223rd Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
San Diego, California — June 28, 2009
Scripture readings: 1 John 4:13-21, Luke 7:1-10
The story of the healing of the centurion’s slave is a cross-cultural or intercultural story. In this story, there was a crossing of class differences — the centurion was doing all this for his slave. There was a crossing of power differences the centurion and the Jewish community which was control by the Roman. There was a crossing of different religions the Romans and the Jews. What allowed all the different people to work across their cultural differences in order to get Jesus to cure the centurion’s slave was love and trust. As read in our first lesson from 1 John, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”
The most unusual part of the story was that there was no element of fear or punishment expressed in this story. Imagine the tension that could have been there between the centurion and his soldiers, and the Jewish community. There could have been much fear amongst the Jewish elders whom the centurion sent to talk to Jesus. If they didn’t do what the centurion commended them to do, they could be punished. The Jewish elders did not say to Jesus, “If you don’t go, we would be punished for not accomplishing our mission.” No, they actually genuinely cared for the centurion and his slave. They pleaded with Jesus saying, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” There was no fear.
The centurion could have used his power to get Jesus to come directly. By his own admission, he said, “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” Then why not go directly to Jesus who was a Jew under the control of the Roman authority? The centurion could easily send his soldiers to escort Jesus to his place and commanded him to cure his slave. The centurion certainly had the power to evoke fear to get what he wanted at least get Jesus to come. No, there was no fear used. Because at the heart of the story was love. And love drives out fear.
First of all, the centurion had to have loved this slave, which was unusual. Slaves were properties, if one died, he could get another one. Why did you go through all this trouble over a lowly slave? Love had to have been central to this relationship. Then there were the trust built between the centurion and the Jewish community. Obviously, they had worked together before. The centurion had built the synagogue for the Jewish community. In that trusting relationship, the centurion was able to be vulnerable and expressed his need for Jesus’ help. In this trusting relationship, the Jewish elders gladly went on behalf of the centurion to talk to Jesus. Trust allowed them to express their love for each other. That’s why there was no fear involved in this story, because love drives out fear.
Not only did the centurion not use his power to evoke fear to get what he wanted, he actually lowered himself in a very humble manner when Jesus was getting close to his house. He sent friends to say to Jesus: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Jesus then commended him for his faith and when his friends went back to the centurion’s house the servant was well. What did Jesus mean when he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel”?
This faith has something to do with the Centurion’s love for his servant. It has something do with his willingness to work with the Jewish community which he had authority over. The faith has something to do with his willingness to let go and not use his power to get his way but to use his relationship, humbling himself and letting those who had less power to exercise their power.
In my work with multicultural congregations, the issues of power and fear were always central to the conflicts involved. To move from fear to building trust and love among the different cultural groups is essential for any multicultural congregation to become a faithful community.
I was invited to consult with a congregation. The initial request was for me to help them find ways to attract more youth. As I arrived at the church, I noticed that there were many young people around the church, playing basketball, laughing and talking on the church steps. I wondered to myself, “There are many youth here; why are they asking me to help them to increase their youth ministry?”
I went inside to the meeting room and was greeted by the group of leaders. I noticed that this group was all 65 years of age or older and they were all European Americans. I recalled right there that the young people outside were Korean Americans. As I heard them talking about their problems, I began to see the fuller picture. They were looking for youth that looked like them when they were young. However, the neighborhood had changed and surrounding their church were mostly Korean Americans now. The church had in fact opened their doors to allow the Korean group to worship there.
When the subject was brought up, many complained about the Korean fellowship: they are noisy, they hang around the church all day on Sunday, they don’t pick up their mess, they don’t contribute enough numbers, etc. There was very little interactions between the two groups except occasionally the Korean group would come to the English-speaking service to report on their growing ministry.
In the course of the consultation meeting, I studied Holy Scriptures with them and in the process reassured them that it is not their fault that their English-speaking community was shrinking and they had done the best they could. And more importantly, God still loved them. I then suggested that they should do a day-long retreat in which we would have the two language communities to come and have meaningful dialogue moving toward mutual understanding and working together. They agreed.
At the retreat, after spending a substantial amount of time to build trust through Bible study, prayers, and a basic dialogue process, I invited the two groups to go into separate language groups and discuss: What was church like 15 years ago? And what is church like now?
The Koreans came back and reported that15 years ago, they were in Korea and everybody spoke Korean whether they were in church or out on the street or at work. When they immigrated to this country, the English-speaking world was not very friendly to them. So church now was a place where they could recreate Korea. They were very grateful that they were able to worship here and that was why they stayed around church all day, because when Monday came, they had to face the English-speaking world again. So, every time they baptized a large number of people, they would rush to the English-Speaking congregation and thank them for letting them use the church. They were afraid that if they were not successful, the English-speaking group might make them leave.
The English-speaking group reported that 15 years ago church was full. They were 2,000 people strong and now they had only 600 people on Sunday. They missed the good old days when there were a lot of young people. They became vulnerable and shared their pain and sadness. They were afraid that they would lose their church if this trend continued.
In their listening to each others’ stories, they named the issues that were the source of their conflicts. The issue for the English-speaking congregation was about loss and grief. They needed to find a way to pass their legacy on in the church. The issue for the Korean-speaking was about acceptance in a hostile world.
As a result of this dialogue, the church decided to create a program called, “Adopt a Grandparent.” Each Korean family that had a child who spoke English would adopt one or a couple of the English-speaking congregation as grandparents. In this way, the need for passing on the legacy was met, and the need for acceptance and learning about the culture of the United States would be satisfied as well.
How can we assist a multicultural community to move from fear to love? From intercultural conflicts and tension to mutual cooperation doing ministry together? It begins with love. And love drives out fear.
We begin by reconnecting the powerful ones with the love of God. We need to assist them to recall how God had loved them personally and as a community. We do this by helping them recall the blessed history of the church. We do this through teaching and study scriptures with them. We do this by helping them reaffirm the love of God for them in the past and that God still is present and loves them–independent of how “successful” they are in doing God’s ministry. In the first letter of John, he said, “We love because God first loved us.” This is how we prepare the historically powerful group to enter into a multicultural community.
The second step is to help them to trust God enough to let go of their power and listen to the others, like the centurion, who humbled himself as Jesus was approaching and trusted that Jesus would use his power to cure his beloved servant.
We need to create an environment in which the powerful ones in a multicultural community can be vulnerable, let go of their power, and listen to the others. We need to also assist the powerless ones to share their experience and articulate their concerns. And in the humbling of the powerful and the empowerment of the powerless, the fear melts away and trust is built, and healing occurs. Ultimately, we must trust that Jesus would use his healing power to make us well.
–Eric H.F. Law is an ordained Episcopal priest and an author and consultant in the area of multicultural ministry.
The News Team for the 2009 Annual Conference includes writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend, Melissa Troyer, Rich Troyer; photographers Kay Guyer, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, Glenn Riegel, Ken Wenger; staff Becky Ullom and Amy Heckert. Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, editor. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.