The Faith of an Outsider

+ A sermon preached at University Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA on June 2, 2013 +

Text: The Healing of the Centurion’s Servant (Luke 7:1-10)

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ, who comforts us when we cry, heals us when we hurt, and exposes us to faith in new and exciting ways. May all glory and honor be to them, now and forever. Amen.

Today’s Gospel lesson is about the healing of the centurion’s servant. At first glance, this story seems pretty ordinary. Jesus goes into a town, gets asked to help someone, heals them, and moves on. This happens a lot in the Gospels. But look at it again. We don’t ever see this sick servant, we don’t know what he is sick with – only that he is near death, and we don’t know how Jesus cures him. All of this happens off set. So, maybe this isn’t just another healing story. Maybe it’s about something else.

Let’s look at the centurion. When you think of a centurion, what do you envision?  Chest armor? A sword? A helmet with a red poofy thing? A guy wearing a leather skirt? Most of us will envision what we’ve seen in Hollywood movies. Historically, a centurion was a middle officer in the Roman Army in command of about 80 men. They were respected and experienced soldiers, often well-connected socially, and seen as exemplars of Rome and her might. In First Century Judea, however, they were seen by the Jews as foreign oppressors. In the time of Jesus, the Romans had occupied Palestine for nearly a century. They imposed harsh taxes, installed puppet governments, and their soldiers served as an ever-present reminder of Rome’s dominance over the Jewish people. To a First Century Jew, centurions were an archetype of evil.

So, when Jesus goes to help the servant of this centurion in today’s Gospel reading, he is going to help someone about as far outside of the Jewish community as you can get – a Gentile, possibly ethnic Roman or Greek, and a strong symbol of the oppression of the Jews. In today’s terms, this would be akin to going out of his way to help a criminal or maybe even a terrorist, at least in connotation.

Picture this – when Jesus and his followers are walking through Capernaum, elders of the city approach him and ask him to come heal the servant of a centurion. What do you think the disciples’ reactions were? ‘Wait, you want us to help who? You want us to help one of them? No way.’ But Jesus didn’t care. Despite the disciples’ protests, he started toward the centurions house ready to help. I doubt he even heard the elders commenting on how good of a man this particular centurion was. Someone was in need and close to death, and Jesus wanted to help. Yet, before Jesus can even get to the house, the centurion has sent more messengers to tell Jesus not to come, that the centurion was not worthy of Jesus’ presence. And here is what is most interesting: the centurion recognizes that Jesus is a man of authority, like himself. That he can give a command and it will be done. And not only does he recognize Jesus’ authority, but he also implies that it is greater than his own. This centurion has power and authority endowed upon him by the greatest empire the world has ever known, and yet, he sees this wandering rabbi as his superior. He sees that the power of Jesus is greater than any human power. Unlike the centurion, Jesus’ authority doesn’t come from military might, but from God, and if Jesus says the word, the servant will be healed.

When Jesus heard of the centurion’s message, he was “amazed.” Jesus doesn’t get amazed very often in the Gospels; most of the time people are amazed by Jesus. But now, Jesus is amazed. Who is this man? Who is this outsider, this oppressor who is among the first to recognize Jesus for who he is and where he comes from? What faith this man has shown. Jesus says that he has not seen such faith in all of Israel as this outsider just demonstrated.

And what kind of faith is it? It certainly wasn’t a dogmatic faith. As a Roman, the centurion surely doesn’t go to temple every week, doesn’t know the Torah, and doesn’t keep kosher. He doesn’t follow the Laws of Moses, or keep the Sabbath, and surely isn’t circumcised. He likely follows the religion he grew up with and worships the Roman pantheon. He wasn’t Jewish. And yet, when he is in trouble, he asks this traveling Jewish rabbi to help, because he recognizes him as a man of God with authority to heal. He knows that when he needs help, he only needs to ask God for help and help will be given. What a simple, profound, and unexpected faith.

So maybe today’s lesson is about the surprising places we can find love and faith in this world. This centurion was a symbol of dominance and oppression, and yet was really a good man. He helped the Jewish people, cared for his servants and had a strong faith. Maybe we need to look at the people around us in this world, those who we see as outsiders, and learn from them as well. As our brother Pope Francis reminded the world last month, Jesus came to redeem everyone – not just those within our own social boundaries – and that all people join with the message of Jesus when we help each other and do good.

So I ask you, who is the centurion today? Who is the outsider that is looked down on by society? Who are the outsiders that we, as people of faith, are called to embrace and love? How many of us know people that don’t go to church but still live the values of Jesus? Do you think that God loves them any less? Do you think that Jesus will not help them if they ask? Maybe it doesn’t matter as much that a person can’t recite the 10 Commandments or doesn’t know Luther’s Small Catechism (or possibly doesn’t even know who Martin Luther is at all) or maybe even know who Jesus Christ is. Maybe we need to open our hearts and eyes to those around us who are doing the work of God in the world without following our same dogmatic faiths. Maybe the simple faith of loving each other and recognizing the good in people is what brings us together. Who knows where we will find faith when we look around us?

Today, we heard how Jesus helped the outsider and recognized his faith. Now we are called to embrace those around us who are calling out for help. Let us then go forth and help those in need and find faith in the most unexpected places, in Jesus’ name.


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