|Proper 4c – Saint John’s Episcopal Church – Memphis, Tennessee – John W. Sewell
Almost every time Jesus appears in the Gospels he is healing or has healed or is on his way to heal. In Luke 7:1-11 a foreigner, a gentile, sends Jewish elders to Jesus asking for help for a sick slave. The man was a Centurion. A bit of explanation is in order: Roman Military structure: what we call an army they called a Legion
Tatum Channing – The Eagle
Basic unit – Century made up of 80 men commanded by a Centurion
6 Centuries = Cohort
10 Cohorts = 1 Legion – The first Cohort had double Centuries of 160 and thus was an elite unit –
The Centurion over this Cohort was the Primus Pilus (first javelin) highest ranking Centurion – Aside: Some believe that Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea, who condemned Jesus, had been Primus Pilus thus the nickname Pilus or Pilate.
Vegetius, a historian from the 5th century, the period of the late Western half of the Roman Empire, wrote a book called The Epitome of Military Science. In it, he described the qualities of a centurion in rather glowing terms. Centurions should be
- ideally at least 30 years old,
- With some years of military service behind them.
A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak, keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod, and that the arms are burnished and bright. (Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, quoted on Cotter, p. 114)
This Centurion was an impressive man. He likely worked his way up through the ranks, he may well have been the Primus Pilis as he has control of consideration money. After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.
Excursus: First-century Roman baths excavated on this site point to Roman presence in the 1st Century. Legions were often stationed in a place for a long time, even centuries.
2 A Centurion there had a slave whom he valued – this choice of words is utilitarian, sort of like saying, “he had this machine he valued for what it could do for him” a better translation would be a slave whom he highly honored, slavery is always bad, and people shouldn’t be “owned.” Unlike US history Roman slavery was not racial but economic. It was assumed that at some point the slave will be freed and likely go into business sponsored by his former master. We do not know any more of the relationship than the fact that this Centurion thought highly of this slave 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.”
Thoughtful Romans rather liked a lot about Judaism and particularly appreciated its high morals and ethics. What they did not find attractive at all was the rite of circumcision and the dietary kosher laws. The most common meat in Rome was pork and Roman folk, as do we, like a big pork chop from time to time and as you know Pork was high on the list of kosher no no’s.
We encounter these Gentiles in the Gospels, The Acts and in Paul’s letters. Since Paul’s understanding of the Gospel was that the resurrection spelled an end to all the very rules that turned off the Gentiles attracted to the high ethical standards and practice of the Jews so they could become Christian rather easily and they did just that. This very man may well be a brother of ours in heaven.
This military man asked the Elders of the Synagogue he attended to approach Jesus. The Elders were glad to do it because apparently he was a really good guy, and he had paid for the Synagogue building. They came to Jesus with the request and Jesus agreed and went with them to the Centurion’s house.
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 [amazed: Astonished, his jaw dropped, the language is beyond surprised it is intensified to “he just stood there dumbfounded.”] at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Now, just go with me for a minute. If we are mentally lazy, the fully human & fully God nature of the Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity quickly goes out of balance and becomes a bizarre melange. I was reared with a heresy, common in American Christianity, that unwittingly elevated Jesus’ divinity at the expense of his full humanity. This is my thought.
Could it be that this was the first time Jesus realized that he could heal at a distance with a word? How cool is that? Jesus is brought up short not by his fellows but by a Gentile of all things, who would have thought it? Maybe that’s why he turned those with him and said, “Well, don’t that beat all, a Gentile has just taught the Son of God something about faith!”
10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health [in Greek the word means robust, like nothing had ever happened].
- If you notice, the Centurion never met Jesus in person.
- He knew that Jews didn’t enter the houses of Gentiles.
- He in an elegantly graceful move kept Jesus from controversy while at the same time believed that Jesus could/would heal his friend.
- He was powerless to help this man who he held in high regard
- He was not without power.
- He used his power: net-worked
- He was humble – put aside his station and power – and asked for help.
That was them then and there. What about us here and now?
Bronson Bryant, “JOHN, WE ARE ALWAYS PREPARED FOR GOD TO DO NOTHING.”
ACTS 12:13 As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. 13 When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. 14 On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.” 16
Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. 17 He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, “Tell this to James and to the believers.” Then he left and went to another place.
- Where is the need in your life?
- Where are you powerless?
- How are you using the power you do have?
- When was the last time you really asked God for help?
- And expected something to happen?
Faith is found in the strangest places. Unfortunately, Church is often not one of them. I pray that Saint John’s will be a place where people meet the Living God with visible consequences. Amen.