Faith Born Out Of Weakness!

Posted: June 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 2C 2016

Luke 7: 1-10


Faith Born Out Of Weakness!

The stories tell us that Jesus developed a challenging reputation. From being a charismatic Galilean, in other words a person of little significance in the scheme of things to the guy who spends most of his time with the wrong kind of people. He eats with the grungy and despised of the world. He associates with the worst among us. He reaches out to the poor, the broken, and the marginalized. This doesn’t mean he didn’t rub shoulders with people of means and influence and it is most likely that he found himself among the purported enemies of Israel and it is very likely in fact almost certain that he dared to praise them when he had the opportunity. What we have in the stories is an expansive vision of hope that is always political, always challenging the status quo and it is with this expanded counter-cultural vision that the gospel reaches its full potential.

What this means is that, following the Jesus Way shows up in unexpected ways. It is always contextual and always counter-cultural. In Luke 7, Jesus is approached by a centurion seeking his help. The centurion had a deeply cherished slave who was ravaged by illness. The centurion sees something in Jesus. He believes that somehow, someway, this Galilean subject of Rome, this mere peasant, might be able to do the impossible: that Jesus might be able to heal the sick and stave off the forces of death.

Oddly, the centurion and Jesus never meet face-to-face. All their interactions occur through the means of intermediaries. First, it is the local Jewish leaders who ask for Jesus’ help. The centurion, they say, “is worthy of having you do this for him” (7:4). Hearing this, Jesus sets out apparently without much hesitation. Now, no one would have blamed him for having some suspicions. After all, entering the house of a Gentile could potentially make Jesus unclean. Here in the lack of first hand contact we have a suggestion that this Jesus Way of doing things included others he may not have first-hand influence with and knowledge of.

Even more, a centurion is not your typically friendly neighbour. Centurions are the sharp edge of Rome’s power, a cruel force that has dominated the people of Israel. Later, this very same empire will order the execution of Jesus. Jesus then, has a number of reasons to resist helping this centurion even when he is commended by the local leaders. From the perspective of many of Jesus’ neighbours, this centurion represents everything that is wrong about the world. And yet, Jesus accompanies them. He is willing to see this centurion. We don’t learn why Jesus is so eager to help this Roman soldier; we only learn that Jesus does not hesitate in the slightest to head toward his house. But, on his way, another set of intermediaries enters the scene.

The centurion has sent friends to stop Jesus from coming into his house. Here we have the suggestion that the centurion is recognizing that he is perhaps unworthy to host this Jesus. This again is a rather extraordinary display of humility and submission for a Roman military soldier who is used to having his orders followed and not questioned. Again it is a counter-cultural situation.

The further challenge here is that we know humility and power over, usually don’t mix well. Just a quick glance at some current political leaders in our world is proof positive of this. Power over is an insidious character-altering force. Our experience is that many people endowed with power over others are not used to taking on postures of humility, especially if that power has been theirs to exercise for too long.

The significance of this is further supported when Jesus is dazzled by this centurion’s faith, marveling that such faith is not even found among God’s chosen people. This response by Jesus is in itself a challenge to us. Why would Jesus praise a foreigner, a Gentile, a centurion and do it so highly?

Imagine for a moment if Jesus were to walk into this gathering and declare our enemies more faithful than we are. Remember, enemies are those that we despise, we are afraid of, and who make our lives a horrific experience. And here they are more faithful than we are.

Imagine for a moment if Jesus were to declare our oppressors more faithful than us. Again, our oppressors are those who limit our lives, who take away our rights and privileges, those who keep us imprisoned in some way. And here they are more faithful than we are.

Imagine for a moment if Jesus declared an ISIS terrorist more faithful than us, or a child murderer more faithful than us. This is an example of how shocking Jesus’ declaration would have been. But then, if we’ve been paying attention to the Gospel of Luke, we shouldn’t be so surprised. The foreigner and the stranger and our worst enemy are as welcome at God’s table as anyone else. In fact there is a challenge to see them as an opportunity for inclusion at the very core of our living. They are more than welcome they are imperative to our lives. When corrupt tax collectors ask what they should do, how they should repent, they are not told to stop being tax collectors. They are told to stop taking advantage of their neighbours. It is not the fact that they are tax collectors that is the issue, it is what they do with the power and influence they have as tax collectors that is the concern. A good person will be known not by their title but by what they do.

What then was the content of the centurion’s faith? What was it about the centurion’s actions that was the challenge? What was this faith that Jesus saw in him? The centurion recognized that Jesus was onto something. Something in the way Jesus went about his life showed the centurion another way of looking at the political, economic and social structures and he saw that structure, and cultures driven by domination, might, and elitism were not the only way things could be done. The centurion saw that the healing ability of this Jesus Way of living could save lives. He may not have thought about it in those terms but that is what he saw.

As a military officer, he likely understood well how powerful raw force could be. He knows how swords and masses of trained men can create massive destruction in their wake. He recognizes that Jesus understands this power too and he sees that this is because he offers something completely the opposite as a far greater power. There is a difference in this Jesus power, a difference the centurion believes can make all the difference in the world. He knows from experience that military might cannot heal the sick or raise the dead. That an army can’t heal his faithful servant. He knows that imperial power cannot gain the affections of a people, because it is grounded in the creation of fear and domination. Jesus’ power is unlike that wielded by Rome or any other empire. Jesus’ power heals peoples and communities; it brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.

Here we have it. This Jesus power turns the world upside down and inside out. This is what makes the story remarkable. Here we have a centurion recognizing an alternative form of power and a power that is the very essence of faith. Faith in this instance is seeing the world differently, a faith not bound by the inevitable inequity between people, or a peace based on the absence of violence between nations, but rather a faith or more correctly, a trust birthed in possibility, in what might be, a peace that is lasting, a peace beyond the absence of violence. The possibility of a world renewed by love and grace filled living. And in the Roman Empire worldview the possibility of a peace dependent upon justice rather than victory.

But that isn’t the end of the story. This story isn’t just about a centurion and his slave. Luke seems to understand this alternative sort of power that the story invites the reader to consider and he gives us a hint with the second story that comes right after the centurion story. In this second story, Jesus sees a widow accompanying her son’s body to the grave. In her life, her son’s death is her death. In an economic system where men generally carried all financial power her son’s death has disastrous consequences. Jesus sees her from a distance and has compassion for her. Like the centurion she never speaks to Jesus. She never asks for his help. She doesn’t confess like the centurion any great belief in the power Jesus wields. Instead, Luke notes that Jesus had compassion on her and gives her son back to her. And that’s it.

At first glance, there’s not much there, but if we look more carefully and read these two stories together, something marvelous becomes clear. The anatomy of this alternative Jesus power becomes clearer. What binds these two stories together is the nature of this alternative view of power. What begins to emerge is a power born out of and grounded within what we might call weakness. The Sermon on the Mount becomes clearer and the phrases like; turn the other cheek, and if you lose your shirt give them your coat become more possible as game changers when we see and begin to understand the Jesus power as the power of weakness. The approach becomes one of clear alternatives and they do this because they reveal a power far greater than dominance and power over, and the might of the sword become impotent, wasteful and wrong. Just like the lamb and the lion at rest together perhaps.

What binds these two stories together is that God’s promise of life is fulfilled in surprising ways, and salvation arrives in unexpected and unwarranted ways. Simply said, we can’t understand the centurion view if we don’t have in mind a weeping widow. On one side, we have a powerful centurion, even one who has support from the local Jewish community, yet still a symbol of the invading Roman force. In his story we hear of a faith that through humility, great risk, and in countercultural style exhibits an alternative anatomy of power. Power through weakness. Then, we learn of a grieving widow. Nowhere is her faith highlighted by Luke or by Jesus, only her grief. But here again in this picture of weakness, of no justification or action there is as much faith as the centurion had. In both cases, Jesus restores life where death and illness prevail. In both cases, unexpected individuals receive these free gifts by exhibiting their weakness. Here is at last the core of my message this morning. Essentially it is that it is that the power of God is a weak power and it is through weakness that cultures are encountered and changed. Another way of saying this is to say that the very power of God itself is counter-cultural. To understand God as a weak power is to abandon the almighty-ness, the sovereignty and the interventionist God.

John Caputo in his book ‘The Weakness of God: reminds us that the move towards a post biblical metaphysical theology we have to abandon the theology that has undergirded what we call Christianity for a few hundred years now, the theology that has become a problem for us, in that it contributed to a highly hierarchical power story that confuses us. How can an almighty, interventionist God who is Love allow bad things to happen? Caputo suggests that this interventionist view belittles the dust of the earth, it rides on the back of fear and the mainstream orthodox tradition has distorted our discussion about everything in order to make way for a story of creation from nothing. What this theology does give us however is a cleaner cutoff, it gives us everything as black and white, and the story provides us with a concretized foundation. The theological tradition we have thinks that God comes out ahead this way, that God is even greater and mightier, and that God is a greater giver of gifts as if God’s gift-giving were complete. The problem with this view is that there is no room for human influenced climate change, no room even for the evolution of the cosmos and it makes form and matter into dead absolutes. Nothing can change without God so why do we bother? And while we can agree this tradition increases the power component in God’s rule, we are left the fact that there is always a loss that outweighs the gain. Why is it that good people die? Why do infants die? And so on. In this tradition God cannot give a true gift because God cannot give up or give over completely and expose Godself to risk, or make Godself vulnerable.

The church bin NZ is declining, people are not going to church in the same numbers as before. So why has this omnipotent, all powerful all-knowing God not sorted this out? Well! As Jurgen Moltmann says, God cannot love if God cannot make Godself vulnerable. Without the desert and the deep, God remains in such total absolute control of what God makes, and God has to retain so much possession of what God gives. The challenge here is to see that for God to let the world be the world God has to let the world go. It is also a challenge to see that when we idealize God into an ideal observer who knows and sees everything past, present, and coming, we leave behind the biblical narrative in which Yahweh lets himself in for a future that he had not planned on and in which he comes to regret his decision.

And why is this counter-cultural? Because with a metaphysical God constantly in the battle with a reason centric view the horizon of the narratives is dramatically and disproportionately shifted away from that of beauty, goodness, and life and given over to the mightiness of power and to the power of being. They are turned into explanations of why the world is there, instead of proclamations that what is there is beautiful and good. In the metaphysical domain the stories are captured by the priori of ‘being’ whereas they are not about being at all — being is already there, a given, mute, and barren— whereas the stories are about bringing being to life. The centurion’s faith is less about being a better centurion and more about living a compassionate Way. The widow’s faith is less about believing well and more about living a life of trust.

My hope is that we might be brave enough to go deep into why we think the way we do when we are trying to get a handle on the power of a weak God. And to see that this weak God is ever more powerful than an almighty one. I with John Caputo want to suggest that an absolute omnipotence is a religious and metaphysical fantasy that contains and displaces a powerful core truth, which is that by “God” we mean the possibility of the impossible. We are talking about the power of God and I am suggesting that it is a weak power as against an almighty power.

What, is true I think is that the name of God is powerful not because God has it all sorted but rather because it is the name of our hope in what will be, what is possible. In the Bible’s first creation story, all things that are made are good. When Elohim calls them “good,” they are already there. When Elohim breathes the life of the good over them they are already there. Goodness does not come from nothing, nor does its naming which is its birthing.

When we talk about God we are naming an event, not the event of our unswerving belief but rather the event of our trusting in the transformability of things, change can happen in the most improbable and impossible things, so that life is never closed in, the future is never closed off, the horizon is never finite and confining. The name of God opens what is closed, breathes life where there is desolation, and gives hope where everything is hopeless. The power of a foolish and weak event. The event of Humility, compassion, love and acceptance of the stranger, and the outcast is the opening of this weakness of God.

And let’s be clear. This is a huge and wonderful image of God and we need to be careful not to lose God into the fantastic sense, as if God were a super-hero who arrives in the nick of time to save us from the brink of danger or a mighty power that turns back the advancing army of our enemy, nor by resuscitating those who are dead.

The truth is that if the power of God were a strong force, it would possess worldly sovereignty, and whenever injustice reared its head in the world God would send in the army. But if the name of God is the name of a promise, something that is yet to be then God is the name of a weak force, and not a worldly power. The word of God does not have an army to keep the peace because as we know that approach almost always makes things much worse. It is an outright blasphemy to say that God has some mysterious divine purpose when an innocent child is abducted, raped, and murdered. That is not a mystery but rather a misconception about God and about the power of God. God’s power is without a doubt, invocative, provocative, and evocative, seductive and educative, luring and alluring, because it is the power of a call, the power of a word. A word, of an affirmation or promise and not a word of mighty power. If religion indulges itself in the fantasy of omnipotent power, then we are always unable to call the world “good,” because bad things happen.

The centurion asks not from a place of military power but rather from a place of extreme hopelessness despite the cultural, economic, social and spiritual chasm that exists and he does it with humility, at great risk. He does it as a weak act.

The widow’s faith is rocked by grief and sorrow. She is at the deepest point of despair, her whole world, socially, economically and culturally is at risk. Her hope is muted, dampened by the loss of both husband and son. Her weakness unleashes an unconditional compassion. Her faith which is born out of weakness transforms her life. Amen.


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