THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 29, 2016; 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
1 Kings 18:20-39; Luke 7:1-10

“But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
Luke 7:7

If you’ve been following the news, you know President Obama just paid a state visit to Japan. He went to Hiroshima, site of the atomic bomb attack. With the Prime Minister of Japan, he laid a wreath at the memorial to the more than 100,000 civilians who died there. He’s the first American president to visit the site.

The Japanese were once our enemy. Now, they are among our closest allies. The President did not apologize for the bombing — despite what you may hear on social media. There’s not a word of apology in his speech: I’ve read it carefully, several times. It’s a witness to peace: and a call to every nation of the world to heed the lessons Hiroshima teaches.

The President’s words were carefully chosen. No doubt, every word of his speech was vetted by the State Department. Here’s something he said:

“The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious, the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family — that is the story that we all must tell.

That is why we come to Hiroshima. So that we might think of people we love. The first smile from our children in the morning. The gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table. The comforting embrace of a parent. We can think of those things and know that those same precious moments took place here, 71 years ago.”

No apology. But there was in that speech an awareness that we are one human family: and that the way to world peace lies in remembering that simple truth.

Whenever representatives of two nations — two cultures — meet, words must be chosen with great care and precision. The possibility of misinterpretation, of misunderstanding, is very real. This is true among diplomats, but it’s likewise true when ordinary people meet, across cultures.

I learned that some years ago, when I was part of a delegation from Monmouth Presbytery that visited Presbyterians in Cuba.We were there as part of a larger effort to re-establish the historic friendship between our two churches.

One particular day we were visiting the national camp of the Presbyterian Church in Cuba — a place sort of like our Camp Johnsonburg. I was wearing a bright red sportshirt that our friends at the Morning Star Presbyterian Church in Bayville had given me. It had “Morning Star — PCUSA” in bright white letters.

I noticed that the camp director, Xiomara Arenas was looking at my shirt with a puzzled expression on her face. “P-C-U-S-A,” she said. “Partida Communista U.S.A.”? She’d seen the bright red color of the shirt, and the acronym that means something very different in Spanish than in English. She had drawn the wrong conclusion.

In Spanish, “Presbyterian Church” is not “P.C.,” but rather “I.P.” — Iglesia Presbiteriana. We straightened out our little misunderstanding in a hurry. We had a good laugh over it. But it just goes to show how easy it is to have misunderstandings across cultures.

*****

There’s a high potential for cross-cultural misunderstanding in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus’ conversation partner is someone he doesn’t actually meet, face to face. The communication happens long-distance, through an exchange of messages: and that compounds the possibility of misunderstanding.

Jesus carrying on that long-distance conversation with a Roman centurion, a military officer of the occupying army. A Roman legion was made up of sixty smaller military units known as centuries. You can probably figure out from that name that a century was one hundred men. The officer in charge of that unit was known as a centurion.

Centurions were the basic commissioned military officer in the Roman army, something like a Captain in today’s Army. They were seasoned field commanders, experienced in leadership, and well-connected in the Imperial system.

It’s a bit unusual for Jesus to carry on that conversation with such a man at all. We know there were probably some political revolutionaries in his band of disciples: men who would just as soon attack a Roman officer as sit down and talk with one.

But then, this is a rather unusual Roman officer. He’s got a very strong personal interest in Judaism. You can see, from the communications that go back and forth, that he’s well-regarded among the elders of the synagogue in Capernaum, where he lives. In fact, it’s some of these very elders who personally carry his message to Jesus. They explain, by the by, that this Roman officer has not only taken an interest in their synagogue — he built the place for them (probably by means of a large financial contribution). Most unusual!

Very likely, this Roman officer was what the Jewish people called a “God Fearer.” These were Gentiles who attended worship in the synagogue and took an interest in the learned teachings of the rabbis. They had not formally converted to the faith, but were part of an outer circle of sympathizers.

The God-Fearers would prove, eventually, to be indispensable to the growth of the Christian church. You can read about them in the Book of Acts: how, time and again, the Apostle Paul would land in a new city and immediately seek out these Greek-speaking believers. They were a natural audience for the gospel. They already knew a great deal about the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. They could understand how Jesus fulfills so many of the ancient prophecies.

But the God-Fearers were like second-class citizens within Judaism. They were tolerated with a lukewarm welcome, but never fully accepted as full-fledged children of Abraham. It’s no wonder so many of them resonated with Paul’s message in Galatians 3:28, that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is one of those times when it’s helpful to remember when, exactly, the Gospels were written. This story of Jesus and the God-fearing centurion occurs in both Matthew and Luke. And both those Gospels were written just after the Romans perpetrated the ancient equivalent of an atomic bombing. It happened in the year 70 A.D. The Roman legions burned the Temple to the ground, even scattering the massive foundation-stones. They say the streets of Jerusalem literally ran red with blood.

As for the little community of Jesus-followers — headed by James the brother of Jesus — the holocaust of 70 A.D. had far-reaching effects. A great many early Christian leaders were killed, along with their Jewish neighbors. The church in Jerusalem never fully recovered. The action shifted to the West, to those Greek cities where Paul and his helpers had established worshiping communities, largely comprised of Gentile God-Fearers like the centurion.

In fact, in the Book of Acts you can even read about another godly centurion, a man named Cornelius, who’s of great help to Paul. The Gospel of Luke is really the first volume of a two-volume work — the second volume being the Book of Acts. So, by including this story here, in Volume 1, Luke is foreshadowing what’s ahead in his larger story.

*****

So, what does this unnamed centurion want from Jesus? The messengers he sends ahead of him tell the story. The centurion has a slave who’s fallen ill. He wants Jesus to heal him.

This is no ordinary slave. There’s an unusually close relationship between servant and master. Luke tells us this is a servant whom his master “values highly.”

It’s possible Luke could be speaking of the slave’s financial value, but somehow that seems unlikely. As much as possible — considering the awkward social imbalance between slave and master — these two men seem to have become close friends.

Such a close relationship was not unknown in the Roman world. It was especially common between men and an older slave who had served as tutor to them in their childhood. We have no way of knowing, but it’s possible something like that could be the back-story.

The way the centurion approaches Jesus is unusual, as well. As an officer in the occupying army, the centurion could simply have summoned Jesus, and he would have had to come. But he doesn’t do that. He treats Jesus like a VIP. When Jesus and his entourage draw near to his house, he sends some friends out to intercept them. They deliver this message: “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.”

Now, officers of an occupying army are not known for such delicate diplomatic language — especially not when addressing the natives of the land they’re occupying. But remember, this man’s a God-Fearer. He’s also from Capernaum, the Roman city very near to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Maybe the centurion had even heard Jesus speak before, on some earlier occasion. Maybe the good news had already touched his heart.

*****

Well, as you know from having heard the story, Jesus heals the centurion’s slave: but he does it in a highly unusual way. This is a virtual healing: Jesus doesn’t even show up at the centurion’s house to do it. Once he’s heard from this second group of messengers, the slave is instantly healed. Jesus never so much as touches him.

Now, this calls to mind another healing story from the Bible. Way back in the book of 2 Kings, Chapter 5, the prophet Elisha healed another Gentile military man: Naaman, a general of the Syrian army, who was suffering from a skin disease. Elisha, too, had performed that healing without even touching Naaman. He sent him a message, saying “Go bathe in the Jordan River.” Once Naaman had done that, he was healed.

So, in telling this particular story, Luke is not only looking forward to the Gentile church that is starting to emerge in his own day, but he’s looking back, to the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus, he’s saying, is the successor to mighty prophets like Elisha. Like them, God is with him so powerfully, he’s able to heal even from a distance!

Jesus says of the centurion, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Luke’s point is clear — especially in light of the havoc caused by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. That holocaust was a recent and very painful memory. The church, as Luke and his readers knew it, was in disarray. When Luke has Jesus say, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith,” the clear implication is that the church’s future is found not in the historic land of Judea, but rather in the Roman provinces off to the West.

*****

But back to the people in the story — and especially this remarkable Roman officer. He’s obviously in awe of Jesus, honoring him as a man in whom God’s Spirit is mightily at work. Seeing no other way that his good friend is going to recover, the centurion is seeking a miracle.

The centurion likens Jesus to himself — a man who’s comfortable with command. “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.”

So, the centurion is saying to Jesus, “Just issue the order — please. Speak the word and my friend shall be healed.” He’s able to envision the healing that is possible. It takes on such reality for him that he’s certain Jesus can carry it off.

I think we could all use a healthy sense of possibility like that, in so many areas of our lives. If there’s some change we’re looking to see happen, we spend an awful lot of time just wishing, idly, the change may come to pass. We fantasize about it, but do little to make it happen. But there’s a big difference between passive wishing and active anticipation. Spiritually speaking, the art of the possible — and it is an art — involves visioning what the change will look like, in every detail, and both praying for it and working to achieve it.

So often, though, what do you and I do? We fail to traffic in possibilities. We give ourselves over, instead, to our fears.

There’s an old rabbinic parable that gets to the heart of this truth. The ancient rabbis used to teach that when iron was created, the trees began to tremble. They knew that an axe-head made of iron could be used to destroy them.

But then the Lord spoke to the trees, reasoned with them. “Why are you trembling?” God asked. “If wood is not joined to the axe-head, not one of you will suffer.”

Without the wooden axe-handle, the iron is useless. The rabbis’ point is this: the thing we fear, the negative possibility we envision, against our best interests, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The thing we fear gains power over us. It takes our own fear and concentrates it. And so you and I become our own worst enemies.

There is another way. It’s the way demonstrated for us by the unnamed centurion in this story from Luke, chapter 7. Here is a man who refuses to let his fears master him. Firmly he grasps hold of the possibility — his dream of healing for his good friend — and he never lets go.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that we can make anything in this world happen, just by wishing for it. That’s magical thinking. You and I don’t have the power to change the unchangeable.

But — and this is the point — God does. The centurion knew this. He knew Jesus had the authority to call forth the healing power of God. Like him, he could simply issue an order, and it would be so. The two of them had a sort of partnership. The centurion envisioned the possibility. Jesus transformed the possibility into reality.

I invite you to do the same with whatever possibility is dancing, these days, around the edges of your imagination. Claim the dream. Offer it up to the Lord, in prayer. Keep praying it, over and over again.

The will of God is a mystery. Maybe it’s the greatest mystery. We never know what answer the Lord will give to our prayers, whether yes or no. But one thing’s for sure: we’ll never find out, unless we are so bold as to ask.

So, be like that Roman centurion. Practice the art of the possible. Be bold and persistent in your prayers. Whatever God’s answer to your prayer may be, you just may discover a blessing from the Lord as you offer it up!

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.