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Second Sunday after Pentecost, May 29, 2016

When we were children, we lived under authority – our parents’ authority. We were supposed to do what they said, and for the most part we did. During school it was the teachers who had authority. They graded our work and they determined our GPA and our future educational opportunities. We also may have had the authority of a peer group and did what they wanted, hoping to fit in with the “cool kids”. As we matured, bosses took their place in authority over us. They directed our work and managed our lives at the office. For many of us, they still do. Even if we are retired, we have at least our doctor’s authority to live with. And now, we may have some authority ourselves. We may be parents or teachers or bosses. Regardless of where we are in the chain, authority patterns surround us all. We tell people what to do and they direct us. Now we don’t have to pay attention to or trust the authorities in our lives, but consequences await if we don’t.

Today’s gospel is only tangentially a healing story. Chiefly, it is a story about authority – Jesus’ authority and the centurion’s authority. In it we find the meaning of Jesus’ authority in our lives today.

The Roman centurion was part of an invading army who oppressed the Jews. He was a designated bad guy. But this man was an exception to the rule. He loved the Jewish people and funded their synagogue. He may even have been a God-fearer, one who prayed to Yahweh and kept the Hebrew ethical code. Probably through his association with the Jews, he had heard about Jesus and his healing powers. And he needed those powers. He had a slave that was very valuable to him, who was dying. We don’t know if the slave was just economically valuable or held a strong relationship with the centurion, but given the centurion’s love and compassion for the people of Israel – his loving his enemies – we might assume the latter. The centurion is also commendable in that he asks not for help for himself but for someone else.

The centurion may have thought that he needed some reference from the Jews, in case Jesus didn’t respond to requests from Romans, so the first group that went to Jesus were Jewish leaders, extolling the worthiness of the centurion. Jesus might have needed their approval or he might have been willing to do the healing anyway, but whatever the reason, he heads for the house with them. He is met by a second group of people – the centurion’s friends – who stop him. The Jews think the centurion is worthy, but he doesn’t think he is. He recognizes himself as part of an authority system. He reports to higher authorities and he is the authority over soldiers, slaves and the Jews. But as a man that is part of the authority paradigm, the centurion recognizes Jesus’ authority, his power to heal that comes from God. He knows Jesus answers to the Father, the God of the Hebrews, and has authority over much more than the centurion does. The centurion is in a different place in God’s hierarchy. He has something he wants from Jesus and feels unworthy in his presence because his power is so great.

So he tells Jesus to stay away, not to come to the house, because he does not rate that kind of blessing from Jesus. (He also knew that coming into a Gentile home would render Jesus ritually unclean.) All Jesus needs to do, he says, is speak the word and his servant will be healed. Not only does the centurion recognize Jesus’ authority, he trusts in it. He believes that Jesus has the power to heal his servant from afar, even though the prevailing feeling of the day was that a healer had to touch the person being healed in order to effect the healing.

His faith in God’s power and mercy (Margaret Lamotte Torrence) amazes Jesus who says he has not found such faith in Israel up to that time. Jesus heals the servant.

This story is about authority – Jesus’ authority and the centurion recognizing it from his own experience of authority. The story is also about faith. The centurion not only recognizes Jesus’ authority, but he trusts it (Charles Cousar)  – his power to work wonders even for out siders. This work on behalf of outsiders is important because it expands the view of Jesus’ authority, love and compassion to everyone. All people are God’s people – believers, seekers and doubters, Jews and Gentiles, males and females. God can work good works in anyone even if they wouldn’t call it doing God’s will (David Lose).

As God’s faithful people, do we recognize and trust Jesus’ authority in our own lives? Do we recognize Jesus as Lord of our lives? Do we try to do what he says? When we have authority, do we seek Jesus’ help to know how to use it or do we try to handle it ourselves? Trying to make our own way, especially when we are in positions of power, can separate us from God’s help and the support of our community of faith and prayer. The centurion felt unworthy, but not so unworthy that he was afraid even to ask for help, though he never actually met Jesus. Thinking ourselves too unworthy to ask for help denies Jesus’ death on the cross to make us righteous before God.

How much do we trust Jesus with our will and our lives? Do we let Jesus be responsible for guiding every aspect of our lives or do we reserve some for ourselves out of fear that Jesus may not use his authority in the way we would want. Are we at peace with God or are we anxious all the time about God not picking up the pieces when bad things happen? Do we resent the situations we think Jesus puts us in or do we assume that God is looking out for our good in all of it?

Recognizing Jesus’ authority and trusting it is the way to a faithful, peaceful and joyful life. It is the way to loving God and neighbor, treating everyone as a beloved child of God. It is the way to allow God to work miracles in your life and in the lives of others. Being open to Jesus’ authority puts us in a position of vulnerability but a position of great possibilities as well. It is loving and compassionate. It is a powerful force for good in our lives no matter who we are or who we think we are. It will be a potent force in the life of our community as we seek to discern the way forward for St. John’s. Let us listen well to the one who has authority over us and follow his will so that our lives may be richly blessed.

AMEN

     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works Cited:
Margaret Lamotte Torrence, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 184
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 370
David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, Blog Post, May 28, 2013