Sunday, 29 May 2016

What the Roman centurion said
when he saw Jesus face-to-face

‘Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant’ … a modern Greek Orthodox icon

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 May 2016,

The First Sunday after Trinity,

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

11 a.m., the Choral Eucharist

Readings:
I Kings 18: 20-21, 30-39; Psalm 96: 1-9; Galatians 1: 1-12; Luke 7: 1-10.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Movie trivia is one of those subjects that make for great rounds in table quizzes.

For example, it is said that when that great Biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, was being filmed half a century ago (1965), Telly Savalas shaved his head for his role as Pontius Pilate. He kept his head bald for the rest of his life, as we all know from the 1970s television series Kojak.

The Swedish actor Max von Sydow said that the hardest part about playing Christ was the expectations people had of him to remain in character at all times. He could not smoke between takes, have a drink after work, or be affectionate with his wife on the set.

The director George Stevens was such a perfectionist that he did many takes of John Wayne’s single line, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” There is an apocryphal story that at one rehearsal Stevens pleaded with Wayne to show more emotion, to show some sense of awe. At the next take, Wayne changed his line to, “Aw, truly this man was the Son of God.”

What did John Wayne really say, and did he say it with awe?

But have you ever noticed how centurions show up frequently in the Gospels (see Luke 7: 1-10; Luke 23: 47; perhaps cf. Luke 3: 14), and in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 10: 1; 30-32, 42-44; 27: 1-3)?

Roman soldiers and officials play such positive, even devout, roles in Luke and Acts that we have to ask why Saint Luke writes like this. So, for example, there is a series of devout centurions whose intervention at significant points leads to the furtherance of the Gospel.

It is surprising that these figures in the Roman occupation are portrayed in such positive ways in the New Testament, including our Gospel reading this morning (Luke 7: 1-10). They respond to Christ by recognising his identity and, at times, with faith.

In the seasons of the Church Calendar, we have moved into what we call Ordinary Time. And in Ordinary Time this year, our readings from Saint Luke’s Gospel tell us about Jesus dealing with ordinary people, in ordinary situations that each of us can identify with in our own ordinary, every-day, true-life situations.

This morning’s Gospel story deals with some everyday questions that we all come across in our lives: compassion and healing, humanity and humility, power and authority, how employers treat the workforce, who is an insider in our society and who is an outsider?

The first group of people who come to Jesus are some Jewish elders (see verse 3). They might not expect Jesus to have much time for a centurion. This man represents the foreigner, the outsider, perhaps even the oppressor. He does not share their language, their culture or their religion.

We might expect these elders, probably Pharisees, to speak up only on behalf of someone of their own religion, even their own brand of religion.

But the Jewish elders come to Jesus, not on behalf of the dying slave, but on behalf of the centurion. They come not on behalf of the powerless one, but on behalf of the powerful one. They speak up for him, not because he might return the favour … but because he has already done them favours.

He has been not just kind and gentle, he goes beyond that – he loves the people. The word they use here is ἀγάπη (agape), love of the highest form, love that the New Testament sees as love for God and love for humanity.

The second group of people sent by the centurion just as Jesus is near his house are the centurion’s friends (see verse 6). They would know that it was against Jewish custom for Jesus to enter a gentile’s, a Roman’s, a centurion’s home.

Yet this story comes at a strategic place to show that this centurion is a man of good character. Immediately before this (Luke 6: 46-49), Jesus warns about the foolish man who builds his house on sand – the centurion, however, builds with eternity in mind.

And immediately after (Luke 7: 11-17), we have the story of the widow of Naim and the death of her only son. The centurion, for his part, must surely know that despite what Jesus may do, the slave too will eventually die, even if in old age, so his only motivations can be love and compassion, like the love of a parent.

This centurion can say do this, can say do that, but there is one thing he cannot do. He cannot give life itself. He recognises his limitations. He knows that he is dependent on Christ. In other words, he knows he is not self-dependent, he has to depend on God. He is a man of moving humility.

The centurion in Capernaum is not Jewish, he is an outsider. We do not know how he prays, or how he lives, or how he worships. It is enough for the people of Capernaum, and for Jesus, that he loves the people. He builds a place for the people to worship, to learn and to meet. He cares for their needs, physical and spiritual.

And Jesus responds to this deep and genuine agape. He goes to his house, where he finds a man of great love and compassion who truly has great faith.

But why should we be surprised?

I imagine this centurion already knew about Jesus and his disciples, and that Jesus and the disciples knew who the centurion was.

It is probable that Capernaum was the hometown of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, as well as the tax collector Matthew. Earlier in this Gospel, we read how on one Saturday Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum and then healed a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit (see Luke 4: 31–36). Afterwards, he also healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law there (Luke 4: 38-39).

When we have finished reading this morning’s Gospel story, we do not know the after-story. We do not know about the future faith of this centurion, whether he changed roles, changed his lifestyle, left politics and the army life behind him. We do not know.

We do not know about the future of the slave. We know he is found in good health … but for how long? Did he live to old age? Did he gain promotion, or even his freedom? What about his later religious beliefs? We do not know.

We do not know either what happens afterwards among the elders and friends sent out to Jesus. They arrive back late, after everything is over (see verse 10). But are they transformed? Do they move from respecting the centurion because of what he has done for him, to respecting him as an individual? Do they move from seeing him as an outsider to seeing him as an insider? Or will he remain on the margins, no matter how polite they may be about him … and no matter what Jesus does in his life?

This surprising story tells us that those we perceive as our enemies, as outsiders, as strangers, as foreigners, can teach us so much about trust and faith. In the end, this story is reminiscent of Christ’s teaching in the previous chapter: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6: 27).

If we concentrate on healing and the miracle potential of this story, we may just sell ourselves short and miss the point of the story. Indeed, we know very little about the healing in this story, it tells us nothing about a healing ministry, it just tells us that when the elders and friends return to the house they find the slave is “in good health” (see verse 10).

Perhaps the real miracle is to be found when we wake up to the reminder once again that Jesus is concerned for those we regard as the outsider, those we treat as the other, those we exclude.

Who are our modern-day Gentiles? Those we describe as unbelievers, agnostics, atheists or secularists? These are the people the Church needs to listen to and to talk to today, just as Christ listens to the centurion’s delegates and friends, and eventually to the centurion himself.

Jesus commends the faith of the centurion. He has seen nothing like it, even among his own people. He commends the centurion for his faith, and invites us to embrace that calling to live as people of faith.

It is interesting in all of this that seemingly the slave is not aware of any of this. The slave plays a rather passive role in the story.

So, we should note that Christ does not discriminate against the centurion, or against the slave. He makes no distinctions, no categorisation, allows no compartmentalisation. We do not know the religion, the ethnicity, the sexuality or the cultural background of the slave.

Christ does not allow us to hold on to any prejudices or attitudes that tolerate racism, sexism, and ageism. We judge other people’s worthiness every time we withhold compassion or refuse to stand up for justice in solidarity with the oppressed, the ostracised, and the under-served. Will we take our cues from Christ and let God’s compassion and justice demolish the dividing lines we draw to protect ourselves?

This story, which follows Saint Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, challenges us to put the Sermon on the Mount into practice, to consider what it is to be a disciple of Christ, to place ourselves under his authority, which includes accepting his values so that we also value the other, the outsider.

And so may all we think say and do be to praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant,’ depicted by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, a 17th century Coptic monk in Egypt

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Coral Eucharist on 29 May 2016.

Collect:

God,
the strength of all those who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts.
May our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 7: 1-10

1 Ἐπειδὴ ἐπλήρωσεν πάντα τὰ ῥήματα αὐτοῦ εἰς τὰς ἀκοὰς τοῦ λαοῦ, εἰσῆλθεν εἰς Καφαρναούμ. 2 Ἑκατοντάρχου δέ τινος δοῦλος κακῶς ἔχων ἤμελλεν τελευτᾶν, ὃς ἦν αὐτῷ ἔντιμος. 3 ἀκούσας δὲ περὶ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν πρεσβυτέρους τῶν Ἰουδαίων, ἐρωτῶν αὐτὸν ὅπως ἐλθὼν διασώσῃ τὸν δοῦλον αὐτοῦ. 4 οἱ δὲ παραγενόμενοι πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν παρεκάλουν αὐτὸν σπουδαίως, λέγοντες ὅτι Ἄξιός ἐστιν ᾧ παρέξῃ τοῦτο, 5 ἀγαπᾷ γὰρ τὸ ἔθνος ἡμῶν καὶ τὴν συναγωγὴν αὐτὸς ᾠκοδόμησεν ἡμῖν.

6 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐπορεύετο σὺν αὐτοῖς. ἤδη δὲ αὐτοῦ οὐ μακρὰν ἀπέχοντος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας ἔπεμψεν φίλους ὁ ἑκατοντάρχης λέγων αὐτῷ, Κύριε, μὴ σκύλλου, οὐ γὰρ ἱκανός εἰμι ἵνα ὑπὸ τὴν στέγην μου εἰσέλθῃς: 7 διὸ οὐδὲ ἐμαυτὸν ἠξίωσα πρὸς σὲ ἐλθεῖν: ἀλλὰ εἰπὲ λόγῳ, καὶ ἰαθήτω ὁ παῖς μου. 8 καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπός εἰμι ὑπὸ ἐξουσίαν τασσόμενος, ἔχων ὑπ' ἐμαυτὸν στρατιώτας, καὶ λέγω τούτῳ, Πορεύθητι, καὶ πορεύεται, καὶ ἄλλῳ, Ἔρχου, καὶ ἔρχεται, καὶ τῷ δούλῳ μου, Ποίησον τοῦτο, καὶ ποιεῖ.

9 ἀκούσας δὲ ταῦτα ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐθαύμασεν αὐτόν, καὶ στραφεὶς τῷ ἀκολουθοῦντι αὐτῷ ὄχλῳ εἶπεν, Λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐδὲ ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ τοσαύτην πίστιν εὗρον. 10 καὶ ὑποστρέψαντες εἰς τὸν οἶκον οἱ πεμφθέντες εὗρον τὸν δοῦλον ὑγιαίνοντα.

1 After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set 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.”

9 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.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

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