The footing of faith (2 June, 2013)

1 Kings 18.20–39
Galatians 1.1–12
Luke 7.1–10

It’s good to be back after a while away in the Holy Land, Jordan, Italy and England. While Karen and I were overseas, we were travelling through places that were quite different from us in terms of their religious life—from Israel with its distinct Jewish identity (yet with a strong Muslim and a lesser Christian presence), to Muslim Jordan, to Catholic Italy with its little shrines dotted here and there in town and country, and lastly to England, a country that can’t work out whether it’s multicultural, still vaguely C of E or post-christian. Or if it just couldn’t care less.

While travelling in these varied places, we practised the virtues of tolerance, happily accepting that people belong to different religions. That wasn’t the case for everyone else; for example, in Nazareth we witnessed a Muslim street preacher accosting religious Jews, near the Church of the Annunciation. It ended without success for the street evangelist, but—and interestingly!—with smiles all round.

I’m left wondering whether the Apostle Paul would sympathise more with the zealous Muslim street evangelist than with us. After all, he thundered to the Galatians:

if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

But you know, we didn’t curse a single person for being a Jew, a Moslem or a Roman Catholic. (I was tempted to curse a few drivers in Italy, but that wasn’t because of their religious faith!)

We were tolerant. But surely, these people, at least the Muslims and Jews, are proclaiming a different gospel to ours? Surely, the apostle Paul would take a different view. However tolerant we Uniting Church people may be, Paul says they are accursed!

It seems that the prophet Elijah would agree with Paul. There he is, one man against the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal at Mt Carmel. A bull for each side, and each god must set their own offering alight. Baal is strangely absent. Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal, even suggesting that their god had gone away to relieve himself. (The NRSV is a little coy here, translating it as “perhaps he has wandered away…”)

Then Elijah douses his offering with buckets and buckets of water, and fire from heaven consumes the lot. God wins!

Then he goes one further than Paul. Not only does Elijah count the prophets of Baal as accursed, but he also has them put to death in a horrific mass execution that would have him condemned as a criminal today.

So, we seem to have Paul and Elijah standing together on this one. What would they have done while traipsing around the places we went to? We didn’t go to Galatia, but we were at Mt Carmel; it’s a lovely peaceful place today, but I did wonder how Elijah might feel about that. Would Paul and Elijah embrace the tolerance of this Western tourist, or would they long for the ‘good old days’?

And what about Jesus? Today’s story has Jesus walking down the main street of the town of Capernaum (also the only street there!). Capernaum was where Jesus had his Galilean base. Peter lived there; his home town was Bethsaida, but he must have married a Capernaum lass. While we were in the Holy Land, we saw Peter’s house—actually, his mother-in-law’s house—not far from the synagogue.

But today, we meet an outsider in Capernaum. Well, we don’t actually meet him, he stays ‘offstage’, but we hear a lot about him. He’s a centurion. A centurion was in charge of a hundred soldiers and earned about fifteen times a soldier’s pay. A centurion was tough and knew how to take command. A centurion was also the enemy. If anyone should be ‘accursed’ in this story, the centurion is the obvious candidate.

But instead, he is praised. By Jesus.

This centurion was likely one of the ‘God-fearers’, Gentiles who were attracted by the high ethical standards of Judaism and the belief in one God. (One thing that didn’t attract the God-fearers was being circumcised. I can understand that perfectly well.)

This centurion was a benefactor of the Jewish community, and had built the synagogue at Capernaum. Of course, that was why they were representing him to Jesus, requesting that he come and heal the centurion’s slave.

What does Jesus do? He goes to help, but he doesn’t get there. The centurion sends his friends to stop Jesus: this grizzled warrior isn’t worthy enough for Jesus to enter his door, yet he trusts that Jesus may heal his servant with a word.

In those days, people expected healers to have magic words and gestures. A healer was expected to put on a bit of a show for the audience. The centurion doesn’t need any of that. He knows the power of an order issued by someone in authority.

Jesus is amazed at this, and he praises the faith of the centurion.

So Jesus doesn’t follow Elijah or Paul. He doesn’t follow me either, because he doesn’t have the easy tolerance of an Australian tourist. Jesus is looking for faith!—and he finds faith in unexpected people.

The centurion’s slave wasn’t healed because his master had built the synagogue. He was healed through the word of Jesus, who was astounded by this centurion. “I tell you,” he says, “not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

It seems you don’t have to be one of the chosen, covenant people to have faith in Jesus.

That’s what Paul’s mission was all about, of course. Paul’s Good News about Jesus was warmly received by people like this centurion, because Paul didn’t require them to be circumcised or observe the Sabbath, and he allowed them to eat bacon sandwiches and prawns to their hearts’ content.

Once Jesus had set you free, there was no need for these laws that served to set the Jewish community apart from everyone else.

Everyone was on the same footing, the footing of faith.

So you didn’t need to be a member of the Jewish religion to know the Jewish God.

So who was Paul upset with? Who was he talking about when he said,

…let that one be accursed!

We don’t know exactly who these people were, but it seems they represented a group within the early Church that disagreed with Paul, and who doubted his calling as an apostle. They taught that Gentiles had to become fully part of the Jewish community and obey all the laws that separated Jews from others. Perhaps James the brother of Jesus was one of these ‘Judaizers’. It seems that the Apostle Peter may have been influenced by them until he had his vision at the house of Simon the Tanner in Joppa.

The centurion wouldn’t get very far with the Judaizers. Being a God-fearer was not enough for them.

Like Jesus before him, Paul looks for faith. Not faith as believing the right doctrines in the right way, but faith as trust in God through Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from—that faith can be yours. The people who anger Paul are those who put obstacles in the way of faith, like rules and regulations and things you have to do and say and believe. The people who frustrate Paul are those who undermine the simple trusting faith of others. The people who irritate Paul beyond belief are all those who don’t put grace first, last and every place in between. Paul is so furious with them that he says, Let them be accursed.

The centurion shows us that back in the first century, you didn’t need to be a member of the Jewish religion to have faith in Jesus. So we need to ask this question: today, do you need to be a member of the Christian religion to have faith in Jesus?

The greatest theologian of the twentieth century was Karl Barth. In the early 1960s, Barth was asked if God was revealed in other religions too, or just in the Christian religion. It is said that Karl Barth replied:

God is not revealed in any religion—including Christianity. God is revealed through his Son, Jesus Christ.

“God is not revealed in any religion—including Christianity.” Isn’t that amazing? We don’t know Jesus by being a member of a church, or by doing good things, or by coming every Sunday.

We know Jesus through putting our trust in him—and walking one step at a time trusting Jesus. When we say, “I’m a Christian,” it better mean “I’m a disciple of Jesus learning to live in Jesus’ way.” It’s not enough if it only means “I go to church on Sundays.”

So when Karen and I were walking through the Holy Land, through Tuscany with its shrines dotted here and there, and through the heavenly glories of Yorkshire—more accurately known as God’s Own County—we would have met people who had faith in Jesus. Some of them would have been active members of a church. Some may have been part of another faith, others may have been ‘God-fearers’ like the centurion. One reason for our being tolerant is that we didn’t know who was who.

Back here, on Holy Thursday, one of our neighbours came to church bringing bunches of flowers for us. He is a Sri Lankan, a Hindu. This Hindu told me that this is what guides him in life:

Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. And God is love.

Of course, he was quoting the Hebrew and Christian scriptures—to me, to us, the people of the Word. I was immensely touched by this man’s faith. Could we see him as a kind of contemporary ‘God-fearer’? Perhaps that’s going too far. But maybe the existence of God-fearers in first-century times shows us how to see things in a less black-and-white way. Someone can be attracted to aspects of the life of faith. Perhaps there’s a place in their soul in which the Spirit of Jesus is at home. Perhaps they are learning to trust God—as we all are.

Maybe that’s what Barth meant when he said,

God is not revealed in any religion—including Christianity. God is revealed through his Son, Jesus Christ.

So if it’s not all black and white, cut and dried, is there any point being part of a church? Of course. It’s very important to be part of a community that has Jesus at the centre, that witnesses to faith in Jesus Christ and celebrates the risen Lord. It’s crucial to meet to hear the word of God and share the Holy Meal. It’s vital to have fellowship with people who will encourage us to keep our faith, our trust in God—even when the going is hard. It’s essential to be someone who supports others in their walk of faith, and who sets an example of faith. But don’t ever forget—Jesus also has his people beyond the Church’s boundaries.



Filed under Church & world, church year, RCL, sermon

2 responses to “The footing of faith (2 June, 2013)

  1. Graham Patch

    Welcome back Paul and Karen. Your travels sound very exotic and exciting. Am I allowed to feel just a bit jealous?? C u soon.

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