Surprising Faith

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
May 29, 2016

Luke 7: 1-10 (CEB)
After Jesus finished presenting all his words among the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion had a servant who was very important to him, but the servant was ill and about to die. 3When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. 4When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. “He deserves to have you do this for him,” they said. 5“He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.”

6Jesus went with them. He had almost reached the house when the centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, “Lord, don’t be bothered. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. 7In fact, I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. Just say the word and my servant will be healed. 8I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”

9When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said, “I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.” 10When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.

At first glance, this is a healing story. As a matter of fact, in my study Bible, the heading for this passage of Scripture is, “A servant is healed.” Sounds pretty mundane, doesn’t it; pretty “run-of-the-mill”, especially for someone like Jesus. Much like many of the healing stories in the Gospels, someone is ill, not doing well, and word is sent to Jesus that help is needed. So Jesus heads that direction, but before he can even get to ailing man, another group of messengers is sent with the message that he should not go. That’s where this seemingly mundane healing story gets a lot more interesting. And SURPRISE! It’s because there’s a lot more to this story than a simple healing. But in order to understand the full magnitude of what is happening here, we need a little background information. One of the things about reading the Bible is that we often miss a lot of the nuance and depth of the stories because we don’t know or understand the full complete context. This is a perfect example of what seems to be a rather simple healing story that takes on a completely different meaning when pay attention to the setting behind the story.

So first, let me give you a little background on Capernaum. Capernaum was a relatively small fishing village on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. With a population right around 1,000 people, many of whom would have been Jews, it was big enough to warrant its own synagogue. Capernaum was also the center of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, sort of the “home base.” It was here that Jesus called Peter, James, John, and Matthew. And it was in the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus first taught. But the Jews weren’t the only folks in town.

Like all of Galilee at this time, Capernaum was part of the Roman Empire and thus occupied by Roman forces. In a town of this size, order would have been maintained by maybe one of two military units with a commanding officer. That officer would have himself been under the command of a higher ranking official in charge of perhaps the entire region of Galilee. It is that officer that stands at the center of this scripture passage we heard a few moments ago, the centurion; a mid-ranking Roman officer with responsibility for the town of Capernaum in Galilee.

So now that we know more about Capernaum, let’s focus in on this centurion and the other folks living in Capernaum at this time. As a Roman official, the centurion would not have been a Jew. If he worshipped, he would have worshipped the Roman gods and goddesses, not the Hebrew God. But the Romans had been occupying Galilee for many generations, and this centurion had likely been stationed in this town for a good amount of time. Now, a ruler charged with keeping order in a village of about 1,000 people, over a period of years would have gotten to know the folks in his charge. And not only had the centurion gotten to know many of the people in Capernaum, it seems he had also become sympathetic to their cause.

When a slave in the centurion’s household becomes ill and is close to death, the centurion goes to the Jewish leaders in Capernaum and asks them to send for Jesus, whom he has heard can heal sick people. So these Jewish leaders go and find Jesus. And as they appeal to Jesus to go and to heal the ailing servant, they share with Jesus how wonderfully worthy this centurion is of Jesus’ healing work. Now remember, in a lot of the Roman Empire there was constant conflict and tension between the Romans and the natives. But as the Jewish elders plead with Jesus, we see that there doesn’t seem to be any rift between the Romans and the Jews in Capernaum. The Jews tell Jesus that the centurion is “worthy,” that “he built the synagogue” for the Jewish people, which basically means he paid for it. There is, of course, no explanation as to why a Roman centurion would pay for a Jewish synagogue, so we are left to speculate. Perhaps he feels that he can better keep the peace and maintain order if he allows the Jewish people a safe place to worship. Or maybe, just maybe, he is a humble Gentile, looking in at Israel and Israel’s God from the outside, liking what he sees, and opening himself to learning new truth from this strange, ancient way of life.

But the respect goes both ways, for the Jewish leaders are clearly glad to approach Jesus on behalf of the centurion and plead the case for this servant. And when they do, Jesus is glad to go and heal the centurion’s servant. But before Jesus even gets to the home, he is approached by another group of people who has sought out Jesus on behalf of the centurion. This time, it is the centurion’s friends; we can assume perhaps some fellow Roman soldiers. Contrary to the Jewish leaders who came before them, these people bring a direct message from the centurion himself, and it’s quite different from the message of the Jewish elders. The Jewish leaders had told Jesus how worthy this centurion was of his time and work, but the centurion now says, “Lord…I am not worthy.” But he goes on, and he basically says, “I really didn’t want to trouble you. I just thought that maybe you, by your authority, could speak a word, a command like I give my soldiers to ‘Go’ or to ‘Come,’ and that my servant would be healed.”

You know, this could be a simple story of healing, because it really is one account of Jesus’ healing work. In the end, the centurion’s servant was healed. This could be a story about the boundless grace of God; it is that, too. Jesus didn’t only heal the Jewish people. The centurion was a figurehead of the oppressive Roman rule over the Jewish people. Though this particular centurion was friendly to the Jews, that doesn’t change the fact that he still represented the enemy. He was “the other,” and outcaste. And the slave in his household? We all know that slaves are “low on the totem pole” so to speak; to the Jewish people that slave would have been an outcaste among outcastes. But Jesus doesn’t even hesitate. He is summoned to heal an ailing man, and he goes. It doesn’t matter when another group approaches Jesus to tell him not to go, Jesus heals the man anyway. It doesn’t matter that he’s a Roman. It doesn’t matter that he’s a slave. This story, like so many in the Gospels, shows that the healing power of God is not bound by space or limited to those who are recognized as God’s people. It is available to us all without exception. That is a beautiful, fantastic truth of revealed in this story of the healing of the centurion’s slave. But there’s even more.

The real heart of this story is yet another matter. Ken and I have a habit early each week where we ask what the other is preaching on that coming Sunday. Ken’s in the middle of a sermon series on the book of Genesis right now, but when he asked me what I was preaching on this week, my response wasn’t, “the healing of the centurion’s servant.” I said to him, “I’m preaching on the faith of the centurion.” The centurion’s faith stands at the very heart of this story. There is healing, there is generous grace, but undergirding it all is this deep abiding faith.

Think just for a minute about the people who were surrounding Christ all the time. He had these twelve disciples whom he had called to follow him. They had walked away from their entire lives in order to devote themselves to him. These twelve guys didn’t always understand fully who Christ was, but they went everywhere he went, they listened to him teach, they watched him heal, they went out in pairs by his authority to continue his healing and teaching. They were humans and they flubbed up sometime, but they were always faithful. Then, there were the crowds that followed Jesus, and the people he encountered as he traveled. And as word spread about this amazing prophet, people sought him out to hear him speak, to receive the power of his healing. They had faith enough to know that if they went to him and asked, he could heal them in just the way they needed. Everyday Jesus encountered people who had deep, abiding faith in him.
Yet, listen to what happens when the centurion’s friends appeal to Jesus, bringing word from the centurion for Christ to simply speak a word of healing for the very ill servant. Luke says, “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him.” Normally in the gospels Jesus does and says things that surprise others; this is one of the very, very few times when Jesus himself is surprised. And the reason is the sheer quality of the man’s faith. Hear that again, friends, this centurion’s faith was so great, that it surprised even Jesus!

Jesus, followed everyday by scores of faithful people, was amazed at the faith of this centurion. But look at his faith. He’s a Roman. He’s not a Jew, he has not committed his life to following the God of Israel. Yet, when he hears of Jesus, he summons him by the name “Lord.” He recognizes what many others had yet to understand: this is God in the flesh. And it’s not just that he believes that Jesus can heal, he believes that Jesus can heal someone else, just because he asks. But, it doesn’t even stop there, his faith is so strong that he believes Christ can heal this servant from wherever he is, just by say the word. As he, the centurion, can summon his soldiers with a single command, “Come,” he has full and complete faith that Christ can send this illness away with one imperative.

Do you have that kind of faith? Do I have that kind of faith? Do I really believe that Christ can heal my Uncle who’s recovering from six chemo treatments with a heart that’s only working at 20% capacity? Do we have faith that God will bring Anita safely through her surgery and heal Gregg? Do we faith that whether we are worthy or not, Christ will respond when we call? Do we trust that God can take us, even us, broken as we are, and make us whole again? Friends, I will tell you that I was tested sorely this week, and I failed miserably. I know I did wrong. Ken and I had a homeless kid staying with us for a few days to get him through school, and when we talked about taking him in long term, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t there yet. I wasn’t able to put aside my own ambitions, and hopes, and dreams to help this kid out. I was selfish. And so as I worked through this passage this week, my question was, “Do I have faith that Christ will forgive me? And do I believe that Christ can continue to work in me and change my heart and shape me more and more into the person I should be?” Faith is tough, but real faith sees the amazing, awesome power of God in Christ Jesus for what it really is! Christ is able to do greater things than we can ever ask or imagine, but to see Christ’s amazing work, we have to have faith that it can happen. Pure, unquestioning, unreserved faith.

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