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When reading any of the gospels, it doesn’t take long before we realize that Jesus hung out with and ministered to all kinds of people. Some might even say he spent time with the ‘wrong kind of people’. He reached out to people on the margins of society, people who were not welcomed, acknowledged, included. We tend to put them in categories or groups, forgetting that each one is unique, loved and created in God’s image. So we say...the poor, the widows, the demon possessed, the crippled, the lepers, the blind, the broken in body and spirit, and so on. We see them as needy, marginalized, without power, without a voice. But Jesus noticed them, did not overlook them. He reached out to them.
We also notice in the gospels that Jesus sometimes found himself among the powerful of his time, those with some means, influence and a voice. In either case, whether it be with the marginalized or with those of some influence and status, faith shows up in unexpected ways! in unexpected places in least likely people! We are surprised, astounded, caught off guard!
Luke 7, includes this amazing story of the centurion and the healing of his servant. In previous chapters, Jesus had preached the Beatitudes in the “Sermon on the Plain”, telling the great crowd what it looks like to be a disciple. A good summary of that would be “love your friend and love your enemy alike!”
Now in chapter 7 we find Jesus is back in Capernaum. And the story unfolds..... A centurion has a valued servant who is dying and wants Jesus to heal him. The intriguing part of this story is that the request comes from a “centurion”, a Gentile, a commanding officer in the Roman army. He had 100 foot solders (a “century”) under his command. The centurions were considered the “backbone” of the army, the career men, responsible for discipline, inspection of the weapons, supervised executions, sometimes recruited for special tasks that took them away from their troops. They were the best informed and most experienced in the army. It was a prestigious position that any ambitious soldier would aspire to.
So the text says the centurion ‘heard’ of Jesus. What he heard we don’t know exactly, but he, a Gentile centurion, sent elders of the local Jewish community to ask Jesus to come and heal his servant. This group becomes a delegation to advocate or plead earnestly with Jesus. And they do that, quite boldly. “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” These elders must have had knowledge of the centurion and respect for him and were willing to speak to Jesus on behalf of the centurion. So without question or apparent hesitation, Jesus went with them.
Before Jesus gets to the house of the centurion, a second delegation approaches Jesus...friends of the centurion, bringing a personal message. Now the centurion is not wanting Jesus to trouble himself by coming to his house. He is feeling unworthy to receive Jesus or to go to him personally. And the message delivered by his friends is pretty simple and to the point. “But say the word, and my servant will be healed.” The centurion understands authority. He has it himself over others and he can tell this one, “Go” and he goes, and that one, “Come” and he comes, and to another, “do this” and he does it.
When Jesus heard this, the text says, “he was amazed at him”, or “astounded” or “taken aback”...depending on your translation. And turning to the crowd that was following him, Jesus says”I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the friends that had been sent, returned to the house and found the servant well! End of story!
Now we could read this and say, “well, nice story..another healing by Jesus.” And it is...a “nice” story and it is a “healing”, but it has some intriguing components that make it unique. Here are a few thoughts/observations....
+the centurion “heard” of Jesus. He had not met him nor seen his work healing, but on “heard” of Jesus, which apparently was enough to make him believe and have faith that Jesus could, indeed, heal his valued servant.
+it is surprising that a commanding officer, a Gentile, with power and authority would have such a positive relationship with the elders of the Jewish community that they were willing to speak to Jesus on his behalf with such passion and forthright manner. (This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue).
+the centurion seems to recognize at some point that he is unworthy to host Jesus and we see elements of deep humility, alongside his awareness that he also carries and understands authority and power. We don’t always see people in positions of power taking on postures of humility.
+this is a healing story that happens without Jesus touching, taking by the hand or even meeting the person he healed!
+I wonder how the crowd reacted/responded to Jesus when he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” (Message..”I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust anywhere in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know about God and how he works.”)
The centurion displays a faith that surprises and astounds Jesus.
1.) Does the story speak to us, as well, in any way?
2.) Does faith sometimes ‘show up’, become evident in places and in people which we would least expect? Any story or person come to you mind?
3.) Do we see the centurion as a representative of the empire that is oppressing the nation, the “enemy”? Or can we see him as a bridge builder between two worlds, Jew and Gentile, believing in the God who is the God of both and trusting the word of Jesus had the power to move past any barriers between the two? “But say the word...”
God will not be restrained by the boundaries we draw around one another. God will surprise us!
Friday, around noon, I went on an errand across town. As I was waiting at a busy intersection for the light to change (took a long time), a man on a H-D motorcycle came along beside me. I glanced over at him and made some observations. Now I don’t like motorcycles and I know there are many fine people who ride them and love them and they are in this congregation, but I still don’t like them and in fact, are rather afraid of them and what they can do.(the motorcycles, that is, not the people) Nevertheless I realized that my thoughts about what I saw weren’t real positive, I confess. Let me describe.... the man had a black vest on, filled with many emblems and insignias, some noting that he was a vet and possibly POW at one time. It was over a black tee shirt. There were several US flags here and there on his vest and flying from the back of his cycle. He was smoking. And then as he reved up the engine and drove off, I noticed on the back of his helmet, the words, “Powered by Faith”, and then a cross. There were some other words in smaller print. I couldn’t see them as he sped away. I thought, wait a minute. Are you messing with me, Lord? Are you trying to surprise me? To help me re-think and examine stereotypes, attitudes, and maybe confess that I was wrong about this man and the negative thoughts I might have had because of the image? Could this man indeed be ‘powered by faith’, faith in Jesus? I have no idea what his story was and where he was headed, but it made me think that just maybe, he was one of God’s surprises. I think I needed to see this man and have this experience before I could finish this sermon. I was ashamed of my smugness and piety.
The centurion in today’s gospel story seemed to know that Jesus’ power was different from and unlike any power that Rome or any empire wielded. He believed that Jesus’ power could heal people, including his valued servant. Jesus’ power can turn the world upside down and inside out. It can change our stereotypes, our attitudes, our skewed thinking. The centurion recognized this power as the very essence of faith; “faith is seeing the world with God’s eyes, to see the possibilities of a world renewed by God’s love and God’s grace.” (Dr. Eric Barreto).
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