For June 2, 2013: Proper 4, Year C

The Reading            1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39

This summer’s Old Testament readings begin with Israel’s history after David and Solomon. When later kings strayed from God’s way, God sent mighty prophets to get them back on track. As today’s reading opens, Elijah has challenged the priests of Baal to a competition before God’s people to see whose God is great enough to send down fire on a sacrifice. The priests’ entreaties and self-mutilation fail to produce so much as a spark. Then, before he takes his turn, Elijah has the wood and the sacrifice drenched. Now watch the fireworks!

The Response            Psalm 96

“Tell it out among the nations: ‘The Lord is king!… He will judge the peoples with equity.’”

The Epistle            Galatians 1:1-12

For centuries before and after Jesus, the plain of Anatolia in modern Turkey was part of the Greek-speaking world. In the third century BC, several tribes of Gauls or Celts from Europe conquered the central region that came to be called Galatia after them. These Galatians were among Paul’s first and most enthusiastic converts to the gospel of grace—but the beginning of the letter to the Galatians, which we read today, suggests their susceptibility to other influences with which Paul is not at all pleased.

The Gospel            Luke 7:1-10

“‘For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes.’”

 

Further thoughts

Today’s readings tell of speaking with authority, and of three responses.

In the material left out of the Old Testament reading, the priests of Baal seek to make their god set the sacrifice afire by screaming and crying for hours and gashing themselves till the blood flows. Their god doesn’t come through, and Elijah mocks them. The Lord of Israel, however, sends down fire at Elijah’s request. This vividly establishes Elijah’s authority, and reinforces God’s, in the eyes of the assembled people of Israel. I am one of the people of Israel: given a sign, I cry, “The Lord indeed is God!”—but so often I then go away wondering how to make a sign happen again, and wondering what’s wrong when it doesn’t. Sometimes I am also a priest of Baal, desperate to make God do our bidding because, well, don’t I deserve it? (Well, no: I don’t.)

The epistle may be one of Paul’s very earliest. The people of Galatia, neighbors but not kin to Paul’s native city of Tarsus, are thoroughly and Celtically enraptured by the word that salvation is in reach for them, too. In their zeal to follow Christ really well, however, they then buy the line that grace depends on this discipline or that practice, first. Paul is having none of it: as he puts it, even were an angel to announce such preconditions, that’s not the gospel. But I am such a Galatian: captivated by the gift, yet simultaneously looking for the strings that, in my human experience, are surely attached and therefore must and should be pulled.

What of the centurion? He, the outsider or the sell-out—we don’t know whether he was sent from Rome or recruited locally—should have been the one to stand on rank, the one to order a a platoon out for Jesus, the one to grasp and yank any string within reach. Instead, he cares for his servant; he is friends with the Jewish elders, who are willing to go for this Roman outsider to Jesus the Galilean outsider; and finally it is he who recognizes in Jesus the authority of One who will not be forced but who is ready when asked to do the unimaginable. I am not the centurion: it is beyond my grasp—except, of course, through God’s grace.

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