Proper 4C - Church of the Ascension 110th Anniversary
I’m sure it hasn’t been raining here for 110 years, even though it must seem that way. The Isar is in flood, the trees along the banks have their roots and lower trunks covered, and the mature trees floating downstream look like so many twigs. The falls near the Englischer Garten are boiling like lava, with water thrown up as high as the bridge nearby. The authority of that river is unmistakable.
Authority and who has it are the focus of the contest between the prophets. Whose God is going to give evidence of the one who has created the power of that river? Elijah is confronting the Israelites about deciding where they’re going to invest their allegiance: “how long will you go limping with two different opinions?” If you really want to live to the full, then decide!
Elijah sets up a delicious scene – he’s going to take on 450 of the opposing party’s religious functionaries. Each side gets a bull to butcher, has to build a barbeque pit, and then pray for holy fire to set the whole thing alight. Imagine an Old Testament version of Celebrity Chef – it’s a holy cookoff, but the chefs don’t get any matches. Baal’s side goes first, and the prophets dance and pray all morning but nothing happens. The writer says they limp around – for there is no power or authority in these prayers. Elijah starts the catcalls – ‘your god must be on a trip, or meditating, or sleeping – maybe you need to be louder.’ Hours go by, and still nothing happens.
Then Elijah calls the people to come and watch, as he builds his altar with the old stones of promise, lays down the firewood, cuts up the bull – and then he soaks the whole thing with rivers of water. It will be no accident if this soggy stew catches fire. He prays that God will respond, and turn the people’s hearts yet one more time. And then the fire of the Lord consumes everything, “including the water in the trench.” As a friend of mine says, ‘I don’t know if it happened exactly that way, but I do know this story is true.’
What is significant here is not so much a fireball from heaven as Elijah’s humble confidence in the power of his God to turn wandering hearts homeward yet again. Indeed, all hearts are restless – limping, as Elijah puts it – until they find their rest in God. All true prophets are engaged in that work of turning hearts toward their home in God. The Incarnation is a fleshy invitation to turn homeward – a cosmic invitation to all creation to find its home in the right place, in right relationship with the creator of all.
That centurion in the gospel has evidently had an invitation like that from the people in the Capernaum synagogue. He’s already built bonds of affection there, helped them build a house of worship, and evidently dedicated a good part of his life to this community of believers. He has discovered the road home, and he knows it has something to do with this rabbi Jesus. His beloved slave is near death, and he sends others to ask Jesus to heal the man. The elders find Jesus and ask him to aid this esteemed member of their community, using language that cites his importance and position. Yet before Jesus gets to the soldier’s home, he sends his friends to tell him not to go to the trouble of coming all the way. The centurion acknowledges that he lives under authority and understands its power. He is confident that Jesus can simply speak the healing of his slave, as God spoke creation into being. Jesus responds in amazement, saying that he’s never found faith like this. The soldier’s friends go back to the house and find the slave well again. This healing results from recognizing true authority.
What does that word authority bring to mind? Somebody who enforces rules, the judgment of an expert, perhaps political power plays? Authority comes from author, an originator, creator, master, or leader – literally, one who causes growth or increase (from augere). Authority is about growth, expansiveness, creativity, and even abundant life. Jesus taught as one having authority, he healed with authority, and he shared that authority with his disciples. Questions of authority are what get Jesus in trouble with the Temple officials.
Authority is meant to be an instrument of abundant life, even if it is often reduced to giving orders. Godly or holy authority is expansive and growth-inducing, rather than punitive or restrictive. Jesus’ own authoritative statement on the issue comes at the end of Matthew’s gospel, after the resurrection, when he tells the disciples that he’s been given all authority in heaven and earth, and therefore they’re supposed to ‘go and make disciples, baptize them, and teach them what I’ve taught you. And don’t forget, I’ll always be with you.’ Authority is given to all parts of Jesus’ body to go and expand the possibilities for the reign of God. Go, share that authority, and make more abundant life for the world. We have a shorthand word for that authorized work – it’s called mission, and quite literally it means, “going.” When we’re engaged in that expansive work, looking outward to see the need of our neighbor, and then responding, we’re doing mission. When we’re not, we’re almost certainly looking inward, focused on ourselves, and stuck in diminishment, anxiety, and fear.
The exercise of this kind of authority comes through ministry or service – active love of God and neighbor. The centurion acknowledges that he lives under authority, which in his case means applying his own God-given capacity to author or create more life for others. He’s not out for himself, he’s looking for a better life for his servant. Elijah does something quite similar.
That kind of authority is all around us. On Friday we visited the asylum seekers camp in Bayern-Kaserne. The leader of the Social Service work there is clearly someone with authority. She knows the residents, responds to concerns and questions, sets limits, and promotes a sense of peace in the face of circumstances which are often filled with trauma and anxiety. Yesterday we met the Sisters of Charity who operate a small hostel and soup kitchen – there, too, we found an amazing sense of abundance as physical and spiritual hungers are met with extravagant grace.
Your growing mission work in Romania has crossed some amazing boundaries to build relationships with people who are teaching you something about abundance in the face of grinding poverty. Clergy have been welcomed into Orthodox institutions with actions that far exceed common courtesy, and God’s people are being transformed in both places.
Ascension’s history here in the years before the Second World War was deeply involved in mission with Jewish people in this city. Your ancestors in the faith here were recognized as people with authority – and Jewish people increasingly entrusted their resources for safekeeping in your library. The SS recognized threat in that authority, and expelled the rector and burned the building. But they did not extinguish the authority of this community.
You have a godly heritage indeed. Your ability to augment and expand the lives of neighbors is the expression of the relationship you have with God – and you have been given abundant capacity, and it’s meant to be used.
May God continue to expand your authority, and may you grow from strength to strength in sharing abundance with neighbors nearby and far away. Loving God and neighbor is indeed the only road home, and that road goes toward the healing and restoration of the world. It’s even more powerful than all the rain and flood and rivers around us.