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Read Matthew 8:5-13.

When I read this text, I want to be the centurion. His faith is commendable. His respect for the authority of Jesus is absolute. Wouldn’t it be great to be like the centurion?
But the way the text is written, the way Matthew tells the story and the other stories around it, it isn’t so easy to step into the place of the centurion. You see, Matthew was writing to “insiders.” He was writing to disciples and believers, many of whom had roots in Israel, which simply means they had been in the tradition of God’s people for a very long time. The centurion, however, is an outsider. He is a pagan. He’s just heard about Jesus and has heard that this Jesus has incredible power and authority. But he is not a disciple and has certainly not grown up in the traditions of God’s people. He is not an insider – he is an outsider.

Now consider, which are you? Which describes you better and your experience: the centurion pagan outsider, or the insiders with heritage? Look, you are going to be one or the other. It’s okay to be one or the other. One isn’t better than the other. But which describes you better: Have you been raised in the traditions of God’s people? There’s a humorous email making the rounds: “You might be a member of the church of Christ if ...”
* If you know exactly what song I'm talking about when I say, “Let’s sing 728b.”
* If you could recite the books of the NT before you could barely read them.
* If you know the first and third verse of nearly every song.
* If you pray for the preacher to have a "ready recollection" and that the Lord should "bring-us-back-at-the-next appointed-time."
* If actually understand the differences in shape notes.
* If you select your Bible translation based on how Acts 2:38 reads.
* If you reach for your wallet when you hear the phrase, "Now, separate and apart from the Lord's Supper ..."
* If you think the Bible questions on Jeopardy are way too easy.

This little email doesn’t have to be disrespectful. It simply points out that we have a heritage. And it is the familiarity of these situations that brings a grin to our face.

Even thought there was a time that my family had very little to do with fellowship and church life, I am thoroughly and insider. I am a minister – I am obviously on the inside. I don’t apologize for that and I am not ashamed of it. And yet, I long to have the perspective of the outsider. I need it. Why? Because sometimes it is the outsider who understands God better than we do on the inside.

This centurion outsiders opens our eyes – the eyes of insiders – to something very important: a question of authority. It’s not bad to be an insider, but it has its challenges. One of the challenges is to remember who is in charge. As insiders we can slip into a misunderstanding that we are “in charge” because we’ve been around for a while. It’s good to have a high sense of ownership, but when we forget that we are just stewards of the mission of God, we might confuse authority.

The Centurion has a different perspective on authority – one that comes from his Roman and pagan background. Yet, it is a view of authority that Jesus commends because it rings true. The centurion believes that Jesus has absolute authority and that the word of Jesus is powerful because he himself is a man who is under authority. So, he understands authority and he recognizes authority. This Centurion was a high ranking officer – he was trusted with authority over a major Roman trade route – the Via Maris, and yet he still considered himself under authority, but that authority was given to him. He recognized that an authority greater than himself, and authority he submitted to, was the source of his authority. He did not assume that authority came from within himself.

It is a question of authority: Are we under authority? We like to be the authority; I am not sure about being under it. In America, the assumption is that final authority rests with the people. In Arkansas, the people rule ("regnat populus"). It leads to the attitude that in America we are all monarchs. We are all authority. But in a land where authority comes from within, we don’t easily recognize any authority greater than our own self. Even Jesus.

It is a question of authority: Who or what is the source of our sense of authority? Is it our heritage? Is it money and influence; is it strength and will? What do we cite as our authority? What do we regard as a source of power. Whatever you trust in “to get things done” or to feel secure – that may be your concept of authority. And what about us as a church? Do we recognize the authority of Christ in all things? Let’s think carefully about this even as we discuss our “church business.” Do we speak and act as if Christ has all the authority? Is our sense of his authority over even the most “mundane” affairs of the church ingrained (like the Centurion) or is it just ceremonial? (Like the Pharisees.)
Notice that the centurion will not have Jesus come to his house even though Jesus is willing to go. The centurion knows how to respect authority. We must be careful not to lapse into a laziness that compartmentalizes reverence and respect for God into “religious activities” and leave everything else to “business.” [The girl in Nicaragua – she set her future hopes on God’s sovereignty. I was thinking like a “can-do” American.]

It is a question of authority: Who is in charge? Another challenge of insiders is to create an “us and them” mentality and unintentionally we might make it too difficult to bring anyone from the outside to the inside. When we think we are in charge we start to interfere in God’s business. Jesus uses the Centurion as an example for all of us to respect what God is doing to bring outsiders inside. Jesus says that there’s a great feast coming at the end of the age. A banquet for God’s redeemed. Who will be at the party? We tend to think of the party as “Us and Them.” Jesus says that there will be “foreigners” at the table with Father Abraham. People from the east and west will take a seat right between the founders of God’s nation. Now who's outside? Who is on the inside?
The nations were always in God’s plan. Everyone in Israel acknowledged that. But the assumption was that “they” were supposed to witness “us.” (lsaiah 2:2-3) In Jesus’ statement, however, the nations are more than witnesses – they are direct participants. They have become “us.”

I hope I can be across the table when this Centurion sits beside Father Abraham and they trade stories. And after the Centurion relates his amazement and awe over the absolute and effective authority of God in Christ, Abraham sighs and tells his story. “I wish I had understood it like you. God promised Sarah and I a child when I was 75. But we weren’t getting any younger and God was taking his time. So, we came up with a plan to have a child. And it worked. My first son Ishmael was born – Sarah’s servant was the mother of course – but we filled out all the necessary paperwork to make Sarah the mother of the child. It wasn’t always easy over the next few years but the real kicker came close to my 100th birthday when God showed up and said that Sarah and I were going to have that child he promised. Sarah just burst out laughing, but I said, “Lord, we took care of that about 12 years ago. That’s old business.” And God said, “No Abraham, that was your business. I’m talking about my business. I am talking about what I promised you 25 years ago.”

Well, maybe the Centurion wouldn’t have been so quick to say “Say the word” and trust completely in the authority of God if he had to wait 25 years for an heir like Abraham. Maybe, but then I bet the walk home for that centurion was a long walk home. Not really knowing if he would arrive to find his servant healed. But then, he has the faith perspective of an outsider. He knows authority and he knows who is in charge. So if Jesus says he is healed – then he is healed.

It is a question of authority: Who is in charge? I want you to come back tonight for the family meeting. We have church business to talk about and pray about. I am not asking you to come back because this is your church and we need you to vote. No, you are not in charge. But I am not asking you to come back because the elders, ministers and ministry leaders have something to share with you because they are in charge. No, they are not in charge. I am not in charge.

I am asking you to come back so that together we can seek out the one with all authority. Jesus Christ is in charge of all of us and the authority that any of us have comes from him. We are under his authority. And that is why we need to get together. To pray and talk about what it is he wants us to do.

Over the last few years we have determined that God is working to form a congregation for people who speak Spanish. Where shall we build a building for them? It is easy to assume that that decision is left to the city, or to the contributors, or to church leaders. But along the way we have learned to wait on God and trust in his authority. There have been some very interesting developments on this and we need to talk about it to see what God is doing in this. Who will commit to prayer on this? Who will petition Christ on behalf of brothers and sisters we love. Did you notice that the Centurion did not petition Christ for himself? It was for a servant that he cared about. Maybe the pagans understand more than just authority better than we do sometimes. Sometimes they understand loyalty and love better than we do.

Over the last few years we have followed God’s lead in serving UAFS students with the Lions for Christ ministry. What does God intend next for that ministry. We need to talk about that tonight. The leaders of our Campus Minister Search Team and the students are trying to embody a trust in Jesus’ authority. Trying to do it his way rather than our way. We need you to share in this.

What we are talking about is critical in the life of a church when a congregation recognizes additional elders. We want to talk about plans for that in the first part of next year. God raises up his leaders and we have an opportunity to be involved in that. After all, this isn’t our business, it is God’s business. It is his authority that empowers every other authority. And our elders current and future are men under authority – not our elected representatives. They are men who are under the authority of Christ and they have been given charge to teach us all how to live.

A Question of Authority: Whose rule do you acknowledge in your life? Whose rule do we acknowledge in this church? The word acknowledge is very similar to the “church” word confess. Those who are baptized confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Making that confession is an admission that he is in charge. And it is a confession we only begin to make at our baptism. After that, we must confess it everyday in words and in all of our business.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 29 October 2006

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