Scriptures for today are Here.
I grew up as the daughter of a career Army officer, moving every few years, making our home in different places all over the world, getting a taste of different cultures and different ways of life. The foreign posting that I remember the best was Okinawa, which if you don’t know, is an island off the southern coast of Japan, where American forces have been stationed since the end of World War II. And, while in many ways it was excellent cultural education to live there, in other ways, Americans on Okinawa kept to themselves – we lived on American bases, went to American schools, belonged to American churches, we were basically Americans associating mostly with other Americans. I did learn some basic things about Japanese culture – how to count to 10, how to eat with chopsticks – but in other ways, it didn’t feel that different from living on an Army post in the U.S.
One thing that would have been extremely unusual was for a U.S. Army officer like my father to become interested in the local religion, or pay to build a local religious temple, or ask a local religious leader for healing. An American who did that would find himself looked at very strangely by his peers.
Which is why today’s gospel story strikes me as so unusual. Here is a Roman centurion, a foreign occupier of Israel, an officer about the rank of a major or lieutenant colonel, who becomes a patron of the local synagogue, is widely appreciated by the local townspeople, and asks a local religious guru for help with a sick servant. It takes a lot of boundary crossing for him to do that. Most Romans would have thought of themselves as superior to the local people, would have been somewhat afraid and suspicious that the local people wanted them out, would have been very reluctant to get too involved with Jewish people for fear it would compromise their careers. Yet here is this centurion, praised as worthy and a friend of the synagogue, showing faith enough to ask Jesus for healing.
The English bishop and scholar N.T. Wright describes the centurion as “looking in at Israel and Israel’s God from the outside, liking what he sees, and opening himself to learning new truth from this strange, ancient way of life.” According to Wright, this outsider is able to see right to the heart of faith in Israel’s “one true God,” and that “the one true God was personally present and active in Jesus.” He seems to understand where Jesus’ authority comes from – from God, who has the authority to heal.
Jesus is amazed and praises the centurion’s faith – and what is interesting about the centurion’s faith is that it has nothing to do with belief. The centurion has not said anything about Jesus being the son of God or any kind of doctrine at all. And it has nothing to do with action either – Jesus does not tell the centurion to lay down his weapons and follow him. Jesus doesn’t tell him to do anything. And Luke tells us nothing about what the centurion did after this – so he doesn’t apparently become a disciple, or leave everything and follow Jesus.
The faith the centurion shows is not belief and it is not action. It is simple trust that Jesus can and will do what he says he will do – and this trust is faith greater than anyone else in Israel has shown.
This is a story of boundary crossing – of an outsider opening his mind and heart to a new way of trusting a new God. And on the other side, of Jesus ministering to the outsider, of Jesus reaching out to someone who has no religious credentials, is not a member of the chosen, inside group, of Jesus granting healing without any test of membership.
This kind of boundary crossing is very difficult for humans to do. We like to create in groups and out groups, we like to know who the most-favored people are, we like to know that we are God’s favored ones. And over and over, Jesus surprises us, defeats our expectations, includes those who we might assume should be excluded. And annoyingly, sometimes he does it without any kind of test of belief or behavior. He seems to recognize in all people, even the outsiders, a potential for an attitude of the heart that will open them to receiving the grace of God, and he responds.
Which brings us to Pope Francis, who raised all kinds of alarms in the Roman Catholic church recently by saying,
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all. And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace.”
The press immediately responded with worldwide headlines proclaiming that the pope said atheists could go to heaven, leading the comedian Stephen Colbert to say, “If atheists can go to heaven, I want a refund on my Catholicism!” And also prompting a Vatican spokesman to issue a statement saying that no, atheists still go to hell.
If you read carefully the pope’s words, you can see he’s actually not saying anything new. First of all, he is not talking about going to heaven at all: if you look at his statement in context, he is talking about how people can do good and meet together on a path to peace. This is not controversial – we all know perfectly well that atheists as well as religious people can do good and work for peace.
And furthermore, he is using the word “redeemed” very carefully in its technical meaning. “Redeemed” is a word that refers to paying a price, the way you would pay to redeem something you had pawned at a pawn shop, or you would pay a ransom for someone who had been kidnapped. Redemption also refers to buying a slave’s freedom, so we say that God redeemed the people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt when Moses led them toward the Promised Land.
Redemption has always been seen as one thing that Jesus has done for us in his life and death. However you think his life and death accomplished redemption, opened the way of freedom from our slavery to sin and death, we Christians believe that Jesus has already done it. Whatever price was to be paid, Jesus has paid it, it’s already happened. And Jesus has done this because God loved and offered the gift of redemption to not just Christians or Jews but all people, even all creation: God’s hope is to lead everyone, everything back into the state God intended for us to live in.
That part is not new – the question Christian thinkers have gotten hung up over is how you go about receiving that gift and who receives it. If redemption is what Jesus has already done, salvation is how we appropriate that gift and make it our own. I believe that our free will gives us the ability to reject God’s gift if we want – God will not force salvation on us. And I think there are people like, say, possibly Hitler and others, who have let their minds and hearts grow so evil and so steeped in darkness that they will run and hide from God – who, when confronted with ultimate good, condemn themselves to an existence where God is absent. That’s the definition of hell – a world without God.
So how do you accept God’s gift of salvation? Do you have to be a baptized Christian, do you have to pray the sinner’s prayer, do you have to believe in certain doctrines, do you have to behave a certain way? Jesus doesn’t impose any conditions on the centurion at all – he simply hears a request from someone who clearly recognizes his authority as God’s representative, grants the request, and then praises the centurion’s faith because the centurion understood that Jesus was someone to put his trust in.
And given the fact that the people Jesus criticizes most strongly in the gospels are the highly religious people who go around judging others, we have to think very carefully before we go around judging who is going to heaven and who is going to hell – Jesus seems to have different tests of who’s in and who’s out than we do. Jesus looks at people’s hearts, not their memberships.
Which begs the question: who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell? Well, as one of my mentor priests, Jon Coffey, used to say, thank God I’m not in charge of that. We can trust Jesus to take care of that. But then, if Jesus is going to go around including people indiscriminately, even people we don’t think meet the qualifications, letting just anyone get into heaven – why bother to be a Christian, why be part of a church? Why not say, like Colbert, if atheists can go to heaven, I want a refund!
Well, let’s remember – going to heaven is not the whole point of Christianity! We believe in everlasting life, but that’s only one part of being a Christian. We also become Christians, become part of a church, because it changes our life on earth. Even the Pope wasn’t talking about going to heaven – he was talking about making peace on earth. Jesus talked about life on earth too, way more than he talked about heaven: after all, he taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
So here’s why we Christians who trust Jesus become part of churches. First, to be part of a community of people who continue Jesus’ mission on earth. Jesus was a healer, a servant, a proclaimer of good news. That’s what we’re called to be too – and we can do it far more effectively together, in communities of mission, than we can individually. Churches, buildings, people, ministries, are powerful symbols of God’s love. Second, to experience community together and learn to love each other, trust each other, and empower each other to do what God has called each of us to do.
And third, and most importantly, to develop the spiritual habits that allow us to open our hearts to the love and healing God wants to pour into us. Through spiritual habits of praying and Bible reading and worshiping and thinking in dialogue with God about the issues that affect our lives and the people we encounter, we open our hearts so we can recognize and trust God, the same way the centurion recognized and trusted Jesus. Trusting God is always crossing a boundary and opening ourselves up to something new and strange, the way the centurion did.
So why do we become Christians? We trust God for heaven, but we also hope to begin to experience life as citizens of God’s kingdom now. To join with others in God’s mission of loving the world, and to be constantly nourished as God’s beloved children, fed with bread and wine and the word of God and the love of a church community. To participate with God in the ongoing salvation that God wants to accomplish. To join with God in God’s mission. To experience the love of God: healing, strength, courage, faith, joy. To learn to trust, and give that trust to God as our own holy offering of love.