On Monday, a lady I know who worships at the Seventh Day Adventist Church gave me this magazine that she thought I might find interesting. It is their monthly publication and there is an article discussing the church from the fourteen century. It goes through many of the servants of God who during those times made a stand against the manipulation and errors of interpretation of the scriptures. Those who risked and even gave their life for the truth to be brought back into the light. People who risked and gave it all on a long and seemingly unwinnable fight, and then this:
“Then like a brilliant sunrise chasing away the darkness, Martin Luther burst onto the scene. His desire was not to form a separate church, but to have the church stay true to Scripture and be more like the early church. His efforts were neither accepted nor appreciated by church leaders. Excommunicated, he made his historic stand alone for the truth, that salvation is by faith alone in Jesus and not by what a person does. And his famous words echo through history: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God.’ (and) his followers became the great Lutheran church”.
An American psychologist defined arrogance as the expectation of special treatment. A person who thinks that he or she is not bound by the same rules that apply to everyone else. Because of money, position, success or something else-the arrogant person wants to have the best seat, get special honors, arrive late, leave early, go to the head of the line. To be treated like a VIP”.
The last words Martin Luther wrote were hardly an anthem of his achievements. Just six “simple” words scribbled on a piece of scrap paper: “We are beggars. This is true”.
St. Paul said that “If you want to boast, boast only about the LORD.” And those words from Luther are more than the musings from a dying man. They describe whom we are in the light of God’s grace shone on us in Jesus Christ. They point our focus away from ourselves-and to the truth, to the One who has died and been raised from death for us as the only foundation and source of our life and ministry together.
Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Calvin, Mother Teresa, Abraham, Moses, Noah, King David, Mary the mother of God, Joseph and the angels that visited them and many, many others. Great servants of God and though their lives and works are the stuff of legend, they still did not get ahead of themselves.
The centurion in today’s Gospel is yet another such person.
In the original Greek New Testament Jesus is amazed by only two people. The first those in his home town who “amazed” him by their lack of belief, and this centurion who amazed Jesus with his faith.
And when we look at this guy and his behaviors in those times we too see that he was a very special fellow that we could all learn from and indeed do well to model our own lives on.
Here we see a man of great power. A high ranking Roman officer in charge of hundreds of troops who in Capernaum had both the power and authority to rule the area as if he were a local emperor. Yet with this great power and though the Romans and the Jews were arch enemies of the highest order, he respected them and they him, and one can only wonder of the back chat and silent accusations of being a “brown noser” that would have come from within his own society when they found out that from his own funds he had a church built for the Jewish people. Or the skepticism and suspicion of the officers and soldiers under him, who used to ruling by force and fear start wondering if their leader has gone soft when they heard of him worrying about his servants health, when the normal practice would be too just throw him out and let him gradually die in the street. We see this guy is truly special, yet for all this, what is the only thing amongst it that is said to have amazed Jesus-simply his faith. This man amongst his world of the anti-Jewish, this man amongst the people of God-the Jews who had seen and heard Jesus preach for themselves, amazed Jesus because somehow he had come to see and know the truth amongst of all that was before him: “And when Jesus was not far from his house, the centurion sent friends saying to him’ Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But say the word, and let my servant be healed’”.
For all the riches and power this centurion had, for all the reasons that should have got in the way this man had still come to know the truth, that: “We are beggars. This is true” That for all the goodness he displayed in a goodless society, he came to know the truth, that: “salvation is by faith in Jesus alone and not by what a person does,” or is.
In my first year of studies during a class barbeque a bedraggled man approached and asked if he could have some food. While eating he professed that he was an alcoholic and though it had destroyed his life, he just couldn’t beat it, his days of denial were over and he was a broken man who said he had come to realize that this was his lot in life and finished with “the only thing I have is Jesus’ forgiveness.”
Two men at opposite ends of the spectrum who had every reason to believe in anything but in the truth of Christ. One with power, riches, respect and good works towards society and God, and the other: powerless, living on welfare and peoples scraps, lacking respect from self or others and with seemingly nothing to offer society or God alike. Two people with nothing in common, but the truth of Christ in their lives.
We look at these two people playing in the sand pit with their brothers and sisters and wonder whether one would have thought he would become a person of such esteem, wealth and power and the other of being a homeless alcoholic.
In this life we are what we are. Some rich and some not so. Some builders, bankers and politicians. Some students, unemployed and even pastors. All are different, yet all are the same. In his song “I am, I said” American musician Neil Diamond after having achieved fame and fortune likens himself with the story of a “frog that became a king”, yet follows with:
“But I’ve got an emptiness deep inside
And I’ve tried but it won’t let me go
And I’m not a man who likes to swear
But I’ve never cared for the sound of being alone
I am, I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
I am, I cried
I am, said I
And I am lost, and I can’t even say why”
When leaving my previous job in the finance industry my colleagues gave me a card in which they had written all the usual nice things, except for one who simply wrote: “I pray you find peace”.
Being rich or a pastor does not ensure peace and happiness like being poor or homeless does not ensure despair and hopelessness, because what we have or do is not the cause or the cure.
The cause is sin and the cure is Christ, and only in them do we answer to God.
The sin of a powerful yet kind and good natured centurion and the sin of a person given up on himself and living on the streets. The sin of a pastor and the sin of a banker. We are what we are. We all look different-some seen as good and some seen as not so good. Some judged harshly by society and some not so. Yet all are the same in sin.
What we have become or will become, or how we feel and act may be different from what we imagined playing in the sandpit with our brothers and sisters.
We may have everything in this world, but have nothing without knowing the truth
We may have nothing in the world, but have everything when we know the truth.
Our circumstances may have changed but sin hasn’t and nor has the answer, that of faith in Jesus Christ alone. The faith that sees both a Roman soldier and a homeless alcoholic standing as one before the throne of God, covered in the glory of Christ.
Our roads today may be different, but the road to salvation is not and that is what brings peace.
The peace of knowing the truth. That whether we celebrate or despair in our situation, that whether we feel some affection of ourselves or not, that whether our lives seem one of happiness or not, that whether we feel blessed or not: that to know that “We are all beggars”, is to know the truth of Christ and the work he has completed for us. His work that has ensured that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ alone. And while in our lives on this earth, should the only peace we truly know be that of Christ-that is enough, because that is everything. Amen.