Sunday, May 29, 2016

Model of Profound Faith

2nd Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 4 (Year C)
1 Kings 8.22-23, 41-43; Psalm 96.1-9; Galatians 1.1-12; Luke 7.1-10
Sunday, May 29, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

With the passing of Pentecost two weeks ago and Trinity Sunday last week, we are now solidly in the season that the Church calls “ordinary time.” This term merely refers to the numbering scheme used – ordinal, or ordered, numbering. This is the second Sunday after Pentecost. Next week is the third Sunday after Pentecost. And so on. Essentially, this schema indicates that we have come through all the major liturgical events of the year: Advent and Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost and now settle in for six months of regular, ordinary life in the Church.

Just because this period is called “ordinary” shouldn’t suggest that it’s meaningless, boring, or uneventful. Whereas other liturgical seasons tended to focus on specific, defining events in the life of Jesus, during this time our gospel lessons primarily focus on Jesus’ earthly ministry of teachings, healing, and miracles. The ordinary times of Jesus’ life (to the extent that there was anything ordinary about his life). We look at Jesus’ day-to-day life and seek to learn lessons about how we are to live our day-to-day lives. Rather than being uneventful, ordinary time is essential to our lives of faith. After all, it’s in our ordinary lives that we’re called to live out our faith. It’s not just about being good Christians at Christmas, during Lent and Holy Week, and on Easter. Being a Christian is something we’re called to do every day of the year, even in the ordinary times. Especially in the ordinary times. This sense of living out our faith, of growing in our faith, is visually represented by the change to green paraments and vestments. Green, representing growth.

Over the next six months, our guide through this season of growth will be Luke’s Gospel. Luke is unique among the four Gospels, as it is the only one not written by a Jewish follower of Jesus. Rather, Luke was a Gentile convert to Christianity, As such, he views Jesus, his message, and his work, with the eyes of an outsider. He provides us with a unique perspective on how the message of Jesus, which was solidly rooted in the Jewish tradition, particularly relates to Gentiles. Of how this message relates to us. In fact, his entire book is written to and for the benefit of his patron, Theopholus – a Gentile. It is an attempt to provide a more objective view of the story of Jesus and the beginnings of the Church, than are found in the remaining Gospels.

There are two important things to know about Luke’s Gospel. First is that he tends to focus on aspects of Jesus’ ministry that emphasize healing and forgiveness. He is interested in the physical, emotional, and spiritual healing provided by Jesus. And second is that God, and these gifts of healing and forgiveness, are available to all people, regardless of who they are – Jews and Gentiles, alike. As such, Luke’s is the most expansive of the Gospels in terms of who Jesus ministered to. More than any of the other Gospels, the Lukan Jesus reaches out to those outside the mainstream of Jewish religion and culture – namely Gentiles and women.

As we begin this annual journey of the exploration and tending to the growth of our faith, we start with a story involving an outsider – a Roman centurion; an officer in charge of 100 soldiers, possibly more. As we heard, the centurion, through intermediaries, implores Jesus to heal his valued slave who is very sick and near death. At first glance, this story seems to be a miracle story, a story of healing. But the healing itself is almost an afterthought, a footnote, in the overall narrative. By the end, it is clear that the centurion’s faith in Jesus is the true center of the story.

The centurion turns not to his own religious beliefs rooted in the Roman pantheon to provide healing for his valued slave, but to Jesus. He has heard of the things that Jesus has taught. He has heard of the miraculous healings Jesus has performed. What he has heard persuades him that if anyone can fulfill his need, it is Jesus. His faith is indicated not merely in his request, but also in the fact that the centurion calls Jesus by the title of Lord, a sign of faith in Jesus and his abilities. It’s one thing to go outside your own belief system when it comes to your own wellbeing. For one with his status, expressing faith in something other than the Roman gods would have been dangerous. But the centurion is acting on behalf of his slave. He is exercising, expressing, his faith on behalf of another. Risking his own status by exercising a strange and foreign faith for the benefit of another. And not just anyone. He is exercising his faith on behalf of one who is not able to speak for himself – because of infirmity, as well as because of his social status as a slave.

The centurion does not presume to approach Jesus directly. He first approaches Jesus through Jewish elders to present his petition, as well as to attest to his sincerity. He was, after all, a Roman soldier. Jesus would likely be suspicious. But the Jewish elders could vouch for him. “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (Lk 7.4-5). He obviously has great respect for their religion. The centurion further demonstrates his esteem for Jesus by then sending other friends to intercept Jesus while on his way to the centurion’s house, imploring him not to come. Not because he has a change of heart, but out of profound respect. The centurion knows and understands the Jewish purity laws – that if Jesus were to come into the presence of a Gentile, this holy man would be rendered ritually unclean. The centurion seeks to spare Jesus this “inconvenience.”

Instead, he asks that Jesus merely say the word to heal his slave from afar. This is telling in itself. While the ancients believed in miraculous healings, they thought direct contact with the person mediating the healing was necessary. However, in this case, the centurion believes Jesus’ authority is greater than any else. That his word, even from a distance, is sufficient to heal his servant. The centurion does not merely trust in Jesus’ magical abilities. As a man who operates within a strict system of authority himself, the centurion recognizes Jesus’ authority – that his authority being derived from God is far greater than his own. That his authority is not bound by the limitations of space and time. It is also a sign of the great humility the centurion feels at the prospect of encountering one such as Jesus. Even though a man accustomed to respect and exercising his own authority, the centurion feels humble, even unworthy, to be in Jesus’ presence. All this is indicative of the centurion’s even deeper faith in who Jesus is and what he is able to accomplish. Jesus himself comments on this – “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Lk 7.9).

As a story of deep faith, this pericope tells us something very important about the true life of faith. Namely, the need for and importance of community. We tend to make faith a private matter. In actuality, faith is a public matter, requiring the community – to spark, to support, to nurture, that sense of faith. We see this vividly in the story of the centurion.

The local Jewish community supports the centurion in his request, in his journey of faith. He may not be Jewish himself, but he has become an integral part of their community nonetheless. As the Jewish elders bear witness, this pagan is one who loves the Jewish people and built a synagogue for them. He knows and understands Jewish law. He has profound respect for their religion and for it leaders. The centurion has no obligation to the people, but demonstrates a deep connectedness to them. And because of this, because of feeling a part of this community, he also feels accountable to them. For upholding their traditions and for acting in accordance with their ways and beliefs.

This connection to that particular faith community in Capernaum has had a direct impact on his own faith. His faith is sparked by the community. Sparked by his growing connection with the people whom he has come to love and support. In return, his faith is supported by the community. By the leaders who go to Jesus on his behalf, seeking to insure that his profound faith is made known and corroborated. In the exercising of his faith, the centurion demonstrates his accountability to the community. Honoring their traditions and laws as if they were his own. Living into them with the fullness of his being.

Now there is no denying that the root of faith is certainly in the individual heart. It is by definition, by its nature, a personal thing. But for faith to grow, it must be an active faith, lived out in community. We need the community to serve as a model for true and healthy faith. We need the community to teach us, test us, so that our faith is not just superficial, but grows deeper and broader. We need the community to reflect our faith back to us, so that we might see where we stand. We need the community to hold us accountable in the continued development of our faith, so that we do not become stagnant. We need the community to validate our faith. We need the community to support us, encourage us, particularly when the faith journey seems difficult. And at times, we may need the community to speak for us when we are unable to.

Of course, I’m really not telling you anything you don’t already know. Ours is a community that lives into this model of faith development – seeking to spark faith in the lives of those who enter our doors, and seeking to support others no matter where they are in their individual faith journey. That being the case, it is appropriate that we have this Gospel reading on the Sunday we come to seek anointing and prayers for healing. Like the centurion, we come to Jesus for healing – for ourselves and for others. In so doing, we are not just seeking healing. Like the centurion, we are expressing our humble yet profound faith in the one who intercedes on our behalf to make that healing possible. Like the centurion, we are exercising our faith in the ordinary, and not so ordinary, times of our lives.

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