Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Faith of a Centurion (Sermon for June 2nd)

In Matthew 5:41 Jesus says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile”. This refers to the fact that in Roman-occupied Palestine a Roman soldier had the right to conscript any civilian and require him to carry his pack for him for a distance of one mile; Jesus is telling his followers to love their enemies by going the second mile as well.

A few years ago there was a picture doing the rounds on the Internet. In it, Jesus is seen walking down the road beside a German soldier in World War Two military uniform; Jesus is carrying the soldier’s pack and his rifle, and the two are obviously engaged in an animated conversation. This picture raised a few eyebrows when it first appeared, but of course that’s exactly the kind of situation Jesus was talking about in Matthew 5:41: being willing to love your enemies and go the second mile to be a blessing to them. And in today’s gospel reading he not only talks about that; he actually does it. He reaches out to an enemy of Israel, a Roman centurion, heals his slave, and holds him up as an example of faith to the Jewish people.

Let’s explore this passage a little. Jesus comes to the Galilean fishing town of Capernaum on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee; this is the town where his earliest teaching and healing ministry was carried out. Jesus is well known here, and it’s the most natural thing in the world that a Roman soldier, a member of the occupying army, has heard of him. What isn’t so natural is that this soldier should reach out to a Jewish man and ask for help. Again, imagine a German officer in World War Two asking for help from a Jewish rabbi! That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about here.

What do we know about this centurion? The Jewish elders come to Jesus and ask him to help this man, saying ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us’ (v.5). This is unusual: a Roman soldier who took an interest in the people of Israel and went so far as to finance the building of a local synagogue out of his own pocket. Why would he do that? We’re not told, but it seems reasonable to believe that he was one of those in the ancient world who had gotten tired of the stories of the Greek and Roman gods and had been attracted to the idea of one true creator God - a God who called his people to follow him by obeying the strict ethical standards of the ten commandments.

It’s also noticeable that he takes an interest in the welfare of his slaves. To him, this slave is not just a tool to be discarded when he gets worn out. A lot of people in the ancient world would have seen a slave in that way, but not this centurion. He values this man highly, and so he’s willing to take the unusual step of humbling himself before Jesus in order to ask for a healing.

Note that at first the centurion does not presume to talk to Jesus himself; he sends the Jewish elders to speak on his behalf. He’s well aware of his position as an outsider in Judaism: he’s a foreigner, an enemy soldier, an uncircumcised man, and he thinks it’s very likely that Jesus will rebuff him. He needs some intercessors to plead his case, so he sends the local elders.

But to their surprise – and, probably, to the centurion’s surprise too – Jesus not only agrees to heal the slave, but immediately sets out to visit the centurion in his house! This is completely against Jewish law and tradition: he will be going into a Gentile house, where protocol will require that his host give him a meal, so he will be eating non-kosher food in fellowship with a soldier of the occupying army. This is far beyond anything that the centurion was expecting! When he hears that Jesus is on the way, he quickly sends more messengers – this time not Jewish elders, but personal friends. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word and let my servant be healed” (v.7).

But then comes the money quote, where the centurion explains the ground of his faith.
“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

Jesus is astounded. It’s pretty hard to surprise Jesus; there aren’t too many places in the gospels where he’s recorded as being amazed, but this is one of them.
‘When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”. When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health’ (vv.9-10).

What has this story got to say to us today? Let’s briefly consider three words: barriers, humility, and faith.

First, barriers. We’ve already alluded to the fact that this man has many barriers keeping him away from Israel, and from Israel’s God. First, he’s not one of God’s chosen people; he’s a Gentile, a Roman, and devout Jews could certainly find Old Testament support for avoiding him altogether. But not only is he a Gentile, he’s also an enemy. He’s a member of the army of Rome, and the Romans are the occupying power, with Israel under their thumb. Think ‘German soldier in France, 1941’. Think, ‘Israeli soldier in Palestine, 2013’.

But as we’ve seen, this man is reaching across these barriers. He’s obviously got such a hunger in his heart for the true and living God that he doesn’t mind what his own people or the Jewish people think of him. And now, with the illness of his trusted servant, he’s even more desperate: he wants his servant to get well, and he doesn’t care what he has to do to make that happen.

But this man isn’t the only one who crosses barriers: Jesus does it too. Jesus doesn’t mind if Jewish people think he’s a traitor, soft on the enemy; the only thing that matters to him is that here is a man who is obviously seeking God’s help, and Jesus will do whatever it takes to get that help to him. He’s more than willing to go to a Gentile house, where he would inevitably be served non-kosher food. To Jesus, nothing is more important than reaching out to this man with the love of God. And so he leaps across the barriers and goes to his house.

My experience is that there are many people today like this Roman centurion. They’ve tried the false gods of money and possessions, success, youth, beauty, popularity and so on, and they’ve found them wanting. Those false gods can’t deliver what they promise; those who worship them are still aware of a nagging feeling that ‘There’s something missing; I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. They’re beginning to hope that there might be a loving creator God who made them, and they’re on a search for a real relationship with that God.

But there are barriers in the way. Most people today have never been taught to pray and don’t have the faintest idea how they should do it. If there’s some Christian background in their family, they might have a vague idea that they should read the Bible, but when they open it, the first thing they read is an account of seven-day creation; that seems to confirm all their suspicions that Christianity is a pre-scientific religion that modern people can’t take seriously.

And what about if they screw up their courage and go to church? Most of us who have been raised in church have no idea how foreign an experience it is to secular people. Even to come here for a concert is hard; I know this, because friends of mine who have come here for concerts have told me what a scary experience it was for them to walk across the doorstep of a church. And to actually take part in a service, with hymn singing and prayer and unfamiliar books and sitting and standing and eating and drinking someone’s body and blood – that’s all very foreign. In some cases there are cultural barriers too; churches tend to be middle-class and literate, and if you don’t fit into that category, you often find it hard to fit in. Frankly, it’s a miracle that unchurched people manage to get over those barriers at all. Those who show up in a church on Sunday should be congratulated and warmly welcomed for the tremendous efforts they’ve made.

So are we willing to do what Jesus did? Are we willing to be the ones that cross the barriers and reach out to people who are different from us? Are we willing to take our faith out to the coffee shops and the homes of our friends, and talk about it in a natural way there, rather than expecting them to jump all the barriers and come to us? Are we even willing to go to people our culture considers the enemy, and reach out to them with the love of Christ?

Let’s be clear: the Jesus we read about in the Gospels is busy crossing those barriers. If we’re not willing to do that, then we’re not keeping up. It’s been said that ‘mission means finding out what Jesus is doing and then helping him with it’. In this story it’s pretty clear what Jesus is doing. Are we willing to get with the program?

The first word was ‘barriers’; the second is ‘humility’. Did you notice the difference between the way the Jewish elders see this centurion, and the way he sees himself? The elders say to Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (vv.4-5). But when the man sends a message to Jesus, he says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof”.

Why this difference? Well, I would suggest to you that we know all about this in our personal lives. How many times have we heard people described as ‘good’ or ‘kind’ or ‘respectable’, but when we hear them talk about themselves, we discover that they’re all too aware that they fall short. We all know about our personal failings, and our skeletons in the closet.

I think it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who once sent postcards to ten prominent politicians; on each card he simply printed the words, “All is discovered; flee immediately!” He selected the politicians at random - he had no inside information about their sins and failings – but within twenty-four hours, all ten of them had fled the country!

Well, it’s easy to point a finger at politicians, but what about me? What about you? I know I would be totally mortified if the things I feel most guilty about were posted online or spread on a screen in front of everyone in church today! Am I the only one who feels that way? I doubt it. Christian writer Adrian Plass used to be a heavy smoker; one day someone came up to him outside a church where he was speaking and said, “I see you’re still indulging in that dirty habit”. Adrian didn’t know the man, but he quickly replied, “It’s a lot better than your dirty habit!” The man’s face went white, and he quickly turned away.

So yes, we’re all familiar with the difference between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves; we’re all too aware of our sins and failings. We may even se them as another barrier keeping us way from God. But this man shows us that they aren’t a barrier, and that the way to get to God is to be honest about them. “Lord, I’m not worthy…” No, of course you’re not – neither am I – neither is anyone. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, says Paul (Romans 3:23). According to Paul, the good news is that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). Are you a sinner? Then apparently you qualify! As John says in his first letter, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).

So we’ve thought about ‘barriers’, and we’ve thought about ‘humility’. The last word I want to think about with you is ‘faith’.
According to this story, what is faith? To this man, faith is a proper understanding of how the authority structure of the universe works. This man was a soldier, and so he understood all about authority:
“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

The way the centurion saw it, God is the ruler of the entire universe, and Jesus was obviously in a special relationship with God, because he had been able to heal all sorts of diseases. The centurion had heard the stories about him, and he may even have seen some of his healings himself; it was clear to him that Jesus spoke and acted with the authority of God. The slave’s illness was a serious problem, but the problem was not bigger than the authority of Jesus.

At this point we might feel a little wistful. We might think, “Well, that’s all very well for the centurion, but I’ve never seen Jesus do a miracle. I’ve never seen him lay his hands on someone and do a dramatic healing, and often when I ask him for things, I don’t seem to get them”.

This is true and I don’t want to deny it. But at the same time I want to point out to you that Luke might have had people like you and me in mind when he wrote this story. Matthew tells the story in his gospel too, but he tells it slightly differently; he gives the impression that the centurion came himself and spoke to Jesus. Very likely he’s just trying to make a long story short, and so he omits the details about the messengers who went between Jesus and the centurion.

But to Luke it’s very important to include those messengers in the story. It’s very important to include the detail that the centurion himself never actually saw Jesus, because most of Luke’s first readers would not have seen Jesus either! They would have heard the stories about Jesus, and perhaps sensed the touch of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, but they were not themselves eyewitnesses. Luke wanted to make it clear to them that this was not a disadvantage for them. They did not need to be able to see Jesus for Jesus to be able to help them. His authoritative word could still be spoken and could still bring them help and healing.

So let’s finish with that note. Jesus has crossed all the barriers that separate heaven from earth to come to you and me. He’s reaching out to us with the touch of God’s love. He calls us to come to him in humility, acknowledging our guilt and not trying to hide it, but coming to him nonetheless. There’s a lovely old prayer that’s spoken in the Roman Catholic liturgy at the time of communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed”. I find this a very moving prayer – not just when I’m about to receive communion, but at all times when I realize my need of the help of Jesus. So can I suggest we end with this prayer today? “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed. Amen”.

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