a sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 4C)
One of the most important things a soldier learns is how to live under authority. It’s the very first thing a recruit learns in basic training. The Centurion knew that the authority he had over his soldiers came from someone above in his chain of command. And he knew that Jesus’ authority came from someplace higher.
Memorial Day is a time when we remember those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. They died protecting our nation and our way of life. And one of the most important ways that our nation is different from other nations in the world is that we have always welcomed foreigners and aliens to make a home here. We are a land of immigrants – there more people from more different nationalities, cultures and races living in the US than in any other country in the world. And while I know that there are problems in our immigration system, my prayer is that we never turn our backs on the foreigners, aliens, immigrants and refugees that have made this country great.
Providing care and hospitality to aliens and foreigners is an ancient tradition in the middle east. This isn’t because the people who lived in Jesus’ time had a lot of food and money to share. Quite the opposite. It was because life in such a dry and harsh region was so difficult, that a person could die without access to food, water and shelter. As a result, all three great religions of the middle east, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have very clear rules about how travelers, strangers and aliens are to be treated. The bible is full of stories about welcoming the stranger: Abraham welcomed three strangers into his tent, and fed them the best that he had. Lot protected two travelers who wandered into Sodom and Gomorrah with his life. Ruth left her homeland and traveled with Naomi to Israel when her husband died. And there she was provided food and shelter by Boaz. Later, she would become the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus.
In today’s Gospel, we heard a story about a stranger, a Roman centurion. Now like many strangers, there’s a lot we don’t know about this man. We don’t know exactly where he came from. We don’t know how he came to own this slave. We don’t know anything about his rank or his war record or the battles he fought. And we don’t know why he cares about this slave so much. All that we know is that he was a man of some authority; when he said “jump,” his men would only ask, “how high?” And we know that he had a slave whom he cared for very much who was deathly sick. And we know that he had heard about Jesus.
Jesus, the healer – would he be willing to heal my slave?
Not too surprisingly, Jesus had no idea who this stranger was. In fact, throughout this entire story, Jesus and the centurion never even meet face to face. But he knew that the soldier had reached out through intermediaries, members of the local synagogue. And as he was on his way, Jesus received word from the man:
“Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Just speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For [like my slave,] I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me. 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.”
The story tells us that Jesus was amazed at this man’s faith. But why? How did the Centurion demonstrate faith for us?
One of the most important things a soldier learns is how to follow orders, how to live under authority. It’s the very first thing a recruit learns in basic training. The Centurion knew that the authority he had over his soldiers came from someone above in his chain of command. He understood how authority worked.
In the same way, the Centurion also knew that the authority Jesus had, the authority to heal the sick in this case, came from someone higher in his chain of command. So that without even meeting Jesus, he knew, that if everything he had heard about Jesus was true – that he had healed the sick; that he fed the 5000; that he had the power of life and death – then he could only do these things because he was under the authority of God.
For the Centurion, a foreigner, and alien, an officer of the occupying force, the fact of Jesus demonstrated the fact of God. The love of Jesus proved the love of God, even for someone from another country, from another religion – even for an enemy of Jesus’ own people.
Over the past several weeks, we have been hearing Jesus proclaim his intimate relationship with God. But today, someone else is proclaiming – not one of the disciples, another Jew, not the elders of the synagogue, not even another person in the crowd. But a Roman soldier, a stranger, a foreigner, an alien who had never even met Jesus – he proclaims that the love of God is for everyone, regardless of religion or nationality, through the person of Jesus Christ. He is the one who realizes that Christ did not come into the world only for the Jews, or only for those of us who already are followers. Christ came into the world to demonstrate the love of God to everyone.
The question for us is this: how will we make God’s love known in today’s world? How will we proclaim the Gospel to the strangers we meet? Because someone had to tell the centurion about Jesus; he didn’t just dream him up out of thin air. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, someone had to tell him the story of the man from God. And once he heard, he knew.
How will we tell others about the love of God in the world? How will they learn about Jesus, if we never tell them? How will our children know that God loves them if we never teach them? How will they know that they are welcome and beloved members of this community, unless we take the time to explain to them why we come and what Christ means to us? How do we expect our children to become followers of Christ and lovers of their fellow human kind, if we never explain to them that loving God and their neighbor is something Christ taught us to do?
How will we ever show the world, the spiritual strangers and aliens who do not know God, that they are loved, if we do not demonstrate that love ourselves?
This Memorial Day, as we remember those who died for our way of life, let us remember that most of them died on foreign shores, sacrificing themselves for strangers they never knew. Let us open our hearts, our minds, or doors to the aliens God puts in our paths, so that in this way, we might proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.
Thanks be to God.