1 Kings 8:22-23 ,41-43; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
When I was growing up I, like many of my friends, loved comics, movies, and Saturday morning cartoons, all based on the adventures of superheroes. Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and the Incredible Hulk were some of my most favorites. The whole idea of someone possessing incredible power, as a result of some life-altering transformation, which could be used to fight crime, injustice, and to stand up to those opposed to good, is really very appealing isn’t it. When we think of our heroes, we want to be just like them.
Now, I have to admit that there is still a little bit of a kid in me today. I still like superhero movies, but the characters I enjoy watching today, are folks like Batman and Iron Man. Why? Well, for the most part these two guys are just normal human beings, who happen to possess great, but not unusual strength and yet, what makes them superheroes is the fact they have some really cool toys. Batman has his Kevlar suit, his utility belt, and yes, that amazing car. Iron Man? Well, obviously he has that awesome titanium suit of armor! C’mon, you have to dig Iron Man’s armor. It’s full of electronics, it can fly, he has some kind of power laser thing in his hands, and most of all, he just plain looks good wearing it. Maybe these two superheroes are a little more popular these days, because they are more like us; regular folks. Underneath all those gadgets, they are just as vulnerable to the temptations of power, as the rest of us. Beyond the flash of their electronics and Kevlar suites, superheroes wrestle with balancing the power they possess, with the need for humility, in the midst of that power. It is this struggle with power and humility that encourages, and yet, sometimes threatens our ability to accomplish the mission of love, the mission of justice, mercy, love, reconciliation, and grace, which as followers of Jesus, we have undertaken.
In today’s gospel reading we hear a story about a man of power that encountered Jesus. This man, who in the eyes of Roman society was probably very much like a superhero of sorts; not like a Superman or Spiderman, but more like Iron Man or Batman. A Centurion was a regular guy, who possessed great, but not unusual strength, and yet had some really cool gadgets; a sword, armor, shield, and by the way, the power of the Roman government behind him. “The Centurion was a professional officer of the Roman army that commanded 80 men. Centurions could be elected, appointed by the Senate, or promoted ‘from the ranks’ for a variety of reasons. Being held personally responsible for the training and discipline of the legionaries under their command, centurions had a well-deserved reputation for dealing out harsh punishment. Evidence suggests that centurions had important social status and held powerful positions in society.” Centurions were powerful people, who commanded authority and yes, people listened when they spoke.
This encounter between the Centurion and Jesus is rather unique because, Jesus and he never met face-to-face and yet, Jesus changed the Centurion’s life dramatically. The Centurion, the man of power and great authority, had a servant who was evidently very ill and so, he sent two delegations to intercede with Jesus, on his behalf. Knowing a little bit about the nature of Roman culture, you would think the Centurion might not go visit Jesus, because the Roman was of a higher social status. However, according to the story, he actually considers himself unworthy for Jesus even to come to his house. This must have been a shocking twist for many original hearers of this encounter. This was a man wrestling with a tension between power and humility. From this man’s viewpoint, it was his humility, his deep self-awareness that grace was not about worthiness or power, which won the day.
They appealed to him earnestly, saying, “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.” The leaders of the local community came and appealed to Jesus to heal the Centurion’s servant. They proclaimed the worthiness of their Roman hero and rightfully so, because he was unlike any other Roman officer they had known before. Not only had he built a synagogue for the people, he showed them love. Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like the Centurions dealt out harsh punishment or held important social status and powerful positions in society.” No, he set aside that power reputation for a character of humility, fully revealed in acts of love for a people, not of his own kinship. You see, the faith to recognize God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor, God’s outrageous love, has nothing to do with our own sense of worthiness and power, but it has everything to do with accepting it, and my friends, that takes humility.
“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” The Centurion gets it doesn’t he. What he was saying was, “Lord, you are all powerful and I am a mere man and I dare not come to you asking for a favor, but I know if you say it, by your word alone my household will receive healing.” Do you hear his humility? The Centurion could command a cohort to come and get Jesus, bring him to his house, order him to heal the servant, but that is not what he did. The Centurion said, “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.” I believe the Centurion actually knew that the power and influence he had been given, was really a gift of God, and not one to be wielded but to be used for good. Remember, he built a synagogue for the people, not so people would say he was worthy (which they did anyway), but because in humility, he loved, just as God had loved him.
God’s reconciliation movement in the world, God’s grace given us to restore creation, was never about power and status and worthiness. Take a look at the cross and remember that the God of love fully lived humility, and took on the ultimate vulnerability by risking creation’s rejection; all for love. Yes, God could have wielded power and status and worthiness to bring about grace, but God chose humility. We must recognize that this Jesus movement of which we are a part, means we must cast aside our desire for power, status, and worthiness, and embrace and yes, SHARE the love found in humility. Faith requires meekness, and faith blossoms when we begin to have a clear understanding of our own self, in relation to God and all of creation.
Theologian Robert Gagnon asserts, “Faith is: the appropriate action of one who recognizes one’s humble status in the face of an encounter with the divine.”1 The one worthy of praise, the one we look to as an example, the one for whom we desire to be like, is the one who is really like us. This person was susceptible to our weakness, wrestled with the human struggle of power and humility, and he is the one that experienced the full breadth of the human experience. He is the one who wields ultimate power, not power based on human government, wealth, or prestige, but power that subdues and thwarts injustice, power that overturns and unbinds poverty, power that frees the prisoner, and power that declares the favor of God. This is the power of love, and the one who wields this power is Our Lord Jesus Christ, the one whom we are called to follow, by walking in faith.
The key to walking this journey of faith seems to be less about how much power and influence we can wield in order to demonstrate our worthiness, but how much we are willing to humbly trust that God’s love is sufficient. A friend mine who pastors an unusual Episcopal community in California, posted a quote on his Facebook wall the other day. He wrote, “In an achievement-oriented culture, it’s difficult for us to get our minds around the reality that there’s no finish line, no diploma, no promotion, no blue ribbon for the disciple. You cannot earn an advanced degree in grace because you can’t earn it at all. Your effort is simply directed toward receiving it, which is not simple at all. Being loved so much is awkward for those of us who live in a quid pro quo relationship economy. Thank God, Jesus is at ease with awkward.” My friend reminds us that as faithful followers of Jesus, we don’t have to worry about being worthy superhero Christians in order to receive grace, we just need to be humble enough, to stand with, open arms, open hearts, and open spirits, and receive it.
1 Gagnon, Robert A J. “Luke’s Motives For Redaction In The Account Of The Double Delegation In Luke 7:1-10.” Novum Testamentum 36.2 (1994): 122-145. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 May 2013.