Luke’s story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s slave is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, the centurion, a Roman military official, plays a fairly prominent role in this passage. Outside of Pontius Pilot we don’t learn much about Roman authorities in the Gospels, but in this passage from Luke quite a bit of information is provided about the Centurion. We know that he lives in Capernaum, that he is wealthy enough to own slaves, that he is well liked by the local Jewish elders, that he has a deep respect for the Jewish religion in so far as the elders say he does and that he built their synagogue, and that he is of enough military rank to have a large number of soldiers under his authority. We also know, of course, that he is a Gentile and this will become important in a moment. But before you call your talent agent requesting to play the role of Luke’s Centurion, you should note that he never makes an appearance on stage. In Luke’s Gospel, unlike the similar stories in Matthew and John, the Centurion’s messages are relayed to Jesus by two delegations and the healing of his slave happens at a distance.
The second notable feature about this narrative is that it is what we call a quest story. A quest story is a kind of pronouncement story in which a person other than Jesus plays a prominent role. A quest story is also concerned with the success or failure of a person who is seeking some assistance from Jesus. This account of Luke most certainly brings the character of the centurion into a central focus. But more importantly it is an account of someone who is seeking the help of Jesus to save the life of another whom he cares for deeply and dearly.
The third remarkable feature of this Gospel is that the centurion is, as mentioned, a Gentile. While this passage would seem to indicate that the Centurion is a “God fearer”, a term used to describe non-Jews in the time of Jesus who accepted the Jewish religion but did not convert or practice it, he would nonetheless be viewed as an outsider, someone who did not fit into the community life of the Jews in Capernaum. The amazing feature here is that by the end of the passage Jesus says his faith - the faith of this stranger, this foreigner, this outsider - is greater than that which our Lord had found in all of Israel. While we should note that Luke’s narrative was written at a time when Gentiles were joyously receiving the Gospel, the fact that this Centurion’s belief in Jesus stands out so clearly would be, even to the readers of the time, quite an extraordinary statement.
The last remarkable feature I wish to comment upon here are the two delegations the centurion sends to Jesus. The first group is made up of Jewish elders. They introduce the problem, the dying slave, and state that the centurion is worthy of Jesus’ favour in that he has done good works for the community, including, as mentioned, the building of their synagogue. But it is interesting to note that the Centurion does not think he is worthy. Indeed that is why he sent the first delegation instead of coming to Jesus himself. He did not feel he was deserving of this gift that he felt Jesus had to offer. But Jesus comes anyway. Jesus moves towards the Centurion’s house and one might well assume would have entered it, laid His hands on the slave and cured him. But Jesus is stopped a second time by a second delegation from the Centurion. This time they are friends of this Gentile and they tell Jesus that the Centurion does not feel worthy to have the Lord come under his roof, and it is attention-grabbing that he does here refer to Jesus here as Lord. Here is a man who would presumably welcome the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar into his home and yet did not sense it suitable enough for Jesus.
Not surprisingly the Centurion at this point, through his delegation, speaks of his knowledge of authority. He is set under authority for sure, but he also commands great authority. Soldiers, servants and slaves under his charge jump when they are told to, and one can imagine they never ask how high. In the Centurion’s world there is a chain of command and in that chain of command he sits right near the top. And yet he does not feel worthy to have Jesus enter his house or even to see his face. The centurion was therefore no stranger to authority but he sensed in Jesus a much greater authority, a power greater than human power, a touch that could quite literally save a life. He sensed in Jesus some evidence of God. And upon hearing this Jesus was ‘amazed’. It is no coincidence I think that this is the same word used over and over again in the Gospels to describe the response of the crowds who witness the miracles of Jesus. Yet here Jesus is amazed and He turns to the crowd following Him and says of the Centurion, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such Faith”.
For me this gospel passage from Luke is about faith. It is about our faith in God and through that faith God’s ability to help transform and save lives. Let us go back 2000 years to our Gospel story. There was a certain Centurion in Capernaum who had a problem. There was someone whom this Centurion presumably loved and who was sick and about to die. He needed help. He had never seen Jesus before, had never heard his message before, but he somehow knew that Jesus was a man who could help. So he sent out a delegation. 2000 years later there are people who, like the Centurion, need help. Like the Centurion they do not feel worthy enough to receive that help. And like the Centurion they know all about authority and power. They know that the world prefers and therefore gives preferential treatment to the rich, the successful, the famous, and the powerful. And like the centurion many of them have a current and pressing hardship that is worrying their minds and breaking their hearts.
A number of years ago when I was Warden at St Augustine’s in Marpole the church started a Food Bank. We did so because there was a need in the community. Specifically we did so because we were aware of quite a few homeless people sleeping under the Oak Street Bridge, just a couple of blocks away from the church. While many of them, thanks be to God, freely accepted our help of food and clothing, some had a different reaction about our gentle invitation of coming to worship with us. They did not feel worthy. They did not feel they should come into this house of God because their clothes were not clean and they had not had a bath in some time. But faith percolates, and some of them started to abandon any thought of being deserving and started to realize the unconditional love of God is just that; a love that is given abundantly and without reservation, even if you don’t have an address to call home. Some of them realized it is not what you have done in your life, or where you are in your life, but that all you have to do is to walk into God’s place, wherever that is, and say, “Here I am, I need some help. God, can you help me”.
And the Centurion said, ‘But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed”. And one day a young adult homeless couple living under the Oak Street Bridge heard the word in their own way and after worshipping with us for a while decided they wanted to be baptized. They had started their own quest story. And just like in a quest story they played a prominent role. Their act of faith, while still homeless, percolated through our whole community. From that day forward St Augustine’s felt different for me. This couple’s faith in the love of God, in the saving grace that is the good news of Jesus’ message started to rub off on everyone else. I am quite sure they did not intend it, but it happened anyway. Their deed of devotion acted as a go between. It was as if a caring delegation of friends went out into the community and said to those who need to be fed physically and spiritually, “Come under our roof, for you are all worthy children of God”. It was as if in reaching out to help the community, the community reached out and helped St Augustine’s at the same time. It is something that we do very well here at St John’s as well. In our worship and fellowship and in our outreach we gently invite the community to join us and in so doing the community enriches our own lives as well. It reminds me of a quote from St Ignatius: There are very few people Who realize what God would make of them If they abandoned themselves into God’s hands, And let themselves be formed by God’s grace.
There is one last thing I have to tell you about a quest story. When Jesus praises a successful quester, she or he tends to become a model for others. In preparing this sermon one line of scripture kept repeating itself in my head over and over again; John 20:29. In it Jesus is talking to Thomas after the resurrection and He says to the disciple, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. God is calling all of us to become a successful quester and became a model for others. Blessed are those who believe their church has a brilliant future even though they do not see it yet. Blessed are those who ask for God’s help even though it appears they have not received it yet. Blessed are those who abandon themselves into God’s hands and let themselves be transformed by God’s grace. All this. And yet as I walk all through this sacred place and see all the wondrous things that are going on, I cannot think of a more profound thing to say than, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney