(a sermon for May 29, 2016, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 7:1-10)
Let’s just say this outright: sometimes faith shows up at unexpected times and places… and in unlikely ways. But when faith shows up in, of all people, a Roman Centurion, in of all places, amidst the very people he’s charged to oppress; well, that’s about as unlikely as it gets.
The thing is, we really don’t know all that much about this Roman Centurion at the center of our reading this morning. We can surmise that he’s Gentile, presumably Roman and a seasoned soldier, but aside from that we don’t know his background; we’re not told the details of his military career or in what sort of battles he may have fought; and we can only guess why it was that this centurion had ended up stationed in Capernaum as part of the occupation force working to see that the people of Judea were kept in line.
However, this much we do know for certain: this was a man of great power and authority. A Centurion, you see, represented the sharp edge of Rome’s domination over Israel, and the very epitome of its cruel power. History tells us that in Roman hierarchy, centurions had kind of a middling role: while they weren’t exactly at the head of the chain of command, they were certainly more than mere soldiers; they were in essence the field commanders, each one with 80-100 other soldiers under his authority. A Centurion’s first job was to keep order and at any cost, and so consequently, he gave orders… we hear this in the reading today; that when this centurion ordered his soldiers to go and do something they did so, without questioning; and likewise, if any one of his servants were told to do something, there was never any doubt that the thing would get done. You see, that’s what happens when you’re a centurion, both at work and at home: everyone does exactly as they’re told! And so it was for this particular centurion: truly “large and in charge,” and ever and always in control of the situation.
Until… he wasn’t. For as we read in this morning’s gospel, this centurion “had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.” And in the face of that, he was utterly and completely helpless.
You know, sometimes in these biblical texts it’s hard for us as 21st century people to find an entry point; that is, to find a way that we can identify with the people in these stories and what they’re facing. Not so this time; because I suspect that every one of us here can relate to what it’s like to feel helpless in the midst of some unexpected situation. Oh yes, we like to think we’re in control of things in our lives, and that we’ve got a handle on everything that life has in store; and, to be fair, it may well be that we’ve done a really good job in taking care of things! But then, there’s a doctor with a frightening diagnosis; here’s the news that you’ve lost a job, and the income that goes along with it; here comes the realization that despite everything you’ve tried, you can’t keep that relationship going and perhaps it’s doomed to failure; or now, all at once, it hits you that as much as you’ve sought to deny it you might well have an addiction you can’t control. Something like that comes your way and suddenly all your pre-conceived notions of power and control have totally crumbled; and you’re left helpless in its wake.
Well, so it was for this “large and in charge” centurion; for all the power and authority he exercised in every other area of his life, when it came to this “highly valued” servant who needed healing, there was absolutely nothing he could do! And that’s why he sought out Jesus. Actually, what he does is send a group of Jewish elders to Jesus, asking that Jesus “come and heal his slave;” and who then appealed to Jesus as to the centurion’s goodness and caring unto their people, to the point of how he’d even helped them to build a synagogue! We’re even told that as Jesus then approached the centurion’s house, he sent friends on ahead to let Jesus know that he didn’t really need to come inside; for he also knew that it would defile Jesus to walk into the home of a Gentile, and he wasn’t about to let that happen!
Pretty thoughtful for a Roman officer, don’t you think; not to mention pretty risky behavior! Remember, Centurions don’t ask things of Jews; they give orders and they take what they want. They don’t show such consideration for a group of people who at most would have been considered “subjects of Rome” and nothing more than that; and they most certainly do not approach a rabbi and say to him, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof!” But that’s the depth of this man’s concern for a slave that meant so much more to him than that; and he ends it all by saying – proclaiming, really (!) – You don’t need to come inside; “only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
Like I said before, sometimes faith shows up in unexpected and unlikely ways, and so it was with this Roman Centurion. And when Jesus sees this kind of faith, not only is the servant healed (without Jesus, at least according to Luke’s version of this story, ever uttering a word to that effect, by the way) but we also learn that Jesus is amazed by what he’s seen. As a matter of fact, Jesus turns around to look at the crowd of followers who’ve come with him to the Centurion’s house – no doubt astounded that Jesus would even consider going to the house of the enemy for such a purpose – and he says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Make no mistake, friends; that’s huge! Do you hear what Jesus has done there? He’s turned to his disciples, and his followers, and the very people of Israel – God’s own people, the very ones who should have completely understood and embraced this whole matter of faith in God (!) – and then he points back at the house of their Roman oppressor, this man who represents everything horrible that’s happening to their nation and their very lives, and he’s saying, hey, this guy gets it; this man is showing more faith than you ever have! A Roman Centurion (!); I mean, that would be like an avowed atheist showing up in our pews every Sunday and demonstrating a more sincere and embodied “faith” the rest of us ever hoped to show! That would be like seeing those of radically different religious traditions – including a few we might just be a little suspicious of – and discovering they kind of “do” Christianity as well as, if not even maybe a little better than we do! The Rev. Craig Barnes writes that “Jesus does not get amazed very often,” but that’s what we see happen with the Centurion, and the capper is that Jesus doesn’t even ask him to be his follower, to take up his cross or to deny himself; such is Jesus’ own amazement at what’s he just seen.
The question is, of course, what it is that Jesus finds so amazing about the Centurion’s faith; and interestingly, it’s not so much that the Centurion deeply and truly believed that Jesus could, in fact, heal this beloved servant, but rather that “he had the faith to place himself under the authority of the Savior.” Quoting Craig Barnes once again, “His faith was not in getting what he wanted to have happen. His faith was in the Savior, whatever happened. If our faith is contingent on getting what we want, well, that is not really faith. That is just one more thing to try. Faith,” Barnes goes on to say, “places us, as the centurion put it, ‘under the authority’ of Jesus.”
I wonder how many of us can say the same about ourselves this morning, and our own lives.
The fact of the matter is that each of us has placed ourselves under a fair amount of authority in our lives. Some of it is certainly systemic and not of our own choosing; it has to do with government, laws and culture, and social norms, and “because that’s simply what good people do.” And there are other kinds of authority we do make the choice to accept and honor, at least to some extent: the policies of the workplace, for instance; the manner in which we entrust a doctor, lawyers or those in public office to care for us and do what’s best on our behalf; in those instances, as well as in so many others, the degree to which we will let ourselves be placed under that authority can shift and change, sometimes on a dime (or an election cycle!); based on how effective that authority is, what we might get out of it, or whether at the end of the day it truly defines who we are.
But what we see in our gospel reading today is that to be a follower of Jesus Christ – to have a deep and abiding faith in God – requires something different, something more. It “means that we have come under the authority of [Jesus’] words even if we don’t [always] like them or find them relevant to our wants.” In other words, some of God’s authority on our lives will not go down easily; many of Jesus’ teachings will always run up squarely against what we’ve always believed and the way we’ve lived our lives. Moreover, if you’re going to submit to the authority of Jesus, you’d better get ready to start dealing with things like morality and ethics, the proper stewardship of our resources – including our money (!) – and this tiny little matter of loving your neighbor as yourself! It’s hard, let’s face it; no less for us preacher-types than it is for the rest of you: as an old friend and colleague used to say to me in those moments when I’d get a little discouraged about this, “As pastors, we are called not only called to comfort the afflicted, we are here to afflict the comfortable!”
No, it’s not easy to live under the authority of the Savior, but beloved, when we do so it brings forth faith that’s not only amazing in its scope and power, but also a wonder to behold. It’s authority that, no matter what befalls in this life, will bring us the very healing and restoration that only Jesus can provide; it’s what gives us, as we proclaim in our own United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, “forgiveness of sin and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in that kingdom which has no end.” And it’s what will give each of our lives true and authoritative purpose in this world and the next.
The centurion showed forth an unexpected faith that even Jesus found remarkable. I hope and I pray that as our faith – yours and mine – comes forth in the midst of life’s seemingly insurmountable challenges as well as in its many small yet meaningful happenstances, what will be revealed will be that we have ever and always trusted a greater authority than that which the rest of the world provides; that we know in our heart of hearts who… and whose we are.
And so, “just as we are,” let us give those hearts unto the Lord…
…and may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry