The Fellowship of Forgiven Debtors (a sermon on Luke 7:36-50)

When I was a teenager I remember hearing my dad say that he’d like to have a sign on the door of his church that said ‘This Church is for Sinners Only’. I think some people were shocked and surprised when they heard him say that; it sounds so strange and counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You tend to think of the church as a place where we learn not to sin, not as a place for sinners. But to Dad, these words were an important reminder of the gospel of grace, which tells us that we all fall short of God’s will for us – we’re all sinners, in other words, whether we should be or not – but that God reaches out to us in love whatever we’ve done, and invites us to turn to him and be forgiven.

This reminds me of the famous words of John Newton’s well-known hymn:

‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound),
that saved a wretch like me!’

To John Newton, this was his own story. He had spent the early years of his life as a sailor and a slave trader. He had lived in complete disregard for God’s commandments, not only abandoning his own faith but also trying to undermine the faith of others. But gradually the Gospel message had broken into his life. A two-week long storm at sea became the catalyst for the beginning of his conversion, and eventually in his late thirties he became a Church of England minister and a preacher of the very Gospel he had once tried to discredit. He felt that, like Saint Paul, he had been ‘the chief of sinners’, but God in his grace had forgiven him and made him a preacher of the Gospel to others.

Newton never forgot his early life of sin, and he never lost his sense of God’s continuing mercy toward him, despite his many failings. This gave him a tender attitude toward the sins and failings of others. He often said that when you know how much God has forgiven you, and continues to forgive you every day, you can’t help having the same forgiving attitude toward the people around you.

Our Gospel reading today has this same emphasis. We read that one of the Pharisees, named Simon, invited Jesus for a meal at his house. Dinner parties like this were very public. What we know today as ‘private life’ didn’t exist in those days; doors were left open all the time during the day and people wandered in and out at will. The dining table would have been in a U-shape, with guests not seated on chairs or the floor, but reclining on couches, leaning on their left elbows and using their right hands to reach for food and eat. The couches would have been angled away from the table so that the feet of the guests would be behind them.

There was a strict etiquette about these formal meals. As each guest came in, the host would greet him with a kiss of peace. As the feet of the guests would be dirty and tired from the dusty roads, the host would ensure that water was provided and the servants would wash their feet. Olive oil might also be given to anoint the heads of the guests. These were the unwritten laws of hospitality; these were the ways the hosts would show respect and honour for their guests. Luke does not let us in on the secret yet, but later on in the story he will tell us that none of this had been done for Jesus. Simon had invited Jesus to this meal, but had then given him a public snub by not honouring him as he would an ordinary guest.

The NRSV translates verse 37 ‘And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house…’ One commentator thinks this should be translated as ‘a woman who was known in the city as a sinner’. ‘Sinner’ here would have meant at least that she had lived a promiscuous life, if not that she was actually a prostitute.

We can read between the lines that this woman had already had an encounter with Jesus which had transformed her life. Verses 40-47 explain that a person who has been forgiven a huge number of sins will respond to this forgiveness with great love. Jesus explains the woman’s acts of love by the fact that she has been – past tense – forgiven a great many sins. “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love” (v.47). It seems reasonable to infer that Jesus has already met this woman and has declared God’s forgiveness to her, perhaps even that very day; she has come to Simon’s party to say thank you to Jesus for all he has done for her.

The woman seems to have been temporarily deflected from her original purpose; we read that she ‘brought an alabaster jar of ointment’ (37) to anoint Jesus’ feet, but she does not immediately use it. She stands behind Jesus – remember that he is reclining on a couch with his feet extended away from the table. She is overcome with emotion and begins to weep, bathing his feet with tears, wiping them with her hair and only then anointing them with the ointment. In those days, this would have been scandalous behaviour. Women in Israel at that time kept their hair covered and only let it down in the presence of their husbands in their own bedrooms. To let down your hair in public and use it to wipe the feet of a man you were not married to was shocking; in the eyes of the people at the feast, this woman would have been acting like a prostitute with one of her clients.

This is certainly the way Simon the Pharisee interprets her actions. He even questions Jesus’ status as a prophet; a true prophet would know what kind of person this woman was! The unspoken inference is that if Jesus knew she was a prostitute he would not allow her to touch him or even be near him. Evil was seen as highly contagious; the only way for good and holy people to preserve themselves from evil was to avoid evil people altogether. The woman had come into Simon’s house like a contagious disease; it was Jesus’ duty as a prophet to rebuke her and send her away, and he was not doing so.

Note that Simon did not voice this opinion to Jesus; Luke tells us that he ‘said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (v.39). Prophets know things other people don’t know, and they use that knowledge, in Simon’s view, to declare God’s judgement. However, Jesus is about to demonstrate to Simon that he is indeed a prophet. Simon has not spoken out loud, but Jesus knows what he is thinking! And he uses that knowledge to rebuke Simon, not the woman, and to invite him into a different way of seeing reality. Simon is wrong; Jesus knows ‘what kind of woman this is’. He knows that she’s made in the image of God, she’s a forgiven sinner overcome with gratitude for the grace of God, and in her gratitude she is expressing her love for Jesus, who has made it possible for her to be forgiven.

So Jesus tells the little parable of the two debtors; one owes the creditor five hundred denarii – that is, about eighteen months’ wages for an ordinary labourer – the other fifty. Neither of them can pay, so the creditor cancels the debts of both. Which one will love the creditor more? Simon can’t avoid the conclusion: the one who was forgiven the greater debt will feel the most love for the creditor.

There is more to this little story than meets the eye. Let me ask you this: do you think Simon sees himself as a debtor to God? Probably not! In his view, the woman is a sinner; he is not. And even if he is, he certainly doesn’t see himself as someone who ‘can’t pay’; he’ll work harder, make the right sacrifices and ritual actions, obey the laws, and in time he’ll pay what he owes. Jesus is inviting Simon to see himself as being on a level with this woman; they’re both sinners owing a debt to God, and neither of them can pay the debt. Simon’s debt may be small and the woman’s may be great, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re both bankrupt! As someone once said, if you line up a bunch of swimmers on the coast of California and ask them to swim to Hawaii, it won’t matter in the long run whether some of them are better swimmers than the rest! Some may drown after a mile, some after thirty miles, but none of them are going to reach Hawaii!

But how can this be? How can Simon be a sinner? After all, he’s a Pharisee! He’s been circumcised, he’s kept the Sabbath, he gives tithes of all he earns, he carefully observes the food laws and keeps away from bad company! He is an upright man!

Yes, but Jesus says the heart of the law is the two great commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. And on that very day, in his own house, Simon has offended against the second commandment. He has not loved his neighbour as himself; he’s snubbed his guest by refusing to extend the traditional courtesies to him. He didn’t give Jesus the kiss of peace when he came into the house – which is as if Jesus had come into your home today, extended his hand in greeting to you, and you had stubbornly kept your hand at your side. He hadn’t provided water for the foot washing or oil for the anointing of the guest. In this way Simon has not loved his neighbour as he loved himself; he has not done to others as he would have them do to him. So he too is a sinner, and he too stands in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.

So do I. I may be a churchgoer; I may have been faithful to my marriage partner, I may never have killed anyone or stolen anything or cheated on my taxes. But have I loved the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, with nothing held back? Have I loved my neighbour as myself? Of course not, not perfectly. These commands are the debt I owe to God. I have not kept them perfectly; therefore I too am a sinner.

This is the first way in which Jesus’ story challenges Simon’s worldview; like the woman, he is a debtor who cannot pay what he owes. Like her, he’s entirely dependent on the mercy of God if he’s ever going to receive eternal life.

The second way the story challenges his worldview is in his interpretation of the woman’s actions. No, Simon, this is not a prostitute trying to allure Jesus into an inappropriate sexual liaison. This is a woman in the grip of God’s grace. She had always assumed that her sins barred her from coming into the presence of God. But the grace of God had invaded her life, bringing her the free forgiveness she had never dared to hope for. Of course she wasn’t in command of her rational faculties! She was overwhelmed with gratitude to the God who had forgiven her and to the man who had spoken that word of forgiveness! And of course her actions were open to misinterpretation – just like the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, when they were filled with the Holy Spirit and the bystanders said, “These men are drunk!”

The story ends before Simon has a chance to respond. We don’t know what he said or did. Jesus is challenging him: this woman whom you dismiss as a sinner is in fact your sister in God. Like you, she was made in the image of God. Like you, she had a debt of sin she could not pay. God has forgiven her sins and accepted her. Will you also accept her, despite her reputation? Luke leaves the story incomplete to challenge you and me; we’re invited to supply the ending in our own lives.

Let me close with these two final words of application.

God knows everything about me. There are embarrassing stories about my life which I have been brave enough to tell some of you, but you can be absolutely sure that there are others I would never dare tell you. If they were broadcast on a screen in front of you all, I would hang my head in shame. We all have those stories. I know you have them, and you know I have them. And God knows them all.

How does God respond? He comes among us in Jesus as one of us; Jesus is the walking embodiment of God’s love for all people. But what do we do with him? Through our political and religious leaders, we reject him, scourge him, mock him and kill him on a cross.

What comes next in this story? If this church is not for sinners only, surely the next act is an act of revenge and judgement. But no: the Gospel tells us that God is a God who loves his enemies, and so Jesus’ response is to pray for his murderers: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). On the cross, he models the unconditional love of God for all people. It’s nothing to do with how deserving we are. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. God already loves you more than you can ask or imagine, and nothing can change that.

Do you believe that? The woman in our story believed it. Jesus said to her “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”. He wants you to go in peace this morning too. No matter what that sin is which is troubling you so much, he wants you to bring it to him this morning, leave it at his cross, and dare to believe that it is forgiven. We can do that this morning as we receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The broken bread speaks to us of Jesus’ body broken on the cross; the wine poured out speaks to us of his blood shed for us. To come to the Lord’s Table is to come to the cross; we come with faith, we hold out our hands, and we eat and drink the forgiveness that God offers us.

And having received this free forgiveness, he wants us to look at each other with different eyes. Simon looked at this woman and saw a despicable sinner; Jesus looked at her and saw a woman made in God’s image, overwhelmed with gratitude for God’s grace.

What do you see as you look around the church this morning? Christian congregations are like families, and like any family we accumulate resentments. Also, we express our love for God in different ways, and some of those ways look a little strange to others in the congregation! But Jesus is calling us to learn to see each other with his eyes. C.S. Lewis reminds us that, next to the sacrament we will receive in a few minutes, the holiest thing we will look at this week is our neighbour, and we should treat him or her accordingly.

You and I are debtors who couldn’t pay our bills, and we have been freely forgiven. What should be our response? Delirious joy, of course! Who cares what other people think of us? We just want to thank this Jesus who has brought such love into our lives! And then our second response is to have a gentle attitude toward our fellow debtors who have also been forgiven. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. How many times do we pray that prayer without thinking about it? Now’s the time to think about what it means, and to ask God’s help so that we can live by it.

Don’t Rest Your Hope on Human Leaders (a sermon on Psalm 146)

In today’s psalm we have my favourite verses for an election year, whether in Canada or the United States:

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’ (Psalm 146:3-4 NRSV).

Eugene Peterson has a lovely paraphrase of these verses in ‘The Message’:

‘Don’t put your life in the hands of experts, who know nothing of life, of salvation life. Mere humans don’t have what it takes; when they die, their projects die with them’.

‘Do not put your trust in princes’. Oh, but we love to put our trust in princes! We’re so tired of the gang that was ruling before, and then along comes a fresh new leader, with a bright vision about how it’s all going to be different this time! ‘Make America great again!’ ‘Change you can believe in!’ ‘Sunny ways!’ The slogans are so predictable, the rhetoric is so exaggerated, and maybe for a brief, bright honeymoon period, we can actually persuade ourselves to believe them. But then the first mistakes are made, and the first evidence of human sinfulness appears, and eventually we sigh and think to ourselves, “I guess he’s just a human being, like the last guy”. He’s not the Messiah, and the kingdom of God is not going to come on earth as a result of his election victory.

Psalm 146 explains to us why this is the case, so let’s take a closer look. The psalm falls pretty clearly into three sections. We have a brief introduction in verses 1-2, and then in verses 3-4 we get the command not to trust in human rulers, and the reasons why that’s not a good idea. Finally, in verses 5-10, we switch our attention to the Lord, the one true God, and the reasons why it’s much, much better to hope in him. The psalm ends as it began, with the Hebrew word ‘Hallelujah!’ – ‘Praise the Lord!’

I want to focus today on the second and third sections of the psalm. So let’s look again at verses 3-4:

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’

In these verses our poet gives us two reasons why it’s a bad idea to put your trust in princes, or human leaders of any kind. First, because they’re not God. They’d like to think they are, but when push comes to shove, these folks can’t deliver on their exaggerated promises.

Verse 3 says ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help’. The phrase ‘in whom there is no help’ could also be translated ‘in whom there is no deliverance’. When the Bible uses the word ‘deliverance’, it doesn’t just mean ‘giving people a little bit of extra help so that they can get the job done’; it means ‘saving people from something that had them totally in its power’. Think of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, totally under the power of Pharaoh. God didn’t look at them and say, “Well, they’re almost strong enough to set themselves free, and if I just give them a tiny bit of extra help, they’ll be able to finish the job!” No – the situation was desperate, the slaves had absolutely no hope of ever getting free, and when God intervened, it was a complete surprise to everyone involved.

So for a prince or earthly leader to claim to be a ‘deliverer’ was a claim to be God – rather like the Roman Emperor in the time of Jesus, who had as one of his official titles the Greek word ‘soter’ – Saviour. And it did look as if old Caesar Augustus had a good claim to that title – after all, if someone was condemned to die, he could pardon them (although he rarely did!). But while the Roman emperors were sitting on their thrones congratulating themselves on how powerful they were, an unknown village carpenter in Galilee was setting out on a ministry that would touch the lives of millions of people around the world, and would change the course of world history for the next two millennia. And now, two thousand years later, we only have a historical interest in the Roman emperors – but over a billion people around the world call Jesus their ‘Saviour’ – their ‘Deliverer’.

So the human rulers can’t provide ultimate help because they’re not God. A second reason they can’t provide that help is because they won’t be around long enough. Verse 4 says, ‘When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’ – or, in the lovely translation in ‘The Message’, ‘when they die, their projects die with them’.

The books of 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament tell the stories of the people of Israel and Judah from the time of King David’s son Solomon until the time of the Babylonian exile – a period of several hundred years. Have you ever read them? There are some good stories in them, but on the whole they make for pretty depressing reading. The authors have two standard ways of describing the kings of Israel and Judah: ‘He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’ and ‘He did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord’. Two sad truths make these books depressing reading: First, there are a lot more kings who ‘did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord’. Second, even in the case of the kings who did what was right, the good they achieved didn’t last; they tended to be followed by a bad king who undid all the good they’d done.

In a modern democracy, leaders have an even shorter time to do the good they want to do: one election cycle, or maybe two or even three if they’re lucky! But even twelve years isn’t long enough to solve some of the most difficult problems we face as modern human beings, never mind eight, or four. And of course when governments are defeated, they tend to be defeated by people who disagree with the key parts of their program – so the chances are that a lot of the things they’ve tried to achieve are going to be reversed by the ones who follow them.

Verse 10 says, ‘The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations’. In ancient times people sometimes said ‘May the king live forever!’ but they probably didn’t actually want him to live forever – and whether they wanted him to live forever or not, he wasn’t going to! No, God is the only one for whom the words ‘for ever’ and ‘for all generations’ can properly be used. No one else is going to be around long enough to get the job done.

So we shouldn’t trust in princes or politicians because they aren’t God, and because they aren’t going to be around long enough. There is, of course, a third reason; it’s not one that’s specifically mentioned in this psalm, but it’s assumed throughout the Bible. It’s the fact that princes and politicians and human leaders are all sinners just like the rest of us. And let’s remember what the word ‘sin’ means in the Bible. It’s a happy coincidence that in English, the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ in the centre of it. When I’m at the centre of my own life – when I’m being selfish and self-centred and acting as if I was god of my own world – then, in biblical terms, I’m living like a sinner. We all do it – some of us do it more than others – but there is no one who doesn’t do it at all.

We all know the old saying, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. In other words, it’s very hard for ordinary human sinners to resist the temptation toward empire-building, feathering their own nests, and ruling for their own benefit. I’m not saying it can’t be done; I’m saying it’s very hard. It certainly shouldn’t surprise us when we discover evidence of corruption; after all, how confident are you that you’d be able to resist the temptation, if you were in their shoes? How many people get angry at politicians for sins that are identical to ones they’ve committed themselves, except that they weren’t in positions of public power and authority when they committed them?

So ‘Do not put your trust in princes’, says our poet. Does that mean we shouldn’t honour our political leaders, or do our best to elect people of character, people who’ve had some success in resisting the temptation toward corruption and feathering their own nests? Of course not; it’s right for us to get involved in the political process and try to get the best possible candidates into office.

But we shouldn’t pin our hopes for making a better country, or a better world, on the shoulders of those people. That’s a burden they can’t bear. They aren’t God, they aren’t going to be around long enough, and they just don’t have the ability to be perfect! So our poet counsels us to look somewhere else – to look for a better and much more capable Deliverer. Look at verses 5-10:

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!’

What is it that makes God a worthy object for our hope and our trust? Well, first of all, it’s God’s creative power: God is the one ‘who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them’ (v.6). The presidents of the United States and of Russia probably still have it in their power to use their nuclear launch codes to destroy the earth, or at least to make it completely uninhabitable for thousands of years. Neither of them, however, has the power to create ‘heaven and earth’. With our present technology they’d be dead long before they’d even completed the journey to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own – never mind trying to create it in the first place. And there are billions of star systems, most of them unimaginable distances from the Earth, all of them completely out of reach of our tin-pot dictators and earthly leaders. But God in his wisdom has created them all, and he knows them all intimately.

But this great creator God is also a God who has a special concern for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. He ‘executes justice for the oppressed (and) gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow’ (vv.7-9, excerpts).

This is the story of the God of the Bible. He’s the God who went down to Egypt to deliver the oppressed slaves and bring them home into their own land. He’s the God who used a little shepherd boy to defeat the mighty soldier Goliath and set his people free from the Philistine oppressors. He’s the God who cared for the widow of Zarapheth and sent Elijah down to help her and her son make it through the drought. He’s the God who came among us in Jesus to set people free from the power of evil spirits, to give blind people their sight again, and to reach out to marginalized people – tax collectors, prostitutes, enemy soldiers, and Galilean fishermen with weird northern accents!

The fantastic thing about this story is that not only does God care for the poor and the humble – he tends to use the poor and the humble to help them, too! His way of changing the world isn’t usually to win a general or a president over to his cause! It’s to choose someone completely ordinary – someone who just goes humbly about their daily tasks, doing their best to serve God and love other people – and to use that person to start a movement that has an enormous effect on the world. He chose a little Albanian nun called Anjezë, and sent her to Calcutta to serve the poor and the lepers. Who ever thought that Mother Teresa would become a world figure? Or little Francesco Bernadone, who became St. Francis of Assisi? Or Dr. Paul Brand, who went as a medical missionary to India and ended up making some of the most important discoveries that helped us unravel the secrets of leprosy? Or a shy little Irish boy called Clive, who lost his mum to cancer at an early age, and who loved stories about the gods and goddesses of Asgard, but went on to become one of the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century – C.S. Lewis?

But it goes further than that. We’ve thought about people who became famous; what about the millions who didn’t? Philip Yancey has done thousands of interviews in his career as a writer. He says that in his mind he tends to divide the people he interviews into two groups: the ‘stars’, and the ‘servants’. It’s very clear to him that the ‘servants’ – mostly unknown men and women working faithfully in obscure places to improve the lives of ordinary people – are the ones who’ve discovered the real secret to contentment and happiness. As our poet says, ‘Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God’ (v.5).

But what does this actually mean? It sounds pious and good and holy, but do we really think that a humble aid worker in South America is having more of an effect on the world than Donald Trump? Or that ordinary Christians like you and me can do more to advance the plan of God than Justin Trudeau or Stephen Harper? Hoe does God actually help and deliver those who put their hope in him?

Well, let me answer that by asking you a question. Let’s suppose that we take the advice of this poet. Let’s suppose that we decide we’re not going to put our hope in Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton; we’re not going to rely on Justin Trudeau or Rachel Notley or Brian Jean or whoever your favourite politician might be at this point in time. No, we’re going to put our hope in the Lord our God; we’re going to trust in the God who come to live among us in Jesus.

If we trust our doctor, what do we do? The answer is obvious – we do what she says. We put her advice into practice in our daily lives. And the same is true with God; if we put our hope and trust in God, we then offer ourselves to God as instruments in his hands. We ask him to fill us with the Holy Spirit and give us strength to do things we could never do by ourselves. And then we take the words and example of Jesus and try to put them into practice in our daily lives – loving our enemies, forgiving those who hurt us, reaching out to the poor and needy and marginalized, spreading the news that there’s a God of love who cares about everyone he has made.

Do you not think that a movement like that will have a tremendous effect on the world? Imagine millions of people following Jesus together, learning to be his disciples, doing the things he told them to do. Would they be fooled by the incentives offered by marketers to buy all kinds of useless luxuries and look to possessions to make them happy? Of course not. Would they obey the instructions of their leaders to kill their fellow human beings who happen to wear the uniform of another country? No. Would they look for opportunities to – as John Wesley put it – ‘Do all the good they can, to all the people they can, in all the ways they can, by all the means they can, as long as ever they can’? Of course they would.

That’s how God changes the world. Not by a larger-than-life politician with fake hair and feet of clay, but by his power at work in hundreds and thousands of ordinary people, people just like you and me. We don’t have to have everything together in our lives. We don’t have to have all the answers. We just need a thankful trust in God, a determination not to allow anyone or anything else to take God’s place, and a desire to hear God’s word and put it into practice in our daily lives. If we do that, God can work through us to execute justice for the oppressed, give food to the hungry, set the prisoners free, open the eyes of the blind, lift up those who are bowed down, watch over the stranger, and uphold the orphan and widow. That’s what he will do through you and me, if we put our hope in him, and in no one else but him.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

How to Amaze Jesus (a sermon on Luke 7:1-10)

I don’t know about you, but I think it would be pretty hard to amaze Jesus. I get the sense from the gospels that he’s usually got a pretty good grasp of any situation he’s in. He seems to find it easy to see through people; he knows their motivations, he knows when they’re being sincere and when they’re trying to trick him. John’s Gospel says of him that ‘Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone’ (John 2:24-25).

Nevertheless, there are one or two occasions in the gospels when Jesus seems to have been genuinely surprised, and one of them is in our gospel reading for today. This reading comes from a chapter which is full of stories of Jesus reaching out to outsiders, to marginalized people, to widows and orphans, and to notorious sinners who are meant to be beyond the pale, beyond the reach of God’s love. And it’s one of these outsiders – a Roman army officer – who astonishes Jesus by the strength of his faith.

Let’s explore the story for a minute. Jesus has just returned to the Galilean fishing town of Capernaum on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee. It’s a town where he is well known, and it’s the most natural thing in the world that a Roman soldier, a member of the occupying army, has heard of him. What isn’t so natural is that this soldier should reach out to a Jewish man and ask for help. Imagine a German officer in World War Two asking for help from a Jewish rabbi! That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about here.

Centurions were the non-commissioned officers of the Roman Army; they led a ‘century’, which was a unit of approximately one hundred soldiers. They were the professional soldiers, the backbone of the Roman army. Interestingly enough, there are no bad stories about centurions in the New Testament. Every time a centurion appears, he’s seen in a good light, and this man is no exception.

What do we know about him? The Jewish elders come to Jesus and ask him to help this man, saying ‘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’ (v.5). This is unusual: a Roman soldier who took an interest in the people of Israel and went so far as to finance the building of a local synagogue out of his own pocket. Why would he do that? We’re not told, but it seems reasonable to believe that he was one of those in the ancient world who had gotten tired of the stories of the Greek and Roman gods and had been attracted to the idea of one true creator God – a God who called his people to follow him by obeying the strict ethical standards of the ten commandments.

It’s also noticeable that he takes an interest in the welfare of his slaves. Of course, the institution of slavery was taken for granted in the ancient world, and there’s no hint of reproach in Luke’s mention of the fact that this man owned slaves, but it is noticeable that, to him, this slave is not just a tool to be discarded when he gets worn out. A lot of people in the ancient world would have seen a slave in that way, but not this centurion. He values this slave highly, and so he’s willing to take the unusual step of humbling himself before Jesus in order to ask him for a healing.

Note that at first the centurion does not presume to talk to Jesus himself; he sends the Jewish elders to speak on his behalf. He’s well aware of his position as an outsider in Judaism: he’s a foreigner, a Gentile, an enemy soldier, and he thinks it’s very likely that Jesus will rebuff him. In the normal run of things, this centurion has all the power, but in this situation the roles are reversed, and he needs some intercessors to plead his case, so he sends the local elders. They, of course, are very gratified that this soldier has taken an interest in their synagogue; he’s a good donor to the local church and they want to stay on good terms with him, so they’re more than happy to go and speak to Jesus on his behalf!

To their surprise – and, probably, to the centurion’s surprise too – Jesus not only agrees to heal the slave, but immediately sets out to visit the centurion in his house! This is completely against Jewish law and tradition: he will be going into a Gentile house, where protocol will require that his host give him a meal, so he will be eating non-kosher food in fellowship with a soldier of the occupying army. This is far beyond anything that the centurion was expecting! When he hears that Jesus is on the way, he quickly sends more messengers – this time not Jewish elders, but personal friends. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word and let my servant be healed” (v.7). It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the centurion has a completely different view of himself than the synagogue elders? They said, “he is worthy”, but the centurion says, “I am not worthy”. We’ll explore that a little more in a minute.

But then comes the money quote, where the centurion explains the ground of his faith.

“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

Jesus is astounded at the strength of this man’s faith.

‘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”. When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health’ (vv.9-10).

What has this story got to say to us today? Well, I think we all know that we could use a little help with our faith. All too often we feel like that other man in the gospels, who in a moment of honesty said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We’d like our faith to be stronger, but we know that it often isn’t. Is there anything we can learn from this man who amazed Jesus by the strength of his faith? Let me point out two things to you.

The first one is humility. I read a story this week about a Christian writer called Dallas Willard who died a year or two ago. Dallas was being interviewed for a Christian magazine, and he was asked, ‘Do you believe in the total depravity of human beings?’ Dallas replied, ‘I believe in sufficient depravity’. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that, when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, “I deserve this”’.

Interestingly enough, the Jewish elders have a different take on this than the centurion. The elders say to 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” (vv.4-5). But when the centurion himself sends a message to Jesus, he says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” – a remarkable thing for a soldier of the occupying army to say to one of the people under his power.

Why this difference? Well, I would suggest to you that we know all about this in our personal lives. How many times have we heard people being described by their family and friends as ‘good’ or ‘kind’ or ‘respectable’, but when we hear them talk about themselves, they’re all too aware of how much they fall short of what they’d like to be. I think that’s true for most of us; we’re very aware of our personal failings. We know all about our skeletons in the closet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, once sent postcards to ten prominent British politicians; on each card he simply printed the words, “All is discovered; flee immediately!” He selected the politicians at random – he had no inside information about their sins and failings – but within twenty-four hours, all ten of them had fled the country!

Well, it’s easy to point a finger at politicians, but what about me? What about you? I know I would be totally mortified if information about the things I feel most guilty about was posted online, or spread on a screen in front of everyone in church today! Am I the only one who feels that way? I doubt it. Christian writer Adrian Plass used to be a heavy smoker; one day someone came up to him outside a church where he was speaking and said, “I see you’re still indulging in that dirty habit”. Adrian didn’t know the man, but he quickly replied, “It’s a lot better than your dirty habit!” The man’s face went white, and he quickly turned away.

So yes, we’re all familiar with the difference between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves; we’re all too aware of our sins and failings. We may even see them as a barrier keeping us away from God. But this man shows us that they aren’t a barrier, and that the way to get to God is to be honest about them. “Lord, I’m not worthy…” No, of course you’re not – neither am I – neither is anyone. According to St. Paul, the good news is that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). Are you a sinner? Then apparently you qualify! As the Apostle John says in his first letter, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).

So that’s the first thing we learn from this man. Apparently it’s a really important part of faith not to be too puffed up about ourselves, not to be under the illusion that the whole show is being arranged for our benefit. Apparently it’s vital for us to be well aware of our own limitations. The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable’. In other words, we admitted our desperation; we turned from the illusion that we are worthy and capable, and admitted instead that in a host of ways we are unworthy and powerless.

Desperation, a strong sense of our own helplessness, is an indispensable part of faith. The Norwegian writer Ole Hallesby once wrote, ‘Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray…Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas…Prayer therefore consists simply in telling God day by day in what ways we feel that we are helpless’.

So here is the first thing we can learn from our centurion: we can learn to be honest with God about our own helplessness. Do you think you can do that?

Secondly, let’s think about the nature of this centurion’s faith. What is faith, according to this story? Faith is a proper understanding of how the authority structure of the universe works. This man was a soldier and so he understood all about authority:

“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

The way the centurion saw it, God is the ruler of the entire universe, and Jesus was obviously in a special relationship with God, because he had been able to heal all sorts of diseases in Capernaum; the centurion had heard the stories about him, and may even have seen some of his healings himself. It was clear to him that Jesus spoke and acted with the authority of God. The slave’s illness was a serious problem, but the problem was not bigger than the authority of Jesus.

At this point we might feel a little wistful. We might think, “Well, that’s all very well for the centurion, but I’ve never seen Jesus do a miracle. I’ve never seen him lay his hands on someone and do a dramatic healing, and often when I ask him for things, I don’t seem to get them”.

This is true and I don’t want to deny it. But at the same time I want to point out to you that Luke might have had people like us in mind when he wrote this story. Matthew tells this story in his gospel too, but he tells it slightly differently; he gives the impression that the centurion came himself and spoke to Jesus. Very likely he’s just trying to make a long story short and so omits the details about the messengers who went between Jesus and the centurion.

But to Luke it’s very important to include those messengers in the story. It’s very important to include the detail that the centurion himself never actually saw Jesus, because most of Luke’s first readers would not have seen Jesus either! They would have heard the stories about Jesus, and perhaps sensed the touch of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, but they were not themselves eyewitnesses. Luke wanted to make it clear to them that this was not a disadvantage for them. They did not need to be able to see Jesus for Jesus to be able to help them. His authoritative word could still be spoken and could still bring them help and healing.

So Jesus reached out to this humble and honest centurion, and he’s reaching out to us too with the touch of God’s love. He calls us to come to him in humility, acknowledging our shortcomings and limitations and not trying to hide them, but coming to him nonetheless. In the same book I quoted from earlier, Ole Hallesby says that ‘The essence of faith is to come to Christ. Such a faith as this sees its own need, acknowledges its own helplessness, goes to Jesus, tells him just how bad things are and leaves everything with him… You and I can now tell how much faith we need in order to pray. We have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus’.

That’s what the centurion did. It was a simple act, and perhaps it was its very simplicity that Jesus found so amazing. There’s a lovely old prayer that’s spoken in the Roman Catholic liturgy at the time of communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed”. I find this a very moving prayer – not just when I’m about to receive communion, but at all times when I realize my need of the help of Jesus. So can I suggest we end with this prayer today?

Let us pray together: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed. Amen”.

 

Nicole Cliffe: How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life

Nicole CliffeNicole Cliffe tells the story of the work of God in her life that resulted in her moving from atheism to Christianity:

I became a Christian on July 7, 2015, after a very pleasant adult life of firm atheism. I’ve found myself telling “the story” when people ask me about it—slightly tweaked for my audience, of course. When talking to non-theists, I do a lot of shrugging and “Crazy, right? Nothing has changed, though!” When talking to other Christians, it’s more, “Obviously it’s been very beautiful, and I am utterly changed by it.” But the story has gotten a little away from me in the telling.

As an atheist since college, I had already mellowed a bit over the previous two or three years, in the course of running a popular feminist website that publishes thoughtful pieces about religion. Like many atheists (who are generally lovely moral people like my father, who would refuse to enter heaven and instead wait outside with his Miles Davis LPs), I started out snarky and defensive about religion, but eventually came to think it was probably nice for people of faith to have faith. I held to that, even though the idea of a benign deity who created and loved us was obviously nonsense, and all that awaited us beyond the grave was joyful oblivion.

I know that sounds depressing, but I found the idea of life ending after death mildly reassuring in its finality. I had started to meet more people of faith, having moved to Utah from Manhattan, and thought them frequently charming in their sweet delusion. I did not wish to believe. I had no untapped, unanswered yearnings. All was well in the state of Denmark. And then it wasn’t.

Read the rest in Christianity Today magazine here.

‘The Glory of God and the Glory of Humanity’ (a sermon on Psalm 8)

It’s said that the philosopher Immanuel Kant was once attending an astronomy lecture on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The lecturer concluded with these words: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer!”

Humans are the astronomers. Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, for eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

The writer of Psalm 8 felt this longing. I want to explore this psalm with you this morning under two headings: first, the glory of God, and second, the glory of Humanity.

First, then, the Glory of God. In 1952 J.B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small. Today I think that many of us still have that problem, a problem we share with our ancient ancestors. In the time of the Bible many people believed in local, territorial gods. The early Hebrew people probably thought of their god in the same way; in fact, he’s often called ‘Yahweh the god of Israel’ in the Old Testament.

We have no right to look down on our ancient ancestors for this; I suspect that many of us have small views of God as well. In Sunday School we were taught about God in simple ways, but often we still speak of God as if he were our personal assistant, dedicated to our well-being and pleasure – a sort of divine butler, who comes to us every morning and says ‘What can I do for you today?’ – or a heavenly pharmacist whose greatest desire is to find the right spiritual aspirin to take our pain away.

The author of Psalm 8 is not content with these puny views of God. Look at verses 1-2 in your pew Bibles.

O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

Our Book of Alternative Services psalter translates the first line ‘O Lord our governor’; the NRSV has ‘O LORD our Sovereign’, with the word ‘LORD’ written in block capitals, to alert us to the fact that the Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’. Actually, in Hebrew this first line combines two names for God: ‘Yahweh Adonai’.

‘Adonai’ is often used for God in the Old Testament: it’s the Hebrew word for ‘lord’, ‘master’, or ‘owner’. ‘Yahweh’ is the name for God that God gave to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. God had called Moses to go down to Egypt and tell the Hebrew slaves that he was going to set them free. Moses said, “If I tell them, ‘God’s going to set you free’, and they ask me, ‘Which god?’, what shall I say?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

‘I am’ in Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’, but it’s a very strange name, one that almost defies definition! “I am who I am! I will be who I will be! So don’t think you can tie me down or figure me out”. In later years the name was often wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’; most modern translations use the word ‘LORD’ in capital letters.

So what does our poet have to say about ‘Yahweh Adonai’? Well, the first thing we see is his appeal to God’s creation as evidence of God’s glory.

‘You have set your glory above the heavens…
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (vv.1b, 3-4).

For many of Israel’s neighbours, and some people in Israel too, ‘the moon and the stars’ were gods themselves. Today, of course, we know what they are, and we also know all about the ‘vast expanse of interstellar space: galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’ (B.A.S Eucharistic Prayer #4). As people of faith in one Creator God, we don’t see these heavenly bodies as rival gods, but neither do we see them as random bits of rock and gas that just appeared out of nowhere by chance. Our poet says they are ‘the work of God’s fingers’; in Psalm 33 the image shifts: ‘By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Psalm 33:6). Yahweh’s fingers, Yahweh’s mouth – we’re using images for God, of course, none of which are entirely adequate! But the point is clear: the vast, mighty heavens above our heads are well within God’s creative capacity!

Today, of course, we know far more about the wonders of creation than our poet did. We know about the enormous distances of space, and the enormous stretches of time too – over fourteen billion years since the universe came into being – approximately 4.5 billion years since our Earth was formed. We know about the wonder and mystery of DNA – the intricacies of the human eye – the instincts that guide birds for thousands of miles on their migrations. We know about the incredibly beautiful creatures that live in the depths of the oceans, where no light penetrates – ‘Who are they beautiful for?’ Philip Yancey asks! We see the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, the peaceful lakes. For us as believers, all of these things speak to us of our God – of his wisdom, his creative power, his artistic skill, his love of outrageous colour combinations – have you looked at a sunset lately? – and his fondness for extravagant variety.

Glory be to God! God is the creator of all that exists; it was all planned and made by him, and he continues to love and care for it. Our poet sees the stars and planets as praising God, and the little children and infants on earth are joining in as well! We humans can never fully understand him – our minds aren’t big enough to take him in. St. Augustine is reputed to have said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!” As we try to describe God, we’re a bit like people looking up into the sky at the sun – our eyes are almost completely screwed tight shut against the brilliant light, so we can’t see too well to be absolutely clear about what we’re looking at! But we can worship our glorious God, and we can follow his instruction for our lives – including the particular call he has given to human beings as we seek to live for his glory. And this leads us to the second part: the glory of humanity.

In Donald Coggan’s little book about the psalms he has this to say about Psalm 8:

‘In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

‘We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?’

You’ve probably felt this sometimes too; I know I have. I’ve felt it when I was hiking in the mountains; I’ve felt it when I was out on the barren lands of the Arctic, in the immense silence, looking up at the night sky. “Space is so huge, and I’m so small! O God, does my life really matter?’ Or, as verse 4 says, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

What are human beings? The Book of Genesis has an answer:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth”. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

What does it mean for humans to be created in the image of God? Well, exactly the same language is used in the fifth chapter of Genesis when Adam has a son of his own: ‘When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’ (Genesis 5:3). So the idea of the ‘image of God’ is a parental metaphor: we’re God’s kids! We parents understand this – for good or for ill, we often see ourselves in our kids. God has made many different kinds of creatures – millions of different species, down through the millennia – but in the fullness of time it was all leading up to the arrival of his children: human beings, made in the image of their Father God.

Now one of the things about kids is this: they don’t just want to be helped or provided for. They want a role! They want to help, to contribute, to be valuable in the household! ‘I want to do it myself!’ And so the Psalm tells us that as a good parent, God doesn’t just care for human beings or provide for them; God also gives them a vital role to play.

What is that role? Part of the answer to that question is found in verses 5-8:

‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea’.

This is royal language – to ‘have dominion’. The one who really has dominion over the whole creation is the Creator God, but he chooses to share that dominion with his human children.

So what is it that we’re called to do, exactly? Verses 6-8 talk about us being given ‘dominion over the works of God’s hands’. Older generations tended to see this in terms of taming the earth and subduing it; human life was seen as a life of conflict with the forces of nature. Of course, there are times when we still feel that: when great forest fires rage, for instance, fires so fierce we call them ‘the Beast’! But nowadays we’re also aware of the awesome power of humans over our environment; we’re aware of the possibility that our activity may even be doing something that would have been unthinkable a century ago: changing the climate of the earth. We’re aware that we have created weapons so terrifying in their power that using them might well have lethal consequences, not just for us, but for our planet as well.

And so in our time we’ve begun to notice another strand of this Old Testament teaching. In Genesis 2:15 we read, ‘Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’. ‘To keep it’ has the old sense of ‘to guard it’. The Common English Bible has a wonderful translation: ‘to farm it and to take care of it’. Here is our call as human beings to be good stewards of the earth. And in our time, a time of climate change and of massive extinctions of wildlife species, it has become an urgent matter that we respond to this call.

We Christians don’t always think of this as being part of our call to discipleship; it wasn’t such an urgent issue in Jesus’ day. But let’s not forget that in Romans chapter five St. Paul calls Jesus ‘the Second Adam’. In Paul’s imagery, the first Adam failed in his calling and was unfaithful to God. But now Jesus has come, and where the first Adam failed, he has succeeded. So the call given to the first Adam – ‘to till the earth and keep it’ – has also been given to the second Adam, and as we follow Jesus, it’s given to us as well.

This creation call to humankind has never been revoked; we have been placed on the earth to till it and to guard it. God our Creator took great care when he first made this home of ours, and he continues to take great care as life here continues to evolve and develop. If we are made in his image, sharing his dominion over his creation, can we do any less? I think not.

To sum up, then: what is it that makes our lives significant? We humans are frail, and short-lived in terms of the life of our planet; why are we important? Why is your life important? Why is mine?

We’re important because we’re made in God’s image and created for relationship with God. It’s significant that in this psalm God is addressed throughout in the second person: ‘Yahweh our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ Many psalms speak about God in the third person – ‘Come, let us sing to the Lord – but in this psalm we address God directly, because we’re called into relationship with God, as his beloved children.

This psalm calls us to reflect on the wonder and majesty of God. One of the best ways to do this is to get outside, into God’s natural creation. You’ve heard me say before that if we do all our praying indoors, we’ll end up thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. But if we get out into the river valley, or go walking in Elk Island National Park, or hike in the mountains – or even just go out into the country regularly and look up at the night sky, undisturbed by street lights – we’ll learn a different view of God. We’ll walk there with the great Creator, and our hearts will be full of praise for him.

And of course, our lives are important because God has chosen to share his care for creation with us. He’s not going to do it without us! He’s not going to revoke our job description! His rule over creation is not the rule of a despot, a tyrant who exploits the world to feed his own self-centred greed. God rules and cares for his world with love, patience, and skill. And he calls us to learn to do that too.

So maybe, as we think about these things, the question we ought to ask ourselves is this: is God’s natural world a better place because of me, or not? And if the answer is ‘not’, then we’ve got some thinking and praying to do. One day we’re going to be asked to give account for our stewardship. On that day, I don’t think, “I just did what everyone else was doing” will be an acceptable answer.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Today we join in the praise and worship offered to you by all created things. Today we thank you for making us in your image and calling us to be stewards of this wonderful, beautiful earth which you have made. Help us to care for it as you care for it, our God, that we may truly live our lives to your honour and glory. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.