The story. Gospel of Luke 7:1-11
1After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6And 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; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For 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.” 9When 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.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
What's it mean?
This weekend many of us pause to remember those men and women soldiers and sailors who gave their lives on the battlefield’s of American history. With bravery, most of these sacrifices were made in foreign countries; Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia…President Obama has made pilgrimage to Hiroshima and Vietnam in recent weeks---mainly to suggest that former enemies can become allies, partners, friends over time with diplomacy and leadership. Germany and Japan have become important U.S. allies and points of stability in the world. The moral arc of the universe bends toward Justice. As we remember and honor the soldiers who gave the last full measure of valor, storming beaches, invading jungles, crossing deserts, we hear a story about Jesus and a Roman soldier---the enemy occupier of Israel.
The Roman centurion is a commanding officer responsible for 100 Roman soldiers. He is there as part of the occupying forces on the ground in Israel. He is stationed in the north away from the city of Jerusalem. He’s thankful for that. Jerusalem is far more dangerous. Apart from a few rabble rousers, his time in Galillee has been relatively easy time. He has learned that military occupation of foreign territory requires some finesse. He appreciates the stress civilians experience with soldiers patrolling their streets. And some soldiers do not act with valor or respect toward others. He does. He has come to like these Jews. When their synagogue burned down last year, he and his men joined the work crew and helped them rebuild it. By doing so, he has built relationships with local leaders. He can acquire intelligence from them and Capernaum remains a safe place for everyone.
There is a Rabbi who heals sick people. They say he made a blind person see and a paralyzed man walk. When the centurion’s servant boy becomes deathly ill, he remembers the rabbi called Jesus. He speaks with a couple of the Jewish elders, asking them if they thought Jesus might help him. But why would a Jewish Rabbi help the enemy? Why should he care what happens to Roman soldiers or their households? The man knows he is not a Jew, knows he is the enemy of Israel. But the Jewish elders insist that they go and ask Jesus on his behalf. When they return to say that Jesus is on his way, the solider is shocked. But the boy, his slave has gotten sicker. He will die without help. He sends friends to meet Jesus on the way and to tell him that he understands authority and power. He knows that when he gives an order, even from a distance, if it isn’t carried out people could die. He knows that authority and command are given from a higher seat of power. He draws a parallel between his life and the life of the healer. And he knows that if Jesus says the Word, his servant boy will be healed. Jesus is astonished and announces that his faith exceeds that of all of Israel. And the boy is healed. A soldier, enemy occupier of Israel, has faith?
What does Jesus mean by faith? Faith is not personal assent to religious belief and practice. Faith is not rooted in ethnicity. It is not tied to one’s piety. Those who go to synagogue, or church, who read their bible and pray daily are not the only ones with faith. We do not know what this man knew of holy scripture, of prayer, of God. He was a Gentile Roman soldier, enemy of Israel and he had great faith. Perhaps it was his character---the Jews say he is worthy to have this done, but he himself says he is not worthy to receive Jesus into his home. Humble and generous. So is that why Jesus calls him faithful? I think it is simply for this reason: Because he called on Jesus and believed that Jesus could heal. He did so on behalf of a very sick child. Faith may be a single act, in which a community of people act together on behalf of someone in need. Those people may be enemies who come together for a common cause. What does it mean for us to respect the faith of our "enemies"? When we face matters of life and death, faith shows us the power of God.
I noticed how many people are involved in the care of this sick slave boy. Jewish elders, friends of a soldier, a Roman Centurion. A community of people, both Jews and Gentiles, seek out Jesus for his sake, for a slave boy. Everyone is worthy to be healed in the kingdom of God. No one is insignificant. GOD favors the poor, the slave, the servant---those in the bottom of the economic and social pyramid. God sees them and powerfully helps them. And those who cannot speak or act for themselves can be borne up to God. Something about this story is like intercessory prayer. When we pray for others, Jesus hears us. And something about this story is an answer to the prayer of Solomon, who prayed that God would even hear and answer the prayers of the foreigner. Solomon, King of Israel, prayed that God would listen to his enemies! And now God listens to Israel’s enemies, who come to Jesus for healing! Foreign enemies are included in the Kingdom of God, a borderless kingdom.
Something like this story is happening in our midst. Today a child has been borne up to us. She has been brought here to this community, brought for healing and cleansing from sin and death. Today, we baptize Tegan Lynn and welcome her into the kingdom of God. Tegan comes here because of the faith of her parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. This is the place where they met Jesus. Those people helped to build this place. They are worthy to have this done for them. Though we do not perform baptism today because of that or them. It is not their character or their religious devotion that gives them access to Jesus, to the mercy and love of God. It is only this. They asked on her behalf. Those who are far off and those who are near; those who have been enemies and those who are friends, those who are ethnically and culturally other and those who are citizens, foreigners and strangers and dearest loved ones---all are received and welcomed into the household and kingdom of God. No one is insignificant here. Rejoice today, the Lord brings rebirth, healing, and new life here and now. And a child is blessed and we are blessed to be part of it. Amen.