Sermon for Sunday 2nd June – 2nd after Pentecost
1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39
‘you’ve gotta serve somebody’
Last weekend, as Jo reminded us last Sunday, we offered our hospitality to the Diocesan Hui on Marriage. Certainly for any number of reasons, being here in New Zealand has caused me to reflect at far greater depth on these matters than I had done whilst in England. And in particular I have been drawn over and again to the words of Jesus concerning marriage – which for the far greater part reveal that he does not think as we do on these matters, whether we are Conservatives or Liberals, both of whom seem to see in marriage the Summum bonum, the highest Good.
Jesus sees marriage as relatively unimportant – and I choose my words carefully. Relatively Unimportant. Relative to what you might well ask? Relative to the Kingdom of God, and thus Relative to the life of a Disciple of Jesus.
In one of the parables of the Kingdom, someone uses as an excuse ‘I have just got married’ – and we all know what is the outcome for those who excuse themselves from the invitation of the King. Again Jesus over and again points out that devotion to Him far far outweighs all others relationships. Just the other week I was on retreat with other clergy and lay ministers and we heard these words from the gospel of Luke ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’ Yes, as we all know, or at least as I hope we all know, Jesus is engaging in hyperbole here, but the point is clear – without a devotion to the person of Jesus that dwarfs all other allegiances, including marriage and family life – we cannot be his disciples. St Paul sees marriage as a hindrance to discipleship. It is only because we view Marriage through the distorting lens of Christendom that we think otherwise.
Jesus says marriage is not important enough to be part of the Age that is to come, where ‘they neither marry nor are given in marriage’. As the church, we are an eschatalogical community, a foretaste of the age to come, Marriage is not of much significance to the church.
At the end of the Hui, Bishop Kelvin speaking of his episcopal ministry used the metaphor of a lumberjack, trying to keep a great raft of logs together on a river. The image that came to mind was that the raft of logs has got stuck up a creek. Perhaps our lack of progress on this issue is precisely its insignificance in terms of the Kingdom of God.
We are now in what the church calls Ordinary time. From Advent to Ascension – we focus on the coming, the incarnation, the revealing, the passion and the resurrection of Jesus. Now the focus shifts onto the church and its faithfulness to Jesus – The Kingdom of God and discipleship, that is our obedience to Jesus, which is the essence of the Kingdom.
The heart of discipleship is obedience to Jesus. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, ‘only the one who obeys believes, and only the one who believes obeys’. Believing in Jesus and Obeying Jesus are one and the same. There is no distinction between faith and works. To believe is to be living out this Salvation Life.
Our gospel reading today focusses on the associated issue of Authority – the Authority of Christ. Obedience to Jesus comes from a recognition of who he is – to see who he is is of course to believe in Him and believing He is who he Is, obedience is of course only natural.
And Jesus in this encounter with the Centurion is staggered – he is ‘amazed’ at the faith which is evidenced before him. But whose faith is he talking about? We might think that self evidently that of the Centurion, but I suggest that is not all. The story is worth looking at in some detail.
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. ‘After Jesus had finished all these sayings . . . Luke clearly intends us to link the gospel incident with what Jesus has just been saying ‘in the hearing of the people’. We are as it were encouraged to be ‘the people’ who have heard him speak, and who now follow Him to Capernaum. But what was it Jesus has just said?
Actually, he has just completed what we might call Luke’s version of The Sermon on the Mount. Like that in Matthew – Luke has Jesus conclude the sermon with the words about the house on the rock and that built on sand. And as in Matthew there are words about the importance of Obedience. In Matthew Jesus says ‘‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” In Luke we hear Jesus perhaps in exasperation saying this, ‘ ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you?’
Put another way, they call him Lord, but do not treat him as such – they do not recognise his Authority. And so with those words as the background, Jesus comes to Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. Note, the gentile Centurion sends the Jewish elders to Jesus, They don’t offer to go. Perhaps a sign that whilst he recognises Jesus, they do not. Well we know what happens next. The Centurion, hearing that Jesus is en route, sends some of his friends to Jesus, and tells them ‘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. The honour the Centurion holds Jesus in is such that he would not presume to come to him . . . But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. Words of great faith which we sometimes echo in our words of invitation to the Eucharist ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.’ The Centurion recognises the Authority of the Words of Jesus – How?
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.’ The Centurion exercises authority – and he recognises authority. When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him. He has just been expressing his frustration with his hearers ‘Why do you call me Lord! Lord! and do not DO what I say???’ And then this Gentile Centurion describes how he orders his soldiers and his slaves and they do what he tells them. ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ Who has the higher Authority?? Jesus, or the Centurion? The answer is so obvious. But who commands the respect of obedience? The Centurion. Jesus as it were sees the ‘faith’ of the soldiers and the slaves of the Centurion, who obey him. He sees their response and compares it with the failure of those he is teaching to ‘Do what I say’, their ‘lack of faith’
But of course this Is the story of those who presume to call themselves the people of God.
In our Old Testament lesson – what is at stake is also the matter of Authority. In Elijah’s famous face off with the prophets of Ba’al – the issue precisely is ‘Who is God?’ Ba’al or Yahweh, The LORD. And following the dramatic encounter, all the people declare ‘the LORD is God, The LORD is God’. But for all that recognition, as the prophets declare – the people do not acknowledge him as such in their lives. They cry out to him when things go badly, but do not obey him as Lord and God. ‘Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not DO what I say?’ And so it is when the LORD stands amongst us in the flesh. Many see his acts, even more hear his words, but few obey. Their own agendas are all so much more pressing. As Jesus says ‘they hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.’
I wonder if that was going on last weekend, certainly it yielded little if anything. Our thinking about marriage is so skewed – we see it of such distorted importance, that when we hear Jesus say ‘whoever has left his . . . wife . . . for my sake and the kingdom . . .’ we assume he must have got it wrong . . . but that is quite plainly what he says. To be a disciple is to be devoted to Jesus, to recognise his authority, like the soldiers and the slaves of the Centurion, to Act immediately in accordance with his command. Put another way, to have faith
To tie up there is something which needs to be said about Obedience to Jesus. For it is a mark of our wayward hearts that we find such a thought onerous. And so we must insist on two things. Firstly that obedience is the fruit of faith – it is not an attempt to curry favour with God.
Such a thing is not possible – God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself – We are made right through faith in Jesus. We do not obey Jesus in order that we might be put right with God. We do not obey, like perhaps the soldiers and slaves obey, out of fear. We obey because we Recognise him, we recognise his authority – Calling him Lord is not merely the word of our lips, it is the deepest recognition of our hearts and wills. It is a sign that in truth we do Know Him, we recognise that He Is Lord. To obey him is to recognise Him for who he is, the one who fills everything in every way, the eternal Logos of God. It is to align ourselves with all that is good and true and beautiful – it is to align ourselves with the Light and Life of the World. Not to do so is to say that there is some other greater source of authority in the world, there is some other, some higher truth.
And this brings us to the second and final point. That knowing Jesus, we Love him, and obedience is the natural fruit of that Love. Nothing delights us more than to obey the one we love. For we know that in obedience to the one who loves us so much that he died for us, we will truly find our deepest Joy. We recognise deep within ourselves the Life giving nature of his command, that at first declared all things Good, like a spring of water welling up to eternal life. To know that in obedience to Him we know our true freedom, that for which we were made, the fulness of all we were created to be – truly children of the most high God.
May we all know the true and perfect freedom that is Loving obedience to Christ
I close with a prayer of St Augustine: Let us pray
O thou, who art the light of the minds that know thee,
the life of the souls that love thee,
and the strength of the wills that serve thee;
help us so to know thee that we may truly love thee;
so to love thee that we may fully serve thee,
whom to serve is perfect freedom.