Our reading today from Luke’s Gospel is far more than a simple tale of a remarkable healing in Galilee early in the public ministry of Jesus. One of the immediately striking features in Luke’s account of the event is the sheer amount of detail he provides. Clearly there were several layers of meaning beneath a story-line that could easily be reduced to something like this: a certain centurion in Capernaum knew of Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker, he contacted Him because his servant had fallen seriously ill, Jesus spoke the healing word from a distance in response to the centurion’s faith and the servant was restored to good health. But there’s much more, and it is the details that both Luke and also Matthew in his parallel account savor.
There are several striking things that we learn about this Gentile centurion:
1) First, he was very fond of his servant, clearly not regarding him as a dispensable object, but showing genuine compassion for his needs. Matthew adds that the servant was “paralyzed” and “suffering great pain” (Matthew 8:6).
2) Second, the centurion was highly regarded by the Jewish people living in Capernaum, in part because of his role in the construction of their synagogue; but, on a larger scale, because he actually was known for having loved the Jewish people, something not all that common in this historical setting where there were constant tensions between Roman authorities and the Jewish citizens.
3) Third, he must have had more than a passing interest in this miracle-worker from Nazareth, Jesus, Whose reputation had preceded Him.
4) Fourth, he had a remarkable sense of humility for someone in authority, saying not only that he was unworthy to have Jesus come under his roof but that he was unworthy even to come to Jesus himself. Instead, he just sent some Jewish elders who testified on his behalf that he was a man worthy of being granted this miracle of healing.
5) Fifth, he was a man under authority who understood what it was to expect and demand obedience from his inferiors and to receive it without demurring: when he says “Come,” they come, and when he says “Do this,” they do it.
6) Sixth, he truly believed that all Jesus needed to do was to say the word from afar and his servant would be healed.
On the surface this incident almost sounds preposterous. On what basis could the centurion possibly have had such a profound faith in the power of Jesus to heal? We get some hint of the extent to which Jesus’ reputation already had spread when we look at the Gospel for today’s Evening Prayer from Mark 3:
7 Jesus withdrew to the sea with His disciples; and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and also from Judea, 8 and from Jerusalem, and from Idumea, and from beyond the Jordan, and from the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon, a great number of people heard of all that He was doing and came to Him. 9 And He told His disciples that a boat should stand ready for Him because of the crowd, so that they would not crowd Him; 10 for He had healed many, with the result that all those who had afflictions pressed around Him in order to touch Him. (Mark 3:7-10)
Apparently even from the earliest stages of Jesus’ public ministry, the word was spreading far and wide that this Person was Someone incredibly special, with miraculous powers of healing in additional to His authoritative way of public speaking. We are not told that the centurion was a Gentile proselyte to Judaism, only that he loved the Jewish people and helped build the Capernaum synagogue. But his faith in what Jesus could do was so powerful that Jesus remarked, “Not even in Israel have I found such great faith” (vs. 9). And in Matthew’s account, the centurion’s faith inspires Jesus to say, “Many shall come from east and west, and recline with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). By this He meant that Jews and Gentiles would be side by side in the heavenly Kingdom. This is Jesus’ first statement about the extension of God’s grace beyond the Jewish world.
Again, we see that this event is not just one of the miracles early on in Jesus’ ministry or just a remarkable healing from a distance. It has broad implications reaching so far beyond its Near Eastern setting that it actually encompasses you and me in its sweep. We are blessed to be among those who indeed have come from east and west to recline with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And what does Jesus say is the point of all this? That it is not a matter of Jew or Gentile, of centurion or slave: it is a matter of faith. Faith is the great leveler before God. Paul will tell us in Galatians and in Romans that it was not Abraham’s good deeds or even his special covenantal relationship as father of the Jewish nation, but it was his faith that was accounted to him as righteousness in God’s sight. In the epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 11, we are told even more about Abraham’s faith on two particular occasions:
1) First, we read, 8 “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; 10 for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
2) Then later in the same chapter of Hebrews we read, 17 “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only son; 18 it was he of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your descendants shall be called.’19 He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he also received him back.”
Did the centurion know this story about Abraham and Isaac? Probably not. What he did know was that Jesus had demonstrated the power to heal; and he, the man who understood authority, had faith that Jesus could heal his paralyzed servant and relieve his great pain. His faith was rewarded and, looking again at Matthew’s account, we are told that the servant was healed “at that very moment” (ESV).
Matthew sandwiches this healing in between two others, the cleansing of a leper who says to Jesus, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean;” and the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with a fever. Matthew adds that on that same evening Jesus performed many other miracles of healing, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, “He Himself bore our infirmities and carried our diseases.” Luke also follows up the healing of the centurion’s servant with another healing that we will look at next week, the raising of a widow’s son from death. The response of the people, according to Luke, was that “fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us,’ and ‘God has visited His people!’” They, too, were acknowledging what Isaiah had prophesied about Emmanuel as revealed by the Angel of the Lord to Joseph: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
We say that our faith is an incarnational faith, because God has chosen to make Himself known to us not only through His creation and His inspired Word but, most importantly of all, through His only Son Jesus Christ. Peter, when presenting the Gospel of Christ to another Gentile centurion by the name of Cornelius, said, “You know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee... how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:37,38). And because we ourselves bear the image of Christ as those who name His holy Name, we, too, by extension, are part of that incarnational faith. We carry the light of Christ to those who live in darkness. As Paul writes in II Corinthians 3:18, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
We may not have been given the gift of healing, but we all have the gift of faith and the privilege of prayer, through which God continues in our day to perform miracles of healing, both physical and spiritual. Our gift and our calling mean that we are to be like the centurion in our Gospel: to exhibit his faith and trust in the miraculous power of Jesus Christ, to look to Him for daily miracles as well as for healing in times of special need. There are many of us here this morning who have asked God in faith for miracles of physical healing and we have received amazing answers to those prayers. But we also have gone to the throne of grace pleading for God’s merciful healing of our sin-sick souls. God is always in the business of providing that healing through the blood of His only Son that cleanses us in salvation by its healing stream and continually cleanses us in sanctification; because, as John tells us, “if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:7); and, again, John writes, “if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (I John 2:1).
Come to Jesus this morning.
Come for healing of body and spirit.
Trust in the authority of Jesus’ Name.
Meet Him here in the sacrament of His Body and Blood.
Then go forth in His Name to be instruments of healing for others - for all of those persons who need to be healed, whose paths we cross day after day.
Show the centurion’s compassion. Exhibit the centurion’s faith.
And in your hearts, pray with me this prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.