1 Kings 18:20-21 (22-29) 30-39; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
“How long will you go limping along with two different opinions?”
How could I have possibly missed this fantastic quote of Elijah’s for lo these many years? It is right up there with “Choose this day whom you will serve” and “You brood of vipers!” I love the imagery of limping along. It calls forth the Risen Christ’s warning in Revelation to the church of Laodicea, “Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” The Lord our God requires complete loyalty – not some wishy washy, situational assent. From Genesis to Revelation with folks like James in between (purify your hearts, you double-minded), the Triune God calls those of us claimed and chosen to step up and speak out, proclaiming our undivided loyalty to the One who has gone the distance from heaven to earth in order to adopt us.
All the texts appointed for this 2nd Sunday after Pentecost call on us to make a choice, take a stand and put our lot in, or not, with the Lord our God. All the texts appointed for this week hold up the notion of authority. Who has it? To whom do we give it? Who will have it over us? Whose do we recognize as ultimate? Have we made up our mind or are we limping along, double-minded, lukewarm, uncertain which yoke we want to wear on any given day?
What is unique about Luke’s account of the centurion of Capernaum seeking Jesus’ help on behalf of another is the fact that he does not go to Jesus himself. He sends Jewish elders who beseech earnestly on the centurion’s behalf. There are more characters in Luke’s version of this story, go-betweens to go between, than in any other version of this story. Jews pleading the case of the centurion who pleads the case of the slave who is “dear to him.” Why? Why does the centurion of Capernaum not beg Jesus himself as he does in Matthew and in John (on behalf of his son in this account)? Is he being savvy, using his network to make sure the right person “does the ask” as it is said in fundraising circles? Is it a matter of knowing a guy who knows a guy in order to get the favor, the event tickets, the bill passed, the meeting set up?
I don’t think so. The verses that follow lead me to believe otherwise. What I think is going on is that the centurion truly recognizes that, powerful as he is, he is unworthy to ask for help from the One with far greater authority than he. Powerful as he is, he is powerless in this circumstance. That’s the faith Jesus commends. The centurion, unlike those of Jesus’ hometown a few chapters back, recognizes that Jesus holds ultimate power and has ultimate authority. Not once but twice, the centurion sends others to intercede for him. First the Jewish leaders, second his friends. This centurion knows his place in relationship to Jesus. Despite the religious leaders calling the centurion “worthy” and one who loves “our people” (the word is agape, by the way), the centurion says of himself, “I am not worthy” and “I do not presume to come to you.” This man is not limping along with two different opinions. He is utterly clear about who is Lord and acts accordingly.
Odd isn’t it? That it is the centurion who gets it right. The writer of Luke/Acts seems to have a special place in his narrative for centurions. They recognize the truth about Jesus when so many others don’t. It is the centurion who praises God and confesses in Luke 23:47, “Certainly this man was innocent.” The first Gentile convert in Acts is Cornelius, a God-fearing, alms giving centurion.
Do we see what these Roman “outsiders” recognize and respond to Jesus as Lord of all? Or are we limping along, double-minded, lukewarm, quickly turning like the Galatians to a different, false gospel? Where do we put our faith and trust and how does our living reveal our greatest loyalties?
I do not believe we answer this question once and move forward in following Jesus with no wavering from the Way. There is a daily need to ask ourselves to whose authority do I submit? Am I beholden to the approval of others? Do I gauge my security based on the number on my bank statement? Do I wield my influence on behalf of the vulnerable or to get my own way? Do I see myself as more worthy than others? Sören Kierkegaard’s call to “will one thing” that is the good, does not come readily to those prone to sin.
Thankfully, there are times in the community of faith when we are explicitly called upon to make public our loyalty to Jesus Christ. When new people come to our congregations and affirm or reaffirm their faith, when a person is baptized, when elders are ordained or youth confirmed, we all have the opportunity to say, “The Lord is indeed God. The Lord is indeed God.” Every time we stand and recite, “I believe in God the Father almighty…” or “Our Father, who art in heaven…” – are we not acknowledging the ultimate authority of the Triune God and our relationship to it?
Many of you may have seen the recent video with the seemingly unlikely pair of Bono and Eugene Peterson. In it, around the two-minute mark, there is a scene where Eugene Peterson is being interviewed by Dean Nelson, the dean of Nazarene University. Nelson reiterates an account of Eugene Peterson turning down an invitation to meet Bono. Peterson was working on the Old Testament portion of The Message and had a deadline to make, hence he declined the chance to spend time with the rock star. Nelson says something along the lines of “How could you? It’s Bono for crying out loud!” To which Peterson, not missing a beat responds, “It was Isaiah!” There was no doubt in Peterson’s mind who was the priority. It is a playful example of someone aware of whose status is higher and why. It is an example, playful though it may be, that is all too rare in our culture that worships fame, money and earthly power.
We all have idols, some not as obvious as Baal. We all rank people in terms of worthiness, even when we don’t want to admit it. We all struggle with being double-minded, with knowing what is right but doing that which we hate anyway. The story to tell this Sunday is that of a God-fearing, people loving, worldly powerful centurion who recognized the limits of his own status and power and reached out in humility to the One whose authority is ultimate. How are we acting likewise?
- Do a word study of “worthy” and see what other verses you come across. In what ways do we label people as “worthy” or not?
- Take a look at the parallels for the Luke story. What’s different? What’s the same? How do those differences and similarities change your interpretation of the story?
- How do we balance a sense of awe at God’s majesty with a sense of intimacy at God’s closeness? Do we err on one side or the other? Does our liturgy point to both these truths?
- We live in a time when notions of authority are fraught with problems. How do we lift up the difference between God’s authority and that of lesser authorities? How can our submission to God help in allowing us to have a right relationship with earthly powers?
- In reading Galatians, consider what the false gospels of our time might be.
- In Galatians 1:10 there is the rhetorical question that we must ask in earnest: “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people?” Prayerfully consider this question in your daily prayers this week.