Smashing boundaries, confronting stereotypes

Pentecost 2 – 2016

Luke 7:1-10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who welcome all those who seek God. Amen.

C.S. Lewis had the most extraordinary ability to express complex theology in a way that is easy to understand. This is demonstrated above all in his stories. The Screwtape Letters proved a light-hearted insight into the subtleties of evil and The Great Divorce reveals Lewis’s understanding of the final judgement. Perhaps his greatest achievement is The Chronicles of Narnia – children’s stories that Lewis wrote for his god-daughter. In seven short books, Lewis manages to sum up some of the central tenets of our faith in story form. From an account of creation in The Magician’s Nephew to an imaginative presentation of judgement and the end of the world in The Last Battle Lewis manages to share the faith in an adventure story that is so compelling that even on the one hundredth read is impossible to put down and that even on the one hundred and first read still has greater depths to reveal.

Narnia is an imaginary land into which children from this world are unexpectedly thrown and in which they find themselves confronting, challenging and fighting the forces of evil. In Narnia the divine is represented by a huge lion – Aslan – who appears terrible to those who don’t believe or who have gone their own way, but full of light and love to those whose hearts are open and who have nothing to hide. Because Lewis is writing from a Christian perspective, it is clear to us that Aslan represents the Trinity and in particular Jesus. Readers observe Aslan breathing the world into being, being destroyed and yet being restored to life and being present as an invisible presence and power. Aslan is welcoming, forgiving and understanding, but not without expectations of those who would be his friends. He expects the children to trust him and to show the same sort of care for others as he shows to them.

Perhaps the most extraordinary book in the series is the last. In this story, he tries to capture the theme of Revelation – a difficult enough book for any of us to grasp. Suffice to say, the story deals with the destruction of the world and the final judgement. It is impossible to summarise the plot here and I simply want to focus on one aspect of the story. The final battle is between the cruel Calormenes and the Narnians. In the course of the battle the heroes are slain and find themselves in the most wonderful land in which everything is larger, brighter and somehow more real than the land from which they came. They are not alone in this new place. All the Narnians who have fallen in battle are there with them. There too are a small group of dwarves, huddled together in terror, so bound by their unbelief that they simply cannot see the beauty and bounty that surrounds them.

Also in this new and wonderful land is a Calormene who is wandering freely and in wide-eyed wonder. Emeth, for that was his name, had spent his life faithful to the god of his own people and was deeply disturbed by what the deceptions that had brought Narnia under Calormene control. Unlike the dwarves who were blinded by their skepticism and arrogance, Emeth was open to the presence of the divine, by whatever name it went. When he found himself in the strange new land, he was at first unafraid. It was only when he came face to face with Aslan that he threw himself to the ground, certain that he – a follower of the god of the Calormenes – would be struck down and destroyed. Instead he feels the lion bend down and touch his tongue to his forehead saying: “Son you are welcome.” Despite Emeth’s protestations that he is not worthy, Aslan assures him that his life, his goodness and his desire for God were all in fact in the service of Aslan and that he belongs in this strange new place.

There are a number of surprising aspects to today’s gospel. The centurion is not only not a Jew, he is a Roman and a soldier at that. He cares for his slave almost as a father cares for his child yet, despite his authority he does not feel that he is in a position to ask for Jesus’ help directly. Instead he sends some Jews to ask on his behalf. They assure Jesus that he is worthy of Jesus’ attention however, when Jesus’ nears the home of the centurion he sends another delegation – this time his friends – to tell Jesus that he is not worthy to have Jesus come to him.

It is clear that the centurion has seen the divine in Jesus and that, in the presence of the Jesus, he is acutely aware of his outsider status, his unworthiness. He is seeking Jesus’ help even though he does not worship the God of the Jews. The centurion knows that he does not belong, that in the eyes of many he represents the enemy, the oppressor.

Jesus sees in him, not an enemy but someone who is open to the presence of the divine, someone who is not so bound by his own ideas or by his skepticism that he cannot see Jesus for who he is. Jesus sees not someone who worships another god, but someone whose life, goodness and desire for God are in the service of the one true God. In fact Jesus rather than being disturbed is amazed – even among the Jews he has not found a faith to match that of the centurion.

Unlike Jesus, there are many who are quick to judge, who believe that they know who is in and who is out, who think that they know just what faith entails and how God will judge their faith and the faith of others.

The gospels are quick to destroy the arrogance that insists that there is only one way to God and only one way to be accepted by God. Rather than creating strict definitions of who belongs and who does not, Jesus is constantly smashing boundaries, confounding stereotypes and confronting the self-confidence of those who think that they are the only ones who will be saved.

Then who will be saved when that final curtain falls and Jesus comes again to judge? Those who seek God in the ways that are known to them and whose understanding of God is not limited to a prescribed set of ideas but who are open to the presence of God in themselves and in the world, those who have the humility to recognise their own unworthiness and who do not feel that the world/God owes them anything and who understand that they do not cannot deserve Jesus’ attention. In other words salvation belongs to those who trust in God – whoever and whatever God may be – and who, instead of trusting in themselves, admit their faults and throw themselves on God’s mercy.

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