Since Pentecost this year, way back at the beginning of June, we’ve been systematically working our way through Luke’s gospel. This is a bit of a recap to place us in that exploration…
We looked at Jesus early ministry… following his footsteps… we started with his baptism and his setting the agenda for his ministry by reading from the scroll of Isaiah: that the Spirit of Lord was upon him, to preach good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the bind, to free the prisoner and bring release to the oppressed and declare the acceptable year of the Lord. And we moved on to see how that was fulfilled in Jesus encounters with people and how it leads him into his conflict with the religious people of his day. We looked at what it told us of Jesus and how we could follow his footsteps in our own lives.
Over the past two months we’ve been focusing on two sections of Jesus teaching in the gospel.
Last month we looked at Jesus teaching on prayer in Luke 11:1-13, we took that section out of order to coincide with doing ‘the prayer course’ here at St Peter’s. We looked at what Jesus teaching in a prayer, a parable and a principle told us about prayer as communication with God. That the hope of prayer was found in the character of God, therefore we could be hopeful in prayer, and with shameless audacity approach God, and in the Prayer Jesus taught his disciples he encapsulated the scope of our human hope: Giving us petitions to pray, a pattern to our prayer and a priority for our prayer and our life.
Before that we had spent five weeks looking at Jesus sermonon the plain in Luke chapter 6… seeing Jesus call for his disciples to show exceptional love in light of God’s gracious blessing. That God’s offer of blessing was for the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, the ones who were despised and persecuted because of the son of man… and in light of that we were to love our enemies, not to judge to be merciful as our Father is merciful, and that the only foundation for showing such exceptional love is in knowing Jesus, hearing his words and putting them into practise.
Today we are starting a new series, looking at four encounters with Jesus in Luke chapter 7: The gentile centurion, the widow at Nain, the disciples of John the Baptist and the woman who anoints Jesus feet at the house of Simon the Pharisee. In each of these encounters with the revolution of God grace we see how Jesus mission statement about good news and recovery and release grows in its scope, we see how Jesus follows up his words about showing exceptional love with exceptional ministry, and we are drawn deeper and deeper into the identity of Jesus as God’s agent.
Today we are looking at Jesus encounter with the gentile centurion. Up to this point in the gospel people have been surprised and amazed by what Jesus has to say and what Jesus does, but in this narrative we find that Jesus is surprised and Jesus is amazed at the centurion’s words and his humble faith and he a mere gentile is held up as an example for us of faith in Jesus Christ.
After Jesus had finished his sermon on the plain it tells us he came into Capernaum, which had been his base of operations for the first part of his ministry. We are told the servant of a certain centurion was ill and about to die. A servant that was valuable to the roman officer. We are told the centurion had heard of Jesus, Jesus had healed many people in the Capernaum and the villages and towns around there, so the centurion sends some Jewish elders the civil leaders of the town to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. The question is whether Jesus revolution of grace, his love and his compassion and his ministry would extend to a gentile, to someone who was considered the enemy.
The centurion would have been the figure of roman authority in the town. The Jewish elders present a case for Jesus to come, that the man loved Israel and had built the synagogue in the city. We are presented with a picture of the centurion who at the very least did not treat the locals with contempt, who followed the roman custom of showing respect for cultures older than their own, and saw religion as an important part of the social fabric to be encouraged to keep order in the empire. Even his caring for his servant may simply have been the pragmatism of roman society where to care for sick slaves was advised because it prolonged their usefulness. Or we are presented with a man who is genuinely kind and was interested in things Jewish and their God. In the end we don’t know. The Jewish elders seem to come to Jesus with a case that the roman centurion deserves Jesus attention. He was their patron and in the social way of doing things that meant they should repay him.
This goes against what Jesus had been teaching about God’s revolution of grace, that god’s favour and god’s blessing is not earned but rather freely given. We can buy God’s favour by being nice, kind and caring. It is about God being kind and God caring and if I may be so bold God being nice… But Jesus choses to go with them; Jesus revolution of grace is willing to go past the social barriers between Jew and Gentile with compassion and healing. To set foot in the home of a gentile was to face ritual uncleanness. More than that to show such kindness to a roman office was like treason. But Jesus revolution of grace was willing to reach across those boundaries with exceptional love.
On the way another delegation comes from the Centurion, we are told this is a different group, not the civil leaders but the centurion’s friends. They tell us a different story, they carry the centurion’s own words to Jesus. He does not think he has earned Jesus favour or cand emand it by right but he does trust and have faith in Jesus. The centurion addresses Jesus as Lord, he is aware of something about Jesus that the Jewish elders are not. The centurion is aware that he is unworthy of the favour of Jesus he does not deserve to have Jesus come under his roof. He uses the word not trying to earn or garner favour with Jesus, but acknowledges his humble reliance on Jesus graciousness and mercy. He acknowledges that has faith in Jesus authority to simply speak and the servant will be healed. He sees in Jesus someone who has authority over sickness and disease… he expresses it in terms of his own experience as an officer in the roman army. He has been commissioned and given orders and he has authority over his soldiers and expects them to do what he says. He gives orders to his servants and they carry them out. It is hard for us to see the authority of Jesus in the strict terms of a military system, but the centurion acknowledges the authority of God, to do what God chooses.
Jesus is amazed at this. He turns to the crowd that was following him and says that he had not found such faith in all of Israel. He here in this gentile we find great surprising faith: Faith that trusts in the power and presence of God in and with Jesus. We are told that when the men who had been sent return to the centurion’s home the servant is well.
Now the fact that Jesus had started to go with the Jewish elders shows us he was going to heal the servant, it wasn’t because of the man’s kindness or his faith but rather because of God’s grace and love, even for the occupying forces, even for a rich powerful man. But the centurion has displayed such humble faith in Jesus that is shown to us as an example of how we should respond to Jesus. It is a great example of trust in God's authority and the shameless audacity Jesus says we should have when we pray.
So let’s turn and look at what this passage says to us today.
The first thing is that one of the things that concerns Luke in his gospel and later in Acts is that Jewish and gentile Christians can get along. In this passage we see that expressed in the relationship between the roman centurion and the people in Capernaum. The start of cross cultural relationships comes with respect and kindness. The roman could have come in and enforced his own culture and his own religion and beliefs on the local populous, he could have treated them with contempt. But rather we see him growing to understand and appreciate the other culture. That breaks down barriers and actually allows for God’s grace to bring healing. It allows Jesus to be introduced into the situation. It speaks to us in our increasingly multi-cultural world and church, we are often used to the dominant culture simply having things their way. I wonder if that stops the grace of God from speaking into the situation. The centurion shows us that in being open to what the other culture had to offer opened him up to the grace of God.
The second thing is that the faith of the centurion is a challenge for all of us. Firstly that the centurion realises that he does not have the right to come into Jesus presence, there Is a humbleness that acknowledges his unworthiness, we often have identified that idea in a negative way, it is a putting of ourselves down, but that is not the case here, the centurion realises the uniqueness of Jesus, the power of God. Psalm eight expresses it wonderfully, it is a written as the poet stares up at the vastness of heavens and the amazing awesomeness of the God who has created all that and realises his own insignificance, ‘who is man that you should consider us… But there is also the wonder and amazing fact that God does and God cares.
The centurion’s faith is that Jesus simply needed to speak the word and the servant would be healed… It is a trust in the power of God, to do what God chooses to do, that God is sovereign, all powerful. It is the same faith we need when we pray. A trust in God to do good. Sometimes our prayers simply become a waffle of vague hopes and wondering if God can, the centurion’s faith was yes that God could, yes that Jesus could, and in asking all he risked was that Jesus would say no. But he didn’t.
The last thing is the wonderful expression of exceptional love that Jesus demonstrates. Here we see jesus revolution of God’s grace reach across the great socio religious divide of his day. The scope of God’s grace of he kingdom of god as not is not just for Israel, it is not just for the people who have historically been identified as his people, it is for all, it is universal. It is for the gentiles, it is even for the powerful and the wealthy as well as the poor and oppressed. It is for all who our religion and cultural understandings can see beyond God’s care or as our enemies. Jesus not only talked the talk of love your enemy he lived it out as well.
I couldn’t help but be moved by a story I read In the October edition f the Voice of the Martyrs magazine. Which I think shows how cultural respect and kindness can open the door to god’s healing and grace. Raji was a member of a militant Hindu group in India, they were opposed to any Christian activity in their village. One day a pastor from another town had come to preach, and raji and twenty others had beaten him and left him in a ditch. But Raji felt a real sense of guilt that he ahd beaten an innocent man and after telling his wife, Aysa, what he has done, she convinced him that this was not the way their culture tells them to treat people and to go and get the pastor so they could tend to his wounds. So he did. The next day after he was able to speak again, Asya asked him why he had come to their village and he told her that he had come to talk of Jesus who cared for the poor and healed the sick. Asya’s sister in law had been sick for months so she bought her for the pastor to pray for and he shared the gospel and prayed for her. Two days later she was healed and about forty people from the village became followers of Jesus including Raji and a church was established. Kindness opened the door to to Jesus love for our enemies and to God’s healing and saving power.