Muckairn Church 2nd June 2013
‘Jesus in Galilee – Luke and Listen’
Luke 7:9 When Jesus heard this he marvelled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him: ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’
I have entitled this sermon: ‘Jesus in Galilee – Luke and listen’ with look spelled LUKE and not LOOK! Each of the four Gospels is different. Matthew – very Hebrew, very Jewish. Mark very short and very near to the actual events of Jesus life with only 8 verses on the resurrection although another 10 verses were added later. John, possibly more ‘spiritual’ , more theological, with foot-washing at the Last Supper, instead of the breaking of bread, and with a lot of material which is not in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The word ‘synoptic’ simply means they can be seen together.
However Luke’s gospel is significantly different as Luke is the only person who was a Gentile and not a Jew whose writings are in the Bible – he wrote his Gospel and also the Acts of the Apostles. William Barclay says: ‘The gospel according to St Luke has been called the loveliest book in the world. It would not be far wrong to say that the third gospel is the best life of Christ ever written.’ In Colossians 4:14 Luke is described as ‘the beloved physician’. He was a doctor, a medical doctor, and it is said that a minister sees people at their best; a lawyer sees people at their worst; and a doctor sees people as they are. My wife is a doctor and it is sometimes said that I am here to make people good but she is here to make people better. Luke certainly was looking for the best in everyone.
Being a Gentile himself, Luke wrote mainly for the Gentiles – the people who were outside God’s Covenant with Israel. His use of the Greek language is among the best in the whole of the New Testament. Unlike Matthew he very rarely quotes the Old Testament. His genealogy, his family tree of Jesus, begins not as Matthew’s does with Abraham , the founder of the Jewish race, but with Adam, the founder of the human race. In Jewish morning prayer a man thanks God that he is not a Gentile, a slave or a woman. But Luke gives a very special place to Gentiles, slaves and to women. The birth narrative of Jesus is told from Mary’s point of view. It is in Luke that we read of Elizabeth, of Anna, of the widow at Nain, of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. It is Luke who makes vivid the picture of Martha and Mary, and of Mary Magdalene.
The outstanding characteristic of Luke according to William Barclay, is that his is the universal gospel. All the barriers are down. Jesus Christ is for everyone without distinction. Luke alone tells the story of the penitent thief on the cross and he alone has the immortal story of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father. All four Gospel writers quote from Isaiah 40 when they give the message of John the Baptist: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”; but only Luke continues the quotation to its triumphant conclusion, “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God”. And all flesh shall see it together. Luke, of all the gospel writers saw no limits to the love of God and neither should we.
There are 5 parts to Luke’s gospel. 1:5 – 4:13 The coming of the Messiah. 4:14-9:50 In Galilee:Success and Opposition. 9:51 – 18:30 Journeys and Encounters when Jesus set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem. 18:31-21:38 Jesus’ challenge to Jerusalem. And 22:1 – 24:53 The Final Conflict. Today and for the next two Sundays the Lectionary draws our attention to Luke chapter 7. This chapter has importance for me as at my trials for licence in the Church of Scotland in the Presbytery of Dumbarton I had to preach under the eagle eye and eagle ear of Dr McLellan in Bearsden North Church and the passage for the sermon was Luke 7:36-50 right at the end of this important chapter. It is the account of the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee who anointed Jesus with her tears and from her alabaster flask of ointment. I can assure you that your trials for licence are not just a stroll in the park, are not something you forget very easily – the word trial is used advisedly.
Today however we concentrate on the passage verses 1-10 where the centurion’s servant is healed. But in the 50 verses of chapter 7 we find not only the healing of the centurion’s servant, but also the raising from the dead of the widow of Nain’s son, the curing of many diseases and plagues and evil spirits and the bestowing of sight on the blind, in the midst of which Jesus in answer to a question from John the Baptist as to who he was, Jesus replied: ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, leprosy sufferers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up,’ and above and beyond all of this: ‘the poor have good news preached to them.’
To return to the centurion. At the time of Jesus a Roman centurion was no ordinary man. A centurion was the equivalent of a company sergeant-major. Centurions were the backbone of the Roman army. Whenever centurions are spoken of in the New Testament they are spoken of well as at the death of Jesus. When Jesus breathed his last, the centurion having seen what had taken place, praised God and said: ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’ In Acts chapter 10 we read about another centurion called Cornelius, an upright and God-fearing man, who was well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, who was actually directed by a holy angel to send for Peter to come to his house. In Acts 22 we find that when they were about to scourge Paul it was the centurion who went to the tribune and said: ‘What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.’
In Acts 23 Paul’s nephew gave Paul a tip-off that there was going to be an ambush so Paul called one of the centurions and asked him to take his nephew to meet the tribune. The tribune then called two of the centurions to provide two hundred soldiers and seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen and provided horses for Paul to ride so that he could be safely delivered to the governor Felix. Felix ordered the centurion to keep Paul in custody, but with some liberty and said that none of his friends should be prevented from attending to his needs. Much later when Paul was in a boat which drifted across the Adriatic and was about to be ship-wrecked on Malta and the soldiers were about to kill all the prisoners, including Paul, in case they should swim away and escape - and here I quote from Acts ‘but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out this purpose’ and they swam ashore …and they all escaped to land’.
So these Roman centurions were not quite what we sometimes imagine them to be. Such was the centurion whom Jesus met in Capernaum. This particularly applied to the way in which he treated his slave. He loved this slave and would go to any trouble to save him. According to Roman law, a slave was defined as a living tool; he had no rights; a master could ill-treat him and even kill him if he chose. Normally a slave who was unable to work was thrown out to die. So the attitude of this centurion to his slave was quite unusual. The Jewish elders told Jesus he loved their nation and had built them a Synagogue. This was quite remarkable. Jews despised Gentiles and Gentiles hated Jews. Anti-semitism is not a new thing. The Romans called the Jews a filthy race. They spoke of Judaism as barbarous superstition and much more. Thus the close bond of friendship between this centurion and the Jews is truly remarkable.
He must have been a humble man. He would have known that Jews were forbidden to enter the house of a Gentile. He would also know that a strict Jew would not allow a Gentile into his house. More than that this centurion would not even come to Jesus himself. He persuaded his Jewish friends to approach the Master. This man who was accustomed to commanding people had an amazing humility in the presence of true greatness.
Above all he was a man of faith! He was quite confident that Jesus could and would heal his slave. Thus he said: ‘I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Just say the word and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one ‘Go’ and he goes and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this he marvelled at him and turned and said to the multitude that followed him: ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ And the slave was made well!
Likewise at the very end of this chapter 7 when Jesus had forgiven the sins of the woman in Simon’s house he said to the woman. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
So what does it mean to have faith and what does it mean to exercise authority? This time last week I was on Iona for the very remarkable celebrations of the 1450th anniversary of the landing of Columba in 563 AD. Amongst other things this remarkable new book was released. ‘Columba’s Iona’ by Rosalind Marshall which I have read from cover to cover and can highly recommend. Inevitably it begins with Columba and ends with George MacLeod.
In 1957 George was elected Moderator of the General Asssembly and entitled his address as ‘Bombs and Bishops’. With regard to bishops he spoke about authority, spiritual authority. And this is what he said: “We have to ask ourselves what kind of spiritual authority we need.’ and he went on to tell a story as follows. ‘A general, during the war, was sitting in a first-class carriage . The carriage was full except for one seat. His moustaches could be heard bristling behind his Daily Telegraph. Enter a leading aircraftsman, uncommissioned but dead tired. He slung his webbing on the rack and slumped into the vacant seat. Enter from the corridor a young and whipper-snapper captain. ‘Give me that seat young man’ he said to the aircraftsman. ‘It’s an order.’ The order was obeyed. The aircraftsman withdrew into the corridor. From behind the Daily Telegraph the sturdy bristling of the moustache assumed almost the crackle of a forest fire. ‘Give that man back his seat’ a voice said with immense authority. The whipper-snapper demurred. ‘It’s an order’ roared the general. The order was obeyed. The whipper-snapper withdrew into the corridor. And out into the corridor came the general. ‘Now’ he said to the whipper-snapper: ‘You take my seat and I’ll stand out here.’ The crest-fallen captain demurred. ‘It’s an order’ said the general and he stood outside in the corridor for the rest of the journey. That is what is meant by spiritual authority.”
Now, that is the kind of authority exercised by the Roman centurion and indeed by Jesus. It is an authority which puts others first, which cares for them not simply by standing out in a corridor but by giving and giving and giving again, even to the point of exhaustion and eventually to crucifixion and death. It is an authority which Jesus recognised so much so that he marvelled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him: ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ It takes one to know one. And Jesus recognised in the centurion an integrity and a faith which not only cared for a slave but which like John the Baptist, recognised that the goodness and power of Jesus was such that he was not worthy to have him enter his house nor for that matter, like John was he worthy to bend down and untie Jesus’ sandals. It was faith that mattered not just for the centurion but for the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears, her hair, her kisses and her precious ointment. Chapter 7 ends with these words: ‘And he said to the woman: ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ Later in Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the parable of the widow and the judge which ends with the question: ‘Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
This may well be my last visit here as we are moving soon to Edinburgh. It has always been a joy and a delight to come to this parish, this corner of God’s vineyard. Whether here or elsewhere we are all called to look and listen to Jesus the Galilean who challenges us to keep the faith, to look to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith and to realise that the only real authority we will ever have is that of being his servant to other people. And above all to realise that God moves in mysterious ways, and is perhaps saying about people in Oban and Lorn, ‘Not even in the church have I found such faith!’
And to God’s name be the praise and the glory.