Filed under: Sermons | Tags: centurion, community, eschatology, Graduation, healing of centurion's slave, Jesus, kingdom of God, Luke 7, welcome
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
I am so excited for those of you who are graduating this year. I envy you the adventures you are about to have. You might have plans or dreams for your future, maybe you’ve planned out the next years and are already envisioning yourself in a future profession. Maybe you have no idea what’s coming next, all you know is that you’ve completed one stage in life, and, ready or not, something new is coming.
On the night of my high school graduation, I wasn’t so sure I wanted something new. I had been at the same school since kindergarten. The people and work and rhythm contained in my circle of life were familiar and comfortable.
After stopping in at a number of parties, my friends and I found ourselves at a park on the lakeshore. We sat up on the hood of the car and looked out over the lake. Out into the horizon, clouds came together and lightening flashed. We sat in the calm safety of our present situation, fascinated by tumult of light and sound in the distance.
Calm and safe in the present, looking out towards an unpredictable show of energy, catching only glimpses of the shape of the waves and the clouds as they are lit by the crackling light.
Graduates, you’re there: facing down the path to your future, and yet still enclosed by the life you’ve known.
As a church, we celebrate this time of transition with you, proclaiming that God is with you through the changes in life, and calling you to join God at work where you are and where you are going.
But the reality is, each of us always lives on the cusp on the unknown. Many find that what they’ve always believed was most stable in life isn’t. From career, health, and family life to new callings in discipleship, none of us is certain about what will come next. We don’t know what will come when the horizon God has prepared comes closer.
Reading the four gospels, I find it curious that each portrays a Jesus in different degrees of omnipotence, different stages of knowing. The biggest difference is between John and the synoptic gospels: in John, Jesus seems to be more aware and confident of his mission and the part his death plays in continuing that mission. I say this because in today’s reading from Luke, we hear that Jesus is amazed. Jesus is amazed at the faith of the Centurion.
In this scene, we find Jesus surprised by what he encounters on earth. Perhaps even his thinking is changed, his vision expanded, by this unexpected interaction: a faithful response from an unexpected direction. As we continue in Luke, we’ll see Jesus’ understanding of the fullness of the scope of his mission grow, as he encounters God working and God calling him to work outside the boundaries of the Jewish community.
We’ll get a better sense of what’s so surprising about this situation if we step back and explore the literary context of this passage and the historical context of these people.
We’ve picked up the Gospel of Luke in the seventh chapter, and we’ll be continuing a series of reading from this center of the gospel for much of the summer. We’re jumping in right after a long section called “The Sermon on the Plain” which includes Jesus teaching things like,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (6:27-28)
35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
43 ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit;
This is important to know when we come to our reading for today because all this talk about enemies and who can do good is being lived out in the interactions of the people whose stories we’ve just read. Jesus, and all his people, the Jewish people, have been promised a kingdom and a holy land from God. They’re living in the land, but it is certainly not theirs to rule. Israel is part of the Roman Empire, and while the Jews have some ability to govern themselves, it’s the Roman officials who carry the power. The centurion in the gospel is one of the leaders of the occupying force controlling Jewish land. He, and all his people, are the enemy.
Now, he’s a smart man. Maybe he was just a nice guy, but I think he knew how to be political and win the favor of the people. He’s worked the system of patronage, building a Jewish synagogue for the local people, earning their thanks and good will. He’s used his finances and influence to build what they want and earned more influence and favor.
One the day we meet the centurion, this man who has 80 men under his military command, has no power to heal his favored slave. He’s heard of Jesus, and his reputation as a healer, and he addresses him as a fellow man of power, whose word affects reality: making things happen even from a distance.
Jesus is amazed to find such a level of trust coming from this centurion.
This centurion is outside the boundaries of the community for whom Jesus saw himself working. He’s not a Jew, although he seems to be interested in learning more about the God they worship and this one who comes from God, Jesus. His uniform sets him squarely outside the circle of Jesus’ community, outside the place where God is expected to be working. He’s not one of Jesus’ people, he’s one of the enemy.
It is precisely in this enemy, in this outsider, in this stranger from the unknown, that Jesus, the crowd, and we see God already at work. God has already placed a recognition of and trust in Jesus in the centurion’s heart.
God asks you, through this text, if you’re open to being amazed by how and where and in whom God is working. God is already working outside our boundaries, among people we’ve assumed to be apart from God. If we look, if we enter into relationships, we may find that we will be surprised by encountering an example of faith where we least expected it.
Graduates, I’m excited for you and the adventures you’re about to have, the spaces you’re going to be exploring, and the new ways you’ll meet God.
You’re about to be thrown out of the routine you’ve known. The jarring of this change, although it may be easy and wonderful for many of you, forces you into exploring the world and your life with fresh eyes.
Many of the rest of us don’t really have that external push. We’re not going to be forced out of our known life and community, we’re not going to be stretched out of our comfort zone, we’re not going to encounter God in new ways… unless we become committed to seeking out that experience.
I give thanks that God is at work here, as we gather, and in your lives. But I find the truth that God is at work outside of this place, among people I don’t know, whose lives look different from mine, to have life-changing potential. If God isn’t just about me and my people, but is actively healing and bringing life to the whole world, then I am called to live in a way that reflects God’s care for each person, of every nation.
At the far edge of the horizon is the dawn of the new kingdom God is bringing. When we enter in and look around at all who are included by God’s welcome, I’m thinking “amazed” is going to be an understatement. For today, may we be open to the glimpses we receive of the wideness of God’s work. And give thanks.
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