This is usually a difficult Sunday to preach because of mixed expectations.
The church has its calendar and flow, and in the season of Pentecost it is all about understanding the teaching of Jesus and how it is to be carried out by those of us who now are called to be his disciples. We pour over the stories of what Jesus did and what Jesus said, and we lift up the actions of the early church to see how they interpreted, followed, and responded to the call to follow Jesus.
Pentecost is the season of the growth of the church, and it is meant to be about our own growth in faith, love, and an understanding of grace.
But the secular calendar imposes a holiday, Memorial Day, where somehow the church has to connect up those who have served their nation and fallen in war with the Prince of Peace who was crucified for being an insurrectionist, speaking out against the nation and the empire of that time.
That can be a strained and tenuous connection to maintain.
So very often the sermon just glances over Jesus and lauds the sacrifice of soldiers.
Or, the sermon talks about Jesus and feels like it neglects the sacrifices made by those who served their King or Country.
But curiously enough, today’s Gospel gives us a bridge to connect, a way to combine the values upon which military disciple depend and through which the actions of disciples are forged.
We are, all of us, the Gospel reminds us, under authority.
Understanding that becomes key to honoring both those who lived the call to duty, and those who continue to live out the call to conscience and to faith.
Context is everything in understanding this Gospel lesson.
Luke has been engaged in giving an “orderly account” of the events of Jesus. He sets up in the events from chapter 4 on that there is something about the city of Capernaum that is significant.
It is in Capernaum that Jesus does amazing works that are recognized far and wide.
The hometown crowd hears about what Jesus does in Capernaum, and they expect Jesus to do the same kind of works among them at home in Nazareth.
Presumably, this Centurion with an ill slave has heard of Jesus as well. He has heard enough of Jesus to know that he has the power to intervene in illness, and so sends word to have Jesus come and heal his highly valued slave.
The Jewish leaders we are told are scurrying around with reasons to convince Jesus that the Centurion is worthy of this favor, “he built our synagogue.”
But worthiness is not on Jesus’ mind at all.
Nor is the matter of how to motivate Jesus to do this on the mind of the Centurion. It’s not that he is pulling in favors, or trying to manipulate the actions of Jesus. In fact, he says out loud that he is not worthy to have Jesus under his roof!
No, this is a matter of duty and honor.
As one “under authority” the Roman Centurion knows how authority works.
He has no obligation to care about a slave, but he does have a duty to caring for an asset.
The slave we are told is “highly valued.” Replacing this slave would be inefficient, it would be better to have him restored to health, and Jesus has the power to do that, and so, the only question is will Jesus do it?
But that is a question that is weighted here with another layer of duty, honor and a sense of authority.
“After Jesus had finished all his sayings….” We are told. That’s when he comes back to Capernaum.
And just what were those sayings Jesus had delivered?
In Luke 6 we get the Beatitudes, and the command to love the enemy, and the warning against judging.
This is the agenda set for Jesus.
In Luke 4 Jesus had read from the scroll of Isaiah. He had proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to preach good news, to heal, to release the captive, to proclaim the year of Jubilee – and all of this was beginning now.
What Jesus has professed to be central to his coming, now comes to the time of testing. If this is what God has commanded you, and your followers to do, Jesus, then it is time to see if you will! Will you submit to the authority of God laid before you as your duty, your task?
“Love your enemy and do good to those who hate you?” Here is the opportunity.
If you are indeed under the authority of God, Jesus; and this is what God has commanded you to do, then you will heal my slave.
Jesus will do this not because he wants to, or because he thinks the Centurion is worthy of it for building a synagogue, or because he things the Centurion is a particularly good guy.
No, Jesus will do this as a matter of duty, honor and obedience to the one who has commanded you, given him orders and the authority to proclaim God’s Kingdom.
Jesus will do this for the Centurion’s slave, because of the authority under which he lives. He is given the authority by a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who has given all authority in heaven and on earth to do just these things… to heal the sick.
Here is our bridge to Memorial Day as a people of faith.
Whether you slogged across a beach on D-Day or pushed a pencil back in the states to get the supplies to the lines, you did it not because you wanted to, or because you felt like it. No, you did it but because you were under authority to do it, to make that happen.
You did it because it was your duty.
It was commanded of you by a Nation that you loved and that called upon you to serve it, to protect it, to value what it stood for in the face of the enemy.
You did it whether you were Axis or Allied.
You did it whether you were civilian or military.
You did it whether you were resistance or sympathizer.
What you did, you did because you were under authority, and out of a sense of love for that authority and what it stood for. You felt it and you knew it.
Whether you waded through swamps or sand dunes, piloted a plane or a desk, served in active duty or kept the home fires burning and used ration tickets so that a war effort could be maintained, you did so because you understood authority and how it worked.
You had much asked of you, because the cause was just, or the need was great, or the understanding of the time was such that you believed ways of life and belief hung in the balance, and so you were compelled by your love of an authority greater than yourself to act, to serve, to give, for some even the last full measure.
This is the critical move.
This is the crucial understanding that surprises, amazes even Jesus here.
The Centurion “gets” what it is to live under authority.
He gets what it is to act and live out of a sense of duty, honor, and authority.
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.”
“….only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” Says the Centurion.
When you understand what it is to live under authority like this, and to act because it is a matter of duty and honor done for something you love and care about greater than yourself, then you can keep Memorial Day well.
You can honor those of every nation who acted out of a sense of honor and duty.
You can hallow the ground that received them, and put away the differences that brought about the war in the first place.
You get an understanding of living under authority right, and everything else falls into place.
This is the struggle for us as we follow Jesus. We sometimes think of faith as a choice, an option we can exercise. When we approach it like that, faith does indeed become a struggle.
“I just don’t feel like worship today. I don’t like the music choices, or the hymns, and I really wish the pastor had more interesting sermons, or we had bigger choir, or a better organ, or…..”
You get the picture.
Authority has shifted, it is no longer something you are under, you’ve become the authority, pushed God out of the picture. This is the very definition of sin, having everything revolve around you instead of ordering your life around the authority of God.
Jesus came proclaiming a Kingdom that is not one of our making, but one of God’s direction, a world transformed.
Love your enemy.
Pray for your persecutor.
Heal the sick.
Care for the widow, the orphan, the refugee and foreigner in your midst.
These are not things you can choose to do, if you feel like it, if it strikes you as convenient, or if it meets your interests, expectations or approval.
No, this is matter of duty and honor in service to a God to whom you owe your very existence.
That is what propelled those early disciples out from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. They had caught a glimpse of what it is to live under authority. They recognized that what God had done in Christ Jesus is give his life for them, to set them free from the powers of sin and death, and out of gratitude and love for this God who gives God’s all, they were willing to sacrifice all to follow.
What Jesus had to say reveals to us the marching orders for which he is willing to go to the Cross. This is a God who chose to come and serve in your midst,
This is a God who became one with you, in flesh, so that God would know the fullness of what it is to be human, what it means to sacrifice, and to give the last full measure himself.
You can lose sight of that, and when you do, faith becomes a struggle, or perhaps eveb lose meaning.
Church, like Memorial Day, can become just about picnics and social gatherings and what you do on your “day off.”
It takes a reminder of the sacrifices made, the call to duty and service, to bring us back to an understanding of what it means to live under authority.
May your Memorial Day weekend be one of remembrance and thanksgiving, for what your God has done for you and called upon you to do and be