The recent IRS scandal, which included asking Christian groups to disclose what they are praying about before they could receive tax-exempt status, sure seems to underscore an old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is in our DNA as Americans to distrust and even to rebel against authority particularly when they abuse their power. That certainly happened when the King taxed our tea without first giving us proper representation. Americans are known worldwide for our rugged individualism. People in around the world, who barely know a word of English, will come up to you on the street when they realize that you are an American will raise up a thumb and say “John Wayne.”
But we must not allow our American DNA to counteract or negate our Christian DNA because while we may think that we are John Wayne, the Holy Spirit did not birth us into a state of rugged individualism. “For by one Spirit we have all been baptized into one Body.” Our nation may function as a democracy, but there is nothing democratic about the Kingdom of God. We as the Church are in a hierarchy and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact there are great advantages to it. The Gentile Centurion understood how the Kingdom of God worked and he used that knowledge to receive a blessing for his servant. Perhaps if we too can have a better understanding of the Kingdom, and what it means to live under authority, then we can use that knowledge to also receive a blessing.
The truth is that we are all under authority. I have a long time friend named Jim who was walking past his children’s room when he overheard this conversation between his young son and daughter. “No, no Danielle, that’s not the way it works. I’m the boss of you, Daddy is the boss of me and Mommy is the boss of Daddy.” Hierarchy is the way life works. It exists in homes, our schools, our businesses, the military, the government and the Church. As Bob Dylan put it in a song, “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re going to serve somebody.” People who don’t think that they are under authority are either delusional, like cult leaders or incorrigible, like the thugs who spend most of their life in prison. And isn’t that ironic since there is no more severe hierarchy than prison. So being under authority is a way of life and in Christ it is a very a good thing.
One of the major reasons for the miracles that Jesus performed was to establish His authority. When He calmed the storm the disciples asked what manner of man He was that even the winds obey Him. When He healed on the Sabbath the Jewish leaders asked by what authority He did so. He proved His authority over Satan in casting out devils and He proved His authority over death itself in raising Lazarus from the dead. It is one thing to say it; it is quite another to do it. For example Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science taught that death was an illusion. And yet you can visit her grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jesus, however, who claimed to have all authority over heaven and earth, has no grave because He is who He said He was.
So this Roman Officer understood how authority works. When you want something done, you go to the person in charge. You don’t go to the ones who claim to be in charge, like the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Roman Officials. You go to the One who is truly in charge. He goes to Jesus who has already proven His authority.
But notice an interesting twist in the story. He does not make his appeal to Jesus directly. The test says, “When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Him, asking Him to come and heal his slave.” And the Jewish elders go to bat for him. The Centurion would have been what the Jews called a “righteous Gentile.” He would not have been a circumcised member of the covenant but he would have been a believer in the One True God and a man full of good works. They even appeal to Jesus that he deserves Jesus’ attention because he loves the Jewish people and he built their synagogue. (So he was welcome to give to the building fund, he just couldn’t vote at the annual parish meeting or serve on the Vestry).
And what was Jesus’ response? He said, “I don’t believe in people asking God to do something for other people, if he wants it so badly he needs to come and ask me himself.” No, of course not! Jesus accompanied the Jewish elders and went toward the man’s home but the man sent out others to meet Jesus even before he arrived at his home.
Now I don’t want to stretch the point too far, but to me this is a great picture of Jesus responding to the intercession of others. As Christians we know that Christ has given us direct access to the throne of God but we also know that He has placed us in Christ’s Body for a reason. And so we shouldn’t give it a second thought to ask for one another’s prayers. Since God answers prayer, why wouldn’t we use the great resource of the Body of Christ and seek the intercession of others? If I am going through something and I ask for your prayer then you become like the Jewish elders who took the Centurion’s request to Jesus. You play a part in the miracle the Jesus will perform in answer to our intercessions. That is a privilege is it not?
The other thing that you see about this Centurion, in his understanding of Jesus’ authority, is his humility. It was an act of humility for him to solicit the help of the Jewish elders just like it takes a measure of humility to ask for other’s prayers and intercessions. He says outright to Jesus, “for I am not worthy to have come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you.” Because he understood both who Jesus truly is and because he knew himself, this is not false humility nor was he having an “Aw shucks” moment. The Centurion was making an honest evaluation of himself and the situation and like a good soldier he was figuring out a way to improvise, adapt and overcome. Humility is how you approach authority and it opens the door for a positive response. There is an old custom in Anglicanism before receiving the Blessed Sacrament to strike the breast and paraphrasing the Centurion say three times, “Lord I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.” It is in humility that we are to approach God.
A second form of authority that we see in our lessons today is the authority of the Church. This authority is embodied in St. Paul who in his letter to the Galatians declares that he is an apostle, “sent neither by human commission nor human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” That sounds a little arrogant but as the saying goes, “it ain’t bragging if it’s the truth.” St. Paul is establishing his authority at the beginning of the letter because he is going to say some hard things to them and they are going to need to hear it. He wants them to know that as an apostle, he is sent to them directly from God and not by human commissioning. (“For God so loved the world He didn’t send a committee”).
The Church is a divine institution rather than a man-made institution and this is something that needs to be repeated often because we live in an age that has lost that understanding. People will say that they are spiritual but not religious or they will echo the viral YouTube “Why I love Jesus but hate religion.” But what they fail to realize is that they are falling for an evil deception. We, as the Prayer Book so beautifully puts it, are to be one flock under one Shepherd. In John 17 Jesus prayed for us to be one. He did not pray for us to be alone, He prayed for us to be united. The game the wolf plays is to find the lone sheep that has strayed from the flock and make a meal out of him.
In terms of application, there is a real danger in the overemphasis of Protestantism on private interpretation of the Bible. That is one reason that there are over 30,000 different denominations in America. In my studies I have concluded that every cult is begun by someone who claims special revelation and that everyone up until them has gotten it wrong. So while we do need to be reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Scriptures, we need also to be constantly checking back with the Church to see if we interpreting it correctly. As Anglicans we do not believe that the Church is infallible, that the councils of the Church have and do err. But we also believe that because she is Christ’s Body, there is a better chance of discerning God’s will through the mind of the Church rather than seeking it on our own.
The third source of authority that we see in today’s lessons is the Gospel. Now remember, the New Testament has not been compiled at this point. Paul’s letters predate Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but even at this early, early stage of Christianity there is an agreed upon message that is not to be altered. St. Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is a different gospel.” He goes on to say, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what has been proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed.”
These are strong words, protecting a received body of truth. The Holy Spirit continued to inspire authors to record the life of Jesus and He inspired the Apostles to guide and correct the Church through personal visits and letters but these later teachings were in accord with the original Gospel of Christ. Over time they coalesced into what we call today The New Testament, which offer us a consistent, cohesive Gospel. And if you want to bring ruin on your life or do damage to other people, the sure way to do it is to abandon or alter this Gospel. That is why St. Paul was not being overly dramatic to curse anyone who preached a different Gospel.
Living under the authority of the Gospel, just like living under the authority of Christ and of His Church, also requires humility. As we saw last week in Trinity Sunday, there are things in the book that we do not understand and maybe never will. Also there are things in the book, like loving your enemies, which seem impossible. They drive you to your knees to seek God’s help to be obedient. There are even things in the book that you wish were not there, like if you eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out because it is better to go to heaven with one eye than to go to hell with two. Obviously we are not to take that literally or else this would be Stevie Wonder Anglican Church, but still those are strong words that make us uncomfortable.
And yet when we look at the life of our Lord we see how He lived under the authority of Holy Scripture. When the devil tempted Him to do certain things He would reply that He could not “for it is written.” He did not say it is okay because “God is doing a new thing these days.” He did not even say “Look I’m God, I wrote the book so I can change it if I want to.” He submitted to God’s Word and said, “No, it is written…” As His disciples how can we have a different approach?
Like the Centurion, probably everyone here is in need for Jesus to hear our intercessions and to bless us or someone that we love. While He is not a vending machine that responds in an automatic fashion, we can have faith that He will come to us when we humble ourselves and submit ourselves to His authority which we demonstrate by honoring His Body the Church and His holy Word. The opposite is certainly true. If we rebel or reject His authority it will not go well with us. St. James says in his letter that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Our challenge from this story of the Centurion is to model his faith. Just as he asked for the aid of the Jewish elders, why not ask for others to pray for you this week? Then with the childlike faith of the Centurion, ask Jesus to bless someone you love. As you do, look for Him to answer because He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Amen.