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Pentecost 2 Proper 4C RCL June 2, 2013

1 Kings 18:20-
Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:7-10

Our first reading this morning is a crucial moment in the history of God’s people. We are in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about the year 970 B. C.  Many of the people of God have turned to the worship of the fertility god, Baal. Many of the practices of Baal worship we would consider to be immoral.. At this point, Baal has 450 prophets, and the Lord God has one prophet, the faithful and courageous Elijah.

In order to show which one is the true God, Elijah proposes that two burnt offerings be set up, but no fire kindled on either offering. He generously offers to the prophets of Baal that they go first, calling on their god to set fire to the offering. Nothing happens.

Then Elijah calls the people closer to him. First, he repairs the altar of God which had been torn down. Then Elijah builds a new altar. This is so important. Elijah puts God first.

Elijah makes a trench around the altar. Then he builds the burnt offering.

Now the offering is prepared. What does Elijah do? He has the people fill huge jars with water and drench the offering. The water is flowing into the moat around the altar. The odds against this offering ever bursting into flame are extremely high.  Then Elijah prays to God.  God is God and Elijah is God’s servant doing God’s will.  All of this is to call the people back to God. The fire falls and consumes not only the offering, but all the water. And the people see that God is indeed God.

In our epistle, we see that Paul is the midst of conflict. The first problem is that some people feel that, in order to join the community, people had to follow the law, which meant that they had to be circumcised.

The second issue is whether Paul is a true apostle. There are many voices,  many teachers. Then as now, there were teachers who tended to tell people what they wanted to hear.  Paul starts out by telling the people that he is “….sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” Paul reminds us that God raised Jesus from the dead, in other words, that Paul is preaching from the power of the resurrection, and he is surrounded by members of a community of faith.

Paul gives his usual greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” but then he adds a profound thought, “and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.” What does this mean? Is everything about our present age evil? No. There are many goods things happening. But there are some things that don’t fit with centering our lives in God and Christ and the Spirit.  There are many things in our culture which can distract us from following Jesus. By his life, death, and rising again, he has freed us to follow him and given us the grace to walk that journey in faith. One thing from which he has freed us is being bound by the Mosaic law in a literal way.

Paul tells us that he is not interested in pleasing people, but in pleasing God. People pleasing can be a big distraction.  Paul is not into building an empire for himself. He is not trying to keep everyone happy; he is trying to be a faithful servant of Christ. Sometimes we have to make decisions that may not bring us great wealth or great popularity,  or great power, but those are not the values by which we are called to live.

Today’s gospel is a wonderful story of healing that tells us so much about  Jesus and about this centurion.  Herbert O’Driscoll tells us that those who served in the Roman military could be sent to a far away outpost and spend their whole lives there, reporting to a headquarters at a great distance. When this happened, they often made friends where they were serving and became part of the community. This centurion has done exactly that. His slave becomes deathly ill. Probably this slave is a highly educated Greek person who teaches the centurion’s children. The slave is a beloved member of the family. The centurion and his slave are both Gentiles.

O’Driscoll points out that the centurion knows that Jesus has just come into Capernaum and that Jesus is a healer and a Jew. If the centurion asks Jesus to help his beloved slave, this could cause problems for Jesus. Helping the slave of an occupier of the country could alienate the Jewish community. So the centurion  calls upon some of his Jewish friends to ask for Jesus’ help. They “appeal to Jesus earnestly.” They tell Jesus what a good person the centurion is.

Jesus goes with them. But now, O’Driscoll tells us, the centurion, “shows his decency and his sensitivity.  He knows that it is technically a defilement for a Jew to come under his foreign Gentile roof. So the message comes to Jesus. It avoids the ugly truth about defilement. Instead it pays a compliment. It says, very graciously, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you.’ Then in a single sentence, it expresses what the Roman has sensed in Jesus of Nazareth—an immense natural authority:  ‘Only speak the word and let my servant be healed.’”

“In all this, Jesus had missed nothing. He had become aware of the special kind of human being he was dealing with. The trust shown in him by this man astonished our Lord, and so perhaps he was moved to say a potentially dangerous thing: ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ The fact that those who surrounded him were friends of the centurion probably prevented an angry reaction. It is quite possible, however, that someone in the crowd duly noted what Jesus had said, and subsequently quietly reported it to those who were interested in gathering evidence about this man from Nazareth. This danger was never far away.”

O’Driscoll illuminates the deep connection between  Jesus and this centurion. Both were under authority, Jesus under the authority of God and the centurion under the authority of the emperor of Rome. Barriers are broken and the slave is healed.

Elijah is one prophet against 450 false prophets. Paul calls us to follow the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Jesus and the centurion break through barriers to heal this beloved slave. Following the way of God and Jesus and the Spirit is not always  easy. It can be lonely, as it was for Elijah. It can be unpopular, as it was for Paul, It can be extremely complicated and dangerous as it was for all our heroes today. But the clarity, the rootedness, the grace, the healing, and the joy are there for us to see and for us to experience in our own lives.  May we follow these holy examples in our own lives. Amen.

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