Last week, we looked at two encounters Jesus had with the Scribes and Pharisees, both of which involved choosing to break the Sabbath rules. He then spent some time in the mountains praying before naming the 12 closest of his followers as those who would be apostles… the leaders among the learners.
The next portion of Luke’s gospel is what is often called the “Sermon on the Plain”. It is the companion to the portion of Matthew’s gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount. He joins the people down on the plain, healing and teaching. But we are picking up today’s passage after this sermon. Listen for the Word of God for you today from Luke 7:1-17.
Early in the week, as I planned this week’s worship, I was pretty excited about the chance to dig into this passage. These two interactions are fascinating, especially in juxtaposition to one another.
One involved a man of power and influence, not only among the Jews but also in the Roman army. The other, a widow who was left with no standing, no support, much less influence, after the loss of her son.
One conversation started with the assumption of healing. The other with the resignation with which we are too well-acquainted as we have had our own dealings with death.
Unfortunately, life had other plans for me. Some crazy bug attacked our household, picking us off one by one. I felt like death warmed over from about Tuesday afternoon onward, and so I spent more time with my eyes closed than open this week. I had no energy for the kind of brainwork it takes to write a sermon, and I was not entirely sure whether I would have the energy or voice to deliver one.
So today, you’re a little more of a glimpse at what I’m wrestling with than usual.
As we think about what Luke wants us to understand about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, these two stories point to two very important characteristics.
The Centurion has heard of Jesus and sends the Jewish elders to ask for him to come heal one of his slaves. We don’t know why the Roman didn’t come himself… perhaps he didn’t think Jesus would come for him? Perhaps he was busy. There really is no telling…
But I find it intriguing that the elders seem to take it upon themselves to let Jesus know how generous this Centurion was…. Luke doesn’t indicate that he included his love for the Jewish people in his message to Jesus. In fact, as Jesus approaches, as second message arrives, saying not to come. “I am not worthy to be your host”.
Here is a man who could have demanded Jesus come, could have demanded that he see the slave. For that matter, he could have just replaced the slave, should the servant have died. But instead, he describes Jesus’ authority and power to heal and he trusts in that authority and power, even from afar.
He had Faith -just as it would be described in the letter to the Hebrews…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
He articulated that faith in very practical, very human terms – because as a man who worked within a chain of command, he understood power and authority in very practical, tangible ways. And that understanding allowed him to believe that all he needed was a word from Jesus. Just a word would heal the slave that he valued so highly.
But don’t you just wonder how much of the Jewish way of trusting in the authority of Yahweh – Jehovah God – had rubbed off on this man? How many of the stories he might have overheard as they were building the synagogue that he’d helped pay for?
Jesus heard faith in the man’s message -no matter its origins. He healed the slave and he bore witness to the Centurion’s faith.
Once again, we are reminded that as the son of God, Jesus has all the authority in heaven and on earth to do the work of healing, of reconciling, of setting captives free, of bringing jubilee to the land.
And we are reminded that his mission field was not confined to the Jews.
Now it seems like we just turn the corner in Capernaum and run into the funeral procession, but Jesus and his followers have moved on to Nain. And it’s almost as if we have two parades happening, and their routes happen to intersect.
If they were a parade, Jesus and his large crowd of followers would be carrying signs and riding floats that represent life, joy, hope. They are hyped up after a series of miraculous healings and brilliant teachings .
It must have been sobering for them to realize that the procession they meet near the city gate is comprised of a widow, her dead son and a crowd of mourners.
This time, no one approaches Jesus, no one makes any requests.
This time, Jesus sees what is happening, and he is moved to respond.
He is moved by compassion… Compassion that was sparked as life met death, as hope collided with suffering.
True compassion is not an intellectual exercise. The kind of compassion Jesus experienced is as fully human as it is fully divine. Compassion is one of those “feel it in your gut” emotions.
In fact, the greek root for the word translated as compassion in this passage is splagchna – literally intestines.
When Jesus sees what is happening, he experiences that same deep, gut-wrenching compassion that moves people today to act when they see suffering. It’s that twist in your belly when you hear that music and see the sad faces of the dogs in the commercials for the humane society
He saw the woman and knew what was happening.
There was no husband, no son, no male kin there to console and mourn with her.
He saw the woman and knew this meant she was now among the most vulnerable, given the patriarchal structure of the Jewish people.
He saw the woman and knew that he had the power and the authority to change what he knew in his gut was not good.
He told her not to weep. And he told the young man to rise. And thus Luke reveals to his readers (like the people of Judea) that Jesus has the power not only to heal, but to raise the dead to life.
Jesus is powerful.
This much is abundantly clear.
And logical, if he is who he claims to be, right?
The son of God should be all powerful if God is all powerful.
But this combination of stories also presents us with a deity who wields that power in such a way that his actions affirm and give life.
Think about that – and compare it to the ways we experience people who have power – perhaps in the form of leadership, wealth, influence, control.
How often do we see the truth in the aphorism about power corrupting people… and the more power they gain, the more corrupt they become?
But rather than amassing power for himself, Jesus starts at the bottom. And he stays among those on the lowest rungs. That is the kind of leader he is.
Luke started his telling of Jesus’ story with people preparing us for a messiah who would turn things upside down. Who would bring down the mighty and lift up those who had been made low.
The teaching we see in his initial sermon in Luke 4 and the sermon on the plain reinforce that idea. And we begin to see Jesus acting in ways that reverse fortunes in this portion of Chapter 7.
When Jesus sees the widow and his gut twists, he liberates her from a dire situation by bringing her son back to life.
And when Jesus hears the faith of the Centurion, he heals a slave. Not nearly as satisfying, really.
I want the story to end with a captive set free from slavery.
Yes – it’s great that this man is healed. And I’m hopeful that a man who seems humble and values this slave highly treats the man well. But even after the miracle, Jesus’ work seems unfinished.
Perhaps at some point the Centurion finishes the work, releasing the slave. After all, he had faith.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that he kept up with Jesus, heard more of his teaching and offered release to a man he valued as a person, no longer as property.
Yes- that’s a very optimistic possibility, but I believe that compassion moves us fully human people, too… not just messiahs. Maybe that is the point.
As people who believe in Jesus, as people who trust in God’s power to enter into our world and transform it, and as people who understand that the fullness of God’s Kingdom is yet to come, we must accept that there will always be work for us to engage, to complete.
The challenge is to see it amidst the distractions of this world.
And then to overcome the cynicism that freezes our guts and blunts our compassion
But here’s the thing. We don’t have a choice.
That work is part of who we are.
God doesn’t claim us or save us so that we can sit back and wait until it’s time to punch our ticket and hop onto the train that’s bound for glory.
Not any more than God watches and waits for us to slip up and sin so that our tickets are void and our names get moved from the nice to the naughty list.
Dear ones, please hear and believe this truth:
You are loved because God is love.
And not a thing in this world can change that.
You and I are never going to be powerful enough to change that.
You are loved beyond reason by the God who created and claims you.
Not because you made a choice.
Not because you do more good things than bad.
Not because you said the prayer of confession this morning.
You are forgiven because God extends grace.
You are saved because the work of Christ was done in his living, dying and rising.
That is what we will proclaim at table this morning.
That is what we proclaim when we live in the power of the Holy Spirit remembering that, from the moment we say “Yes, thank you” to God’s love – we are blessed to be a blessing to others.
And how can you know this to be true… when you have left this place , this sanctuary?
You’ll feel it in your guts.
You’ll feel it in your guts every time you see someone bowed under the weight of grief…
You’ll experience it in your splagchna, as you hear of injustice carried out and especially when injustice is done in the name of the very One who embodied justice.
That roar of righteous anger and compassion is all the evidence you need that Christ has saved you – and thus is saving the world – from a life lived for self, chasing earthly treasures.
That, my dear ones, is my prayer for you and for me today…
That our eyes would be open and our guts be gripped by the depth of need we see in this world. And that the Light of the World would shine brightly in our response.