A Cosmology of Trust: 7th Sunday in Epiphany

Matthew 8:1-17; Galatians 1:1-12, 2:16

Matthew’s Jesus now comes down from the mountain and gets into the work of healing and teaching.  Matthew’s Chapter 8 is not covered by the Revised Common LectionaryThe Elves prefer either Mark or Luke, both of which deal with the same material:  curing the leper; curing the Roman officer’s slave long-distance; speculating on who gets to hobnob with patriarchs; curing Peter’s mother-in-law; and describing how the crowds brought their demon-possessed friends and family members to Jesus.  The differences are found in the settings.  See, for example, Mark’s version of the cleansing of the leper (Epiphany 6, Year B).

The story of the unusual trust afforded to Jesus by the Roman soldier (traditionally, a centurion, who commanded about 80 men)  appears in Matthew, Luke, and John, but not in Mark.  Perhaps the reason is that the story illustrates the expansion of the Jesus movement outside Judaism in the years after the fall of Jerusalem.  In Matthew’s setting, Jesus is amazed at the centurion’s trust, which, he says, “I have not found in a single Israelite!” He predicts that “many will come from the east and west and dine with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in Heaven’s domain, but those who think Heaven’s domain belongs to them will be thrown where it is utterly dark.  There’ll be weeping and grinding of teeth out there.”  As always, with the writer of Matthew’s gospel, anti-Semitism might seem to be lurking beneath the surface.  What is actually reflected, however, is the schism between the Jewish followers of Jesus’ Way and traditional Jewish communities.

The Elves associate Galatians 1:1-12 with Luke’s version of the centurion story (Luke 7:1-10).  Luke does not have Jesus condemn to hell “those who think Heaven’s domain belongs to them,” while outsiders from the east and the west get to hobnob with the patriarchs.  Nevertheless, the Elves seem to be insisting that “if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (Galatians 1:9, NRSV) – as though they were reading Luke and Paul with Matthew’s exclusionary language in mind.  (See A Different Gospel? and Outside, Not Above, the Law.)

That such sentiments are completely contrary to the historical Jesus should be obvious. What is not obvious is how Paul’s letter to the Galatians might possibly speak to Matthew’s insight that “Many will come from the east and the west and dine with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in Heaven’s domain.”  Did the writer know about Paul’s mission to the gentiles?  Did he have access to Paul’s letters?  Or was it a logical conclusion, given the upheaval in Jewish communities at the time?

The words attributed to Jesus that are repeated in Matthew and Luke are “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (NRSV).  In the usual translation of Galatians 1:9, Paul says “if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received [from me], let that one be accursed!”  Then 1:10 has Paul challenging the Galatians by asking, “Am I now seeking human approval or God’s approval?”  Then in verses 11 and 12 he says he did not receive the gospel “from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  (This, by the way, is the only clue Paul gives us about why he changed his mind about the Jesus followers he had been harassing up until whatever happened to him had happened.)  The traditional interpretation of all this – especially in association with the centurion – is that faith – belief – is evidence of a revelation from God, and anything to the contrary is not only suspect, the very origin of it is “cursed.”

But when “faith” is translated as “trust,” and not “belief,” and when the phrase is faith/trust OF, not faith/trust IN, then two things happen: First, the experience of the centurion changes from belief in some kind of remote magic done by Jesus to the kind of trust or confidence in God’s rule that Jesus had.  For 21st century Christian exiles, the bottom line is trust in the very nature of the cosmos, not carrying out the rituals or rules of any particular religious tradition. Even more important is that “belief” in any particular story or set of ritual behaviors has nothing to do with healing and wholeness.  All three versions of the healing of the centurion’s slave (in John he is the son of an official) contain an element of magic: At the precise moment when Jesus speaks the words, “your son is healed,” or “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith” (NRSV) the slave (or son) is cured.  But Jesus was not a sorcerer.  Jesus had a profound trust in the natural course of life.  When we are able to let go into the truth of the nature of the Cosmos, healing happens.  The cancer may or may not disappear, but the possibility of transforming the quality of our lives from despair to hope is the result.

The second consequence of experiencing “trust” and not “belief” is that Paul’s letter to the Galatians becomes very relevant to Matthew’s conviction that people outside the Jewish tradition would be welcome at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Paul lays out his argument starting with an account of the discussion between himself and the leaders of the Jerusalem community, which resulted in their recognition “that God had entrusted me with the task of announcing God’s world-transforming message to the uncircumcised [i.e., gentile “nations”] just as Peter had been entrusted with taking it to the circumcised [i.e., the Jewish communities].  For it was evident that the God who worked through Peter as envoy to the circumcised worked through me as envoy to the rest of the world” (Gal. 2:7-8, The Authentic Letters of Paul (SV) p. 53).  He then points out in 2:16:

. . . we now see that no one becomes acceptable to God by relying on traditional religious practices.  We gain this acceptance only through a confidence in God like that of Jesus, God’s Anointed.  So we put our confidence in God along with the Anointed Jesus in order to be acceptable to God based on a confidence like that of God’s Anointed rather than by relying on traditional religious practices.  The truth of the matter is “no one will be acceptable to God” on the basis of traditional religious practices.  SV p. 54.

Not only does Paul throw out “traditional religious practices”; he leads the Galatians into his conclusion that “everyone who has been baptized into solidarity with God’s Anointed has become invested with the status of God’s Anointed.  You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer male and female.  Instead you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed Jesus.  Moreover, if you now belong to God’s Anointed, that also makes you Abraham’s offspring and – as promised – his heirs.”

This is a far cry from the exclusivity that has plagued the Christian religion since the 4th century, CE.  There is no litmus test of belief or custom.  All that is required is to love your neighbor as yourself, and resist the seductive power of corruption that is part and parcel with the conventions of normal civilization.  All that is required is a radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of non-violent, distributive justice-compassion.

It all sounds so easy.

The radical trust Jesus encountered in the first century Roman centurion was such a rare commodity that two of the synoptic gospel writers, and the mystic who created the gospel of John all include the story.  Twenty centuries later, what are the chances that 21st century folk can develop the kind of trust in the nature of the universe at a level that matches the confidence that Jesus had in God?

Rev. John Shuck, in his sermon for Evolution Sunday, reports that

In a Gallup Poll in 2009, 39% of Americans surveyed indicated that they believed in Evolution. 25% did not believe in evolution and 36% had no opinion.  More hair-raising than that was a poll recently conducted by Science magazine. They found that among 900 high school biology teachers surveyed, only 28% were advocates of evolution. 13% were advocates of creationism. The remaining 60% were neither advocates for evolution nor another non-scientific alternative. They were on the fence.

Beyond the desire we may have for political or social transformation lies the post-enlightenment, post-modern, post-Christian existential condition.  We are exiles not only from a personal experience of divinity; we are exiles from the very knowledge we need to develop the metaphors that could lead to a concept of the sacred, and confidence in its reliability – a cosmology, not a theology.  Such a cosmology would convict us of the responsibility we have for the healing and wholeness of human life, and the sustainability of the Home Planet.

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