RCL Year C, Proper 5
Last week we had a curious gospel reading, the story of a Roman centurion who sends to Jesus to heal his servant. The centurion is a Gentile, part of the oppressive Roman regime occupying Israel – and also a friend and benefactor of the Jews. The centurion doesn’t ever talk to Jesus face to face or seem really to want to. He doesn’t profess Jesus as Messiah. There is no sign that he becomes a follower of Jesus, either. And yet Jesus commends him for his faith. So I talked at the early service about the understanding of faith conveyed in this story, the idea that God can act in people and lead them to right action and faithful living even when they don’t outwardly meet all the usual qualifications. In other words, you don’t have to say you’re Christian, or be identified by others as Christian, to be a follower of Jesus. It’s a pretty big idea.
That was last week’s sermon. So why am I repeating it again today? Well, because the idea that you do have to look orthodox to be a real Christian is a stumbling block for a lot of people. It’s one of the blocks people have about believing in God – they think they do have to toe the line to be fully accepted. Intentionally or unintentionally, the church has sometimes put up that barrier; intentionally or unintentionally, it’s become an idea that people carry in their heads about God. And there are many such barriers. So for the next few weeks I want to talk about some of those barriers, those wrong ideas that infect people, us included, with doubts and reluctance to believe. One priest I know, when people tell him they don’t believe in God, says, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in – because I probably don’t believe in that God either.’ So indeed: what do we not believe about God?
As last week’s gospel makes clear, we don’t believe in a God who condemns you if you don’t believe the right way. And this week we have a story that provides us with another one: We don’t believe in a God who punishes our sin with suffering. Our Old Testament reading tells of a tormented encounter between Elijah and a poor widow, in Zarephath, outside of Israel. First Elijah comes to her in a famine and demands her last morsel of food, but then miraculously extends it to be enough to feed them and her son for many days. But then her son dies, and the widow in her agony rails at Elijah, saying, ‘What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!’ Some sin or wrongdoing in her past, she is convinced, has brought this calamity upon her child – somehow this prophet in her house, suffused with the power of God, has called down judgment upon her and killed her son. Elijah seems to think like this too – when he takes the boy upstairs, he cries out to God, ‘O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?’ He doesn’t seem to think it’s the widow’s fault – instead, this is somehow related to him and his prophecies, or his behavior, or something. But God heals the boy and he comes back to life. Despite what Elijah and the widow think, this child’s suffering is not something God has sent upon them. God’s intentions are for life, not for death and suffering.
That theme comes out even more clearly in the gospel story where Jesus raises the widow’s son. And many places in the gospels, Jesus directly tackles the idea that God sends suffering on purpose. And yet this idea that God punishes us is an idea that has such staying power that we still struggle with it. It has staying power in part, of course, because we can find scriptures that suggest it’s true, that God really does punish people and their children for sins committed. Some of those scriptures are in the Old Testament stories, which is part of why Christians sometimes wrongly say, well, the Old Testament God was just like that. But some of those scriptures are in the New Testament, when Jesus gets angry and calls out the sins around him and prophesies the downfall of Jerusalem, and when the visions in Revelation show the wicked getting their just deserts. We read those scriptures and say, well, see, that is just how it works – when we sin, the punishment is brought down on us one way or another; and not only on us, but on our children and those we love. It’s how God shows us what we’ve done is wrong.
And maybe even more so, this idea has power because it just makes sense to us. From our early days, we tend toward quid pro quo, legalistic sort of thinking. You can’t get away with something without punishment, we think. You don’t get something for nothing, either. We have problems with the idea of grace freely given. Hence all the elaborate theories about the legal atonement Jesus’ death accomplished for us on the cross. The system, we think, must demand it. It can’t be any other way.
But I am convinced that we are wrong in that thinking. We live in a universe of cause and effect, and we look at things always through those lenses. If this happens, it is because that made it happen. If something bad happens, someone is to blame. And if we can’t figure out who is to blame, if something is utterly random or a natural disaster or somehow beyond our explanation, then it must be God – an act of God, as we say. But God must also be in this system of cause and effect, so if God does something, it must still come back to another cause before that, something we or somebody did…and so on goes our thinking.
But many of those scriptures can also be read as describing consequences and outcomes of behavior, rather than judgments and punishments. There is a cause and effect to how our lives unfold, but it is not one of divine retribution. When we turn away from God, our lives are unhappier. When we turn away from or harm other people, we ourselves suffer and cause the suffering of others. When we create social structures that oppress some people or exploit others for their labor or divide us into classes and colors, we all reap the consequences either of privilege or suffering, or a mix of both. We create the world we live in, in other words. And we choose the lenses we look through, how we interpret what happens in our lives. Instead of seeking blame, the widow with Elijah could have brought her son to him and said, ‘Thank God you are here with me in my grief, man of God. Help me.’ And the same story could have unfolded with so much less suffering and so much more joy.
So for all those who have a hard time believing in God because you wonder how God could be so cruel as to cause suffering as punishment, then here’s good news: that’s not the God we believe in. Suffering is a part of our lives; things go wrong, people we love get sick and die, accidents happen. But God does not send these as punishments – or as tests, for that matter. God is a God of life, not of death; the God who hung with Jesus on the cross is with us through the darkest and most terrible hours of our suffering as well. And God brings us through them into the open doors and light we never expected to see again.
That is the full revelation of God in Jesus – a God who calls us to account for our wrongdoing, showing us the truth of what we have done. Which is more than any doled-out punishment will do. A God who offers us the full forgiveness we cannot give ourselves – and who welcomes us back as part of the restoration of all creation. May we ourselves accept that forgiveness, and allow it for others. Amen.