The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 4, 29 May 2016

Track One:
I Kings 18:20-21, 22-29, 30-39
Psalm 96
Track 2
I Kings 8:22-23, 41-45
Psalm 96:1-9

Galatians 1:1-12
Saint Luke 7:1-10

Background: The Centurion

A centurion, a professional soldier in the Roman army, commanded a division of the army of around 100 men or more. These divisions were changed under Marius in 107 BCE. Under Julius Caesar the numbers were increased and varied over time. He was a highly paid professional often earning up to seventeen times what a legionary soldier would earn. The appointment of centurions was not totally an internal military affair. Some were elected, or were appointees of the Senate in addition to being promoted from the legionaries. Since they were involved in actual fighting, they were chosen with size, strength, and dexterity in mind – especially in the use of the sword. They were expected to be strict disciplinarians as well.

Track One

First Reading: I Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39

Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, "How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." The people did not answer him a word. [Then Elijah said to the people, "I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal's prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God." All the people answered, "Well spoken!" Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it." So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, "O Baal, answer us!" But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened." Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.]

Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come closer to me"; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, "Israel shall be your name"; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, "Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood." Then he said, "Do it a second time"; and they did it a second time. Again he said, "Do it a third time"; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, "O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back." Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, "The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God."

Here we have a confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of the Ba’alim. It is a good description of the vagaries of religion in the northern kingdom of Israel. The theme, seen elsewhere, is one of loneliness and abandonment (see the verses prior to the pericope). Elijah says, “I alone remain a prophet of the Lord.” Elijah quickly describes the contest – they get to choose first, and the location seems to be propitious enough (close to Phoenicia) – it all seems loaded in Ahab’s favor. There is almost a jocular air to the affair as well, as the prophet taunts the followers of the Ba’alim, “Perhaps he is chatting.” The harm that the pagan prophets do to themselves was a common practice, especially amongst ecstatic prophets. Elijah ups the ante by drowning his sacrifice with water. YHWH wins, and slaughters the pagan prophets at the site of the contest. In truth, his actions are no better than those of Ahab.

Breaking open I Kings:
  1. Have you every felt alone in your belief?
  2. How have you subjected God to contests of faith?
  3. What are your false gods?
Psalm 96 Cantate Domino

     Sing to the Lord a new song; *
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
2      Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
3      Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.
4      For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.
5      As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the Lord who made the heavens.
6      Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!
7      Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the Lord honor and power.
8      Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.
9      Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.
10    Tell it out among the nations: "The Lord is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity."
11    Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.
12    Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the Lord when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.
13    He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.

This psalm has most likely been chosen for these readings due to the fifth verse, “For all the gods of the peoples are ungods.”  Here YHWH is not only “over all the gods,” but the reality is that these other gods have no real existence. It supports the monotheism that marks Judaism, and then goes on to speak about the justice, righteousness, and truth that accompany the judgments of YHWH.

Breaking open Psalm 96:
  1. How does the psalmist feel about “the other gods”?
  2. What other gods do you have in your life?
  3. What kind of power do they have?


Track Two

First Reading: I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, "O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart.

"Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name -- for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm-- when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built."

There are two different ideas here as Solomon begins his prayer at the altar in the Temple. He takes on a role that was common in Ancient Near Easter kingship, namely that of priest as well as king. Although he offers no sacrifice, his liturgical role is clearly something other than principes, and there is a national character to what he has to say with its mention of the covenant (is this the covenant with David, or the covenant with Israel?)

The second half, that follows Solomon’s plea for wisdom, and for what seems like a temple that is neither thought of as God’s literal home, “can God really dwell on earth?” nor as a place where sacrifice is the primary action. These notions of the later prophets gives us clues as to when this was written. In addition there is an inkling that whoever the author was there was an acknowledgement of a growing universalism. Solomon asks that God listen to the foreigner too. Is Second Isaiah standing in the background?

Breaking open I Kings:
  1. When do you pray?
  2. Do you have “big” prayers about life?
  3. Do you have momentary prayer?
Psalm 96:1-9
(See Above)

Second Reading: Galatians 1:1-12

Paul an apostle-- sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead-- and all the members of God's family who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

Am I now seeking human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Paul is quite consciously stepping into a nasty argument, and becoming instrumental at a time when the synagogue and the Christian assembly are beginning to part ways. At the very beginning he sounds his theme of authority – making certain that his arguments will be understood in that vein and no other. The second theme is the gift of Jesus and his life through the hand and will of the Father. In his opening comments he uses an early creedal statement, “who gave himself for our sins” pointing out a Christ who delivers us from a slavery to Law and death.

Having set things in theological, order, or at least making everyone aware of his stance on things, Paul shows some measure of disapproval.  “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you.” This is personal, for it is Paul who brought to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and now he sees them seeking after “another gospel.” Trust not even angels, Paul opines should the gospel they proclaim differ from the one I have given. Again he argues for his authority, and more importantly for the authority of his message, for “I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Breaking Open Galatians:
  1. What will split Judaism from Christianity?
  2. Why is Paul upset?
  3. What authority does Paul have?
The Gospel: Saint Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." 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; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 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." 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." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Jesus follows his instruction in the Sermon on the Plain and his instruction to the disciples by making people aware of who and what he is by the saving acts that he does. The first example is groundbreaking for Jesus is astonished by the faith of a Gentile. In a sense this healing story is informed by what we know of Elisha, who also heals a foreigner, and at a distance. There is a difference, however. Naaman must almost be led like a horse to water, but this man has a generous faith. And it is not only the centurion who lives at the edge of belief (he must have been a believer, for it is he who asks the Jews to invite Jesus to come), but it is the object of his concern – his slave, “whom he valued highly.” However it might be flawed, there is a relationship here. The slave stands in deep contrast with his master, a centurion, and a professional officer with a hundred or more legionaries under him. This will not be the first time that Luke casts a sympathetic eye on a soldier, for later in Acts we will meet Cornelius, and witness Peter’s new faith.

Soon the soldier’s faith is painted in even sharper contrast when he asks Jesus to not bother coming, but to deal with the situation at a distance. His petition, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…” is one of my favorite prayers from the Roman liturgy. Luke contrasts the Centurion’s power with that of Jesus. And it is Jesus who is impressed, “I tell  you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How does this break new ground for Jesus?
  2. Describe the centurion’s faith?
  3. Who is the crowd who follows Jesus?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth: Put away from us, we entreat you, all hurtful things, and give us those things which are profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


Popular posts from this blog

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 6 June 2021

The Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, 23 May 2021

The Second Sunday of Advent, 6 December 2020