A sermon at Ketchikan Presbyterian Church by George R. Pasley
Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers and sisters with me, To the churches in Galatia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
The question is- how did he know?
How did Paul KNOW that Jesus “gave himself for our sins”?
How did the centurion KNOW that Jesus could cure his slave, with just a word?
We want to know HOW they knew, because we need to know, too- when God is giving us direction, when God is sending us, when God is ASKING us- TELLING us- what to do next.
How do we know? How will the session know when we pray, and ask God, “Where and how shall we put our hearts to your work, Lord?”
How will you know, when God wants you to do something that’s outside your normal routine?
How will any of us know, when God is asking us to do something that seems a bit risky, or sacrificial, or just plain different?
Let’s start with the apostle Paul, writing to Galatians, and let’s start with this: Paul was NOT “Spiritual but not religious.”
Paul was raised as a Jew and studied as a Jew, and Paul lived as a righteous, disciplined Jew.
Paul KNEW the scriptures inside-out and backwards. BUT, that’s how Paul knew that this Jesus, who was crucified, could not have been a man from God.
Because Jesus did not fit in.
And right here, it gets a bit murky. It’s CLEAR that Paul persecuted the church.
Paul held the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death.
Pal got letters of authority, and set off to Damascus to hunt the Christians down.
But WHY- that’s the question. Was he afraid? Was he angry? Or was it hate that drove him?
Whatever it was, that’s where he went wrong. Because whatever God wants us to do next, it will not be driven by fear, or anger, or hatred because our God is most definitely NOT afraid, and while it is certainly God’s RIGHT to be angry at some of the things we do, it is God’s prerogative, not ours, and it is a prerogative that arises from love, not hate.
But then- the story is told in the book of Acts- something happened that changed everything that Paul knew.
Paul was given a revelation. And while he knew the scriptures inside-out and backwards, now he knew them a different way. Thanks to the revelation Paul received, the scriptures became good news- good news of a certain sort, good news about what God is doing in the world, good news about what God’s purposes for human kind ARE. They are the spectacular good news that God is ON OUR SIDE, that God became one of us, so that we can become one with God.
But Paul could not come to that conclusion on his own. He needed help from God, and that help CAME in the form of a revelation.
The theologians will tell us that EVERYTHING we know about God is a revelation- we can only know what God shows us, or tells us, or shares with us in our common experiences.
If we go to the Bible and read about God, we know what God has revealed already, to generations of believers. And we LEARN what God is revealing to us as we read those ancient testimonies.
If we contemplate the words of Jesus, or the miracles of Jesus, or the deeds of Jesus, we LEARN about the nature of God from watching and listening to someone who IS the Son of God.
And if we share our questions, and testimonies, and gleanings with each other, then we are learning what God has revealed in each of our own lives, and in our common life together.
But we cannot enter God’s abode like a crime scene detective, and find out God’s secrets. And we cannot dissect God like a biologist might dissect a whale on the beach. So God will ALWAYS remain something of a mystery to us- at least, until that day when God wipes away our every tear, and answers every question.
For Paul, that revelation came in dramatic fashion- which presents a danger for us. God may be speaking to us- God may be telling us something a thousand times- but we honestly aren’t hearing what God says, because we’re looking and listening for something dramatic and bold and unmistakable, while God is speaking to us with a nudge and a whisper and the suggestion of a friend.
So let’s look at the centurion. He was not “spiritual but not religious” either- and that’s significant news because he was a centurion.
That’s a Roman soldier.
I said, a ROMAN SOLDIER.
Either one of these things would have been rare to see in a Jewish synagogue, but here was someone who was BOTH a Roman, and a soldier. And something else- an OFFICER.
This should have been someone who at the least, was an agnostic.
He was NOT someone who would have countenanced nonsense.
But here he was, studying the scriptures with his Jewish neighbors, and lavishing his money on their religion so that they could discipline their common life in a godly way.
So how did he KNOW what Jesus was capable of?
First, despite the self-confidence that enabled him to obtain the rank of centurion- commander of 100 soldiers- he practiced humility.
Humility says, “You do not have ALL the answers, George. You can learn something from your neighbors.”
And Humility says. “People of lower rank are important to you, and people of different way of living and believing can be enriching to you, and a person who appears to be a challenge to your power and authority may just quite be able to be a BLESSING to you.”
And Humility also says, “God will always be a mystery to you- THEREFORE, watch and listen to see what God might be doing that you do not expect.”
That was his starting place, and it as a very good place to be, but even so, Humility could not TELL him, “This is what God is doing, and this is how God is doing it, and THIS is the person God is doing it through.”
For THAT, the centurion, and the Jewish elders in his synagogue, and every one of us, needs something else, something that is a gift from God.
We need the Holy Spirit.
We need the Holy Spirit because we all have mental blocks.
We need the Holy Spirit because sometimes we’re too arrogant, or too humble, or too busy, or too distracted, or too set in our own ways, or just TOO much into our own problems and own solutions.
We need the Spirit when we read the scripture,
And we need the Holy Spirit when we pray,
And we need the Holy Spirit when we gather together, no matter WHERE or HOW we gather.
And as we have said for three weeks now, the Holy Spirit is a gift from God.
Now, notice what we have NOT said.
We have NOT said that the Holy Spirit will give us all the answers.
No, all these people studied the scriptures, and they prayed, and they lived a life of faith in a community of faith.
So sometimes, they just knew- This is a God-thing that I see happening.
And sometimes, they thought “I’m not sure about this, I need to ask some more questions.”
And sometimes they were certain, or maybe not, and their response was, “I need to pray about this, until God makes it clear waht I am supposed to DO.”
So that’s what they did. Because more often than we want to admit, life is confusing.
Yesterday afternoon I hiked up Deer Mountain- not all the way, I started too late, but just to the second overlook.
And then I started down. But on the way down, I met several people headed up. One of them was a man in running clothes, though he wasn’t actually running when I met him, somewhere between the second and first overlooks.
But then, when I was almost back to my car, he came running past me. He had his smart-phone on, and I could hear his app telling him how far he’d traveled and how fast he was running. And he ran past me and out of the parking lot and out to the road.
But THEN, before I got to my car, he came back, and asked me a question.
He was trying to run back to his cruise ship, and he didn’t know the way back to the docks from the trail-head. Could I give him directions?
“Sure,” I said. “Turn left out of this parking lot, run a little ways and then go straight across the intersection and down the hill.”
That was confusing to him. “SO I turn right on Ketchikan Lakes Road?”
Well, I could not remember the name of the road, but no, he didn’t need to turn right. “Just go straight across.”
And he asked, with a very puzzled look, “You mean, go left on Nordstrom Drive?”
No, you go straight across. By this time I was frustrated. So I said, just follow me.
And he ran ahead. By the time I got in my car, and headed out to the road, I could see him, standing in the intersection. And then I realized- that road down the hill is so steep he cannot SEE it from the other side of the intersection. But I pointed, and he took one more step, and then he saw- and away he ran.
Really sometimes we don’t know. But we stop. We ask directions from someone who has been there, and we keep asking, until the Spirit takes us one more step, and we can see.
We can SEE, that we are not alone, that God is in charge, and that the road may be steep and hard- but the place it leads is a place filled with God’s mercy.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.