Growing up in the Roman Church, each week, after we sang or said the Lamb of God, the priest spoke an invitation to communion using the words:
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.
And the assembly responded:
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak your word and I shall be healed.
This, of course, is a ritualization of the interaction between Jesus and the Centurion from today’s Gospel text, and it speaks an important truth about the love and grace of God.
The Eucharist is a means of grace – something God has chosen to use in order to grant us grace, to create faith within us, to renew, refresh, heal, deliver, grant spiritual strength to those who receive the Lord’s broken body and shed blood encountered in, through and under the elements of bread and wine. And we need to be clear about this:
- The reception of this saving grace is not about sufficiently impressing God.
- And it’s not about our deserving or worth.
- And it’s not about belonging, in the sense of being in some sort of spiritual “in group”.
The grace of God received in the Lord’s Supper is simply that – the grace of God received, not earned or deserved, just received…
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is very much centered on the grace of God, and how that grace is received. Paul is dealing with a situation here with which he had to deal repeatedly throughout his ministry, namely, that after he would start a church in a particular place and would move on to another place, those opposed to him would come in after him and confuse the people he left behind, by teaching them that, in order to serve Jesus, who was Jewish, they’d have to first become Jews themselves, meaning, they had to follow the Jewish Law, beginning with circumcision and including eating what we would call today a kosher diet.
But the thing for Paul was, if someone had been saved by grace through faith, apart from the Law, and then chose to turn to the Law and to live according to it, above and beyond that grace and faith that saved them, such a person would be doomed, damned to hell. Or as our translation says it: accursed! For Paul, this is a matter of spiritual life and death – eternal life and death! And you can see the angst, the struggle, even the anger behind Paul’s words in this letter right from the start. He opens the letter by identifying himself and those to whom he’s writing, and he greets them with the grace of God in Christ and a brief doxology, and then, he’s off to the races!
Here’s how I would translate the sense of what Paul writes here in Chapter 1:
“I marvel that you are being turned so quickly from the One who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different Gospel – not there’s any such thing, but there are those who are confusing you and perverting the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should teach you a different gospel than the one we taught you, they can be damned to hell! And in case you didn’t get it the first time, let me say it again: If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to the gospel you already received, let that one be damned to hell forever!”
Now, Paul doesn’t often use such language, and he rarely gets as intense as he does here in Galatians, but that only goes to shows us how seriously he took the matter at hand. Paul was fully convinced that the proclamation of God’s saving love in and through the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the one and only way to be saved, ad that it was truly God’s message for the salvation of the world. It didn’t come from human origin, and he hadn’t received it through any human source or teaching. Paul had received the message by direct, divine revelation, and with the message he received the call to share that message in its purity apart from human additions.
And he was fully convinced that the message was to be shared, not just with the Jews, though Jesus was a Jew by human birth, but with the whole non-Jewish world, as well. And in order for that to happen, all Jewish religious trappings had to be removed, so that the pure word of God’s love could be proclaimed and lives could be changed and saved by hearing it. It had to be free. It had to be open and available. Unhindered and unabated, or it wasn’t the gospel.
I mean, really though, this makes sense after all, when we’re talking about Paul, right? Paul, who was on his way to persecute the Christians in Damascus when God, quite literally, knocked him off his high horse and changed his life forever, by giving him a direct revelation of the gospel of Christ. For Paul, the murderer of Christians, the gospel couldn’t be at all about whether we’ve earned it, or deserve it, because it wasn’t at all about that for him, or else the gospel never would have come to him…
Which leads me back to our Gospel reading from Luke 7, and this outsider, this Centurion and his highly valued slave.
The first thing the Centurion does, notice, is try to impress Jesus – He sends some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. Certainly Jesus should be impressed by this man’s connections, right? Surely Jesus can see that, if these Jewish elders like him enough to do this favor for him, this outsider, this Centurion can’t be that bad of a guy, right? Maybe he even deserves this healing. The Jewish elders even say as much: “He is worthy of having you do this for him, he loves our people.” (I mean, what? He’s a Centurion in the Roman occupying army, for crying out loud! He loves us? Is this some kind of Stockholm Syndrome going on here?) Whatever the case, the Jewish elders declare his worthiness, though he himself, again through friends, declares his own lack of worthiness: “I’m not worthy to have you under my roof, but if you only speak the word my slave will be healed” And he continues, basically saying: “Look, I’m a man with human authority, and people do what I say, and I trust that you, as a man with spiritual authority, can speak, and what you command will be done, too.”
And it’s at this point that the slave is healed, though Jesus, in fact, never goes to the house, never meets the Centurion or his slave. Jesus just points out to those who are there how amazed he is to find such faith in an outsider when he’s never found such faith even in Israel. And then he heals the slave from afar, and goes about his business, continuing on his way…
So Paul wasn’t called as an apostle because he was sufficiently impressive, and the Centurion’s slave wasn’t healed because he was worthy of God’s help, and in neither case did God’s activity in their lives have anything to do with their belonging to some sort of spiritual “in group.” Paul was a murderer and persecutor of the Church, and the Centurion represented a horribly brutal occupying force. But even to this outsider, God’s grace comes freely
- God’s love and grace know no bounds
- God’s love and grace flow freely to all
We, and certain of our civil leaders, desire to draw lines of distinction and exclusion, but this has never been the way of God!
In fact, God’s saving love was not bound, even in the days of Solomon’s Temple, as Solomon prays at the dedication of the Temple:
“Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven, and do all that the foreigner calls to you.”
Let me remind you of a most profound truth: Whenever one draws a line in the name of Jesus, that one can be sure that Jesus will be found on the other side of that line.
Let me say it again: Whenever one draws a line in the name of Jesus, that one can be sure that Jesus will be found on the other side of that line
- With the persecutor
- With the outsider
- With the foreigner
- With the unworthy
- Even with the likes of you and me
As we hear the invitation to come to the Table of the Lord
To receive God’s saving grace and peace from God our Father
And the Lord Jesus Christ, who still gives himself to us in the Holy Meal
As he gave himself, on the cross, for our sins
To set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of God
To whom be glory forever and ever.