When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well. (Luke 7:1-10)
There’s no understating the crisis which Jesus forced upon his disciples when he said, “Sure, let’s go to the house of the Centurion so I can heal his servant!” With him went twelve other observant Jews who normally would not want to be caught dead in the house of a Gentile, let alone a Centurion. Yet, only a few years later Peter would enter the home of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, to share the gospel. I wonder, could the Roman Centurion in today’s gospel passage be that same Cornelius? Their stories are recorded by the same author, Luke. Maybe it took several miracles for an officer in the Roman army of occupation to become the first Gentile Christian.
If we would use today’s Gospel story to say that God approves of war, that is like trying to make a parachute out of a postage stamp. There’s just not enough to go on. But we can say, without a doubt, that God loves soldiers. So anything we can do to show God’s love to those who are far from home in dangerous, difficult circumstances, or to their families back home, or to those who have come home bearing the burden of trauma, separation from loved ones, and lost years of career and relationships, honors them and God. When they’re up at night with flashbacks of roadside bombings is not the time to say, “Let’s talk about our theology of biblical nonresistance.” I believe it, but then is the time to ask, “How can we help you and your family right now?”
Yes, that Roman Centurion even spoke to Jesus in military terms, in the language of command and control and hierarchy. That too is contrary to the very nature of God’s kingdom. But to Jesus, it was more important to meet the man where he was, and to commend and encourage his first fragile stirrings of faith, than to tell him how far away he was from spiritual perfection. As the saying goes, Jesus looked beyond his faults and saw his need. He looked beyond his confusion and saw an awakening. That’s good news for all of us, because we’re all somewhere on the same journey from confusion to comprehension, from blindness to full sight.
This story is also put to use in our current controversies over inclusion and the church’s inclusivity, whether in matters sexual, or about immigration, or even about other religions. This gospel story certainly points us toward including and affirming all people in our love and service. It was bad enough that this Centurion had killed other people and sent his own soldiers to their deaths; in his position he also had to regularly offer vows, prayers and incense to Tiberius Caesar as a god, and to Mars, the brutal, bloodthirsty Roman god of war. Yet that did not keep Jesus from loving the man, answering his call, and coming to serve him.
And the man is not the same as the system he served. There is surprising grace and goodness in him. He seemed to appreciate the dilemma that these card-carrying Jews were in, coming to his house. Ironically, he showed Jesus and his disciples the most gracious, generous hospitality by not inviting them in. Is that also why Jesus commended this man’s faith? If Jesus then could be so loving, gracious and responsive to an officer in the alien, oppressive, idolatrous imperial army that had its boot heel on their necks, so must we, to whoever seeks our help and our love.
But we can’t use this story to include and affirm all things. Jesus obviously did not affirm his disciples’ probable fear and hostility toward the man. Nor did he affirm their attempts to pull rank and impose hierarchy on each other, when they later argued over, “Which of us is the greatest in the kingdom of God?” Jesus put the kibosh on that immediately. He had taught them better.
But this morning I’m struck by a matter of inclusion that our controversies over inclusion usually overlook: the courageous and inclusion by Jesus Christ of himself into this Roman officer’s life, even his bold and courageous willingness to include himself into the Centurion’s home. That tells us good news about Jesus’ unflinching and unflagging willingness and work to include himself into everybody’s hearts and homes and relationships. And not because anyone is more worthy of including Jesus and hosting him than anyone else.
Marvel then with me at this constant and courageous effort of Jesus Christ to include himself into every human heart and soul. And once he has found an opening, however slight, however dim, confused, timid and tentative, like that of the Centurion, then Jesus Christ continues his constant, tireless, steady, insistent effort to include himself into other areas, parts and places of our lives, our souls and our relationships. All for his love for us, and for our own supreme, eternal good. Marvel with me at his constant vigilance and readiness, to respond to our every opening and invitation and turning toward him, like that of the Centurion, and trust in it. Look for it even where we would least expect it, in some of the most surprising people and places. However dim, halting and half-hearted anyone’s turning to him may be, Christ responds positively, eagerly, perfectly, bringing the full weight of heaven’s grace with him, willing and ready to do for us “above and beyond what we can think or imagine.”
And yet Jesus also comes gently, respectfully, not willing to overwhelm our timid, tepid spirits and paralyze our freedom to say No, or No More, please. That we see in the way in which Jesus respected the limits that the Centurion set: “I am not worthy to have you enter my home; only say the word and my servant shall be healed,” he said. So Jesus settled for doing a long distance healing. But if this Centurion should turn out to have been Cornelius, who later invited Peter into his home, and got with him the Holy Spirit, that tells us something. Whenever we say No or No More to Jesus, he doesn’t just turn his back on us and leave. He patiently stands by, willingly waiting for our next opening and invitation, gently, subtly encouraging it even.
A crisis may move us to open up and invite him in, or to invite him into another part of our lives. Or maybe a blessing which awakens gratitude, wonder and worship. Such as what happened to Whittaker Chambers, the leader of the American Communist Party in the 1940’s and -50’s, and an ardent atheist. Or he was, until he contemplated the beauty of his newborn baby daughter as she slept in his arms, especially, of all things, the perfection of her tiny little ear. What was he to do with the sudden surge of wonder, gratitude, a terrible, tender awe, and holy, reverent fear that welled up inside him? To whom could he offer it, he wondered, since all this beauty was supposed to be only a meaningless accident of natural selection? Jesus was close enough to say, in the hearing of his heart, “I’m here for you. I’ll receive it.” And so Chambers became the most hated traitor to the worldwide Communist movement.
What do we do about today’s Gospel passage? In short, I’d say, Let’s push the needle back in the other direction. By which I mean, the needle on an imaginary gauge in our heads that measures our sense for two things: on one end, God’s initiative and responsibility toward us; on the other end, our initiative and responsibility toward God. I find that a helpful way to think about the partnership between us and God that we call “faith.” We confess that God has done certain things for us, long before we ever asked him to, like giving us life itself. We also confess that we have power and responsibilities in our life with God, like believing in Jesus, worshiping, and obeying the Ten Commandments, for example.
That imaginary gauge I’m talking about would measure things like: to what extent do we see our Christian walk as God’s gift to us? Or do we see it mostly as our gift to God? Does the needle of our faith point more to our side of the dial, or toward God’s side? How much do we see the blessings of faith as gifts of God’s faithfulness to us, or as rewards for our faithfulness to God? Do we think we are here this morning because Jesus first came to us, or because we first came to him? Do we think that we first called on him, or that he was first calling us, so that our call to him was a response to his call to us?
If the needle of our imaginary gauge is too far toward God’s side, so that we think that all the initiative and responsibility for our Christian life belong to God alone, that can lead us to passivity, and to pride. Pride that we, unlike “those heathens,” were chosen.
But if the needle is too far toward our side, so that we see all the power, wisdom, initiative and responsibility of the Christian life as ours, so that God is only serving us by giving us what we earn, so that all virtues are our accomplishments, all blessings are our rewards, and the Christian life is our gift to God, more than God’s gift to us, that too is pride.
As for that Roman Centurion, where does the needle of his responsibility gauge point? We might say that he took the initiative; he took the responsibility to call Jesus, and so Jesus came. The needle should be way over to his side of the gauge. Yet it was God who took the initiative to send Jesus, and God who gave and directed his ministry of healing. When the Centurion called for Jesus, he was responding to what he had heard about Jesus. The initiative then came first from heaven; the Centurion was only responsible to respond; that is, he was response-able. That also is a power given by God. That pushes the needle back toward God’s side of the gauge. But not so far that the Centurion was only a puppet on God’s hand.
How about us? My sense is that we Christians today, in our time and setting, err most often in having the needle of our trust meter too far in the direction of our own initiative, power, responsibility, wisdom and virtue. I’m glad for our education, technology, prosperity and professionalism. God can and does use them for his kingdom purposes. But they make it so tempting and so easy to slip into thinking of ourselves as God’s independent contractors, and of God as simply the responder and rewarder of our virtues, efforts and initiatives. In this culture and this country especially, sometimes we need to be reminded of what Paul asked the powerful, prosperous and cosmopolitan Christians of Corinth: “What do you have that God has not given to you? (I Cor. 4:7)” What can we do for God that is not really a response to what God has done for us? And by God-given powers? In our prayers, or if we journal, a good exercise would be to look back at over our lives thus far and ask ourselves, “What evidence of God’s initiative do I see in my personal history? Where, when and how did Christ come to me the way he came to that Centurion? What did Christ do to call and invite me, even before I knew to call and invite him? What initiatives did he take in my life that I can now see only in hindsight? Was it through my family, my church, a friend, a favorite author? But just as importantly, How have I responded to the gifts and initiatives of Christ toward me? Thinking about such questions would push the needle of our faith back toward God’s side of the gauge, but not so far that we are not response-able. Look at life from God’s side of the dial, and the result is humility, gratitude, relief and release, wonder and worship, such as what we will render in a moment when we sing the hymn, “I Sought the Lord.” But first, let’s consider that question, in silence just now. Let’s take a minute to reflect: Where, when and how has Christ come to me, the way he came to the Centurion? And what initiatives has God taken in my life that made it possible for me to call on him?………
And for another brief exercise, let’s think about some person, or that group of people, who most scare or disturb us, the way the Centurion surely scared and disturbed the disciples. Name them to yourself in silence, and then imagine Jesus standing by them closely, attentively, lovingly, watching, waiting and wanting to answer their call to him, even prompting, ever so gently, their call to him with the blessings of life and love, whether they recognize him as the source of such blessings or not…….
Let’s pray: Lord, what do we have that you did not first give us? How could we ever call on you but that your tender, gentle, loving call first stirred something in us? Thank you for your faithfulness toward us even before we ever wanted to be faithful to you. Help us to see how you have ever been there for us, and are ever there for us, and to trust that you will ever be there for us. Help us to remember and trust in your love and your call for everyone else, and make us part of your outreach toward them. In the name of him who is heaven’s welcoming face to us, Amen.