Scripture – Luke 7:1-10
Sermon Preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson
Sunday, May 29 2016
Once upon a time, there was a centurion living in Capernaum ... A centurion, you say? At the mention of a Roman officer, the original hearers of this text would have perked up; their jaws might have tightened; their stomachs might have turned into knots. Even decades after Jesus' death – when this Gospel began to circulate among disciples who were generations removed from the action – the mention of a centurion would have raised some eyebrows. It would be like dropping the name Hatfield at a McCoy family reunion.
For those of us who have listened time and again to the stories of Scripture, the mention of a centurion might not seem so surprising. We have met a few of these guys on our tour of the New Testament. There is the centurion who stands at the foot of Jesus' cross and proclaims, "Certainly this man was innocent!"1 And, there is Cornelius, the centurion featured in Acts chapter 10, whose story marks Peter's learning that God loves Gentiles as God loves Jews. In both Luke and Acts, centurions stand as sign-posts for readers navigating the narrative; these Roman officers are stationed throughout the story to point us to a central claim of these books: that Jesus has come – not just for his own people – but for the people of every land and creed.
This is true of the centurion in today's text as well; the story in Luke 7 signals early in the narrative that those outside the community of Israel will recognize Jesus as Lord, often before those within.
But here, in this text, the centurion is not just another Gentile who comes to faith. He's not just another stock character sent to remind us that the good news is for all people ... He's a testament to the radical inclusivity of the Gospel, a witness to what faith demands.
You see, this centurion is far from "just another Gentile." He is no harmless foreigner passing through Galilee. He's there on assignment – an officer of the occupying army, stationed in Capernaum to squash rebellion and keep the peace. He is an agent of the kingdom of Caesar, a symbol of Roman oppression. In short, he's the enemy.
We know almost nothing about this particular centurion ... Luke is rather tight-lipped on the subject. The Jewish elders who vouch for him insist he loves their people, informing Jesus, "It is he who built the synagogue for us" (v. 5). But this could just be a power-play on the centurion's part; in ancient Rome, patronage – in this case through the building of a temple – would have been a way of inspiring loyalty among the local populace. As one scholar puts it, the centurion could be a really "savvy occupier."2
And then there's the matter of the slave ... Does the centurion care intimately about this servant? Does he value him as a friend and fear the loss of the relationship? Or is the slave only 'valuable' because he's a hard worker, an economic asset? The text is practically silent about the servant. And, for that matter, we know almost nothing about this centurion. But we know his role. And, for many early readers, this is enough. The mere mention of his rank is enough to make their fists clench. They are poised to hate him ... The nerve of that guy! What right does he have to seek out Jesus? The answer is: He has every right. In fact, by sending a delegation to meet Jesus when he enters Capernaum, this centurion is inviting Jesus to practice what he preaches.
You see, this story immediately follows the Sermon on the Plain, in which Jesus teaches his followers what discipleship looks like. You know these teachings, although perhaps you remember the language from Matthew's version better: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven ... Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy ... Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."3 The section of this sermon that is particularly apt for today's Scripture lesson comes a few verses after the Beatitudes: "But I say to you that listen," Jesus says, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28). Love your enemies.
It's one of the most challenging commands Jesus utters. Even now, two thousand years later, we still struggle with this teaching. And, yet, in this polarized world, it might be one of the most important things we can do as followers of Jesus Christ – to love our enemies.
We may not use the word "enemy" very often to describe those who hate us, or curse us, or abuse us. It seems like an awfully harsh term that may or may not apply to the individuals we most despise. But – whether or not we choose to call them so – we all have "enemies."
They may be people who have caused us unspeakable pain, or who threaten that which we hold most dear, or who – to our minds – represent all that is wrong with this world. Perhaps they are people of different nationalities, or religions, or political persuasions; perhaps they are people who are just different enough to make us feel uncomfortable. These people probably don't wear plumes in their helmets or carry shields and spears, like the enemies of Jesus' day, but – in our minds – they are just as abhorrent ... just as undeserving of forgiveness, or compassion, or grace. In our minds, they are unworthy of the love of Christ.
This is what makes the command to Love our Enemies so challenging ... the idea that those who we deem unworthy might still receive grace. This tension is what confronts us when we meet the centurion in Capernaum. This enemy of the people, this Roman officer who many would consider unworthy of the grace of God, seeks out Jesus and asks to be loved anyway. Interestingly, the friends who approach Jesus on the centurion's behalf seem to anticipate the challenge of the situation. For they plead their case even before Jesus has a chance to respond: "He is worthy of having you do this for him," they say, "for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us" (v. 4-5). Whether or not their words sway Jesus, we do not know; Luke simply recounts that he goes with them, presumably to heed the centurion's request for healing.
But then, an even more interesting thing happens. The centurion sends a second delegation, which stops Jesus in his tracks before he reaches the house. These friends convey the centurion's own words: "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed."
I am not worthy to have you come under my roof ... The centurion – this agent of the kingdom of Caesar, this symbol of Roman oppression – recognizes that he has no place making such a request a Jewish healer. But he also recognizes who Jesus is – one with the authority to heal and forgive, and to offer grace beyond measure. So he asks anyway: "Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed."
And Jesus responds, as Jesus often does when confronted with such unexpected characters. He does not ask the centurion to repent of his sins, to abandon his post, to denounce Caesar or betray Rome. The healer simply responds, offering compassion that is unwarranted and grace that is undeserved. Because that is who Jesus is – the one who offers healing to those whom others deem unworthy of grace (or who – themselves feel unworthy of grace).
Jesus 'speaks the word,' as the centurion requests – a word that clearly effects healing (even from a distance). For – as the story goes – the delegation finds the slave in good health when they return to the house. But, the word Jesus speaks does more than heal the centurion's slave; it also enacts the many words Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Plain – words that still fill the ears of those who have followed him into Capernaum. Jesus turns to these people, who now crowd around him to see what miracles he will work, and declares, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith" (v. 9). Jesus' words remind us that faith can take root in the least likely places – even in the hearts of those we would call 'enemy.'
I have to wonder – what other healing took place that day? Who else in Capernaum was transformed as they watched this drama unfold, as they witnessed such love extended to the enemy? How are we who hear this story, who witness Christ's gift of grace, called to speak a word that heals?
It is poignant that this story of healing, which illustrates Jesus's immense love – even for the enemy, happens to come up in the lectionary on Memorial Day weekend, when we remember those who have died serving our country and recommit ourselves to the quest for peace. No matter how just the cause, how noble the war, the wounds of human conflict run deep and the scars are slow to heal, which is nowhere more evident than in President Obama's recent visit to Hiroshima, Japan.
Americans will have many responses to his speech, a mark – of course – of our polarized society. Some will say he said too much, some will say he did not say enough. Yet the President seemed compelled to risk the criticism in the hope of a deeper reconciliation between countries that had once been bitter enemies. More than the wreath he laid, more than the words he spoke – what struck me in the coverage of his visit was the moment when he greeted survivors of that fateful attack. In this, the U.S. President embracing these people whose suffering might well have given them lifelong reason to hate the United States – we caught a glimpse of reconciliation, as empathy opened a door for healing. As I watched the interaction, I experienced a moment of grace and hope.
Here is so much reconciliation that needs to take place in our world, so many opportunities for healing, so many invitations to reach out and show the love of Christ to those whom we deem unworthy. "Love your enemies" is a commandment oft repeated, and often set aside as unrealistic. But it is the challenge Jesus sets before us this day, in our deeply divided times.
On a weekend like this, when we remember so many lives lost so that we might know peace, what does it mean that our lesson today is about loving enemies?
How do we carry on the work of the Lord we love? How are we called to bring peace in our setting? What are the words we need to speak, what can we do to offer healing? The answer will look different for each of us. But I pray that God will give us the wisdom and the words, the courage and the compassion when the opportunity for reconciliation arises.
Prayers of the People ~ Susan Moseley
Wise and wonderful creator God, all of life falls under your care, and all possibilities are captured in your creative spirit. We are grateful for the unfolding of matter, mind, intelligence, and life that has brought us to this moment in time. And we give thanks for both the wonders of science and the mystery of faith which illuminate our spirits and awaken us to the rhythms of love and the power of healing.
Holy God, we remember and give thanks for Jesus of Nazareth, who yearned to set people free from the dark forces that enslave either body or soul. We give thanks for the way Jesus challenges us to look into our hearts and to examine the ways we are neighbor. We are thankful that he challenges us to overcome our prejudices, to put an end to divisions, to see your presence in our everyday loving, to overcome our fear of the mystery, and to make the reign of love visible throughout our world.
O God, on this Sunday before Memorial Day, we give thanks for all the men and women who are serving or have served in our nation's armed services. Although war tears the very fabric of humanity, we recognize that those Americans who served and died in military conflict did so out of their love for this country and the courage to make a difference. Receive both our gratitude and our grief for the sacrifice they made. And O God, whose heart is broken by human violence, forgive us that we have lacked the imagination and collective will to create a warless world.
Compassionate God, continue to pour out your spirit upon this Westminster family in ways that encourage us to be mature in spirit, patient with one another, and appreciative of our differences. Remind us that through your grace – today is a new day. Speak your words of grace into our anxious striving. Touch our raw pain with your divine healing and comfort, and reveal to us the abundance, the hidden, teeming life, just below the surface of our longing lives.
We ask and pray all these things in the name of the one who comes to us as the hope of the world and who taught us to pray for the world saying...
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
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