From now til Advent, we’re going to travel through Jesus’ life as told in Luke.
One theme running through this gospel is the surprising way that God’s love breaks in and turns expectations upside down: a virgin conceives, as does the barren old woman, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist; a man rushes to embrace his returning son, a prodigal who had dis honored his father and squandered his inheritance.
Another theme, fully developed by the same author in Acts, is that God’s love in Christ is meant for the whole world, for people of all faiths–here represented by Gentiles.
Those themes are melded in Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan. Surprise: a normally-despised Samaritan is the hero, exemplifying love of God and neighbor by caring for the wounded traveler whom two Jewish religious men had ignored.
Similarly surprising in today’s gospel is the faithful Gentile Centurion.
As you know, a Centurion commanded about a hundred men in the Roman army. Many were occupying forces–stationed in conquered lands as the Empire expanded. Their job was to keep peace and order, and to be sure the people paid their taxes.
Often the soldiers abused their power.
A first-century Briton, conquered leader named Calgacus, told the historian Tacitus that Roman soldiers were “as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy”. He went on: “Robbery, butchery, rapine…they create destruction and call it peace.” That was a bitter reference to the Pax Romana or Roman Peace. It’s true that there was relative peace for nearly 200 years under the Emperor Augustus and his successors. But it was sustained by the threat of force and paid for by oppressive taxation.
The centurion in Capernaum, in contrast, kept the peace by caring for the people–building a synagogue for the Jewish community, e.g.. He cared personally, too, for the slave in his household. And that care led him to seek Jesus’s help.
According to Calgacus, Roman troops were arrogant beyond submission.
Our centurion was the opposite.
Vulnerably, he reached out for help.
Respectfully, he asked Jewish leaders to represent him; they vouched for his worthiness.
Humbly, through the envoys, he expressed his own sense of unworthiness.
The centurion even deferred to Jesus. He leveled the playing field between them when he honored Jesus as an agent of God’s healing power just as he–the Centurion–was an agent of the Emperor’s political power.
And above all, the Centurion had faith–faith that surprised Jesus! Although not Jewish himself, the Centurion believed that the God of the Jews could heal through this rabbi. What’s more, he believed that God WOULD. God would hear the cry of one Gentile to heal another one.
So what does this story teach us? We learn that Jesus can heal without touching a person or being in his presence. But this story isn’t really about Jesus. It’s about the Centurion (whom we never meet); he is the central actor.
Explicitly, it is about the surprising faith of this Gentile.
Implicitly, it shows what an enlightened leader can affect in a community, by building relationships of trust.
There’s a shorter version of the story in Matthew, where the Centurion come to Jesus in person. He makes the same appeal, gives the same rational. And the outcome is the same. The slave is healed remotely and Jesus commends the exceptional faith of the Centurion.
Luke’s account, with the Jewish leaders as intermediaries, is richer, and much more socially complex. No longer a transaction between two individuals, it now involves the wider community. It tells us who they are: a healthy community of very diverse people who care for each other and take care of each other.
That’s rare enough anytime. But in occupied first-century Palestine? We’ve already heard how oppressive and violent Roman troops could be. In addition, purity codes, class distinctions, and prejudices of all kinds normally separated Jews from Gentiles, slaves from their masters, soldiers from the people.
By that measure, the community in Capernaum was extraordinary–a place where relationships of trust overcame boundaries of religion, role, ethnicity and class, allaying suspicion, prejudice and enmity. Worldwide, the Pax Romana was maintained by power over: the Empire’s military might. In this story the peace seems to be present in the community: in their caring, respectful, interdependent relationships. To me, that looks like the Peace of God; it’s a glimpse of God’s Kingdom–or kindom.
Usually, Jesus brings the peace, Jesus levels the playing field, Jesus honors others. Here, surprisingly, it is the Centurion who does. The goodwill and respect in the community flowed from the Centurion’s goodness–his willingness to lay down his power over in favor of relationships of respect, cooperation, and care. “He loves our people,” the Jewish leaders told Jesus.
In the Centurion, Luke created a model for his time and ours–a model for the thoughtful, discreet use of inherent power to foster a peaceful community.
Like the Centurion, we are people of power in this community. Like him, we can help create a culture of peace by nurturing relationships of trust and respect across boundaries of age, race, religion, class, etc.
“People of power?” you may ask. We at St. John’s may not be the 1% economically. But, for starters, we are Christian in a majority-Christian country. And most of us embody and benefit from other privileges of the dominant culture: being English speaking, and/or white, and/or well-educated, and/or professional. Our power is inherent; it can be easy to ignore, to take for granted or to dismiss. But it is real, and it comes with responsibility. We need to own both the power and the responsibility.
Our faith calls us to foster peace and mutual respect always and in all places. It is imperative here now, when anger, fear, hatred, and prejudice are on the rise in our country.
There are many ways to show our respect, and I know that you all do that in your lives and work.
One thing St. John’s will do is to honor the month-long feast of Ramadan which begins next Sunday. The Minnesota Council of Churches made yard signs that read “Blessed Ramadan”. We’ll have them on the lawn here at St. John’s. And there will be some for you to take home, too, next Sunday.
The deepest, most lasting way to foster peace is through friendship, through long-term relationships that cross cultural barriers–like the Centurion’s with the Jewish leaders. We’ve created those long-term relationships in Guatemala and Haiti, where respect, affection and cooperation bridge enormous divisions of power, wealth, culture, etc. Working and living side by side, blessed by the Holy Spirit, we find our commonality as children of God. We all bring our gifts we become a new Body of Christ.
Now, as you know, St. John’s is seeking longer-term, deeper, cross-cultural relationships–true friendships–here in Minneapolis, to complement our ongoing ministries: Our Savior’s Shelter, First Nations Kitchen and Urban Homeworks. It’s the next step in the Missional Assessment Process (MAP) that some of you participated in. We’re calling this phase the Partnership Initiative and a small committee has been working on it for several months, visiting with congregational leaders and organizations on the Northside.
Bill has written a good overview of our principles and our process for the June-July Newsletter. There you’ll see that this summer we’re organizing a small-group Bible Study with people from the Northside congregation, Kwaanza Presbyterian. I’ve become good friends with Alika Galloway, who is the co-pastor with her husband Ralph. They are doing such holy work that, frankly, it’s so hard not to say “let’s go!”, to rush up there in force to “do” things. St. John’s is so good at doing! That will come, in the fullness of time.
But we’re going to start with “being” because we know that real relationships of trust are built over time, with patience and presence. Sharing in a Bible study allows us to build on the firmest possible foundation. As we begin, I ask for your patience, and–of course–your prayers. We’ll keep you posted!