Second Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Merciful Lord God, we do not presume to come before you trusting in our own righteousness, but in your great and abundant mercies. Revive our faith, we pray; heal our bodies, and mend our communities, that we may evermore dwell in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Israel seems always to have been aware that her calling extends beyond herself. The promise to Abraham was that all nations would bless themselves through his offspring. Genesis 12:1-3. The prophets spoke of Israel as a light to the nations and Zion as the place from which Torah would be made known to all peoples. Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 2:3-4. Sometimes, though, Israel came close to losing her sense of mission. The severe edict of Ezra calling for the men of Judah to divorce their wives of foreign descent and disown their children demonstrates an entirely different outlook toward the gentile world. Ezra 10. The image of these men sending away their foreign born wives along with their children into the freezing rain to fend for themselves has always been deeply troubling for me. I expect that this drastic measure was probably seen as necessary to preserve Jewish identity at a time of great vulnerability. Recall that Ezra was leading a small band of exiles who had returned to a ruined homeland inhabited by hostile peoples. This was a community at risk. Survival was doubtful at best. When a community’s very existence is threatened, that community will take whatever action promises to extend its life, however extreme. It is not surprising, then, that the struggle for survival dimmed Israel’s vision of herself as a “light” and a source of “blessing” to the nations of the world.
The church is not immune from such temptations. It is no secret that many congregations within mainline Protestantism are feeling threatened and vulnerable these days. For many of us, the present is a pale shadow of our vigorous past when our sanctuaries were packed and the Sunday Schools were overflowing. Concern about this decline is understandable, but when we get focused exclusively on survival and self preservation, it is easy to lose sight of Jesus’ commission for us to be witness “to the ends of the earth.” Attention turns to balancing the budget with reductions in spending. Often mission support and outreach activities are the first items to go up on the chopping block. We get so caught up in saving our institutional lives and becoming “sustainable” that we forget the one who gave us life in the first place and who alone is able to sustain us. When the question of how we will survive into the future becomes more urgent than why we have been placed in the here and now, we are in deep trouble.
This week’s texts remind both Israel and the church that the God we worship, though deeply involved in our respective communities, is nevertheless the God of all the nations. At the dedication of Israel’s Temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon prays that God will hear the petitions of foreigners calling upon God’s name. The psalmist invites all nations and peoples to join in a new song of praise to Israel’s God. Jesus extends his healing touch to the household of a commander in the hated Roman occupation force. To be sure, we are God’s chosen people, but we have not been chosen for special treatment or privilege. To the contrary, we are called to serve as God’s faithful emissaries to the world for which Jesus died. Our life together is an extension of Jesus’ mission of reconciling all people to God and to each other.
First, an introductory note on the Book of I Kings (which originally was joined with II Kings in a single volume). This book is the product of several sources that are now lost to us. These include the Book of the Chronicles of King Solomon (I Kings 11:41); the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (I Kings 14:19); the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (I Kings 14:29); stories of kings and prophets; and Temple archives. Material from these sources has been woven into a narrative framework by two authors/editors. The first author takes the story to the death of King Josiah in 609 B.C.E. The second author wrote about 550 B.C.E. during the Babylonian Exile. S/he continues the story up to the final defeat and destruction of Judah by the Babylonians, adding his or her own editorial amendments to the earlier sections of the book.
This reading for this Sunday contains segments from the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple. Verses 41-43 were probably editorial touches added by the second author who wrote during the Exile. Solomon’s reference to persons from far countries coming to worship in Jerusalem because “they shall hear of thy great name, and thy mighty hand, and of thy outstretched arm…” reflects the influence of exilic prophets like Second Isaiah. Isaiah 40-55. It is perhaps the inspiration for the post exilic Third Isaiah’s (Isaiah 56-66) declaration that God will bring faithful foreigners into Zion to minister in what will become “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:7. This, in turn, was likely the basis for Jesus’ rebuke at the cleansing of the Temple in the Gospel of Mark: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.’” Mark 11:17.
These biblical strains represent a remarkable openness to inclusion of the nations within the blessings of covenantal life enjoyed by Israel. They stand in contrast to and in creative tension with those texts calling upon Israel to separate and distinguish herself from the surrounding cultures. Both biblical admonitions are essential. Israel is called to be a different and distinct sort of people precisely because she is to represent God’s alternative to the destructive and violent ways of the other nations. For that reason, Israel must retain her essential character shaped by her covenantal relationship with her God. She is to embody God’s invitation to a better way. This challenge is echoed in St. Paul’s admonition to the church at Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.
This psalm is included as part of a hymn commissioned by David to celebrate the entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, his newly established capital. (See I Chronicles 16:23-33) Scholars do not agree on whether this psalm was composed originally for this occasion. The psalm bears some resemblance to enthronement liturgies used to celebrate the crowning of a new Judean king. As I Chronicles was composed rather late in Israel’s history (after the Exile), it is likely that its author appropriated this psalm into his/her work. Of course, it is also possible that the psalm did in fact have its origin in the annual commemoration of the Ark’s arrival in Jerusalem so that the author of I Chronicles was simply placing the psalm back into its historical context. In either case, the psalm calls upon the nations to acknowledge Israel’s God as God over all the earth.
The psalm calls for a “new song,” reminding us that Israel’s God is forever doing a “new thing” requiring a fresh expression of praise. It is for this reason that worship must never become mired in the past. Old familiar hymns are fine. But if that is all you ever sing, then you need to ask yourself whether you are properly giving thanks to God for all that is happening in your life today and whether your heart is properly hopeful for the future God promises.
“The gods of the nations are idols.” If God is God, everything else is not God. An idol is therefore anything that claims to be God or which demands worship, praise and obedience that can only rightfully be demanded by God. The reference in the psalm is obviously to the national gods of rival nations, but idolatry can as well attach to nationalist pride, wealth, political power, human leaders or anything else to which people pay godlike homage.
“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples…” The psalmist calls upon all nations to worship Israel’s God whose justice and mercy belong to them also. In this hymn Israel is putting into practice her calling to be a light to the nations of the world by calling them to join with all creation in praise of the one true God. This is the way of blessing for all of creation.
Paul is madder than a hornet. Someone in his congregation is hocking a gospel other than the good news about Jesus. Jesus might be part of it. His name and even his teachings might figure into it. But according to Paul, the good news is Jesus alone-never Jesus plus something else. In this case, the “something else” was circumcision. These rival teachers were insisting that baptism into Jesus Christ and faith in his promises was not enough. To be a true member of the church, one had to be circumcised and become observant of certain Jewish traditions. Now there is nothing wrong with Jewish disciples observing Jewish traditions. Paul did as much himself. The problem arises when these traditions are elevated to the level of requirements for inclusion in the Body of Christ. This is poison.
I don’t believe that many of our churches explicitly teach “other gospels,” but I suspect that we sometimes practice them without realizing what we are doing. For example, although the pressure to dress in your “Sunday best” for church is on the wane, we still look askance at particularly shabby clothing. Parents of small children too often discover that their welcome in congregations of predominantly elderly people is less than enthusiastic and implicitly conditioned on the good behavior of their offspring. Most of our congregations are not consciously racist, but it is painfully evident from the statistics that people of color frequently do not feel welcome in our midst. Of course, we are just arriving at the point of welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered persons. From Paul’s perspective, these are all matters requiring us to ask whether we are witnessing in word and deed to the good news about Jesus.
Author and consultant Stephen Richards Covey reminds us that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Paul recognized that, for the church, the main thing is Jesus. As much as Paul valued the unity of the church, he was willing to risk division when the good news about Jesus was in danger of being obscured by lesser concerns. Like Martin Luther fifteen centuries later, Paul would rather have a church divided over the gospel than united under anything less. Anything less than Jesus is too little and anything more than Jesus is too much. To be a church of the reformation is to be forever asking ourselves whether we are successfully keeping “the main thing the main thing.” The critical question always boils down to this: “Are we keeping Jesus at the center?”
This story comes immediately upon the heels of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” at Luke 6:17-44, the counterpart to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7. Jesus’ teaching about God’s love for the poor, hungry and sorrowful, his words about love and forgiveness of enemies and his admonitions against judging others are soon to be illustrated in a series of miracles and acts of compassion. Jesus’ healing of the military officer’s slave is the first such illustration of his teaching. It is noteworthy that the officer, upon hearing that Jesus has agreed to come to his home, now sends messengers to dissuade him from actually appearing. Perhaps he knew that Jesus’ entry into his home and acceptance of his hospitality would amount to a scandal. Maybe he wanted to spare Jesus the social and religious condemnation that would surely follow. In any event, this gentile’s faithful appeal to Jesus for help and Jesus’ willingness to visit him foreshadows the encounter between Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Luke is already preparing his readers for the mission of the church to the gentiles, the story that will be told in the Book of Acts.
The irony here is that a Roman operative commanding occupation troops and who has never met Jesus respects his authority, whereas the Jewish leadership will be forever questioning and challenging that authority throughout the rest of the gospel. Once again, Luke is foreshadowing the conflict between some in the Jewish leadership and the Apostle Paul as he preaches the good news of Jesus to the gentiles. The receptiveness of the gentile outsiders will be juxtaposed to the unbelief and rejection of the Jewish leadership. Still, throughout both the gospel and in the Book of Acts, the Jewish populous is generally well disposed toward Jesus and his disciples. Moreover, the leadership is not altogether united in opposition to Jesus. The Pharisees in particular often seem sympathetic or at least open to Jesus’ message throughout his ministry. They show him hospitality on a number of occasions (Luke 7:36; Luke 11:37; Luke 14:1) and warn him of impending danger. Luke 13:31. The Pharisees also take Paul’s side when he is on trial before the Jerusalem council after his arrest in the Temple. Acts 23:6-10. We also read that “a great many of the priests” in Jerusalem “were obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:7. Thus, although Luke focuses his gospel on the mission to the gentiles more than any of the other three gospels, he wishes also to emphasize the receptiveness of the Jewish people to the good news of Jesus Christ. One never knows where faith will be found.
Since Galilee did not become a Roman province until 44 A.C.E., it is probable that this officer served under Herod Antipas rather than within the command structure of the Roman army. As such, he would be in a better position to gain an understanding and appreciation of Jewish religion and customs. Nevertheless, as Capernaum was a border town, custom guards under direct Roman command were also present. Thus, the commander in this story might have been among them. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, (c. 1983, Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 117. The existence of gentile admirers of Jewish religion has been noted by other literary sources demonstrating the plausibility of this encounter.
The Spirit of God creates readiness for the good news of Jesus. This story challenges the church to look beyond its walls and beyond the “likely prospects for evangelism” to places and people where faith might already be brewing. Strategizing for mission is not necessarily a bad thing. Still and all, the best strategy is one that is open to the surprising appearance of faith in the last place you would expect to find it.