Sunday, May 29, 2016

How to Amaze Jesus (a sermon on Luke 7:1-10)

I don’t know about you, but I think it would be pretty hard to amaze Jesus. I get the sense from the gospels that he’s usually got a pretty good grasp of any situation he’s in. He seems to find it easy to see through people; he knows their motivations, he knows when they’re being sincere and when they’re trying to trick him. John’s Gospel says of him that ‘Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone’ (John 2:24-25).

Nevertheless, there are one or two occasions in the gospels when Jesus seems to have been genuinely surprised, and one of them is in our gospel reading for today. This reading comes from a chapter which is full of stories of Jesus reaching out to outsiders, to marginalized people, to widows and orphans, and to notorious sinners who are meant to be beyond the pale, beyond the reach of God’s love. And it’s one of these outsiders – a Roman army officer – who astonishes Jesus by the strength of his faith.

Let’s explore the story for a minute. Jesus has just returned to the Galilean fishing town of Capernaum on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee. It’s a town where he is well known, 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. 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.

Centurions were the non-commissioned officers of the Roman Army; they led a ‘century’, which was a unit of approximately one hundred soldiers. They were the professional soldiers, the backbone of the Roman army. Interestingly enough, there are no bad stories about centurions in the New Testament. Every time a centurion appears, he’s seen in a good light, and this man is no exception.

What do we know about him? 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. Of course, the institution of slavery was taken for granted in the ancient world, and there’s no hint of reproach in Luke’s mention of the fact that this man owned slaves, but it is noticeable that, 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 slave highly, and so he’s willing to take the unusual step of humbling himself before Jesus in order to ask him 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, a Gentile, an enemy soldier, and he thinks it’s very likely that Jesus will rebuff him. In the normal run of things, this centurion has all the power, but in this situation the roles are reversed, and he needs some intercessors to plead his case, so he sends the local elders. They, of course, are very gratified that this soldier has taken an interest in their synagogue; he’s a good donor to the local church and they want to stay on good terms with him, so they’re more than happy to go and speak to Jesus on his behalf!

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). It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the centurion has a completely different view of himself than the synagogue elders? They said, “he is worthy”, but the centurion says, “I am not worthy”. We’ll explore that a little more in a minute.

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 at the strength of this man’s faith.
‘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? Well, I think we all know that we could use a little help with our faith. All too often we feel like that other man in the gospels, who in a moment of honesty said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We’d like our faith to be stronger, but we know that it often isn’t. Is there anything we can learn from this man who amazed Jesus by the strength of his faith? Let me point out two things to you.

The first one is humility. I read a story this week about a Christian writer called Dallas Willard who died a year or two ago. Dallas was being interviewed for a Christian magazine, and he was asked, ‘Do you believe in the total depravity of human beings?’ Dallas replied, ‘I believe in sufficient depravity’. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that, when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, “I deserve this”’.

Interestingly enough, the Jewish elders have a different take on this than the centurion. 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 centurion himself sends a message to Jesus, he says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” – a remarkable thing for a soldier of the occupying army to say to one of the people under his power.

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 being described by their family and friends as ‘good’ or ‘kind’ or ‘respectable’, but when we hear them talk about themselves, they’re all too aware of how much they fall short of what they’d like to be. I think that’s true for most of us; we’re very aware of our personal failings. We know all about our skeletons in the closet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, once sent postcards to ten prominent British 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 information about the things I feel most guilty about was 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 see them as a barrier keeping us away 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. According to St. 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 the Apostle 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 that’s the first thing we learn from this man. Apparently it’s a really important part of faith not to be too puffed up about ourselves, not to be under the illusion that the whole show is being arranged for our benefit. Apparently it’s vital for us to be well aware of our own limitations. The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable’. In other words, we admitted our desperation; we turned from the illusion that we are worthy and capable, and admitted instead that in a host of ways we are unworthy and powerless.

Desperation, a strong sense of our own helplessness, is an indispensable part of faith. The Norwegian writer Ole Hallesby once wrote, ‘Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray…Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas…Prayer therefore consists simply in telling God day by day in what ways we feel that we are helpless’.

So here is the first thing we can learn from our centurion: we can learn to be honest with God about our own helplessness. Do you think you can do that?

Secondly, let’s think about the nature of this centurion’s faith. What is faith, according to this story? 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 in Capernaum; the centurion had heard the stories about him, and 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 us in mind when he wrote this story. Matthew tells this 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 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 Jesus reached out to this humble and honest centurion, and he’s reaching out to us too with the touch of God’s love. He calls us to come to him in humility, acknowledging our shortcomings and limitations and not trying to hide them, but coming to him nonetheless. In the same book I quoted from earlier, Ole Hallesby says that ‘The essence of faith is to come to Christ. Such a faith as this sees its own need, acknowledges its own helplessness, goes to Jesus, tells him just how bad things are and leaves everything with him… You and I can now tell how much faith we need in order to pray. We have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus’.

That’s what the centurion did. It was a simple act, and perhaps it was its very simplicity that Jesus found so amazing. 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?

Let us pray together: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed. Amen”.


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