When Moses died the Lord spoke to Joshua. It was time for God’s people to cross the Jordan river and claim (granted, by conquest) the land which the Lord had promised them (Joshua 1:1-9), and Joshua is told to be strong and courageous. Over and over, be strong and courageous (1:6, 1:7, 1:9). But this was not a coach giving a pep talk, or a buddy suggestion for a shot of Scotch and testosterone, or even the stirring of love and responsibility of a leader for his troops, his brothers and sisters-in-arms. The Lord says clearly, referring to the laws given to Moses, “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. (Josh 1:8a),” and, through obedience of God’s law, Joshua and his people would succeed. God concludes, “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9).” Our strength and courage don’t come from our pulling up our socks and puffing out our chests. They come from God. God is our strength and our refuge, our rock, our crag, and the list could go on as long as a large number of verses in the psalms.
In the Gospel lesson (Matt 8:5-17) Jesus himself learns a lesson about chain of command. He knows about obeying his Father, but here a Roman officer puts it in terms Joshua would understand. The centurion is under orders. He is used to taking and giving orders. If this healer, Jesus, commands it, it will be done. The centurion is asking for his slave who is paralyzed and in distress. Although Luke (Luke 7:2-10) says that the slave is dear to him, or highly valued “dear” can mean loved or can mean costly, but, as a friend or property, this master wishes to relieve the distress of someone under his jurisdiction. And Jesus seems astonished at the faith of this Gentile compared to those around him. And then Jesus goes to Peter’s house and sees Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Fevers kill. He touches her and she gets up and begins to serve him. Some have been quick to see this as an example of the diminished role of women, and yet, as Paul says, in Christ there is no male or female, slave or free. And in Christ and under his yoke are we not all called to serve him? Because there is a chain of command, even today in this world which demands equality and personal freedom, where self-interest trumps the interests of those around us. Those who won’t wear masks and keep social distance, for example. The idea that we are under the rule of a superior makes us uncomfortable. But the centurion understands. And Peter’s mother-in-law understands. She gets up to fulfill her role as one who cares for those under her roof, be it with soup or a clean bed for these friends of her family. A role which gives her pride and satisfaction. Or perhaps she sees in Jesus much more, and the call to serve him leaps beyond a social role. She wants to serve him, as Jesus himself is called to serve her as the doctor of her body and her soul. As he himself serves his Father, for his Father’s glory.
And poor Paul is in prison again (Ephesians 3:1-13), and we don’t know if he is speaking literally or metaphorically, because we are all prisoners in Christ. Prisoners of love, in service, under protection, but prisoners, none the less. And now we see the common thread of these three readings. And of so much of what we Jesus commanded us. Serve God. Seek God’s will. Look up, not towards the world. And serve the world for God’s glory. Socially or politically, liberal left or conservative right, the notion that we have the right, and even demand the right, to whatever we want, and whatever it is, we want it now, isn’t how Joshua was able to bring an army of untrained refugees to military victory. It isn’t how any centurion would see his role in supporting and sustaining his Emperor, and Legion, or caring for and protecting those in his command and under his authority. And Paul is herding cats throughout the known world by holding up his miraculous vision and the command given him by Jesus, by proclaiming the scandal of the Cross to a shame driven society, and by a promise of forgiveness and eternal life which is, frankly, unbelievable. Or at least unbelievable without the blessing of the Spirit to fill our hearts, not just our minds.
To be clear, this is not an argument about forced compliance in a community, one driven by fear, punishment, and shame. That works, of course, for a while. If you ignore hurt people. What Paul was calling for was recognition not of a natural human hierarchy, but a higher hierarchy. We have hierarchies, and there always will be hierarchies. However rigid or loosely interpreted, somewhere there is a boss, the woman or man whose direct order or subtle nod or smile will determine the direction of a group or community. An army or empire or parish or family are in the world, but in Christ they are also not of this world, but from God, from what we have metaphorically called “from above,” or “metaphysical,” or “mystical.” From the unquestioned authority of God the Holy Trinity, of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And, oh, boy, do we push back on that. We want our will, our ideas, our better-than-God ideas. Our protests don’t work. We mess up the world. All the way back to the Garden. “I’m hiding, God. Pay no attention to me.” All that traditional language about being in sin points to the human condition. The degree to which we submit to the reality of God, and that God is present here and now, is the degree to which we follow rules, commandments, that aren’t social customs or arbitrary laws, but God’s, meant to create that Kingdom in which we try to live, even if we won’t live in it fully until the End Time when everything will be made anew.
Be strong and courageous. But in God. Not in our own puffed up notions. But if we do hear and do God’s will, we are rewarded not only with peace, but with a kind of gentler sense of pride, of success, a humble pleasure, one which we share with the Spirit with whom we worked to succeed in an obedient and familial relationship. (And let’s, please, stop hating fathers and mothers. Trust our heavenly one.) We feel gratitude, glowing gratitude, not cringing and self-effacing gratitude. That latter kind we can keep for the miracle that we didn’t slip and fall off the cliff or step in front of that bus we didn’t see.
Jesus has ascended. We celebrate the reunification, from our point of view, of the Trinity. We wait for Pentecost. And the joy of red balloons and streamers are nice, but the descent of the Holy Spirit in us, the baptized Body of Christ, is the real manifestation of the Good News. Alleluia.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls divides her time between Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA, and Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She lives with her cats, books, and garden.