June 2, 2013
The Bible stories appointed for today have a considerable resonance. That is actually something quite unusual in these days of the Revised Common Lectionary, as the lessons are no longer chosen to relate to each other. The resonance, therefore, is more coincidence than a result of any intentionality.
First, we have the prophet Elijah speaking to the Israelites, a story told to us in the First Book of Kings. There is a kind of contest between Gods at work here, between the one true Lord God and Ba’al. “If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
Among the ancient Israelites, the cult of Ba’al was the greatest and most enduring threat to the worship of Yahweh alone. And Ba’al was not so much one competing god; it’s a term that can refer to a number of gods, and even to human officials: gods who were patrons of cities, a god of the rain, and even Ba’al Zebub, the “lord of the flies” who will be identified as the “prince of demons” in the New Testament.
Elijah is calling the people back to the worship of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And it is not a popular move. The people seem to like worshiping both Yahweh and Ba’al; you might call it covering all bets, or playing it safe, or anticipating any contingency.
And Elijah calls on God, who sends down a lightening bolt to consume an offering presented. The Israelites see this and they are converted, falling on their faces and proclaiming, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”
Then, in his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul is astonished that the people are so quickly deserting the true gospel for a different one.
And he writes that if he were trying to please people, he would not be a servant of Christ.
Again, there is some kind of completing god here. Scholars are not quite sure what that other gospel was exactly, but we surmise that it was different enough to cause the apostle alarm. “If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed,” Paul says. Not ignored, not forgotten, not even left behind – but accursed.
Like the prophet Elijah, Paul is calling the people back to the one true God.
And in the story of the centurion and his slave from the Gospel of Luke, we have another set of gods at play. As a member of the Roman army, the centurion would have worshiped Jupiter, Apollo and Diana – among many others.
Now the centurion was well liked among the people in Capernaum. “He loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us,” they tell Jesus.
The gospel writer tells us next to nothing about the centurion, not even his name. We do not hear that he converted to Judaism, or afterward followed Jesus. We are told simply that he loves God’s people. And notice carefully: Jesus and the centurion never encounter one another face-to-face. First, some elders come to Jesus, and later the centurion sends some friends to carry his message.
The message the centurion sends is a familiar one: Tell Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my room; but only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
For Jesus, this is enough to grant his request. The servant is healed.
The reason Jesus grants the request is clear: The centurion has described himself as “a man set under authority.” And the authority under which he sets himself in that of Jesus, not one of his own pagan gods.
So we have three very different contexts, three different writers, three different sets of characters – and one common theme: God who is true versus gods that are not.
Now, people’s involvement with and worship of false gods is as old as the hills. What has changed is the false gods we worship. Nowadays, our worship is not so much of the idols of Ba’al or the many gods of ancient Rome. But make no mistake: There is more than one contrary gospel out there.
The false gospel of prosperity, for instance. This is very common in today’s world. It’s a belief that when we gain economic wealth, it is because God is rewarding us for our good behavior. And according to the proponents of this misguided theology, the behavior that God is most likely to reward just happens to be financial giving in support of some religious leader!
And the false gospel that the Apostle Paul was likely railing against: Gnosticism. Among the many tenets of this belief is a sense that salvation comes through our righteous works. Paul repeatedly preached against this deception, affirming that salvation is by grace, a divine gift. Our good works form a necessary part of Christian life, and they are pleasing to God – but they come as a response to the gifts of grace, not a means to earn them.
And then, for Christians, the most contrary gospel of all: the belief that the message is more about the messenger than the message. This is a tricky one, because we Christians do worship and adore Jesus Christ as an essential person of the Triune God. Yet, as our Presiding Bishop has said, Jesus asked us to follow him, not to worship him.
Now, Jesus is certainly our primary example for Christian living. But when he preached, he did not trumpet his own virtues. He never tells his disciples to “preach Jesus;” instead he instructs them to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
What Jesus preached was that the kingdom of God has drawn very near. It is imminent.
This kingdom of God was – and is – a very important construct for Jesus, as it should be for us.
The kingdom of God: the time and place where everyone in all the world becomes willingly subject to the one true God. The time and place when we will see the consummation of God’s justice, love and mercy. The time and place in which everyone will be valued, respected and cared for adequately.
It is a vision still unfulfilled, but still intensely compelling:
A world without hunger, without oppression, without sickness, without violence.
A world of peace, liberty and, yes, prosperity.
And a world in which these are not the standards enjoyed by a few, but the ethical basis of human rights for everyone.
The god of Ba’al has proved to be false, the teaching of the Gnostics has proved to be heresy and the gospel of prosperity has proved to be contrary to the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
All these – and more – distract us from the core message of our savior Jesus: The kingdom of heaven has come very near you.
This is our hope. This is our salvation. This is our destiny.
So let us continue to bring this reality ever nearer. For the duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.
—The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates is the author of sixteen essays published in scholarly journals, including “On the Search for the Authentic Liturgy of the Apostles: The Diversity of the Early Church as Normative for Anglicans,” in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Anglican Studies. He lives and writes in Jersey City, N.J.