It was probably one of the hardest youth group games that I would play with the teens. They had to make-believe they were on a life raft that was sinking and if anyone was going to survive one person had to jump off of the boat and get eaten by sharks. I saw the teens make all kinds of decisions, the very worst one was dumping off the least popular kid and one of the most interesting one was when the whole group decided to go down together.
When you’re listening in to the kids debating who should go the conversations are really interesting because everyone has a “role.” Someone was a doctor or humanitarian like Mother Theresa ( seriously, do you throw Mother Theresa off a boat?!) one was a convicted felon and so on… When the groups were discussing who was going to get thrown off the merits of the people on the boat always got brought up. We’ll that person saves lives. That person’s a scumbag. That person is old or that person is young, there is all sorts of different ways they go about it, but it always ends up about the person’s worth and if they are worthy or have enough merit to stay on the boat, to be saved. Of course, ultimately, there isn’t a right answer to the game, it’s meant to make the kids think about their own assumptions abut a person’s worth.
In the Gospel reading today from Luke, each of the people in the reading seem to be playing the same game.
After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
There is a Roman Centurion, this a man of status and some wealth has a servant that is deathly ill and he is sending for help from the Great Physician Jesus. The Centurions initial appeal is that this servant means a lot to him. That in and of itself speaks volumes about the character of the centurion. He cares for this servant as more than a piece of replaceable property and he is willing to find help for him. Then the Jewish elders speak with Jesus as well exhorting how much worth this centurion has. He was a Gentile God-Fearer who joined in the worship of Yahweh with his Jewish neighbors, he gave to the Jewish community and was a builder of Synagogues for that community.. He should get to stay on the boat and his servant should get to stay on the boat too because they were worthy, they should be saved.
How often do we approach God and especially like the question of salvation in this same way?
It’s like we have this same picture in our heads, like all the people in the world are on a really big boat, all together and we’re heading to this place called heaven but God get’s to decide who meets the criteria for getting into heaven and the people who don’t he pushes off the boat so they can get eaten by sharks, that is “go to hell.” We are always arguing with God, saying that person’s is young or old, never had a chance to hear about Jesus, he was a good man or a good woman, he had a lot of problems in life… always trying to put forth reasons, excuses or the merit of the person and why God shouldn’t push them off the boat.
But when we do this we make two really big assumptions and we make them wrongly.
The first assumption is that any of us are on the boat in the first place. Just think of human experience the wars, abuses, brokenness, hurt, that surrounds all of us in this world, that we do to each other and to ourselves. We’re not on the boat we’re in the water already getting eaten by sharks and many times we are the sharks eating each other up! But not only that, we live in a hostile world filled with illness, disease, disasters and ultimately, always, death. Death by itself should tell us we are already drowning in the ocean, darkness in front and all around us that we are powerless against. No, we are not on the boat, our natural place is in the water, drowning, powerless, getting eaten by sharks, by our own doing and by the brokenness all around us that we also have contributed to in big and small ways. Now hold that image in your mind because it is the reality of our existence by our own doing. Not one worthy but all lost in this world.
This is the reality that the “worthy” centurion confesses. Jesus, he sends the message, I am not worthy. All of those merits to my name mean nothing when you’re in the water drowning, status will not save, wealth will not save and the approaching death of his beloved servant underscores the reality, I am powerless against this. We are drowning but with and only you Jesus is there help to save us. The centurion understood his place in all of this but he also understood Jesus place as well, as the one who comes and saves the lost, saves those who are drowning and gets them on the boat where help is found. Jesus calls this faith.
That is the spiritual reality we live within, we do not start off on the boat, we enter this world in the water, drowning from conception and birth, in need of help. God has sent Jesus to save us drowning, lost and broken people from what we have done to ourselves, without any worth or merit on our part but only because of the love and mercy of God for us.
The second assumption that we make is about the boat. The boat that Jesus has given to us to be rescued upon, it has no limits, no one needs to drown, no one needs to be lost, but the boat can hold all of humanity, all of creation within it’s walls. But not everyone wants to be saved, it is our rebelliousness that put us in the water in the first place and keeps us in the water as well, away from the boat, away from Jesus.
I spent a good portion of my teen years being a lifeguard for my local YMCA and I had to pull some people out of the water during that time. One moment stands out for me when a really big guy, that’s coming from me, was in trouble in the deep end. I had to go in with my red lifeguard tube and pull him out. But when I got close to him he grabbed onto me inn a stranglehold, grabbing the tube and pushing me down under the water. I had to kick him in the gut to get away. It was only when the man got enough sense to realize he was drowning and needed help, couldn’t do it on his own, that we could help. That was not fun but it is what we do to Jesus all of the time.
No Jesus, I can handle it. No Jesus, I want a different boat to save me, I want to decide what kind of boat I get. No Jesus, I want to do these hurtful things that keep putting me under. Even when we are on the boat in faith, we keep trying to jump off and it takes a community, a church, to keep us from committing spiritual suicide. We need saving and Jesus is our savior.
We do not start off on the boat in this world, we start off drowning and in need of help. Our loving God sent Jesus to be our savior, to save us from drowning by our own hand and to bring us on the boat, this boat that is called the Church to keep us safe from drowning and get us through to the dry land on the other side with Him. When we’re not trying to jump off the boat ourselves we have this wonderful, saving grace and lifeline to help pull other drowning souls into the saving boat of God’s grace called the Church, where help is found because of Jesus.