Preached June 2 in the Throop and Dunmore churches
There are a few things that we need to make clear, that aren’t immediately clear.
I am no Greek scholar, but a number of different commentators note that the word used as “servant” in our translation is generally more clearly understood as “slave”. So the Centurion is concerned about someone he owns, rather than someone works in exchange for wages.
So that makes it all the more interesting to note that the centurion would ask Jesus for help.
About that Centurion: We’ve heard other stories about centurions who become “god fearers”. The term in modern parlance, I think, is that this centurion might be accused of having “gone native”. The commentators speak of this happening because, probably, their disappointment with the decadence and incoherence of their own Roman religious culture, as well as it’s wider society. The Roman culture at the time of Jesus was, shall we say, complicated. In contrast, the Jewish culture, which had been oppressed and suppressed, you might say squashed down into its essential elements, had become simply stated, and its ethics were clear.
So this Centurion, just like the one in the tenth chapter of Acts, is attracted to the Jewish faith enough that the Jews start to call them “god fearers”. This particular Centurion was particularly respected by the Jews of Capernaum, enough so that, or because of, he had built their synagogue. He also has good enough contact with the Jewish leadership of Capernaum that he asks them to ask Jesus to come heal his slave.
So often, and so many times, we hear stories that complicate our simple, black and white view of the world. So often we’ll hear of people who repudiate or reject their native culture in favor of one that is clearer of somehow better in their sight. Think of the movie Dances with Wolves, in which the Union soldier played by Kevin Costner becomes so much a part of the great plains Indian tribe near his abandoned fort that, when the fort becomes active again, and begins to make trouble for the local tribe, he stands and fights as a member of the tribe instead of the Union.
We all know stories where this happens, and this Centurion may very well be another of these.
While this Roman soldier could be considered exemplary for his ethics, he is still someone who needs Jesus to save the life of this slave he cares for so much.
So it is very interesting to Jesus that as he is traveling toward the Centurion’s house, he is met by another group of people sent by that Centurion, who then relay the message that the centurion believes: “Jesus, I am a soldier and a commander. I tell people to go, they go, I tell people to retreat, and they retreat. I tell my slave to serve, they serve. I understand command, you command God’s healing power, and so I know you can stand where you are, without demeaning yourself by coming to my house, and command my slave to be well, and he will be well.”
I can think of another occasion or two where Jesus heals at a distance, but each of the rest have been for Jewish people, never for a “foreigner”. And we can also think of occasions where Jesus has no power at all, because of the disbelief of the people around him, most notably in his hometown.
In Nazareth, no one believes that Jesus can do what he claims, all they can see is the man who used to be the boy running around the yard, barefoot and in his swaddling clothes chasing chickens.
For Jesus to do his work, then and now, it takes our faith. It takes our action. It takes our belief. And it is a hard thing to do. Jesus lived before the Scientific Revolution. Jesus lived before the Enlightenment. Jesus lived before telescopes, and planets, and string theory, and quantum physics. He lived in a world where it was generally understood that the world was flat, and that heaven was on the other side of the blue shell we called the sky. We know it isn’t a shell. We know what’s beyond it, we’ve even sent stuff billions of miles beyond that shell that have sent back photos.
It is therefore SO much harder to have faith for us. We know so much more about the universe. Faith is harder for us, because of those facts. But in the ways of life, such as making sure babies have enough water on hot days, such as teaching the young in the ways that they should go so that when they grow, they will not depart from it, those things haven’t changed at all.
Faith is harder, but faith is something that hasn’t changed. What was available to those in Jesus’ time is available to us. But for us, on this side of the Scientific revolution, it does take more work. More work reading the Bible. More work praying. More work doing the things of God, such as feeding the hungry and cothing the naked. This is how we get to where they were. We read the things that uplift us, feeding our minds with what is possible, rather than just reading the news and filling our minds with wht is impossible. Knowing about the world is important, but knowing how to be good in the world is just as important. Maybe more.
When we pray, we should spend half as much time talking as we should meditating. Two ears, one mouth. We were designed that way to remind us of this!
It takes work. It takes carving time out of your calendar, and awake time at that, no counting your prayer time as when you go to bed after the light goes out: “Our Father, who art in heavzzzzzzzz…” Of course you can still pray then, but that isn’t your primary time.
It takes work, but the faith that the centurion as is available to us. It is.
I have seen it. Trust in God.