Our Christian symbols are rich and powerful. They carry a lot of meaning, baggage, some may say. And they’re frequently in your face. We’ve had our share lately of in-your-face Christianity. Two blocks from here on Monday night Valparaiso’s City Council approved a Human Rights Ordinance amidst well-organized opposition by Christians claiming to speak for Christians. Of course, we are Christians, too. It seems the body of Christ is divided. A large portion—and the one generally represented in the media and public consciousness—views the Church as the defender of cultural values and symbols. In all such binaries, there is an antithesis, in this case a phony Christianity that rejects cultural values and symbols. I’ve been told before that I find myself on this (wrong) side of the divide. I stand before you today in vestments first in style when Rome was still a superpower, in a space marked with a single grand table for a stark ritual meal, with a cross, having passed by bathwaters, speaking from a place of authority over the book that contains God’s written word. These are powerful cultural symbols, and we are here neither to defend them nor reject them, nor to give up the fight and run away from them.
I’m tempted to read today’s story of the centurion as an example of a quiet faith, reserved yet deep, not needing to invoke God’s name in public or to have Christ in our faces or even in our homes in order to be faithful. It is a nice picture especially in the wake of such emotionally draining open theological arguing. The problem with this picture of the centurion is that it is completely wrong.
Something amazing is happening in the story if we pause to see it. Jesus has come into Capernaum, having developed an international reputation as a teacher and healer. In Capernaum there lives a centurion, a Roman officer in charge of 100 men. He has a slave and there is no sign the Romans ever garrisoned the town, which means he may be retired. Retired centurions received a nice pension and were considered nobles. His slave is gravely ill. The centurion has heard of Jesus, and asks the local Jewish elders to approach him. When they approach Jesus they reveal that the centurion is “worthy” of attention because he paid for the synagogue. That means he is likely a “god-worshipper,” a non-Jew who believes in God and has earned the respect of local Jews. Jesus heads his way but the centurion sends friends who relay his message: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy.” By “worthy” he means “appropriate.” Why might a god-worshipping centurion not want to trouble a Jew with inappropriate contact? He knows purity laws. If Jesus comes into his house, Jesus is defiled. He believes Jesus can help him, but doesn’t want to screw up Jesus’ purity.
Amazingly we have in this story Jesus, the local synagogue leaders, and a retired army officer all demonstrating care and respect for religious tradition. The centurion does not exemplify an inner faith life strong enough to ignore the world, so much as he exemplifies a faith that acts with profound respect for others and yet a boldness to ask Christ to help him and those around him. It appears I will not be able to use this story to run away from in-your-face Christianity and the powerful symbols we use.
I have to use those symbols. I have to use what is at hand. When we want to say something we use things we already know. Consider the centurion. The centurion knows the purity laws. He knows army life and slave-ownership: slaves and soldiers follow orders. He also knows the God of Israel. He helped build the synagogue and has likely heard the Bible and the teaching of rabbis. Finally, he knows the good news of Jesus as others (who we never meet in the story) have preached it to him. He uses these things at hand to say a new thing: Jesus has God’s authority like an officer has his superior’s authority, and the powers of this world jump when Jesus says “jump.” “Only speak the word,” he says, “and let my servant be healed.” He follows the same pattern here of Psalm 96. I love this. “Sing to the Lord a new song!” it begins. And then the rest of the psalm is phrases and whole lines from other psalms. The thing proclaims its originality, then quotes Psalms 33, 98, 144, 149, 95, 97, 47, and 29. And that’s just in the parts of the Psalm we pray today. I don’t think the psalmist does this ironically: “Yeah, check out my ‘new’ psalm. Whatever.” Rather, they’ve taken what is at hand—phrases and verses—to make something new.
In the same manner our liturgy takes things already at hand to say something new. The point of these symbols is not in themselves, any more than the point of today’s Gospel is to say “Rome’s army had a great command and control structure.” Each symbol speaks on its own. My clothes have for 1700 years meant “he’s the guy leading holy communion.” Before that, they were good outerwear for all but really hot days, conveying a sense of being on the go. The table so adorned indicates a fancy and important meal at which a certain etiquette might be expected. The meal itself is spare, indicating simplicity, yet the bread and wine come from a civilization complex enough to produce them. The cross was used to torture, then to proclaim Christ, then to kill in his name, and more lately to call us to repent from how we have misrepresented him. The book contains ancient and powerful words. The ambo denotes that the new words spoken today might be more powerful, at least at this exact time and in this exact place. Each symbol speaks on its own; we let no one symbol rule the day. Rather, we set them on a collision course with one another. We’re like little kids winding up spring-loaded toy cars and pointing them at each other. Or like the psalmist rearranging beloved verses. Or the centurion using the concepts available to him to explain that something new and amazing is happening.
Jesus Christ is doing new and amazing things. He encourages us to use what we have at hand to talk about them. We Christians can no more stake our lives on the defense of western culture and symbolism than we can on their overthrow, because Christ is neither of those things and ultimately we stand or fall on Christ. Jesus calls us into profound respect for the symbols we have inherited so that we can use them to sing a new song. Just as the centurion—with profound respect for the culture and traditions at hand—uses them to sing of what God is doing, we sing a new song to God with a profound respect for the words and symbols we get to use.
Respect takes a fair amount of effort, I’ll tell you. It means that we don’t get to call our fellow Christians who oppose equal treatment of all “so-called”. Oh, I’ve wanted to do that. When people are showing up at town meetings threatening City Council members in Christ’s name and calling me a “so-called” Christian for being on the other side of this issue, Lord knows I have thought of them as “so-called” Christians. I don’t get to do that. But respect for the words of our new song also means I do not get to discard them, to give up on the God who creates the world new each day and by whose very breath I breathe.
Rather we use those words boldly. We don these old, old clothes and say “even here, we are on the go”. We set this greatest of all tables, and we invite to it all who have bathed. We expect a certain etiquette, but it’s the most basic etiquette you were taught as a youngster: eat and drink what you’re offered. We take this bread and wine which Christ declares are his body and blood which he gives to the world to take away its sins, and we place it them the hands of sinners. We take this cross, by which so much evil has been wrought, and beg that God may place us in solidarity with those who have suffered, especially if we have caused the suffering. We read these ancient texts demanding that we follow God, and realize that in reading them we are following God.
We live in a world that tempts us to pick: it is either those ancient words and symbols, or their overthrow. And we rejoice, as God hurls them together, and does something completely new.