Under the Authority of Grace
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
If it were possible every American should visit Hiroshima. Thirty years ago, I was fortunate to stand at ground zero in Peace Memorial Park. I will always remember the image of human silhouettes burned into a wall by the blast, and of broken wristwatches and clocks plucked from the debris frozen at the same moment in time—8:15 AM, August 6, 1945.
As President Obama said Friday, that sun bright blast made it clear “we must change our mindset about war itself.” Our atomic awakening calls for a moral revolution. While we are right to be thankful nations so far have refrained from creating another Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but our transformation is far from complete as we grow increasingly complacent about routine surgical strikes and deadly drone attacks done in secret and without legal due process.
On this Memorial Day weekend we lament that America has been at war in Afghanistan for 14 years, 6 months and counting. We lament that America has also been at war against ISIL for 1 year, 11 months and counting. Of all the wars in American history, only Vietnam, at 19 years and 5 months lasted longer. We seem now to be in a state of perpetual war that is taking a heavy toll on families throughout our country and across the street, not to mention the innocent victims of U.S. sponsored violence around the world.
This backdrop of endless war and political violence, in part, was what made our gospel such an amazing story, very unexpected. Imperial Rome had been at war for hundreds of years. Its soldiers fought from the highlands of Scotland to the headwaters of the Nile. War in those days was a bloody, brutal, hand-to-hand affair and you didn’t get to be a Roman centurion without being very good at it. Yet despite this, or perhaps, because of it, the centurion we encounter in Luke’s gospel today knew there are things he could not win by force or threat of violence.
I wonder what price he paid to obtain this wisdom? I wonder what kind of person he was? In our gospel he is an unnamed soldier who, like all unnamed soldiers possesses hard won insight into life’s true value and the price of human freedom.
He is a battle-hardened leader of 100 fighting men, the human embodiment of Rome’s Imperial power. So it comes as a shock when one of Rome’s veteran warriors cries out for help from the gentle Jesus and shrinks at the thought of Jesus walking into his home. He sends word through mutual friends in the Jewish community, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof…” (Luke 7:7b).
The Greek word for “worthy” in Luke 7:6 means “sufficient.” Despite God’s promise that grace is sufficient for us (2 Cor. 12:9) and that Jesus’ work on the cross is enough, human doubts of worthiness crash in upon us: How do we know when we are worthy before God? The centurion points to a paradox of Christian faith: as sinners we are absolutely not worthy of God’s love, but as baptized saints we are absolutely confident that Jesus has made us worthy of God’s love, by grace alone.
Luke’s story presents us with an opportunity to remember there is nothing we could do, and no score we could add up, that could make us worthy or that amounts to anything, yet God, by way of the cross of Christ enfolds our lives in a living sanctuary of saving love anyway.
By faith alone, we are saved. We Lutherans recite this chapter and verse as central to our theological identity. Yet how often do we speak of others like the centurion’s well-meaning religious friends? They cite his credentials and accomplishments for Jesus like they’re reading from the social register of Who’s Who. Surely they say, of all people, this centurion is worthy of special consideration because “he loves our people and it was he who built our synagogue for us” (Luke 7:4).
It may be a fundamental human tendency to define worthiness in terms of accomplishment, but the Christian gospel has always understood human worth in terms of undeserved gift. Jesus’ response to the centurion’s cry for help had nothing to do with his good works and everything to do with his faith. Amazing grace is triggered by amazing faith.
The centurion sends word to Jesus saying, “I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. (Luke 7:7b) …For I also am a man set under authority…When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:7-10)
All our stereotypes about how Jesus will interact with Romans, centurions, Jewish leaders, foreigners and unbelievers go straight out the window in this story. To be a person of faith is to set our lives under the authority of Christ Jesus who has commanded that we love one another as much and as well as we are loved by God. The beginning of our moral transformation, the start of true peace between people cannot be won, or demanded, or extracted, but comes as we open our hands, hearts and minds to one another.
It’s always the same story. “…there is one story, which contains all others; and the center of that story is the perpetually displaced God who addresses us from the edge of human affairs, who has chosen the place of the excluded.” God waits to speak to us from whomever our particular sub-culture has marginalized and forgotten. The gospel is neither liberal nor conservative. “The more fashionable a cause, the more likely that the crucified God has moved on; the more embedded a practice or trend, the more likely that God is elsewhere.” There is nothing to be recommended, no set agenda to be promoted for Christians except the daily development of the mind of the crucified…” (Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, speech to the International Bonhoeffer Congress, Poland, Friday 3rd February 2006)
Learn to listen for God in what you hate most about yourself. That is the beginning of true wisdom. Learn to wait for God to speak from those you instinctively dismiss, ignore and reject. That is the true beginning of peace. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing. From ancient of days, God has poured out this wisdom, this peace. Today, and everyday, God opens the way that leads from death into life. Now more than ever, in this atomic and technological age, it is time we set our lives under the authority of Christ Jesus—not just to save ourselves but so the whole wide beautiful and astonishing world may not die, but flourish.