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Pentecost 2 Proper 4C RCL May 29, 2016

1 Kings 18:20-21. (22-29), 30-39
Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

We are now in what the liturgical calendar calls “ordinary time.” Our vestments turn to green, the color of spring and summer growth, and we settle in for that long season until the coming of Advent.

Our first reading is a dramatic turning point in the history of God’s people.  King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel is married to the famous Queen Jezebel, who is a princess of Sidon, a coastal city on the Mediterranean Sea. James D. Newsome of Columbia Theological Seminary, tells us that a rich merchant class who had close ties with people in the cities of Tyre and Sidon formed a kind of oligarchy over the northern kingdom of Israel and “enriched itself off the produce of the land. often at the expense of the northern Israel peasantry.”  (Texts for Preaching, Year C, p. 362.)

Newsome points out that these people modeled themselves after their coastal friends in Phoenicia and worshipped Baal, a fertility god of Canaan and Phoenicia.The royal court and the upper classes were greedy and corrupt, and as usual, those at the bottom suffered most.

Scholars tell us that it is around 970 B.C. E. Morality and religious life have declined so much that there is only one prophet of God remaining, the great prophet Elijah, and there are four hundred fifty prophets of Baal.  Elijah is trying to call people back to the worship of God.

He proposes that he and the prophets of Baal will each be given a bull. He allows the prophets of Baal to choose which bull they will have, and they set up their sacrifice very carefully and call upon Baal, but nothing happens. Then Elijah sets up his sacrifice with great reverence and care. After he has prepared the sacrifice, he orders that  it be drenched in water to the point of overflowing. This insures that it will be difficult for God to set this sacrifice on fire. But, when Elijah calls on God, the fire consumes the entire sacrifice even to the point of tongues of fire licking at the water in the trench.

This makes a good story, but it is far more than that. As Newsome points out, the prophets Elijah and Elisha are concerned about two important issues—faithfulness and justice. Elijah is the only prophet of God left in the world. What courage it took for Elijah to engage in this showdown with the prophets of Baal. But Elijah has such deep faith in God that he takes this step. As Newsome writes, “Elijah risks everything, and God responds to that risk.”

Newsome writes that the essence of this text “is to be found in the prophets’ commitment to the God of Israel as the true Lord of life, in their dedication to justice, and in their compassion and intention to help people who did not have the means to help themselves.” (Texts for Preaching, Year C, p. 363.) Immediately after this event, Elijah has to flee for his life.

In today’s reading from his Letter to the Galatians, Paul is responding to a crisis in the life of the Galatian congregations. Some new Christians or perhaps new teachers have come into the communities of faith in Asia Minor, what we would call Turkey, and they are insisting that, as Christians, people must follow the Law of Moses, or at least, must adhere to the practice of circumcision.

Paul states that his authority comes from God, not from human authorities. He reminds them and us that our Lord gave his life to set us free. And then he tells the people how  surprised and shocked he is that they are deserting the gospel. They are allowing humans to draw them away from the good news in Christ to obedience to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.

He calls them to return to the true gospel. He reminds them that Christ did not call them to follow the letter of the law, but to follow the spirit of the law of love.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is coming into Capernaum. There is a centurion, a Roman military officer, who has a slave who is ill and close to death. Now this centurion is a powerful and wealthy officer in the Roman occupation army. But he is also someone who cares about his neighbors and supports the local synagogue. He asks some of the Jewish elders to appeal to Jesus to heal his beloved slave.

Jesus goes with them, but then the centurion sends a message to Jesus not to come. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But speak the word only, and my servant will be healed.” He has heard about Jesus, and he has sensed Jesus’ authority. Herbert O’Driscoll points out another aspect of the centurion’s reasoning, and that is that, for Jesus as a Jew to enter the centurion’s Gentile home would make Jesus ritually unclean. But the centurion does not mention this awkward issue. He simply and humbly states his own unworthiness to have Jesus as a visitor.

The centurion knows about worldly power. He is at the top of the corporate military structure. He knows about command and obedience. And he realizes that Jesus has a spiritual power beyond anything he has ever experienced. In essence, this centurion has become a follower of Jesus even as he is asking Jesus not to visit his home.

Jesus recognizes the faith of this man, and, when the messengers reach the centurion’s home, the servant has already been healed.

Our readings today remind us that ours is a God of justice and love who cares about all people. Because of the life and ministry of Jesus, we are called to go beyond the letter to the spirit of the law. Most of all, we have three powerful examples of people of faith: Elijah, who as the last living prophet calls on God with total faith and receives God’s powerful response; Paul, who roots himself deeply in faith in Christ and calls us to follow the law of love; and this centurion, with his combination of privilege, compassion, humility, spiritual intuition, and deep faith, who calls upon Jesus to heal his servant. May we follow their example of faith. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

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