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1st Sunday after Trinity

26 May 2016

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Proper 4: I Kings 8.22-23, 41-43; Psalm 96.1-9; Galatians 1.1-12; Luke 7.1-10

 

O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in you, mercifully accept our prayers and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace, that in the keeping of your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

LUKE ends his account of how Jesus settled upon the twelve who would be his closest companions in his mission, and how he instructed them in the risks and expectations of discipleship, with a challenge. Even those specially chosen could fail. Just naming Jesus as “Lord” is not enough. The true disciple “hears [Jesus’s] words and acts on them” (Luke 6.12-49).

As if to confront them with the need for self-examination, the Gospel-writer immediately intro­duces a real and complex situation. Some Jewish elders approach with a special request from a centurion stationed in Capernaum. He has a sick slave whom he values highly, and he believes that the teacher who has just arrived in the city can heal him. But he is reluctant to approach Jesus directly, perhaps afraid of
the rebuff that a Gentile might expect.

The elders promote his case because he is a good man, who seems genuinely to have embraced the interests of the Jews, and built them a synagogue. Jesus responds without any of the sharp-edged wordplay that is so uncomfortable in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman and her daughter (Mark 7.24-30; Matthew 15.21-28). Before he reaches the house, however, the centurion rushes to assure him that as he is unworthy to receive him — just a word would do.

The centurion explains that he understands the system whereby words of authority are powerful, and must be obeyed. Jesus, however, hails the man’s confidence not as the product of institutionalised behaviour, but as true and remark­able faith — more striking than even the faith of devout Jews (Luke 7.1-10).

We are told only that the slave recovered. There is no information about the way in which the disciples reacted, or whether they saw in the centurion’s faith a paradigm of what Jesus was asking them to offer. A contemporary reader might want to know whether they were shocked to have a Gentile held up to them as the type of the true disciple.

Did they compensate for the assault on their imaginations with objections — the local elders wanting a favour for a useful ally in public life, or a superstitious pagan wanting to try out someone with special powers? Luke’s silence at this point challenges his audience to ask the question about the right to be included in the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims.

The question remains live in the sending out of the 70 (Luke 10.1-12), and in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37).

Had the disciples reflected on their own heritage, they might have remembered Solomon’s great vis­ion­­ary prayer at the dedication of the Temple. At last, the people whom God has chosen have a per­man­ent place where they can ap­­proach God, confident that they will be heard.

They are encouraged to bring everything before God — inter­personal conflict, defeat in battle, drought, famine, crop disease — in penitence (for all these afflictions speak of the breakdown in relation­ship between God and his people, caused by sin and disobedience) and to seek restoration and forgiveness (1 Kings 8.31-40).

Nor is God’s generosity to be confined to the concerns of a single nation. Solomon’s vision is limitless, and extends to foreigners who have yet to become believers. The only criterion is faithful belief. That is enough to evoke a response from God (1 Kings 8.41-43), and there is a home for everyone who comes in that spirit in Jerusalem.

When Paul took the good news of Jesus to the churches of Galatia, he carried with him an invitation to be part of the New Jerusalem, a “new creation” (Galatians 6.15). He had told them all that they needed to believe in order to receive this promise. Jesus was the one whom God had raised from the dead; he had willingly given his life to set all people free from their sins; and he opened a life beyond “the present evil age” to all who believed in him (Galatians 1.1-5).

Paul had conveyed this message with the authority of direct revela­tion (Galatians 1.11-12), and was outraged that the Galatians had al­lowed themselves to be confused into thinking that what mattered most as a guarantee of faith was circumcision.

Over the following weeks, his distinction between the limitations of human law, and the gracious gener­osity of the gospel will be made clearer.

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