Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Say the Word

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

                        Matthew 8.8

Most Unusual

This episode in Christ’s ministry puts all concerned in a delicate spot. Jesus has just preached the Sermon on the Mount and, as expected, when He’s finished, the crowd follows Him. People are eager to hear more from Him and perhaps watch Him in action. Their curiosity is soon sated when He cures a leper. There’s hardly any controversy here outside of Christ’s unbiased approach. Without a moment’s thought, He touches the leper, ignoring a huge, fear-based social and religious taboo. In comparison with what’s next, though, His gesture is tame.

Jesus barely sets foot in Capernaum when a Roman centurion seeks Him out. This is big. Although Matthew provides little color commentary, no doubt the crowd tenses as it parts to clear a path to Christ. Will Jesus get arrested? That’s usually the case when Jewish preachers draw vast crowds and surely by now news from the hillside has reached town. But why would a centurion come—without a soldier detail—to take Him into custody? This is most unusual. All eyes and ears fasten on the two men, straining to find out what’s going on.

Shattering Taboos

The centurion’s come to Christ with a personal matter. A servant of his is gravely ill. Hearing this, the crowd upgrades its take from most unusual to truly bizarre. They’re also suspicious. If living under occupation has taught them anything, it’s a Roman never asks favors of a Jew. In fact, Rome never asks, period; it demands. Jesus must recognize He’s in danger here. Yet before the centurion even asks for help, He volunteers to go heal the servant. The crowd takes an enormous gulp. Taboos are shattering on all sides. The Roman defies norms by bringing his private problem to Jesus. Jesus risks everything—His reputation, credibility, popularity, and worst of all, His Messianic claim—by offering to help the centurion. This makes no sense. Why would a pagan expect healing from God? And why would Jesus intervene for an oppressor of God’s people?

Right about here, one imagines hard-nosed political and religious people breaking off in disgust, muttering, “We’ve seen enough. This guy opposes everything we stand for. He’s not from God.” And they’re right. Jesus isn’t from God—He is God, which elevates Him above human understanding and expectation. It’s too bad they leave so soon, though, because they need to see how all this wraps up and hear what Jesus says as much as—probably more than—the rest of the crowd.

Astonishing Faith

The centurion declines Christ’s offer! “I don’t deserve such kindness,” he tells Jesus. “Just say the word and I know my servant will recover.” The officer’s response is an astute awareness of Jesus’s authority based on experience. The centurion explains, “I know how things work. I answer to a higher authority, who gives me power to command soldiers and servants at will.” He implicitly confesses absolute trust in Jesus’s claim as The Christ and His God-given power. Such astonishing faith prompts Jesus to tell the crowd, “I’ve not seen anything like it in Israel. I promise you, unlikely people from every corner of the globe will enter heaven, simply because they exhibit this kind of faith.” He says to the Roman, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” (Matthew 8.13)

It’s no coincidence the first two miracles following the Sermon on the Mount smash deep-seated myths about whom God accepts and who can believe. God ordained these unprecedented acts of mercy to establish ground rules for the New Order His Son proclaimed. We can yank up every obscure scripture we can find to support exclusion of anyone who behaves unlike us. But they all wither in the love, tolerance, and willingness Jesus displays here and consistently throughout His ministry. In John 6.37-38, He confirms His welcome to all in no uncertain terms: “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”

With utmost love and respect for those who disagree, Christ’s words and actions only lead to one conclusion. As the embodiment of His ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection, the Church is not a boy’s club, an organization of cloned sheep, or an honor society. It’s a thriving organism ingeniously, even defiantly comprised of unlikely parts that, in any other arrangement, could neither fit nor function as a whole. That’s the miracle of it. Any believer who, unlike the centurion, permits taboos to keep him/her from Jesus has stopped believing. It’s when we ignore nay-saying conformists that our faith astonishes Him and He rewards us. We don’t need others’ approval. All we need is for Jesus to just say the word.

The centurion’s faith ignores taboos and astonishes Christ.

(Tomorrow: Foolish Spending)


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

I like this!

Tim said...

Dear Göran, what a great honor you do S-F and me by coming by. I've long admired your outstanding leadership in demystifying--and debunking--Scripturally based intolerance. To hear that anything here, but this post in particular, earns your respect blesses me.

Welcome to Straight-Friendly, and I hope you'll find time to visit often and contribute valuable insights to our discussion here.

Peace always,

genevieve said...

It reminds me when I was alone in an empty church a few months back. I was crossdressed and praying for the lgbt community. I opened my heart to God and He embraced me as I was. The centurion reminds me of that day. He kew who he was and who was the real authority.

Tim said...

Moments like the one you describe are immeasurably powerful and priceless, Genevieve. Unshakable awareness of God's embrace brings unshakable embrace of ourselves and others.

But your story also reminds me of the centurion in another way. He came to Christ on behalf of another, his servant, just as you were seeking God on behalf of the LGBT community. It's always the case when we intercede for others, God ministers to us.

Blessings of boundless love, joy, and peace, my dear sister in Christ,

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

You're much too kind, dear Tim!

I do tend to pass rather often, but seldom feel up to making any comments...

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Maybe I should expand a little:

What I like so much is the Theology, the ability some (several, actually) have to go beyond the crap we have been all taught and find the Gospel.

For centuries the Church (and the Academy before the Church) have said: intolerance, hate, oppression, inequality, slavery, sufferance...

And yet people have heard: Love, Love and Love.

Isn't this amazing? and the only "proof" of God needed?

Tim said...

Göran, amazing is right--and even that's not a big enough word to encapsulate fully what you mean.

The irony (another not-big-enough word) of it is that the academicians and religious leaders who've trumpeted the hate/intolerance/sufferance/etc. message also at some point responded to God's love. And, one assumes, also believed in its power.

When people decide to prove they can speak for God and think for God, they tend to make the same mistake--they stop being like God. And that's all the true followers of Christ strive for, perfecting God's image in themselves. All the hate and punishment talk goes right over their heads and they keep loving.

Meanwhile, even those with no interest in following Jesus can see the difference. It's what I call the "by-this" differential. "By this shall all men know you're My disciples, if you have love." That's prophesy and we see it happen every day as Jesus promised.

Thanks, Göran, for this. It's a point we should all take to heart!

Blessings always