As you may know, the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation is coming up soon. On October 31 of this year, a year of celebrations will officially start – October 31 being the day, on which Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in the year 1517, a move that eventually led to Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church and the eventual founding of a new, the Protestant or Lutheran Church.
Something quite spectacular is happening on October 31 of this year: the Lutheran World Federation will kick off the year of celebrations in the Swedish city of Lund with a big worship service, and – now get that! – Pope Francis is going to be the guest of honor. This is huge, if you consider that Lutheran/Catholic relations haven’t been the best over the past 500 years.
And to some Catholic folks, this is quite a scandal. How can the pope fraternize with those heretics? But then Pope Francis so far hasn’t given a hoot about what people, and especially in his own church, might think. He has ruffled a few feathers in his tenure; washing the feet of women, prison inmates and Muslims on Maundy Thursday, housing Muslim refugees from Syria in the Vatican, and, just recently, seriously considering to allow women to serve as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church.
And while the pope is still not radical enough for many, for many others he is way too radical. But you might think of him what you want, he has shown a lot of openness and genuine Christian love that reaches far beyond the reaches of his own tribe, the Roman Catholic Church.
And Pope Francis has always made quite clear that he believes in a God whose love is greater than dogma and orthodoxy. In fact, a few years back he preached a sermon, in which he stated that all humanity is redeemed through the blood of Christ. I repeat, all of humanity. And, Francis emphasized with joy, even atheists are redeemed. Now the context of the sermon was the question: can only Catholics do good? And Francis said something to the extent that there is a chance for atheists to find themselves in the kingdom of God if they act with goodness.
I hope you get the idea how revolutionary these thoughts are. In the end, Pope Francis implies, not some theoretical statement of faith is important, but how we live our lives; for us Christians, this means: how we LIVE our faith.
This is a 180 degree turn-around from the stance of Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict, who repeatedly insisted that only Roman Catholic believers have the one true faith, and that this true faith is necessary for redemption, and everyone else can go to hell, and by the way, that includes Protestants, which means, us. I am certain that Benedict would not have participated in a service that commemorates the Protestant Reformation.
Francis, on the other hand, realizes that God’s grace and mercy must be greater than human dogma and so called orthodoxy. Now Francis doesn’t get that out of thin air, he finds prove for that over and over in the Holy Scriptures. In fact, Francis points out, Jesus Christ himself is an expression of this revolutionary grace and mercy of God, just by being God incarnated and coming down to earth. And Jesus Christ, over and over, showed those with narrow hearts how amazing God’s love for all is, worthy or not.
The gospel we just heard is one of those prime examples of God’s mind blowing love and care and mercy for those who are not part of the ‘in’ crowd, for those who are not obvious recipients of God’s mercy, because they don’t believe the right thing. Let’s recap the story: Jesus enters Capernaum, a fishing town and Roman military base on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The Roman occupiers were regarded with disdain, if not with hatred, by the Jewish believers. The Roman soldiers worshiped foreign deities, and even had to worship the Roman Emperor as a god. In the eyes of the Jews, Romans were non-believers, atheists, because they didn’t believe in the one and only God.
However, the Romans were in charge, and especially the Jewish leadership tried to placate the Romans lest there’d be bloodshed and violence and the loss of the last bit of independence and religious freedom the Jewish people still had. The Jewish leadership doesn’t get the best rep in the gospel stories, but they has best intentions: to protect the Temple, their faith, and their people.
So we are dealing with a very interesting situation, and really a highly charged situation in today’s gospel story: the highly valued slave of a Roman centurion, a military leader, is close to death. The centurion hears about Jesus, and probably also has heard about the miraculous deeds of this rabbi, and sends some of the Jewish elders to Jesus with the request of healing his beloved slave.
Note: the centurion doesn’t send one of his other servants, no, he sends the Jewish elders. That tells you something about the power of this man and also something about how politically and religiously charged the whole situation is. And the Jewish elders? They appealed to Jesus earnestly, we read. Jesus, you better heed the request of this Roman. Jesus, he is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.
I mean, that rule still is valid today, you better not disgruntle generous benefactors.
So why is this centurion worthy in the eyes of the Jewish leadership? What is he worth to them? In any case, the Jewish leaders tell Jesus, who’s worthy – and this implies they probably wouldn’t hesitate to tell Jesus who isn’t worthy, and don’t we have plenty of stories in the gospels where we hear about just that? That the leaders grumble about Jesus associating himself with those whom they deem to be unworthy individuals, sinners, prostitutes?
In any case, Jesus goes with the Jewish leaders toward the centurion’s house. But before he even gets there, friends of the centurion meet him, and speak on the centurion’s behalf. Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. I am not worthy.
This insight stands in stark contrast to the claim of the religious leaders that this man, because he’s been friendly to the Jews, indeed is worthy of Jesus’ attention. The centurion seems to know: God’s standards are not human standards. He knows he is not worthy of the presence and help of Jesus – and yet, he has faith that Jesus will grant his wish, and will grant his slave healing. Not because of worthiness, but because he somehow believes in the power of Jesus and the greatness of God’s love.
But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. I am begging you. I know you have the authority, just as I, on a smaller scale, have authority in my role as a military leader.
And so we read, ‘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.”’
In the end, the centurion’s slave isn’t restored to health because of the centurion’s worthiness, but because of his faith and trust in God’s greatness. Jesus once more turns the religious world of his day upside-down. God is greater than human understanding. God’s grace and mercy are greater than human judgment or dogma. And thus God, and God’s grace, often can be found in quite surprising places and circumstances. We only need to keep our eyes – and our hearts – open to that reality.
The radical message of the gospel, and the daring words and deeds of Pope Francis, are a scandal still today for many, even those who call themselves Christians. We live in a world that seems to get more exclusive and divisive every day. One just has to look at the presidential primaries in this country or the recent hotly contested presidential race in Austria. I am in, you are out, I am right, you are wrong, I go to heaven, you go to hell, I am worthy of God’s grace, you’re not. Judgment is quickly and harshly doled out.
The general image of Christianity in this country is that it is exclusive, judgmental, and far removed from loving and merciful toward all who are somehow not ‘in’. Many people reject church because of that image. In that sense, religious leaders, and religious people in general today still exert the authority, just like the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ days, to declare who’s worthy – and who’s not. It makes me wonder if God is truly given honor and dominion and authority if those who are God’s followers act as gatekeepers to God’s kingdom.
But, in the end, Jesus’ command is loud and clear: to love our neighbor as well as our enemies, those who are not like us. In the end, who are we to say who is worthy of God’s grace, and who isn’t? As the centurion in today’s gospel story implies, no one is worthy. We all have our shortcomings, no matter how respectable or nice or successful or powerful we are. We all depend on the grace of God. And we all have received this amazing grace of God, despite our flaws. And it is part of our job as followers of Christ to keep the gates to God’s grace wide open to all, so that all may be healed and redeemed. So help us God.
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