Immediately after the Sermon on the Plain, we begin the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus enters Capernaum, and a group of Jewish elders come to him with a request. A centurion in the city has a slave whom he esteems highly. Would you please come and heal this slave?
I can’t help wondering whether these Jewish elders might have been listening to Jesus’ teachings lately. A centurion was a commanding officer in the occupying Roman army, with some eighty soldiers under his authority. Just think what it would be like if someone took over the United States, and had soldiers with machine guns on each corner?
It was not as bitter as we would feel it because the Romans had been there already for 94 years, and people get used to each other. But still, the centurion could easily be interpreted as an enemy.
And yet, the centurion loved the Jewish people. He had given money to their building fund for their new synagogue. I can almost see the Jewish elders saying “Well, he’s kind of like an enemy, being part of the occupation. But he did give money to our building fund. Let’s see, enemy, building fund, enemy, building fund. Hmmm—Building Fund!”
So they ask Jesus, could you come heal his slave. Jesus goes with them. They are not far from the Centurion’s house, when the centurion sends a second group of people, some of his friends. They say “Lord,” “Kurios” in Greek, “Sir.” Commander in an occupying army, speaking to a wandering Jewish preacher who has no family relatives in high places, no cozy connections, no grand robes or deep money boxes. “Sir,” says the Centurion, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”
Centurion may have been thinking of a Jewish custom that you weren’t supposed to enter a Gentile, non-Jewish household because it would make you unclean. Still, I wonder whether the friends might have thought the Centurion a bit of an odd duck. “Go and say this to this preacher, “Sir, I am unworthy, but I also am a man under authority. I say to my soldier Go there, and he goes. Come here and he comes. I tell my slave to do this, and he does it. So you just say the word, and my slave will be healed.”
Here is the climax of the story, the most important moment. When Jesus had heard this, he was amazed. In other parts of the Gospel of Luke, other people are amazed by Jesus. Jesus heals a person, everyone is amazed. Jesus calms a storm, the disciples are amazed. Jesus gives some mind-blowing teaching people are amazed. Here, Jesus is the one who is amazed. Jesus is amazed. He says, “Not in all of Israel have I found faith like this.” Climax of the story.
The friends go back to the centurion’s house, and they find the slave in good health.
I have two things to say about this passage. First, does this centurion remind you of anybody? What group of people is, for the most part, Gentile, that is, they don’t have Jewish ethnic heritage. They have never seen Jesus in the flesh. This centurion has never met Jesus in person, only heard about him. Who do you know that has only heard about the healing that Jesus has done, maybe read about it in some book. And yet these people ask Jesus for things all the time, preposterous things, healing things. They might not always get what they want. Sometimes get what they ask for. Sometimes not. Sometimes surprised by what God sends. But they still ask, they still pray, actually expecting something to happen.
I’ll tell you who this centurion reminds me of. He reminds me of you. I have seen you pray for healing for the body and forgiveness for the soul, blessing for those you love, wisdom for the nation, peace for the world. Asking for every form of healing imaginable, and actually expecting something to happen. Praying boldly.
Never seen Jesus in the flesh. Only heard. I’ll tell you, Jesus is amazed at your faith. Amazed.
That’s the first thing I want to tell you.
Second. Luke does not feel it is important enough to say whether this centurion becomes a Christian or not. Luke is very quick to tell us about other people who become Christian. For example, a few weeks ago we heard about Paul’s jailer, he and his whole family become Christian. Lyddia, also, she and her household in Philippi become Christian. Here, Luke does not tell us one way or the other.
Luke leaves us with the impression here, that this centurion is still a foreigner, a Roman. Someone who is not a part of Jesus’ faith community, not a member of any synagogue or congregation. And yet his faith amazes Jesus. His faith is an example for all of Israel.
Every once in a while, we are going to run into people who are not members of a Christian congregation, who are not Christian at all, who teach us about Christ. There will be people with whom we disagree about certain essential aspects of who God is and how God works with us, who will nevertheless, show us how to be better Christians. It is going to happen.
For example, Alexander Goode was born in Brooklyn, New York. He took an associate’s degree from University of Cincinattie and a masters from Hebrew University. He became a Jewish rabbi. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he signed up for the army. He was assigned to a chaplain’s post stateside, but requested posting overseas. So, in late January 1943, he boarded the Dorset, a troop transport headed to United Kingdom via Greenland. It carried 900 men. Three other chaplains sailed with him: Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed pastor, George Fox, a Methodist minister, and John Washington, a Roman Catholic priest.
The four chaplains soon became friends and worked together to bolster the men’s spirits by providing prayer and singing and humor. They opened their worship services to each other’s attendees. This, in a time when religious difference were pretty strong. Some men went to all four services.
The captain of the Dorset knew that Germon U-boats were threatening those waters, so he ordered that the men sleep with their clothes on and keep their life jackets on. But, of course it can get hot in the guts of the ship, so many men took their life jackets off.
On the night of February 3, a German U-boat torpedoed the Dorset, striking her engine room below the water line. The blast killed a hundred men outright. It knocked out the power, so that there was no light and no communication with the escort ships.
Imagine what it might have been like in pitch dark, many levels below deck, men yelling all around you trying to get out, and you can’t find your life jacket.
Alexander Goode and the other chaplains helped the men keep calm and board the lifeboats. They gave out life jackets. One survivor said he was going back to his cabin to get his gloves, one of the chaplains gave his own gloves to the survivor so he would just get in the boat. Finally they ran out of life jackets, so they gave their own life jackets to four of the men.
It was a disaster. Over six hundred of the men on the Dorset died. But the survivors could see Alexander Goode, Clark Polson, George Fox and John Washington hanging on to the railing and holding hands as the ship went down. They were praying for the men in the water and the men in the lifeboats, in Hebrew, Latin and English.
Alexander Goode, along with his companions shows us what love is, giving up one’s life for others as Jesus did. Good Jewish rabbi shows us what God is like. It’s going to happen.
Keep praying for healing in all its forms. Pray for health in body and wholeness of spirit and forgiveness of soul. Pray for love in our families and witness in the church and wisdom in the nation and peace in the world. Keep praying even though you don’t see it. Keep praying boldly. Jesus is amazed with you.