We’re not in control of the things that really matter, and that’s freeing to realize, and life-giving to trust our lives into the hands of the God who can bring life even in the midst of death.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 9 C
Texts: Luke 7:1-10; Galatians 1:1-12
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Have you noticed that the dearer something is to us, the closer to our heart, the more important, the less we have power to control it?
Some of us never thought we could control anything. Life feels beyond control. Others of us spend years trying to control everything, as if we could make life go how we wanted. Lots of us are somewhere in between.
But for all of us, the most important things, the things that matter, are beyond our control. How people think of us. Whether those we love get sick or die, stay healthy and happy. How our life goes, what other people do to us. Evil that happens near us or around the world. We can’t control any of this.
The path of faith Jesus invites us to walk begins with this recognition. When we realize it’s Christ’s path, not ours, that we don’t have the map, and we trust that the Risen One will lead and guide us safely as we journey. When we realize it all begins by letting go of our false need to be in charge. The freedom we find in that path is exhilarating. But letting go isn’t easy.
Our friendly local centurion understood this, remarkably.
This was an officer with authority. He’d risen through the ranks to command 100 soldiers. When he told them to move, they moved. When he told them to jump, they said, “how high?” This centurion was in control.
Except there was this one thing he was powerless over. His beloved servant was sick and dying. He couldn’t command him to live, to get better. He had no authority over this.
Because he was apparently a good man, even though he was an officer of the occupying forces, he’d made friendships with the Jewish locals, had been generous with them. Through them, he heard of their teacher who had the power to heal. A power he did not have.
He remarkably even understood that this healer was outside his authority. He could have sent two soldiers and commanded Jesus to come. Instead, he let go of all his control. He wasn’t in charge. He didn’t even assume he was worthy of such a gift. He let go, against all his training and his office, and asked for help.
In Galatia, some Christians, including Paul, apparently didn’t understand this.
We’ll be hearing from this letter for the next few weeks, Paul’s view of the situation. As best we can tell about the other side, there were Christians, likely from Jerusalem, who had gotten wind of what Paul was doing in what is now northern Turkey. They heard he was welcoming non-Jews into the faith, baptizing Gentiles, teaching them of Christ, without requiring that they follow Jewish law, eat kosher, be circumcised.
So they came up there to try and control the situation. They couldn’t conceive of being in Christ without being Jewish, as Christ Jesus himself was. Their whole lives were shaped by their Jewish faith. The Messiah was a Jewish idea, after all.
These Christians, good people, deeply confused the Galatians, who had trusted Paul when he first came to them. They also, as we heard today and will hear again, deeply frustrated Paul, who also couldn’t control this situation. He was unable to return at that time and fix things, so he wrote this letter trying to bring it all under control.
Both Paul and these traveling Christians didn’t remember that no one can control the Spirit.
What is most marvelous to us, however, is that the Triune God also understood what the centurion did.
The whole plan of salvation in Christ comes from God realizing that the most important things cannot be controlled. Having all the power in the universe is of little help if your creatures choose not to love you or love each other. You could force them to do it, but then it wouldn’t be love.
The coming of the Triune God into our lives is a massive release of control. Being born as a vulnerable baby, living completely at the mercy of other human beings, the Son of God began to teach, to call people to a life of love of God and love of neighbor. What God hopes for from all God’s children.
But even when we rejected this message so much that we threatened to kill the very person of God bearing our body, God would not reassert control. The cross is the ultimate letting go, relinquishing of power and authority. If we won’t choose to love God with all we have, and won’t choose to love our neighbor as ourselves, God will not force us to do it.
The centurion models for us that God’s way of letting go is our way to life.
The first step to finding true life is admitting we can’t control, we’re powerless over the most important things in our lives. Jesus spent years trying to get this across in parables, in healing, in teaching, and his followers still didn’t understand what was happening when he was hanging on a cross.
In the light of the resurrection, they began to grasp what this Roman centurion had figured out long before: the path of faith is one where we let go of all our need to be in authority over our lives, over the world, over others, and open ourselves up to trusting God with our life.
This isn’t easy. For much of our life as we grow into adulthood we are trying to assert control over our lives, our environment, other people. We try to make life work the way we want it to. True wisdom comes from realizing the grace in letting God lead us in this path of letting go, this path to abundant life.
It is the path to life because life is found in love, and love cannot be forced.
All the problems that plague us and our world can be solved by love, but not by forcing others, trying to control them. The injustice that runs through our society, where whole classes and races of people are stuck in systems that oppress them, can be changed to justice, but not by us forcing our will on the situation. When we stop trying to tell others how they should protest, how they should try to work for change, and open ourselves to hearing their story and standing with them, God will lead us and this society to justice.
The problems that we face in our lives, worrying whether others love us, fearing the illness or death of loved ones, struggles to find happiness, frustration with life that doesn’t work the way we want, whatever problems we face can be solved in the love of God. But there is nothing we can do to force them to change, to make life the way we think it should be.
When we find the centurion’s wisdom, we let go and simply ask God for help, for healing. Not because we think we’re worthy, but because we trust in the goodness of God. Even in the face of death, something we never have control over, we trust in God’s power to destroy death forever.
When we finally see that our sense of power and control is just an illusion, we find the abundant life the love of the Triune God is making in us and in the world.
We are able to trust the path of Christ we are invited to walk, not because we control the path or its outcome, but because we are led by the only One we trust for life and grace. We learn the joy of choosing to live in love, even losing our own needs and ego, because we find life on this path.
Jesus was astonished by the faith of this centurion. Probably because he kept running into people like us, who were afraid to trust, to let go.
Why don’t we surprise Christ this once and do the unexpected? We might even surprise ourselves with how freeing life can be down that path.
In the name of Jesus. Amen