Unlikely People, Unlikely Faith

Note: On this Roman Catholic Feast Day of Corpus Christi the Anglican liturgy features the encounter between Jesus and the Roman centurion from Luke’s Gospel. The centurion’s words, brought to Jesus by his friends, have become an integral prayer of the Roman Catholic Eucharist in preparing to receive Holy Communion. From my new Anglican perch, however, it strikes me as ironic that the prayer of the centurion, an outsider by all criteria, has become part of a communion practice that reserves the right to determine who is and isn’t worthy to receive. Jesus makes all of us worthy; I don’t think church membership or our own efforts to become worthy were meant to be part of the deal. Contrition yes, but anything else, no. Is Jesus’ reply to the centurion not a gentle rebuke on any attempt to restrict access to Jesus, the healing Bread of Heaven, not least on our tendency to judge others by “policing” the communion table? I mean, with all due respect, I’m just wondering …

Homily for May 29, 2016 on Luke 7:1-10
St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Humboldt, SK

Today’s Gospel opens the seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel. A very interesting chapter, as it turns out. The chapter begins with a Roman army officer, a Gentile, who believes that Jesus can heal his servant without even being there.  “Just say the word, and I know it will happen.”  Luke says that Jesus was amazed at his faith; he hadn’t seen anything like it in Israel. The chapter ends with an immoral woman crashing a dinner party where she kisses Jesus’ feet and anoints them with perfume. The hosting Pharisee is offended.  Jesus forgives this woman and says, “Your faith has saved you.” She believed that Jesus would forgive and accept her—He did. Not exactly your run-of-the-mill folks… or are they?

Let’s take a closer look at today’s Gospel account…

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and let my servant be healed. A close variation of these words can be heard regularly still today: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. It is the Roman Catholic equivalent of what the BCP (Anglican Book of Common Prayer) calls the Prayer of Humble Access, a prayer that occurs in the same place in the Eucharist, and that echoes another healing story, (Mt & Mk) the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. (BCP) (“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs gather the crumbs that fall from the table.”)

How peculiar … how very peculiar that, of all the stories in the Gospels, it is this one of the centurion’s faith (like the Syro-Phoenician woman’s faith) that became a major part of the church’s liturgical prayer. The centurion represents the occupying force of Rome. He is an emissary of the oppressor. Even Luke’s original readers and those who first heard this story knew full well that there is one thing that hadn’t changed across those decades and that was that Rome was still in charge, still occupying the country, still enforcing its will upon people of all ranks and stations. This centurion is one who – as he himself admits – is used to giving orders in the Roman army and having those orders obeyed. He is, then, one of those directly responsible for Israel’s oppression.

But I wonder if that’s not part of the reason that this story is so important and appears in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. I mean, just because this man is in the Roman army doesn’t mean that he is incapable of doing good and having faith, does it? Clearly this man, representing the enemy, is already known for having done much good. Even while an outsider to Jewish society, and representing the oppressor, this centurion is clearly choosing not to act as an oppressor. Rather than letting his power and status make him arrogant and hostile, he chooses to have empathy and respect for those in his care, and makes friends with them. He even worries about his sick slave, one who has no power, no voice, no authority at all. He built a synagogue for the Jews living under his jurisdiction and they in turn appreciate his generosity. “He loves our people” (vs.5).  And he’s most considerate and respectful of Jewish religious practice. Anticipating that direct contact with Jesus might compromise  Jesus because of religious purity laws, this Roman soldier decides not to approach Jesus directly. That deference on his part shows profound regard for Jewish religious customs. Instead, he trusts elders and friends to deliver the message on his behalf. Indeed, the Jewish leaders in his town commend him to Jesus. And, the centurion trusts that Jesus, with a word, will heal the beloved servant. Finally, Jesus is amazed: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

What are we to make of this? First of all, we would do well to always and everywhere assume the best in people, no matter who or what they are, realizing that God loves all people – all people.

All people, literally all people, are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, not just Christians. Even if someone doesn’t share our faith in Jesus, they are our sister, our brother, in Christ. Even our enemies are worthy of our kinship and efforts to find common ground in the goodness of their heart. We need to continuously look for the good and the beauty, constantly looking for the gift and desire of faith in whatever way the other person expresses. Some well-meaning Christians get all tied in a knot and dismiss those who do not share our faith. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate faith and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.

After all, Jesus commends the faith of this Roman centurion even though – and here’s the clincher – there is absolutely no indication that the centurion becomes … a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus an authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, an authority that he needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seems particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke records it. End of story.

So that kind’a makes me wonder …

We all know and love folks who don’t go to church, who aren’t particularly religious, or even Christian. For the most part, we’re talking about really good people. This story of the centurion is a good reminder that such people are also deeply loved by God, even if they don’t recognize or claim this love as coming from God. A priest once had an argument with a young scientist, who claimed that he didn’t believe in God. To which the priest calmly replied, “That’s okay, as long as God believes in you.”

God does not withdraw his love and mercy just because we don’t believe in God. Just because we don’t recognize God in our lives, doesn’t mean God cannot use us to do good in the world. Many of us love family members and friends  whose relationship to the church is sketchy at best. I have at least two of these wonderful human beings in my own life; they happen to be my own son and daughter. They, like the centurion, may not share my love for Jesus, but they sure know, like the centurion, when they or someone they know needs prayers: “Mom, will you say a prayer for so-and-so? They’re good people; they are worthy of having you do this.” Sounds familiar?

I’d like to think that the interaction between the centurion and Jesus reassures us that it’s okay that faith comes in different shapes and sizes, and certainly in different expressions, and that it is our job to recognize this … as Jesus did. I give thanks that centurion-like people are part of my life, people who I may not feel much in common with, yet people who, in their dealings with others, show respect and compassion, generosity and humility, nobleness and integrity just as the centurion clearly shows to the Jewish people,  to the soldiers under his command, and especially towards his slave. I pray that God would use my loved ones to do God’s will in the world (even if they wouldn’t call it that), and I pray that we would all have the grace and courage to affirm their goodness, sharing our gratitude as well as our joyful conviction that God loves them and uses them.

If we could sum up the one overarching lesson in the entire seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel it is this: the people we would expect to have faith, don’t; and those we wouldn’t expect to have faith, do. Today’s encounter reminds us not to put people in a box. God is at work in everyone—even in the most unlikely folk. Next, don’t ever let our religious pedigree get in the way of trusting Jesus. It’s easy to become a Pharisee—self-righteous, trusting in our religious heritage and traditions rather than trusting Jesus.

Can we foster the kind of openness that Jesus shows in today’s encounter? If we do, we too may be surprised by joy when we bump into faith in unexpected places and people. For Jesus continues to turn everything upside down and inside out. The church in fact supports that upside down vision of Jesus, even if it doesn’t always reflect that in its own practice. One of the ways it does that is by allowing the words of two outsiders, the words of two highly unlikely people of faith, the centurion and the Syro-Phoenician woman, to find  their way into major parts of our Eucharistic liturgies. It is with their words that we approach Holy Communion:

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. …

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,
but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
AMEN

Prairie Encounters

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One thought on “Unlikely People, Unlikely Faith”

  1. Oh my, Marie-Louise, what a gift you have for breaking open the Word. I’ve struggled with the newly translated RC missal which returned to the older version of the “Prayer of Humble Access” (a lovely term, indeed!). Your exegesis of the Roman Centurion story has forever changed these words for me. Thank you for sharing this brilliant homily!

    Like

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