The Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
1 Kings 18. 20-39; Gal. 1.1-12; Lk 7.1-10

The Bible stories appointed for today have a considerable resonance. They fit together and that is actually something quite unusual in these days of the Revised Common Lectionary. In the good old days of the Episcopal Lectionary, the other lessons to complement the gospel’s theme – to match the message so to speak. But with the Common (or ecumenical) Lectionary, that the Episcopal Church now uses, lessons are no longer chosen to relate to each other but, instead, to run in a semi-continuous manner. That is, chapter 1 is followed by chapter 2, which is followed by chapter 3. Any resonance, therefore, is more coincidence than a result of any intentionality.

Nevertheless, today, the lessons do fit together. They do work toward a common theme. In our first lesson from Hebrew scripture we have a story from the First Book of Kings. There is a kind of contest between gods taking place – between the one true Lord God of Israel and Ba’al, a contender, a foreign false god brought in to Israel by alien people, including King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel. Elijah the prophet speaks to the wavering Israelites saying, “How long will you vacillate between gods? How long will you hem and haw between the two? Choose! If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Ba’al, then follow him.”

Among the ancient Israelites, the cult of Ba’al was the greatest and most enduring threat to the worship of Yahweh alone. And Ba’al was not so much one competing god; it’s a term that can refer to a number of gods, and even to human officials: gods who were patrons of cities, a god of the rain, a god of fire, a god of fertility, even Ba’al Zebub, the “lord of the flies” who will be identified in the New Testament as the “prince of demons” and Satan.

Elijah is calling the people back to the faithful worship of Yahweh, the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And it is not a popular move. The people seem to like worshiping both Yahweh and Ba’al; you might say they were trying to cover their bets, to play it safe, anticipating any contingency.

So Elijah calls of the people of Israel together and in front of them, to prove once and for all who is God and who is not, he challenges the prophets of Ba’al and of Asherah to call on their gods to do their best, to send down fire from heaven and consume the sacrifice made to them. All day the false prophets waited and wailed and prayed and even mutilated themselves to get their gods’ attention but to no avail.

When they had given up Elijah , after saturating his sacrificial pyre with jar after jar of water, prays to God, who sends down lightening to consume the offering presented. The Israelites see this and are converted. The scripture says, “they fell on their faces and said, ‘The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.,”

In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul, like Elijah, is astonished that the Lord’s people are so quickly turning away: “. . . deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel.”

Again, there seems to be some kind of competing god here. Scholars are not quite sure what that other gospel or teaching was exactly, but we can surmise that it was different enough to cause the apostle great alarm. “If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed,” Paul says. Not ignored, not forgotten, not corrected or even shunned – but accursed! Like the prophet Elijah, Paul is calling the people back to the one true God.

Which brings us to the gospel of Luke and the story of the centurion and his slave from the Gospel of Luke. Here, once again, we likely have another set of gods in play. As a citizen of Rome and a member of the Roman army, the centurion would have probably worshiped Jupiter, Apollo, Mars and Baccus and many other gods.

Now this particular centurion was apparently a good man, and generous, well liked among the people in Capernaum. “He loves our people” they say to Jesus, “and it is he who built our synagogue for us,”

Other than this, Luke tells us next to nothing about the centurion, not even his name. We do not hear that he converted to Judaism, or afterward followed Jesus. We are told simply that he loves God’s people. And notice carefully: Jesus and the centurion never encounter one another face-to-face. First, some elders come to Jesus, and later the centurion sends some friends to carry his message. But the two, Jesus and the centurion, never actually, physically meet.

Yet, there is indeed a connection. A faithful one. The message the centurion sends to Jesus is this: “I am not worthy to have you come under my room; but only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

And Jesus is amazed. This amazing faith of this Roman soldier is beyond anything he has experienced even among his own people. It is enough to stop Jesus in his tracks. He doesn’t go to the centurion’s home. He doesn’t need to. He doesn’t need to meet the man. He doesn’t need to know anything else about him. He knows his faith. He grant the man’s request. The servant is healed.

We can’t say for sure that the centurion did not pray to his other gods for healing. Perhaps he was as wavering in his faithfulness as the Israelites and the Galatians. Perhaps hearing of Jesus’ reputation and works, he thought, “Why not? Why not ask Jesus for a healing miracle for my beloved servant?” But he did ask. And he asks as a man of great faith: “You don’t even have to come near me,” he says to Jesus. “Just say the word and I know my servant will be healed.” It is a belief and trust in the power and ability and the caring love of Christ.

The reason Jesus grants the request is clear: The centurion has described himself as “a man set under authority.” And, in this case, the authority under which he sets himself in that of Jesus, not one of his pagan gods.

So this morning we have three very different contexts, three different writers, three different sets of characters – but one common theme: God who is true versus gods that are not. Faith in a God who is worthy of our trust and hope and love and gods that cannot meet that test.

You know, people’s involvement with and worship of false gods is as old as the hills. What has changed is that the false gods we worship, nowadays, are much less obvious and undisguised than the stone idols of Ba’al or the many gods of ancient Rome. Even to those that worship them, today’s idols are often concealed and obscured as other things. But make no mistake: there are false gospels and false gods everywhere.

The false gospel of prosperity, for instance. This is very common in today’s world. It’s a belief that when we gain economic wealth, it is because God is rewarding us for our good behavior. It’s not unlike the belief of many of the religious in Jesus’ day that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. And according to today’s proponents of this misguided theology, the behavior that God is most likely to reward just happens to be financial giving in support of some religious leader or ministry. You know how that goes: Give me 100 and, if you do, God will bless you with 1000. A lot of folks have become very rich through the gospel of prosperity, but it’s not usually the givers!

And the false gospel that the Apostle Paul was likely railing against: Gnosticism. It’s still around today, although its adherents would not know it by that name. Among the many tenets of this belief is a sense that salvation comes through our own righteous works, specifically through our special knowledge and understanding of God. Our thoughts are God’s thoughts and our righteousness and salvation earned. Paul repeatedly preached against this deception, affirming that salvation is by grace, an unearned, undeserved gift of God. Our good works form a necessary part of Christian life, and they are pleasing to God – but they come as a response to the gifts of grace, not a means to earn them.

And then, for Christians, the most contrary gospel of all: the belief that the message is more about the messenger than the message itself. This is a tricky one, when it comes to Jesus, because we Christians do worship and adore Jesus Christ, the messenger, as an essential person of the Triune God. Yet, Jesus did not ask us to worship him, but to follow him, in his unwavering faithfulness to God. It’s not enough to say we are followers of Jesus and then show up for church and communal worship once a month or three times a summer. It’s not enough to worship each and every Sunday but not follow Jesus in our everyday life.

We do worship Jesus as God and Jesus is certainly our primary example for Christian living. But when he preached or taught, he never trumpeted his own virtues. He never tells his disciples to “preach Jesus;” instead he instructs them to have faith, keep the faith: “feed the hungry, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, baptize and make disciples in my name (according to my example).” What Jesus preached – his message – was that the kingdom of God has drawn very near. It is imminent. This kingdom of God was – and is – a very important construct for Jesus, as it should be for us.

The kingdom of God: the time and place where everyone in all the world becomes willingly subject to the one true God. The time and place when we will see the consummation of God’s justice, love and mercy. The time and place in which everyone will be valued and respected and cared for adequately.

It is a vision still unfulfilled, but still intensely compelling: A world without hunger, without oppression, without sickness, without violence. A world of peace, liberty and, yes, prosperity. And a world in which these are not the standards enjoyed by a few, but the ethical basis of human rights for everyone. It seems far away from us, unobtainable, because we are so far away, still. But the kingdom of God is near, still, if we will seek it; if we will strive for it.

Yes, we should worship Jesus truly and faithfully. But first, we must follow Jesus, truly, faithfully – really.

The god of Ba’al has proved to be false, the teaching of Gnosticism, in all its forms, has proved to be heresy, and the gospel of prosperity has proved to be contrary to the true gospel of Jesus Christ: as is our unfaithfulness in our commitment to God in worship and discipleship.

All these – and more – distract us from the core message of our savior Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven has come very near you.” This is our hope. This is our salvation. This is our destiny.

So let us continue to bring this reality ever nearer. For the duty of all Christians is to follow Christ faithfully; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and, in all our life, to work, pray, serve and give – and witness – for the coming and the spread of the kingdom of God.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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