GC2016 Worship — May 12, 2016 Sermon by Bishop Christian Alsted

Bishop Christian Alsted preaches on May 12 during the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, OR.Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

Bishop Christian Alsted preaches on May 12 during the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, OR.


On the day when we celebrated that light has conquered darkness, that death and evil is defeated, and Jesus Christ is risen, bombs went off in Lahore Pakistan. At least 56 people died and more than 200 were injured. Only a few days earlier bombs went off in Brussels, 34 people lost their lives and more than 230 were injured.

These are two tragedies in a long line of similar attacks in Nigeria, France, Egypt, Afghanistan and many other places.

Some cry, some light candles and bring flowers, some try to reach out to those the attackers would like us to fear and see as enemies. And political leaders mostly respond by promising resolve to defeat terrorism. Meanwhile more than 160.000 persons have died in the Syrian civil war, millions have become refugees, thousands have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and both east and west take part in the bombing and the killings.

We live a world where we allow violence to justify violence, where destruction is hoped to defeat destructive forces, and fear only builds more fear. Throughout history forces rooted in anger, fear, prejudice, privilege and superiority have almost always lead people on a road of devastation.

The roman centurion was very familiar with violence and death. He understood the destructive force of a hundred well trained and experienced Roman soldiers, not to speak of the destructive force of an entire legion. He knew how to spread fear, how to attack, to defeat and destroy the enemy.

And he knew that the soldiers under his authority were trained and prepared to obey his every command.

He was a man accustomed to be in control of his surroundings. But lately his world had been shaken, and now he reaches out to Jesus for help. ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.’

Jesus’ immediate response is, ‘I will come and cure him.’

This is when we get our first surprise….Though the centurion is asking for help, he doesn’t feel worthy to receive it.

In my Northern European context, and I believe in most of the western world, we prefer to think, we deserve, what we have, and if we are wealthy enough, we even feel entitled to certain privileges. We are entitled to influence, entitled to certain rights and entitled to have those rights protected. – That may be so. However, if we apply those attitudes to the church and to our relationship with God, we have every chance of getting it wrong.

The centurion is getting it right – “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” “Humility” is the word, however humility is not really part of our vocabulary. We have lost any sense of not being worthy, of not having anything to offer, of not having any rights.

And yet humility is the only appropriate attitude we can have coming to Christ, realizing that we have no rights to claim, our hands are empty and we are not worthy.

The centurion knows how to use his power of authority for destructive purposes, but he has become painfully aware of his limitations and the inability of his authority – The painful truth is, that he is unable to heal and bring restoration to his servant.

As an act of faith, perhaps even a desperate act of faith, he has decided to put all his trust and hopes in a man, he hardly knows. “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed”.

Scientist and US advisor on climate change Gus Speth has come to a similar conclusion, he says::
“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

We scientists, we warriors, we leaders don’t know how to handle this. Another word needs to be said, by a man who not only knew but embodied a different kind of power than ours, the very power that called everything into being, the very power that later would redeem us, conquer death and bring healing to us all.

And now comes the second surprise, Jesus recognizes the strength of the faith of the centurion as being beyond any faith he has encountered before. I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.

“Just say the word, and my servant will be healed”, it is a bold statement of authentic faith, a faith that surpasses all reason and chooses to believe in the impossible.

Among the many people around him with a sense of entitlement Jesus exposes them to their own wrong perceptions, as he lifts up the faith of the centurion and tells them, that he has not found such faith in anyone in Israel.

I wonder, would he find such faith among us gathered here? Would he find a faith willingly giving up all claimed privileges and rights and unconditionally surrendering to a power of grace, righteousness and holiness, a power so diametrically opposite to any other power we know.

It is challenging.

We see so many needs in the world and in our communities, and we have such a desire to become the church Christ called us to be. I have such a desire for vitality and growth, I have such a desire for United Methodists across the connection to be difference makers and change makers. But in the midst of all my purposefulness and busyness, I may just overlook, what became to painfully obvious to a pagan centurion: The starting point of all transformation is to humbly and wholeheartedly submit myself to the wounded healer Jesus Christ and to unconditionally depend on Him for the healing of the church.

Birzai is a poor community in Lithuania, a town people move away from rather than move into. The unemployment rate is high, people are poor, the municipality is poor, second hand shops are the most common clothing stores, and if you go to the supermarket you will be amazed by the size of the alcohol department.

For 15 years the Pagalbos Centras under the leadership of Regina Židonienė has offered hope to women, children and youth in this community. Every day 30-40 children come to the after school program to have a hot meal, which for most of them is the only meal of the day, they get help with their home work, learn personal hygiene and cleaning, they learn crafts, music and there are bible lessons.

I wish you could hear the love and the passion in Regina’s voice, when she shares about the lives of children and youth that have been touched through the ministry in the past 18 years. She would say: “She is now in Kaunas and doing fine, he works as a disc jockey in London and he has a good life. Some still come to the centre as grownups to support us, because they know the difference coming here has made in their lives.”

Even in a place where the destructive forces of drug and alcohol abuse, violence and neglect are all too familiar, there is a way out rooted in Christ’s healing, saving and restoring love, there is hope of a better future.

This is just one story of thousands of stories about ordinary United Methodists, who on a daily basis ask Jesus just to say the word, and who make themselves available as instruments of bringing His healing to the world.

Therefore go…. Is not the beginning of the great commission

It begins by Jesus saying, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go…

This is the authority the centurion submitted to, and Regina and all the rest of us are going under. This is the restoring, healing and saving grace of Christ made available through his followers where ever He has called us to go.


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