Lord, Don’t Bother Yourself

May 29, 2016

This is the transcript of my sermon read to the congregation of Free Community Church on 30 May 2016. The Scripture passage is Luke 7:1-10, supplemented with John 20:19-23. The transcript is also available on Facebook.

Dear brothers and sisters –

My sharing with you today will be in Singlish. Just kidding! (By the way, I just read that The New Paper has taken to calling me “the new Phua Chu Kang”?)

This is my first sharing with you – and with any body of believers – in 2016. It means that it’s also one of a handful of times this year that I’ve made my way out of a solitary Christian life to worship with a community. As a writer, the hermit’s lifestyle suits me. It helps me to see things in normally hidden ways and to think from an elusive angle – which comes, no doubt, at an expense to other ways of seeing and thinking.

But it’s a choice I make for now. And, while face-to-face relationships have been little, I still get my daily connection to society and world via the internet. The internet nourishes me.

So the teaching focus of FCC this season kinda feels awkward to me. I’m told that it’s “Don’t go to church: be the church” – am I right? You see, I have no problems not going to church even though, a long time ago, I did have problems with it, with people who didn’t attend church enough… like myself now. That aspect of me has changed.

Besides, I don’t think that giving church a miss is the real point behind all this – or what would become of FCC? That can’t be right, right? If you don’t come to church, Rev Miak Siew, Pastor Pauline Ong, and others would have to jiak hong, eat air. Many who need help, support, encouragement, and fellowship would not know where to seek them.

But how am I qualified to instruct on this theme? What insights can I, as Hermit of the West (or now the new Phua Chu Kang), possibly offer? Perhaps not much, but I have just one straightforward point to share.

IMG_20160529_231545To get to this point, I need to relate by a crooked way. I like to begin by showing you yet another book from my youth – by a stretch, another kiam chai Bible. It’s really an annotated school and college edition of the Gospel of Luke, which, as you can see, is also falling apart at various places. The preface to the book says that it’s intended for use by students preparing to take the Oxford and Cambridge local examinations.

This had been my old textbook when we still had what we called BK classes in school. BK doesn’t stand for Burger King but Bible Knowledge OK. Some of you may remember a time when we had Religious Knowledge (RK) as part of school curriculum; it was also a time when Literature was compulsory. In fact, Biblical hermeneutics – that is, the science of Biblical interpretation – and literary criticism share the same academic origin. Not many students in either field today realise this or its implications. We, in general, think that the 2 are incompatible. Bible study is conservative, small, while literary analysis is secular, big.

Well, at a young age, I had to read this Luke and then the Acts of the Apostles hermeneutically. It is also then that I had my first exposure to reading Scripture critically. That meant something that was quite distinct from reading for clear moral instruction. What I was invited to do was to commit to reading in context and to being aware of multiple meanings, points of ambiguity, and areas of contention. This has changed forever my own sense of what venerating Scripture means, what being true to Scripture means.

And the Gospel of Luke was where I first encountered critically – even while I was still exploring Christianity – this remarkable episode we are reading today. It’s taken from Luke 7:1-10, about Jesus and the faithful Centurion. But why do I call this episode remarkable?

It begins with Jesus entering Capernaum while he was making his preaching circuit. A Centurion with a beloved servant who was sick and dying sent Jewish elders – over whom he had power – to Jesus for help. The elders had pleaded with Jesus to go with them, and Jesus followed.

As they were nearing the house, the Centurion sent friends this time to stop Jesus from going any further. “Lord, don’t trouble yourself” his words came. Why? Because, according to his friends, he had felt that he didn’t deserve to have Jesus come into his house. This sense of unworthiness was also why he did not go to find Jesus personally to begin with.

The Centurion nonetheless understood the nature of authority, be it worldly or otherworldly. Considering Jesus a man of power like himself, he described how Jesus could only need to give His command, as he would normally give his commands, and it would be done for him. My book notes that the Centurion “recognises the power of Jesus in the invisible world”. Jesus, as “Lord of life”, “has only to issue His command and the unseen power will obey His word”. It was in this understanding that made the Centurion’s faith “so great.”

Moved, Jesus did give the word, and the Centurion’s servant was healed at that moment.

So how is this incident remarkable? Why is it so striking? Well, to give you a first sense, try to visualise the whole episode and hold an image in your head. At this point, you may realise that it isn’t a commonly painted scene in the story of Jesus at all – not the Luke account. There isn’t a famous or memorable image in our collective imagination.

That – despite the whole thrill, I would speculate, of depicting a Centurion, majestically dressed in grand Roman armour with cape, plume, and all. That – despite the significance Jesus had placed on the faith of the official.

If you then probe into why the case is such, you’ll find something even odder. The episode actually has 2 other versions in the Gospels, one more debatable than the other. In Chapter 4 of the Gospel of John, right after Jesus performed his very first miracle at a wedding in Cana, he came into Capernaum and did his second miracle. It had involved also an official coming to Jesus, this one to beg for the sake of his dying son, whom Jesus healed from a distance. But, as the healed here was a powerful man’s son and not his servant, which is the case in Luke 7, most scholars consider the 2 separate miracles… and perhaps rightly so.

What is more intriguing is the other version, the account found in Matthew 8 which is, for most parts, identical to the episode in Luke 7. A Centurion had come to Jesus asking for help in healing a dying servant he was fond of. He then asked nonetheless that Jesus do so without entering his house since he wasn’t worthy to receive him. And Jesus proceeded to heal the servant from a distance.

What’s the fascinating difference here? Well, the Matthew account describes the Centurion as having come to Jesus personally whereas Luke’s account, with which we are concerned, has him send the Jewish elders and then his friends precisely because he would not come to Jesus. Have you noticed the wonderful aspect about Luke’s account yet?

Jesus and the Centurion never met. Yes, the Centurion was never seen. What a surprise!

Personally, I find Luke’s take not just more elegant but also more logical in the context of an incident about unworthiness. There are, of course, ways to make sense of Matthew’s account. Matthew may have simply treated the Centurion’s appearance as a non-issue and so conflated his words with his presence. It’s like saying “The Prime Minister says” or “Rev Miak Siew asks” when the Prime Minister or Rev Siew may not be around. It doesn’t nullify the accuracy of the exchange.

Or it may also be that Matthew has conflated the Luke miracle with the John miracle I have spoken of, where the official did come to Jesus in person. Matthew may have remembered the 2 imperfectly as the same. But we’ll probably never know the truth – although, as a writer, with an interest in setting, I’m willing to say that Luke’s version is superior.

After all, you see, the absence of the Centurion is key to the dramatic power of the episode. It is the Centurion’s absence upon being explained properly that made him faithful in the eyes of Jesus. His absence was, no doubt, highly prone to being misinterpreted and misunderstood. He could be seen as being too arrogant to meet with Jesus. It might then appear that he considered Jesus too lowly and disagreeable to be welcomed into his house.

But, in fact, the case was the opposite with clarification. We can trust the clarification in view of the Centurion’s needlessly repeated efforts in conveying his feelings aright. He wanted Jesus to understand that they were so. His feelings had been difficult: he had needed Jesus’s help – so he sent the Jewish elders – but he had felt unworthy of Jesus – so he sent the Jewish elders and his own friends.

The Centurion’s invisibility in this story about the Centurion highlights a primary feature about him: his absolute difference. So far, more than the other Gospel writers, Luke has built up this sense of 2 competing and incompatible social worlds, one in which a Jewish people lived and believed and the other larger multicultural one with a distinct and unlike Roman reality. The 2 worlds were bound to come to blows.

At the start, Jesus’s birth is told as having happened in the context of the entire Roman world needing to be enrolled under the decree of Caesar Augustus. In just a few chapters, the religious influence of John the Baptist had crashed against the stark local machinery of an imperial world, and he was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, a client ruler of a quarter of Judea, at a whim.

The Centurion embodied the difference of this other reality, another order of customs and values, which Luke is making us as readers see and acknowledge. Luke wants us to see a larger, edgier, different multicultural world that contained the Judeo-Christian world. The Centurion’s difference is therefore a very significant difference or idea of difference because it actually takes a number of forms, every one of which being significant in itself.

Firstly, we know that the Centurion was a representation of power. This military individual was part of the massive, political force that was occupying and oppressing Israel at the time. A Centurion, as his title suggests, was a leader of a century, 100 soldiers. In the Roman army, 2 centuries made a maniple, 3 maniples made a cohort, and 10 cohorts made a legion. A Roman legion thus consisted of 6,000 soldiers.

It was all very mathematical, very precise and disciplined – and the Centurion was this unit idea of strong leadership, exemplary discipline, and order in the Roman scheme of power. Interestingly, as my book tells me, for some reason, Centurions in the New Testament are always favourably mentioned: other than this one in Capernaum, there was the Centurion at Jesus’s cross who hailed him as a righteous man (Matt 26:54) and the one called Cornelius in the Book of Acts, who was called a devout, God-fearing man (Acts 10:2).

This Centurion in Luke 7 had slaves and could order even the Jewish elders around easily. Yet, with all this power, he did good – and we see it in how much he cared for his dying servant here and how he had built a synagogue in the words of the Jewish elders.

In other words, the Centurion was a responsible and humane secular authority. Jesus did not dispute the quality of either the Centurion’s sense of responsibility or his humaneness even when he was a blatant part of an iron-fisted regime. Jesus even seemed to submit to his authority. On the basis of the first, his responsibility, Jesus went with the Jewish elders; on the basis of the second, his humanity, Jesus healed his beloved servant.

Jesus was willing to see the best in individuals even if they belonged to or enforced a system whose values and methods he might not agree with. Jesus simply did not politicise a genuine cry for help. He did not, say, use His spiritual power or religious influence to trade for political advantage for what He had wanted to see happen. This was also what made Jesus’s mission truly otherworldly.

Secondly, we can surely tell – it’s all obvious in the Centurion’s awkwardness of manners with Jesus – that the Centurion and his household were Gentile. They were Gentile like you and I are Gentile. They were outside the story of the God of Jesus and the Jews He loved. We remember another similar incident, one involving a Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter, to whom Jesus had said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). This sounded somewhat disparaging – from Jesus! And yet, because the woman had replied that she was willing to settle for crumbs, Jesus praised her again for her great faith and healed her daughter.

The Centurion – more than the Canaanite woman – wasn’t a follower of Jesus, and yet Jesus went to him, with Jewish elders who were themselves at odds with Him, and helped him. At so many levels and stages, Jesus did not need to; He wasn’t obliged to. Jesus’s response towards human need here thus transcended religious prejudgement and concepts of benefitting communities – He didn’t only help His own people or His own believers.

Thirdly – here is where it gets most interesting – the Centurion as Roman gives us a possible way of understanding the relationship he might have with his servant. In the Greek, only in Verse 2 is the word for servant or slave, doulos, used. What appears at all other times is pais, which generally also means boy or beloved companion.

This point has led some scholars to question whether the servant was, in fact, the Centurion’s consort in a pederastic relationship. Pederasty, also called “Greek love”, is a distinct historical and cultural homosexual relationship between an adult male and a young male. The practice troubles and repulses us today on the valid points of what involved the age of consent and what could amount to child abuse. It didn’t even concern inquiries into essentialist ethics or scientific finding on human sexuality. The practice was simply accepted in Greek and Roman societies, and it was part of the radical multiculturalism of the time.

Pederasty would certainly have been at odds with the Jewish model of sexuality and morality even then – and yet, even if this was the case (we don’t have enough information here), Jesus was nonetheless able to see past all that. Jesus was able to set aside cultural differences and differences in cultural sexual practices, even what might offend absolutely his own Jewish culture, and not make those absolute obstacles to affirm what was essential.

What was essential was these. The Centurion had loved his servant dearly, and Jesus chose to honour that love. Despite the differences between the Centurion and Jesus in social and political status, religious beliefs, and cultural practices, the Centurion had treated Jesus with great respect, and Jesus honoured that respect. In spite of what and who the Centurion was and where he acted from, even a space of marginality, this man had reached out to Jesus, and Jesus honoured his outstretched hand.

Do you see now why – at least dramatically if not historically – the Centurion could not be present before Jesus because it was his absence that grounded Jesus’s proclamation of his faith? The Centurion’s presence would have placed him within the Jewish frame of reference in which Jesus resided and through which He ministered. The Centurion’s presence would have raised unnecessary issues of competition of values and power, of superiority, of comparability between the 2. In his humility, the Centurion recognised all this, how he could possibly never be acceptable in the Jewish perspective and what it then meant to believe in Jesus regardless, despite being a figure of difference.

This is the central beauty in the figure of the Centurion, his excluded inclusion. It is in his statement of faith in absentia that Jesus was precisely able to deem him more than worthy for inclusion in the family of faith. What a paradox! What a point to remind us that we are all family only because of our original absence, of our inclusion only through God’s grace!

You see, in church, often in playing church, we get too caught up in the argument about similarity, in the issue of how much a person must conform to an idea of who we are or should be before we embrace someone as one of our own. But, time and again, the Gospels confront us with persons of difference who – by virtue of concern for another or brokenness that deems the self too different, too unacceptable – were welcomed by Jesus.

Today, the question I offer to you is: what is your idea of church? Brothers and sisters, what do you think it means to be the church? Who do you exclude? O how many times have we let our notion of the physical church determine our notion of the spiritual church… when it is the latter that ought to transform the way we behave as the former!

We should aim to believe that the Heaven we shall all go to one day will surprise us with its largeness. It will surprise us because there will be people who, like the Centurion, have been absent in the presence and eyes of believers. But their faith is no less great, if not greater, than many Christians we know – and God will surely proclaim this. We need to learn to celebrate a church that is greater than the idea of church.

This then is how I shall come finally to that Resurrection promise Jesus made cryptically in the Gospel of John. It is a promise that many find so impossible to interpret – and for good reasons too. You see, Jesus had said there after breathing the Holy Spirit onto His disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). But what can this mean? Does it mean that we can truly forgive sins or withhold their forgiveness?

But what if this hasn’t been saying controversially what we think it means since the power to forgive sins is truly, rightly God’s? What if this is rather a call that we learn to set aside the codes of judgement with which we lock others out of our minds and hearts? If the Resurrected Christ has been calling us to a higher morality in which we should refuse to be distracted from the centrality of love, just like He did when He affirmed the loving Centurion’s faith, how will you respond? How much more will you keep on forgiving, keep on letting go, taking down barriers, etc. – to clear your eyes and see the Gentile faith of another?

Let us pray to the Lord.

Father,
when your Son came into the world to walk among us,
He who was one of us lived, taught, and loved like none of us.
He came to be us and yet, by just being Himself,
showed that, as us, as humans, even we
could be other than who we were, more than who we were.
We can all be once again, as it is always intended,
that image of You, the image of God,
an image that is often so different
from who we are in our daily living.

Father,
when Jesus came to comfort us with
the truth that He as God walked among us,
He did so in a mystery.
This is the mystery of He as Perfect God and Perfect Man.
He did so in the paradoxical shape of man as holy,
man as the figure of difference,
and God as always approachable,
God as the figure of similarity.

This Mystery of the Incarnation
that you have given to us all
to ponder as much in the depths of our failures
as in the heights of our aspirations.
Jesus whom we call to our aid,
Jesus whom we seek every day to imitate.

Thank you, Father,
for this greatest of gifts –
let us all remember how the Father gave His Son –
in whose name we now pray,

Amen.

Gwee Li Sui

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