Text: Luke 7:1-10
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
May. 29, 2016
When I was a freshman in high school I read a book that changed my perspective on a lot of things for it enabled me to begin to see the world in shades of gray rather than in stark contrasts of black and white. The Ugly American became a best seller. (Do any of you remember reading it? It was written by an American journalist who had spent a lot of time reporting on events taking place is Southeast Asia just as the United States was beginning to dip its toe in the Viet Nam conflict.
But although written by an American, like Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, written a generation earlier, the story is told through the eyes of the Asia people. Among other things, it reported of what it is like to be totally dependent on a major world power which assumes what is in its best interest, is in the best interest of South Asia as well. It described many Americans, whether military, politicians, businessmen or tourists as being totally insensitive to the culture, values, or feelings of the people in this part of the world.
In their eyes, American’s were indeed ugly. It was not a flattering portrait and caused a lot of controversy at the time. Other people’s truth sometimes can be uncomfortable when we are first confronted with it.
What struck me about the book, however, was another dimension that came through in the book. The oppressed seem to have a far better ability to discriminate between “ugly Americans” and “sensitive Americans”. Though most Americans mentioned in the book came across as “loud, arrogant and insensitive”, they were not all lumped together. Asians could tell the difference when an American took time to care about them, or at least tried to understand from where they were coming.
In our Gospel reading today, we have an example of just such sensitive discrimination. The Romans were the “Ugly Americans,” in the eyes of the Jews in Jesus’ generation. Rome was the world power. Its will was imposed at the point of the sword. Everywhere throughout Palestine, encampments of Roman soldiers were in place, ready to respond to any situation should the Jews get restless.
As a group the Romans were hated, distrusted, and secretly despised. But the Jews were able to recognize when a Roman cane along who was different. Such a Roman lived in Capernaum, the little sea side village new Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. (Capernaum, you may remember was where Jesus performed his first miracle, turning water into wine.)
This Roman was a solider, a Centurion who was in command of 100 men. The Jews who lived in the village knew that if the situation demanded it, this man would not hesitate for one moment to enter a home in search of a Jewish terrorist. But despite their hated of “Romans” they trust this man. He was thoughtful, kind and respected their ways and their faith.
In fact, with his own money, he had a synagogue built for them because they could not afford to build one on their own. Here was a man who really cared. He knew that he could not change the system, but he also knew that he could best serve Rome by treating the Jews with dignity rather than by using force.
He treated his men well also. And although, like others of his time he owned slaves to attend to his personal needs, he treated them with the same kindness and respect that he showed to his colleagues.
One day, one of his slaves took ill. He called the doctor, but it was of no avail. The man was consumed by fever and was at the point of death. The Centurion’s heart was filled with grief for this slave had become his friend. He had heard reports of a Rabbi, who had grown up in nearby Nazareth, that had a gift for healing people. He sent for some of his Jewish friends to find out where Jesus was. They volunteered to find him and bring him to the Centurion’s home.
After they had gone, the Centurion remembered that the Jews believed that they were defiled if they entered a home where someone had just died. He looked at his servant who was now barely breathing and thought to himself, “No, it will not do.” There is no point in risking exposing the healer to needless defilement, especially in a Roman home. Besides, he reasoned, there was no need. Jesus presence was not required.
He was a Centurion, assigned by Caesar to keep order and peace. He was given much discretion as to how he carried out this assignment. As I noted earlier, he had decided that instead of keeping the peace through intimidation and fear, he would get to know the people and win their trust. Everyone would win.
But while he was given such discretion, the men under him did not have such authority. When he issued an order they would carry it out to the letter. From what he had heard he believed that Jesus too was under commission to carry out a mission from God. Jesus, like him, was given both the authority and power to carry it out.
So when he saw Jesus coming down the road, he sent word that his presence was not required. Jesus had only to speak the word, he knew it would be carried out and that his slave would live. Jesus was astounded. He turned to his disciples and said “In all of Israel, I have not seen such faith as this Centurion has shown. From that moment the slave began to recover.
Luke, the writer of today’s gospel echo’s this story in his second book, The Acts of the Apostles. This is something that we find he often does to show: 1) that all Jesus began to do and teach, his disciples continued in their ministries, and 2) that often in carrying on his ministry they came to have a far deeper understanding of what Jesus was about.
In this case Peter encountered another Centurion who was a man of faith. Before this encounter, God knew Peter still needed to see the world through a different set of eyes. He needed a new perspective. Although Peter had experienced Pentecost and had been empowered for his mission – he still had more to learn.
Despite Jesus teaching and actions, Peter along with the other disciples still felt that their mission was to the Jews – even after Jesus had given them the great commission to go into all the world. Peter had a vision. While on a house top in prayer, Peter had a vision. He was shown some animals that the Jewish law had declared unclean. Peter was commanded to kill and animal and eat it. The command came three times. Each time Peter resisted saying that the animal was unclean. Then he heard the voice of the Holy Spirit saying: “Call not unclean what I have made clean.”
Just then messengers downstairs summoned him to visit the home of the Centurion. Then he understood the vision, and though painful, he was obedient. He would be called on the carpet by the rest of the Apostles to given an explanation for his actions. But when he reported that this gentile soldier had received the Spirit in the same manner as the apostles had on Pentecost, all of them knew they had to see things in new ways.
We are now living in the season of Pentecost. No longer do we focus on the events of our Lord that surround his death and resurrection. In this season we look at his ministry even as the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost calls us to ministry.
One of the first things we encounter, something that we all must learn is that the Holy Spirit calls us to expand our vision, to see things in new ways. That is often painful. As a nation we have lived through the civil rights era when Dr. Martian Luther King gave his prophetic call. As a national church we have struggled as we responded to the voice of the spirit calling us to ordain women. Even now our church remains in the aftermath of controversy as it now permits the ordination of gays and the blessing of gay unions.
In each case, we have been called upon the change our understanding in how we interpret scripture. In each case, like Peter, we have been called by the spirit to not call unclean what He has made clean. It has not been easy. It has been painful. Just as all honest seeking Jews could not accept Jesus as Messiah, we have seen many Christians who have not been able to accept that the changes by our church have been in response to hearing the voice of the Spirit. Each of us must be faithful to the dictates of our own conscience as we stand in the presence of God.
At the local level many of us are feeling the call of God for St. Paul’s to make some changes for the sake of our mission to the city of Naples. The most obvious example is looking at the discrepancy between the demographics of our city and that of our church. What changes must we make so that more families with young children and younger single adults and the various ethnic groups who live among us will find St. Paul’s an inviting, attractive, community where they want to worship and grow in the faith? Will making such changes cause painful adjustments? Probably. But it will also be exciting to see what God will do as we open ourselves to fulfill Him mission here in Naples in the months and years ahead.