By mtaylor | Thursday, May 26, 2016 | 12:05 PM
May 29, 2016
Only Say the Word
Rev. Rosemary McMahan
Our scripture lesson from Luke this morning is, in the words of a commentator, “a brilliant gem in the cluster of scenes from the life of Jesus” (New Interpreters’ Bible, Vol. IX). Yet for those of us who preach from the lectionary, this brilliant gem is only offered once every three years, and we may choose to preach on another selection, another gem, like Ps. 96, instead. So what makes this particular healing story in the life of Jesus so brilliant when the very next passage describes not just another healing but an actual resurrection?
My first answer would be that its brilliance lies in the parallel treatment of two authority figures, the centurion and Jesus, and the interchange between the two. My second answer would be that its brilliance is found in the positive relationship between a Gentile, his slave, and Jewish elders, an oddity in Jesus’ time, and ours, which lends itself to a sermon on diversity. Or perhaps the brilliance lies in the irony of a Gentile believer, not an Israelite, who places his ultimate faith in Jesus. All of these ideas will preach, but the primary brilliance of this passage is in its relevance to us today, 2000 years after Jesus had a conversation on a dusty street in a minor commercial town with a centurion who wasn’t even present.
Let’s look at this centurion, a high ranking soldier, or, rather, what it is that he says. Luke makes it clear that this man is an authority figure. Do you remember the notion of “authority figures”? They have become somewhat a thing of the past, but we use to jump to it whenever a teacher, parent, preacher, or doctor told us what to do because if we didn’t, there would be consequences to pay. This man has that kind of authority. When he tells others what to do, they don’t question him or ask for a long range plan or guarantee or analysis; they just do it. He has the power to make things happen because he is in control.
Most of us probably hold some degree of authority, as well, some influence over others’ actions and lives, whether we are parents, grandparents, spouses, teachers, supervisors, doctors, lawyers, elders, or even clergy. We like when things go according to plan, our plan. My sister and I often comment that if the rest of our siblings would simply act like we do all would be well. We aren’t alone.
If you and I are honest, we can admit that we want control of our lives. We want to control our health, our financial security, our job situation, our future, our children, our possessions, our government, our church, and sometimes even our God. How many of our prayers are really prayers for control so that we don’t have to face change or inconvenience or discomfort? Yet inevitably, like the centurion, the unexpected and uncontrollable happens and we are at a loss. Although we, like him, might have authority and power in other parts of our lives, we discover those times in life when we are helpless.
The centurion’s favored slave, perhaps even a confidante, has fallen deathly ill and he, with all his power, cannot fix it. Where is the power of our authority when we receive a frightening diagnosis or the news that our child is in an accident? How much control do we have when our spouse wants a divorce or we lose a grandchild to a marriage that didn’t last? What about when the vice president of the company hands out notices or our house burns down or our country goes to war? Where is our power when our denomination issues a decision that causes division or the person we voted against wins, again? What do we do when whatever crisis it is stops us in our tracks and forces us to admit our helplessness?
I suppose we have choices. We can reject God when tragedy strikes or our prayers aren’t answered the way we wanted them answered. When we find we can’t control God like a genie in a bottle, we can decide to go it alone. Or we can wring our hands and behave like Chicken Little, calling out that sky is falling and mire ourselves in worry. If a mishap takes power out of our hands, we can tighten our belts and up our control to make sure that “that doesn’t happen again.” Whether it’s loss, guilt, anger, worry, or betrayal, one of the hardest actions in life is letting go. We fight to hold on, and we fight to let go. But there is another choice when our world turns upside down. We can remember this brilliant gem of Luke’s and do what the centurion did: Seek Christ.
Do you wonder how long it took before the centurion decided to ask for help? How long does it take you or me? I wonder if this centurion had to overcome some fears first, fear about his unworthiness, fear of not being a Jew, fear of being told no, fear that concern for a slave, a non-being, would be ridiculed, and mostly, the fear of making himself vulnerable. Vulnerability, the risk of showing one’s true self with all its limitations, is particularly difficult for authority figures. We may discover we have some of those very same fears when it comes to seeking out Jesus. Are we worthy enough? Will Jesus pay attention? Do we really need him? What if he says no? Better to try to handle it ourselves, until we can’t.
Hans Joachim Iwand, a German Lutheran theologian, wrote, “Our faith begins at the point where atheists suppose it must be at an end. Our faith begins with the bleakness and power which is the night of the cross, abandonment, temptation, and doubt about everything that exists.” In other words, our faith begins where our own control ends. Whatever reservations the centurion may have had, he puts those aside and calls for Christ. He realizes that there is something different about Jesus—a power over things like sickness and death that mirrors the authority he holds over the soldiers under his command. And once he realizes this, he doesn’t waver or prevaricate.
Despite his own authority, the centurion relies on something else, on faith. He puts more stock in the power of God made manifest in Jesus than in himself. Unlike those of Jesus' hometown a few chapters back, this man recognizes that Jesus holds ultimate power and has ultimate authority. Or to put it more precisely, the centurion chooses to believe in Jesus’ own peculiar authority, “only say the word,” a vastly different authority that gives freely of itself for the sake of healing and asks nothing in return.
Imagine, if we can in today’s climate, an authority like that of Jesus. First, Jesus is responsive to the centurion’s call. He stops whatever it is he was doing and without asking questions “went with them,” accompanying the Jewish elders. In story after story, Jesus listens and then acts without complaining or assessing what’s in it for him.
Secondly, Jesus is compassionate. He has been asked to heal a slave. Slaves were nobodies with no rights. If their owners didn’t like them, they could sell or even kill their slaves. Yet Jesus is as desirous to heal this nobody as he is to heal the little girl of another centurion or the son of a Jewish widow or the mother-in-law of his disciple. Human authority and control mean nothing to Jesus who sees all God’s people as precious.
Finally, Jesus is mighty in word. “Only say the word” confirms the faith of the centurion and his recognition of Jesus’ power.
Imagine, then, as followers of Jesus, a responsive church where members walk alongside each other when called, where their authority is demonstrated in compassion for each other and for those beyond their walls, and where their words bring healing, unity, understanding, and new life to those in need and to those seeking to believe. When Jesus remarks, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he is revealing that this foreigner, this outsider, understands what the people of God, including us, so often do not. In times of trouble when we have lost our control, the kingdom of God is near for those who believe.
That is the kind of authority that Jesus models for us, his church, in this brilliant gem of a passage. That authority is the good news given to us this day.