, they are soon to be laughing for joy.  His telling the woman not to weep is his way of saying, “Chill, this is all going to work out.  Trust me.”   
            Then he touches the stretcher on which they are carrying the body, which makes them stop, and probably put it down.  Jesus looks down at the dead man, wrapped in a white shroud, and says to him, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  And the dead corpse begins to sit up and starts talking!  His life is restored to him.
            Another reversal.  Jesus brings life out of death.  Nothing is impossible for Jesus.  Not even death is too strong or terrible for him.
            Pulling linen cloth off the young man’s face, Jesus restores him to his mother.  The crowd, as they say, goes wild.

            The good news for us in all this is first that no one is excluded from Jesus’ ministry, not even a Roman centurion.  With humility and respect, without imagining himself worthy – but hoping that by his generosity he will be declared worthy by others, he demonstrates his trust in the Lord Jesus.  It is that trust in what Jesus can do that brings healing and wholeness into lives that may very well be ruined by a career of violence.  We can only imagine what the centurion was engaged in before he retired to a villa by the Sea of Galilee.  The Galileans did not have to imagine.
            Here is an individual for whom death and murder was likely a way of life for years.  He was an officer in the most ruthless and successful imperial army in history, to that time.  We know some of the brutal methods they used to subjugate conquered peoples, crucifixion being just one example.  How many crucifixions had this centurion supervised? 
            And yet even here, to this professional distributor of wanton death and destruction, life can come.  Repentance, a change of mindset and behavior, is possible.  One may trust in the love and power of this simple healer from Nazareth, and find salvation.  Even this warrior may know that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” as John 3:17 says.
            If God can release and welcome and serve the purveyor and perpetrator of death, God can certainly as well restore to life one who has been a victim of death.  Jesus Christ comes into the world to restore and revive our relationships.  The centurion does not ask for healing for himself, but for a beloved servant.  When Jesus revives the young man his purpose is to restore his relationship with his beloved, grieving mother.
            Death, of course, is the great destroyer of relationships.  Death appears to separate us forever from those we love.  Jesus heals this, the most potent and absolute rift in human existence.  He shows us that his healing power is not diminished or obstructed by death.  The centurion’s servant he heals on this side of death; the widow’s son he heals on the other side of death.  But in each case he heals.  He always heals.  He always liberates and releases.  He always restores us to our original blessed nature.
            We are his restored and restoring community.  We cultivate the humility, the respect, the love, and even the grief and heartbreak we see in these two figures, the centurion and the widow.  We discover that when we empty ourselves and make ourselves transparent to God’s grace flowing into the world in Christ.  It is not just the physical form and sensory characteristics of the person that constitute their reality.  It is the spirit that we shared together in this life that continues to be shared even when they have moved on.
            In our experience, the sick friend is not always literally healed in the way we would like.  In our experience, the dead do not often  literally revive and come back to us on their way to the grave.  But Jesus’ message is that death is not the barrier we think it is.  Even when people are taken from us, as they ultimately always are, one way or the other, Jesus shows that this separation is not as absolute as we think.  First, we have memories to cherish and live by.  Second, we have a community that shares those memories and incarnates together the continued influence of the lost person.  And thirdly, we know that there is a glad reunion in the life to come.
            And through it all the Spirit shines and flows between and among us and within us.  In his resurrection Jesus shows us that the truth of who we are never dies.  At the end of Matthew’s gospel, he says, “And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  In him we are with each other always to the end of the age.  In him the Communion of Saints endures and shines and flows always.
            The church has always celebrated the memory of its saints, not on their birthdays, but on the days of their deaths.  Because that is when they started living as not just separate individuals, but in our hearts and souls forever.
            We are also called to raise people from the dead.  This may involve the resuscitation of people whose bodies have stopped functioning.  But it will always have to do with making people aware that there is something in us all that simply cannot be killed.  And in discipleship of Jesus, we come to live so conscious of that something within, that we know that just because someone’s mortal body is gone, their dance, their voice, their smile, their hope, and their love go on.  They were only vessels for that flow of life, which is from God and to God.
            Like the centurion and the widow, we have to feel the pain of emptying ourselves, losing everything we thought we “had.”  But what this does is allow what God has for us to flow in us and through us.  When that happens not only are we released from our guilt over the deaths in which we have been complicit, but we find that dead are raised to us, and we, as Jesus promised, never die.  We live on in the hearts of the gathering of disciples who expect and practice resurrection.      

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