Sunday, June 2, 2013

One Under Authority

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.

--Alice Walker

One Under Authority
Luke 7: 1-10
June 2, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Luke 7: 1-10
1 After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set 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." 9 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." 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

The healing of the Centurion’s slave is a story best paired with next week’s story, of the raising of the poor woman’s dead son, so as we contemplate this scripture, I want to invite you to keep in mind the story that comes next week. These two stories, both miracles of Jesus, present to us an elegant composition that compares and contrasts the meaning of authority and power. This week, the person appealing for help is a Roman officer in a position of power and authority. But still, he needs Jesus. He needs healing – not for himself, but for someone whom he loves: a servant – actually, a slave, a young man.

Next week, the person in need of Jesus is a widow, a person with absolutely no power, no authority. She needs what only Jesus can give – life – not for herself, but for her only son.
We will learn more about her next week, but do keep her in mind as you think about this week’s story.

Let’s start by considering who this Centurion is.
This 5th century description may help us see him better:
“A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak, keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod, and that the arms are burnished and bright.”[1]

So the Centurion is an exemplar of the military man – an officer of the Roman legion.
He has both power and authority. We often use those terms interchangeably, as if they are the same thing. But they are not. Power is generally understood to be physical – it can get its way by force, or coercion. Power is nestled in with privilege, and in modern culture it can be unseen, – because it is not always overt coercion. But its effect is visible in the world we live in. Power works in our world through economic, or political channels, but at its base it works by force – if you do not obey, you will suffer pain, either physical, financial, or social.

Authority is best understood as the legitimate, accepted use of power. It is power with, or power for, rather than power over. It is the power of connection, of relationship. Superiors in the workplace who have authority have a right to give orders, and subordinates under that authority have an obligation to obey, because they have agreed to be in that relationship. The government has authority to regulate and enforce laws, and the governed consent to that, because we are in relationship, however tenuous that connection might seem. This is power derived from an agreement between the authority and the one under authority, not coercion or threat.  In families, and in churches, authority is lodged in certain people or groups, because the relationship includes that arrangement.

The sociologist and philosopher Max Weber distinguished types of authority:
            Rational legal authority depends on rules and laws. Modern governments and societies rely on this. The centurion had that kind of authority; Jesus did not.
            Traditional authority is based on customs, habits and social structures. The hereditary monarchy is an example of that sort of authority. The Queen of England has authority because she was born into the royal family, not because she has any particular claim on the allegiance of the people. Roman Caesars had that kind of authority.
            The third form of authority is charismatic authority It is “the gift of grace,” an authority received from God. We see it in contemporary culture when we regard someone, when we listen to them or follow them, not because of their government position or their status, but because of the quality of their character and the power of their spirit. We listen and follow because we love and respect them. It is this type of authority that we strive for in families, and in faith communities. It is this type of authority Jesus has. It is superior to both rational-legal and traditional authority, in that people are willing to accept and follow this authority even if it goes against tradition, rules and laws. That kind of authority relies on obedience not out of fear, but out of love and gratitude.

The Centurion has a bit of this charisma, apparently, because there are Jewish leaders who are willing to vouch for him. He is a man who understands the importance of relationships and connections, and the power of mutual concern more than coercion. Notice, he never actually speaks to Jesus face to face in the story – but others bring messages from him and serve as references for him. He is a man who understands the giving and obeying of orders, and the importance of structures of authority – the chain of command. He says it himself: “I also – like you are, Jesus – I also am a man set 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." Still, he does not simply demand that Jesus do his bidding – he deploys his influences and connections to seek Jesus’ favor in helping him.

The Centurion is a pagan, but he believes that Jesus can heal his slave boy. Even though he probably practices the Roman cultic sacrifices, he has faith in this Galilean Messiah. He sees that for all his power and authority, he needs Jesus. He is an insider in his world, a man of power and privilege, but he understands that in Jesus’ realm, he is an outsider. Nevertheless, he loves this slave boy so much that he is willing to send for a virtual nobody, a man powerless in the social schema of the day, but one whose authority he recognizes as analogous to his own.

And so, he sends his messengers to bring Jesus to heal the boy, then, perhaps not wanting Jesus to defile himself by entering the home of a pagan, he sends them a second time.
“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.”

Jesus is amazed.
“Only speak the word!”
Jesus turns to the crowd around him and says,
“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

And he does speak the work, and the servant is healed, and God’s power and authority are demonstrated. God’s power extends even to the suffering slave in the home of a centurion.
Jesus’ authority, which has its foundation in the grace of God, reaches over the head of officers, beyond governments, and past the realm of any earthly powers. Not only that, the healing love of Jesus comes even to one who has not explicitly followed him. That Centurion might not have known much about these people of the Way, but he knew one thing for certain – he needed Jesus. He needed grace.

The grace of God is extended without regard for the expressed faith of the recipient – that’s what grace is!  But power and authority are tricky things for us Christians, here in the 21st century, like they were for that Centurion. We think that because we have succeeded in our careers, or because we had the good fortune to be born into a particular class or race, or because we are Americans, or because we worked hard, or because we try to be good, that somehow we deserve some special treatment, or particular privilege.

But we are not exempt. We still need Jesus.
Our income or race or class or achievements or even our good deeds do not spare us when cancer comes, when the storms bear down, when death approaches, when a loved one is dying. Being a member of the dominant culture, or race, or political party, or even the dominant religion, does not give us any power or authority whatsoever over evil, over suffering, or over others. In fact, being Christians sets us at odds with the dominant culture; our faith in Jesus Christ leads us to confess our powerlessness.

The Centurion recognized that his power was useless when compared to the power and authority of Jesus, because when it came to ultimate concerns, like life and death, like the life of one whom he loved, the Centurion had to give up his privilege. He had to confess that he needed God’s healing grace through Jesus Christ. And that grace was available to him!

God’s grace recognizes us as the needy and helpless people we are, and heals us, whether or not we are worthy. Grace recognizes that we are powerless, and speaks the word of healing. When we are faced with matters of ultimate concern, like life and healing and wholeness and relationships, only the power of God’s grace and the authority of Jesus’ love hold sway.

And because of that, thanks be to God! – we can know what real power and authority are. We have power, through God’s grace, to lift up those who are downtrodden.  We have authority, through the name of Jesus, to live in love and compassion for others – not just our friends and family, but also our neighbors, and strangers, and enemies. Because Jesus can speak, and with a word, bring healing grace, we have the power and authority to open our arms in hospitality to everyone, not just those whom we think “deserve” to be cared for, but everyone, just as Jesus opened his arms to us, the undeserving, the proud and the humble, the mighty and the lowly, the young and the old, you and me.

Only say the word, Lord, and we shall be healed.
That word is grace, abundant, extravagant, and endless.
Thanks be to God that we are under that authority.
Thanks be to God that we need Jesus, and he is here for us, to speak the word.

[1] Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, quoted on Cotter, p. 114

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