Cornelius the Centurion

ImageIn Acts 10:34-43, Peter announces that God’s amazing grace is on the move, breaking down traditional boundaries (and barriers) between the Jews and the nations (gentiles).

Through his encounter with Cornelius, Peter comes to realize that “God shows no partiality” … but in every nation (be that geographical, cultural, or social), anyone who fears God and does what is right is accepted by God.

WOW!  God shows no partiality.

Think about how that statement challenges and undermines our tendency to confine God to the comfortable categories of our own “religion” or religious beliefs.

Consider Cornelius: Why might God have chosen him and his household to be the first gentile converts to Christianity?

From Scriptural accounts, we know that he’s a centurion, a notable leader of Roman soldiers.  He’s described as “God-fearing,” someone who loves the Lord, prays regularly, and one who helps the poor.  We’re told that he even built a synagogue for the Jews.  We’re also told that he lives in Caesaria, was part of the Italian regiment, and that his entire “household” – kinfolk, friends, and servants – worshiped God.

Given the time, place, and Cornelius’s position, this was truly radical!

Even more radical, though, is that I believe Cornelius is the same man referred to either as “a centurion” or “the centurion” whom we’ve met elsewhere in the Gospels.

In Matthew and Luke, we’re told that, at the crucifixion of Jesus, “When the centurion and others keeping watch over Jesus saw … what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54).  Luke (23:47) adds, “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’”

I suspect this centurion was Cornelius, paying his last respects to the extraordinary man and teacher who earlier had healed his servant.

In my humble opinion, “the centurion” we’re introduced to in Matthew and Luke was Cornelius.  Remember the story about the centurion who sought Jesus to heal his servant “who was dear to him”?

Let’s take a look:

<< Luke 7 >>
World English Bible

1 After he had finished speaking in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum. 2 A certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and at the point of death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and save his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy for you to do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he built our synagogue for us.” 6 Jesus went with them. When he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. 7 Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you; but say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude who followed him, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.” 10 Those who were sent, returning to the house, found that the servant who had been sick was well.

The story as told in Matthew’s Gospel is pretty much the same … except that the centurion, himself, approaches Jesus rather than sending the elders of the Jews on his behalf.

In either case, many people – including Bible scholars who have analyzed the words “dear to him” in this passage – believe there was a very special relationship, a deep, loving relationship, between the centurion and his servant.  And I believe it was this special, same-sex love that touched Jesus’ heart and motivated him to reach out and heal the man’s servant.  Not to mention, accept the relationship between the centurion and his servant!

If you were an exalted soldier of rank and power, respected by your own people, would you beseech help from a wandering rabbi of a foreign religion for a mere servant of yours?  Would you forsake your own god or gods and humble yourself in front of the supposedly ignorant natives who were your subjects, just to cure someone who worked for you?

Not likely!  Not if you were a Roman Centurion.  You would not, could not, risk the ridicule … even if you were in love with another man, as was often the custom among Roman men such as this at the time.

As the centurion made his way toward Jesus, I’m sure he was concerned that Jesus, like other Jewish rabbis, would condemn his “dear” relationship.  But he probably decided that if Jesus was able to heal his lover, he was also able to see through any lies or deception.

In response to the centurion’s love and his honesty, Jesus said without reservation: “Then I will come and heal him.” 

The centurion replied there is no need, that Jesus’ word was sufficient.

Instead of Jesus saying, “he is healed … go and sin no more,” as he did to the adulterous woman, he said, “I have not found faith this great anywhere in Israel,” and held Cornelius up as a man of real faith.

It’s apparent to me that the Lord was already working in Cornelius’ life, preparing him for the events which would occur to him and his household in Acts chapter ten.

Rather than debate and explain those “clobber verses” we so often hear, I claim this Scriptural account as an affirming one.

For centuries, the church has insisted that loving, homosexual people are nowhere to be found in the Bible and, certainly, never presented in a positive light.  Many Christians refuse to believe that God would include a positive story about a manly centurion who loves another person of the same sex.

I believe that our Creator is doing a new thing today … revealing another dimension to what it means to be loved and accepted by God.

A wild and winsome force, God’s love still can win over the hearts of centurions like Cornelius.  It says, “Bah-humbug” to the conventional categories of who’s deemed “in” and who’s cast “out.”  It eats with sinners, washes the feet of ordinary men, associates with prostitutes and other people of ill repute, and upholds loving one’s enemies as a commanding new norm.

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Second Chances

ImageI believe in second chances.  And third, fourth, fifth …

Recently, we celebrated Easter which — this year — coincided with Passover on the calendar.

Passover is a time to remember God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt.  But the whole history of the Hebrews is filled with examples of God giving second chances to his chosen people: Noah and the flood.  Abraham and Isaac.  Isaac and Jacob.  Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers.  The captivity in Egypt.  The 10 plagues each preceded by a plea from Moses to Pharaoh, “God says: Let my people go!”

In some ways, Easter is also about second chances.

God gave creation, humanity, a second chance through Christ Jesus.  And, through the power of his resurrection, God gave Jesus a second chance to accomplish what the suffering servant couldn’t do before his death on the cross and atonement for all:  Reconciliation.

A month after Passover is another special Jewish holiday known as the Second Passover … or Pesach Sheni.

Many of us probably never have heard about this holy day because it’s buried in several verses found in the book of Numbers (9:6-11), which – like Leviticus and Deuteronomy — is filled with lists of rules and regulations rather than the more memorable stories we find in Genesis and Exodus.

According to the story, a group of people were unable to celebrate the Passover with the rest of their community on the appointed day because they were considered ritually impure and unclean.

Why? Because they had attended a funeral and came in contact with a dead body.

Upset, disappointed and, I suspect, a bit resentful because they were excluded from worshiping with their family, friends and neighbors, they approached Moses and asked him to intercede on their behalf with God.  They wanted another chance. Moses responded that he’d consult with God and report back to them on what the Holy One had to say about the matter.

God told Moses to establish a “make-up” date, one month later, after the unclean and impure had the time to purify themselves.  The “Second Passover” thus became a second chance at keeping the feast.

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You know, sometimes it seems like life isn’t fair.  That we’re being treated unjustly because of stuff that’s out of our control.   Why should we be left out … excluded … or deprived?  What did – or didn’t – we deliberately do that’s causing us to be shunned by others?

Often, nothing!

In this case, some people had attended a funeral, paying their respects to someone who, presumably, had been part of their lives.  But, because they had come in contact with the dead, they were deemed unclean according to God’s explicit terms and conditions.

So they were left out, deprived of the opportunity to engage in communal worship.

Is this fair?  Is this our concept of social justice?

Think about it:  A bunch of people are dismissed because they were considered contaminated, outcasts, outlaws, socially undesirable … a group not to be welcomed, accepted, or associated with.

Second Chances 2

Can you imagine how that must feel?

So, they complain and grumble – “Why should we be deprived?”– and they ask their leader to intercede on their behalf.

According to rabbinic commentary on these Scriptures, the Second Passover — celebrated one month after the appointed day for Passover — represents the power of teshuvah—literally, return or repentance.

In other words, it’s our God-given second chance.

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Remember when one of the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus by asking him which of the law’s commandments was the greatest and most important?

 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your mind and with all of your might.’This is the first and greatest commandment. But there is a second to set alongside of it:  Love others as well as you love yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Second Chances 6That said, brothers and sisters: I have three questions to ask you today:  (1) Do you give others second chances?  (2) Do you give yourself second chances?  (3) Do you give God second chances?

Not easy questions, huh?

Christians believe that they’re good at “forgive and forget” doctrine … but how often do we deny giving others a second chance?

Do we have the right to withhold forgiveness and second chances from people who’ve hurt us — even deliberately — once or even several times?

When Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?  Until seven times?”  Jesus said, “I do not say to you until seven times; but until seventy times seven.”

The words of Jesus are clear: We have no right to withhold forgiveness from others, considering how often God continues to forgive us.

Jesus had a soft spot in his heart for the despised and rejected, the social outcasts, those who weren’t loved or accepted but considered criminals and sinners by society’s norms.  These were his “neighbors,” just as they’re ours.

Second ChancesWhat about you?  Do you give yourself second chances?

Perhaps you’ve failed at something in your life.  Not said “I’m sorry” to someone.  Or maybe you’ve just been afraid to take a chance.

Maybe it’s a bad habit – like smoking, drinking, or gambling – that you’ve tried to stop but continue to do.

Or, perhaps you’ve tried to lose some weight by dieting … only to put on even more extra pounds.  Could it be that you’d like to spend more time in prayer or doing good works, but tend to get side-tracked?

Whether it’s marriage, a job, a relationship, or your finances, God hasn’t given up on you.  So, please, don’t give up on yourself!

It ain’t necessarily Scripture, but you know the old refrain: If, at first, you don’t succeed … try, try again!

From my own experience, I can tell you that we worship a God who believes in giving us many, many second chances.

Right now I’m on my 47th or 448th chance … I lost track about 30 years ago and – you know what? – it doesn’t really matter!

Because God doesn’t keep score.

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How about God?  Do we give God second chances?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had many more “wilderness” experiences – times I’ve felt alone and away from God’s presence … than I have had “mountain top” experiences where I can feel God right there beside me, with me, within me, all around me.

Second Chances 5I’ve felt spiritually hungry and looked for God in all the wrong places: in religious traditions with their rites and rituals, sacraments and observances.  I searched for God in my Jewish roots, in the Roman Catholic mass, in Episcopalian … Lutheran … Methodist … Presbyterian … Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.

Whenever I encountered God, it wasn’t in any of these places.  It was in Spirit and in truth.  Because that’s where God resides: in our hearts and our souls, not inside the walls of a building.

So, yes, I give God second chances.  Countless chances.  And you know what?  God continues to be revealed to me.

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart,” God says through the prophet Jeremiah.

Now, that’s a hard thing to do: to give of ourselves with all of our hearts.  To anything or anyone.  Even God.  But we do want to try!

We expect either too much or too little from God, imagining that he’s angry and carries a grudge against us.  That he won’t give us a second chance.  Or even that God is a “he.”  But that’s not the God of our Bible.  And that’s certainly not the nature of Jesus.

Jesus always reached out to people like you and me, people with problems and issues, aches and pains, people needing second chances.

Embrace that second chance and allow God to help mend your mistakes and disappointments.  That’s how we can find true “Shalom” – the peace that transcends understanding  – empowering us to forgive and give second chances to ourselves … to others … and to our God.

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Religious Trappings

 “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”—Joshua 24:14-15 (NIV)

ImagePastors like to base sermons on Joshua 24 because it’s “preachable” … easy to prepare for, easy to deliver, a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy that’s easy for us to understand–especially the favorite line upon which most ministers focus, 24:15: “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.  But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

What wonderful words!  Such special sentiments!  A personal, powerful statement of testimony, commitment, and covenant between the created family called of God and their Creator.

But, let’s put this passage into context:

After their years of slavery and servitude in Egypt, God used Moses to free Abraham’s lineage from its bondage and lead the tribes of Israel across the wilderness and into the promised land on the other side of the mighty river.

It wasn’t an easy journey and the people groaned and grumbled along the way.  More often than not, they took out their frustrations on Moses, complaining about one thing or another.

Yet, it wasn’t God’s plan for Moses to be the one to bring his people into the land flowing with milk and honey; that honor was passed onto Joshua, who succeeded Moses as the leader of the Israelites.

Not only did Joshua have to conquer the idolatrous people inhabiting the land, he had to deal harshly at times with his own people’s idolatry.

“You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.  He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins,” Joshua warned.  “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.”

Joshua then tossed out a test to them that continues to challenge us today: “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

Maybe Joshua was asking his people to abandon those lucky charms, rabbit’s feet, and other special ties that were seemingly fortuitous in the past.  Yes, perhaps that’s what they were afraid to give up … you know, just in case the LORD God wasn’t enough to come through and deliver for them.

Though we may laugh them off as merely a bit of supernatural extra insurance that, well, it just doesn’t hurt to have … it does hurt to have them!

Because they are idols!

Joshua knew that the greatest hindrance to faith is our tendency to bow down to the things we create rather than to the Creator when we worship the works we’ve made … often believing that we’re honoring God in the process.

The people of Israel already had begun to compromise with the culture around them by bowing down to gods of the present.  Some of them possessed household gods representing Baal and other gods worshipped by their neighbors.  Those were the gods of the here and now, of the Amorites, in whose land they now lived.  But there are other gods, too, that we’re warned not to worship: the gods of our fathers in Mesopotamia, from where we came.

It is here, I believe, that we must look and root out the foreign gods among us.

Apart from the gods of our fathers, those things we worship from the past, we must be vigilant to guard against the gods of the present, too … church idols and religious trappings which can undermine God.

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A church I had pastored couldn’t (or wouldn’t) bond with any of its pastors because none could live up to Pastor Gary, its founding pastor, who had been martyred and turned into a saint after losing a four-month battle with cancer.

Pastor Gary got this church going … and he had a heavy hand.  A very heavy hand in how things should be done and how they shouldn’t.

When Gary passed, a number of people passed with him, leaving the church.  While that hurt the church, it was okay because they were there for the wrong reason: they came for Gary, not for God.

ImageI’m told that Gary got weary of people complaining that he talked too much about stewardship and asked for money too often.  So, Gary’s solution was to do away with passing the offering plates and substituted “giving boxes,” instead.

Years later, a new member asked: “Where are the plates?”  People wanted to give but couldn’t, because the boxes were gone and no plates were to be found.

They weren’t there, I suspect, because the church had made them into an idol to Gary, and took great pride in not passing the plate.

“Unlike other churches, we don’t pass a plate,” we announced week after week.

But what about people who believed we should be passing it around because passing the plate can bring blessings to those of us who have and those of us who don’t.  Just touching a plate of offerings consecrated to God can give power and purpose to those who might not have anything to put into it this week, but want to and can the next.

That’s one of the reasons why most churches pass the plate!

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ImageChurches pass the plate via the USPS, too.  We all get fundraising letters and, more often than not, quickly deep-six them into the circular file.

But this one came from church (not the same church) so Russ, my partner, opened and read it.  Although the letter was addressed to both of us, he didn’t show it to me or even tell me about it until the next day.

Instead he stewed over it and did a slow burn … ultimately posting this message on the church’s Facebook page:  “How an appeal letter for a $5,000 banner (really???) can begin with a quote that references banners “that were used by crusading Knights, to rally the faithful” during the most horrific period of Christian history, is beyond me.”

It had been twenty years since this Episcopal church had had a new banner to represent the parish.  The old banner, made lovingly of felt and needlepoint lettering, was beginning to show its age.  With a new priest-in-charge and the consecration of a new diocesan bishop several months down the road, the church believed it an appropriate opportunity to celebrate this time of renewal with a new processional banner.  “Every parish in our diocese will be represented and all the church banners will line the worship space.  We would love to have our new banner there to represent [us],” stated the Altar Guild in its church-wide appeal.

Including shipping (from England), a new pole for display and a cross rod to hang it plus floor stand, the handmade banner would cost some five thousand dollars.

While the opening words of the fundraising letter about “rallying the faithful crusading Knights” were what had rankled Russ given the history of persecution the Jewish people had faced in Inquisitions, Holocausts, Pogroms and Crusades, it was something else that bothered me (when I finally got to read the letter): the banner, I believed, was an idol … one more piece of pomp and circumstance, rite and ritual, that people focus on and pay attention to in the name of God.

I certainly could understand the Altar Guild’s desire to reflect the church’s “renaissance” symbolically through a new banner.

Maybe its existing banner was frayed and torn and not as pristine as some of those others in the processional for the new bishop … but I wondered which banner (new or old) Jesus would feel more comfortable with, given the state of the world and its needs all around us?

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For pomp and circumstance, rite and ritual, certainly nothing can compare with the Roman Catholic church—especially when a conclave of cardinals is called to (s)elect a new pontiff.

Poland Giant John PaulSeriously, do the faithful really need a 46-foot tall statue of the late Pope John Paul II in the historic city of Czestochowa, home to the Jasna Goara Monastery — Poland’s most important pilgrimage site — to spread the Good News?

Let’s not forgot what we’ve been warned about graven images!

The “Pope on a Rope” being heisted goes against strict Scriptural admonitions which remain valid to this day: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).  Or, “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 26:1).  And even the New Testament tells us, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”

New Pope Francis from Argentina has given people much to talk about as he eschews the traditional vestments and garb accorded to Peter’s golden throne.  Here is a man who washed the feet of captives – Muslims at that! – while preferring public transportation over the “Popemobile,” a wooden seat instead of a gilded cathedra, plain brown shoes over those rich red ones.

These small acts of humility and contrition initiated by the new Roman Catholic prelate may, indeed, be the stuff of “public relations” … but they’re good public relations: small, symbolic steps being taken to offset the hubris often associated with the church and replacing it with grace notes of humility.

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Ultimately, I believe, it all comes down to this: How much of our church giving is spent on our own personal preferences and priorities, rather than God’s?  

From money and power to politics and the people we approve for public trust or to shepherd us in church, just about anything we hold up and put first in our lives can turn into priorities that we idolize.

If we worship it, it’s a foreign god … and we must get rid of it.

Joshua calls us to a time of contemplation, to remember who – and whose – we are, where we came from, and what the Lord has done for us.  He commanded the people of his day to throw away their foreign gods.

We must do no less than topple the gods that have crept into our own hidden places of worship.

It’s time for us to make up our minds about whom we will serve: God or man, the Lord of creation or what we’ve created?

As for me and my house, we will (try our best to) serve the LORD.

You knew that was coming, now, didn’t you?

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