Sunday, June 2, 2013

Under Authority

Under Authority
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 2, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 7: 1-10

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

7 After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and 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.” 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. [1]  

There aren't many stories in the Gospels where the regular people that Jesus runs into seem to get it. There are so many more times where they are lost, foolish, and bumbling. Think about all the times Jesus says, "o ye of little faith" or "be not afraid" or even "you hypocrite," in some extreme cases. Often people do not know what to do around Jesus because they don't understand, are awkward, slow, or as is most often, down-right wrong when interacting with Jesus, at least as it seems to his standards. I for one tend to understand, and completely sympathize with their missteps. But this is one of the rare other types, where the person tends to act correctly and is praised by Jesus for what he/she does. There are some others, there is the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15, who stands up to Jesus when he says that "It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs," by saying, “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then there is the woman who has been bleeding for 12 years and boldly reaches out and touches Jesus' clothes to be healed, and Jesus says, "Take heart, daughter, your faith has healed you." Then there also is the poor widow who gives all that she has in the offering and Jesus says about her, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on." These are some of the well known places where Jesus complements people on their actions.
You could say that there are some common threads to these. One basic one is that in all three the characters doing the right thing are women. . . but that is not the case with our story from this morning, the Romans had no mixed army, so that there were no women centurions, so no luck there. Another common thread is a certain boldness, at least in the two healing stories. The Canaanite woman stands up to Jesus and the Bleeding woman is bold enough to grab his clothes randomly in the street. You could even make the argument that it is bold to give all that you have in faith like the poor widow does, but is it boldness that we see in this Centurion? Is he struggling at the bottom and demanding dignity, making the statement of hey, I'm here, I'm in need look at me, help me, heal me, I need it, I deserve it, I'm worthy, like these three women? It doesn't appear so. This is one of the truths about Jesus I've continually noticed, that there is no one way, no one simple way to interact with him, which is part of our problem I think, he's real you can't box him up. Just when you think  you have it figured out he opens up a new path, a new way, a new window into the truth.
So let's look at what is going on with this Centurion, and why Jesus says of him such strong words of praise, "not even in Israel have I found such faith." What is it that makes his faith so special and worthy of praise? So Jesus comes back to Capernaum, a place he's been before and performed wonders before, a place where he recruited many of his disciples, a place where he has done healings in the past, a place where he has angered the establishment in the past, so he comes back to Capernaum and a Centurion sends folks to him on behalf of his slave. . . is this it? Is he faithful because he is asking for healing for another, others have done this before with Jesus, and though the healings were done, the praise is not offered in the same way, so that doesn't appear to be it.
Perhaps it's not just for another, but for a slave, that this centurion is looking out for the lowly around him, but it says, the slave was "valued highly." Now this could mean that their relationship was valued highly, that they were great friends, and that the centurion was looking out for his slave's interest for his slave's interest, but I doubt it. The value of a slave to a master is typically much more selfish than that. It is most likely not for the slave's well being that the centurion wants him healed, but for the job that he fills, his purpose, his value to the centurion is tied to some service he provides. So we're not seeing a selfless act of faith here, either.
Perhaps then it is for the services he has rendered the religious community. The elders are the ones that are sent to Jesus on his behalf and they say of 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.” Now the question must be asked, the point must be made, Jesus has not been in the good graces of the so called "elders of the Jewish community." Already in this the Gospel of Luke, he has offended Scribes and Pharisees, they have already gotten angry with the challenge Jesus presents to them, in chapter 6, just before our story, verse 11, "But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus."[2] It is not specifically stated there that the town they do that in is Capernaum, but you can say for certain that Jesus's relationship with the religious authority figures isn't great, and he probably wouldn't be itching to praise the centurion for his support and his big donation toward the Synagogue building fund. The elders say he is worthy because of all he has done for them, but are those things the ones that make one worthy in Jesus' eyes. Many throughout the history of the Christian Church have made such a claim. They could be right, certain Medieval Popes would agree, they could be right, maybe, but again, I doubt it.
So that brings us to the next part of the story, Jesus is on his way, with the elders to the Centurion's home, but when he is almost there, the centurion has some friends, and he sends them to Jesus with a message, directly to Jesus, here is that message:    

Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and 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.” 

Here it is, humble, humility, I am not worthy, do not trouble  yourself, I do not presume. These are the words that the centurion uses, and I think we are getting closer to it. Look at what this centurion is saying here: He shows respect to Jesus as a healer by asking him in the first place to heal his slave. This at least shows him as believing in Jesus' ability heal, and heal just by speaking, and willing the healing. He just asks Jesus in his off minute to merely say the word, and heal the servant  because he also respects that Jesus is busy. He does not want to put Jesus out. He also respects that since Jesus is a Jew, it would not be seemly for him to come into the house of the occupier, the Roman, so he does not want Jesus to lower himself by coming into his house. He does not even want to come to Jesus in person, sending his friends with the message instead, not presuming, not assuming, not taking Jesus' work for granted, not presuming to put any undue pressure on him.
Ahh pressure. Look at what else the Centurion says, "with soldiers under me; and 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.” This Centurion is used to telling people what to do and having them do it. He has a lot of clout, being a soldier in the world's most powerful military does that for you. In uniform, in his post, with his sword, he says things and people have to listen, lest they get into trouble, and trouble certainly could mean punishment, and punishment could mean death. As a centurion he is given the authority to act with the full weight of the empire. The big question here is why doesn't he then force Jesus? Why doesn't he say to Jesus, heal, and he heals? Why doesn't he expect that level of obedience from Jesus? Why does he instead humble himself and beg? Here I think is the true picture of his faith, and therefore what is worthy of Jesus' statement of validation for him.
He says, "I am also a man set under authority." Here is the statement of the man's faith. It is all in the subtle difference between power and authority, and because he is under authority himself he knows that difference. This is important for us to remember, and seems to be crucial in the context as well. Power and authority are different things. It is not that one is more strong than the other, it is just that they are different. Power is the ability to do things and Authority is given by others to do things, you become authorized, no one has authority without being authorized by something. The Centurion has the authority based on his uniform and his rank, and his years of service, to make orders and have people follow them. It is possible that he also has the power to do certain things based on this authority, it is possible that he has power to do things outside of this authority, based on popularity, strength, relationships, charisma, etc. The Centurion because he knows this difference realizes that he truly has no power over Jesus, and doesn't even try to make it seem like he does, though he certainly could have tried to strong arm Jesus, though he may technically have some authority, being a Roman, and Jesus being a Jewish occupied subject of Rome. By realizing he lacks the power to have Jesus heal, he is giving Jesus the respect of at least an equal, but he says, like you I live "under authority." This is a statement of faith, a statement of understanding, a statement of that he gets the larger than Rome worldview that Jesus has come to establish, in one simple statement he is witnessing to the fact that Jesus too is under authority, but the authority that Jesus is under is greater than Rome. Remember, nothing on Earth is greater than Rome. Because he respects power and authority he knows that Jesus has both, he can tell, he has heard, he has seen, but authority not from any earthly designating body, any bureaucratic licensing entity, and that Jesus also has power, not in any temporal sense of arms and might, but real divine authority, and real heavenly power. So despite the centurion's rank, despite his uniform, despite his status as a Roman, despite his sword, he humbles himself before Christ.
Do you think the Jewish elders hear Jesus when he says, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith"? Do you think Jesus wants them to hear him say it? Is his point directed to and at them? As they are plotting his punishment for healing on the Sabbath and hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, is Jesus reminding them about the differences between power and authority, reminding them that their authority is supposed to come from God, and no place else. Is it then telling that when they finally do act against Jesus they do not use God's authority on Earth to get rid of Jesus, but Rome's, authority not won through creation and love, but instead through conquest and war, force of arms, the power associated with strength and might, the same might that makes right in the human world.
Power and authority is just as important today. Think about for a moment where those lines are drawn in our world. Where is power and authority the same? Where do they divide? Is it dangerous when they are not in sync with each other? What happens when someone's power exceeds their authority? (Is that a tyrant)? What happens when someone's authority exceeds their power? (Is that person just completely ineffectual)? There are people all around us in positions of authority, from where does their authority come? It is a tangled web in our world, and a interesting one to trace? Jesus claimed that his power was authorized by God the Father, and this Centurion saw it to be so, and acted accordingly. May we be blessed with the same faith and the same ability.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 7:1-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 6:11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.