The Faith of a Soldier

1 Kings 18:20-39
Psalm 96
Luke 7:1-10

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine

 

7:1 “After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go,’ and he goes, and to another, “Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.” (Luke 7:1-10, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God, living Lord, you are the author of faith. Engrave on our hearts the truth revealed in Jesus Christ and brought near to us by your Holy Spirit, that we may demonstrate this faith in our lives. Amen.

 

Consider a soldier.  The traits that come to mind are self-reliance and toughness, bravery and courage.  Someone who is a good teammate, who can follow orders and stay disciplined.  Someone who is dependable, who shows certainty in decision making. Someone with both great mental and physical endurance.  Someone who is unselfish, who is willing to sacrifice for others and willing to give his or her life for something greater than themselves.  Finally, someone with a strong sense of loyalty, faithful to country, to the corps, to one’s unit, to one’s seniors, to one’s subordinates and to civilians as well.  These are the traits that we would have found in the Centurion from our Gospel reading for today.

 

A Centurion was a leader in the Roman Army.  A Centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, who could hurl a spears or javelins, who was skilled in fighting with a sword and could deftly block advancing attacks with a shield and had superior knowledge in body armor.  A Centurion was alert, clear-headed, and agile, and always prepared to carry out orders, who kept his soldiers well trained, and he was obedient to his superiors.[1]

 

A Centurion had authority.  He could order his soldiers to do this, and they did it.  He could tell his slaves to do that, and they did it.  Everyone under his leadership did as they were told.  This Centurion had the power to make things happen.  He was in control.

 

Until he wasn’t.

 

Although he had great power and authority in other areas of his life, he was helpless when it came to healing his slave.  Despite all of his military traits, his skills and his training he was powerless to do anything for his beloved slave who was ill.   So, in a remarkable step of faith and trust this Centurion sent others to ask Jesus for his help.   This military leader must have been good at sizing up people and measuring character and skills because he sees something in Jesus.  He believes that somehow, someway, Jesus, might be able to do the impossible: be able to heal the sick slave and stave off the forces of death.

 

Oddly, this Centurion and Jesus never met face-to-face.  All their interactions happen through intercessors.   These intercessors where the local Jewish leaders who approach Jesus to ask for his help.   They tell Jesus that this Centurion, “is worthy of having you do this for him.”  Now, no one would have blamed Jesus for having some suspicions.  After all, entering the home of a Gentile would have made Jesus ritually unclean.   Even more, a centurion is not your typically friendly neighbor.  A Centurion was the symbol and the executer of Rome’s power, a cruel force that dominated the people of Israel.  Jesus has so many reasons not to help this centurion the most important is that a Centurion, who is the embodiment of all things evil about Rome, represents everything that is wrong about the world.  With a multitude of reasons not to help the Centurion, Jesus doesn’t give into the fears about this man and he listens to the local leaders who plead on his behalf to help his sick slave. Jesus goes to help.

 

As Jesus goes to help, his movement marks a transition in Luke’s Gospel as well.  The location also moves from the bucolic countryside where Jesus’ taught; to the hustle and bustle of the city and the fishing town of Capernaum.  This also marks a transition in Jesus’ ministry from teacher to healer and miracle worker.  But there’s one more transition that takes place as well.  And this one may be the most important, Jesus moves the focus from words about faith and discipleship to deeds that demonstrate faith.

 

Jesus had been talking about doing more than just confess him as Lord and now he wanted the words of his followers to match their actions. Jesus wants his followers to have faith in and to trust him.  This is exactly what we see in the trust of Centurion.  Not only does the Centurion, have the faith that Jesus can heal his slave, but he also believes that Jesus can even heal the sick slave from a distance.

 

Even Jesus seems somewhat taken aback by the faith of this soldier, commending this as an example to those around him.   It is an example for us today.   What else is faith but the confident expectation that God can help and save in times of need?   That he didn’t even need to be there.  That Jesus had the authority simply to say the word and his slave would recover.

 

So, why is this story of a Roman Centurion and his sick slave so important to us today?  I think it shows the brilliance of the Gospel writers especially Luke; because this story helped the early Christians make sense of their life of faith in the world where Jesus was not present anymore.  Luke shares this story of assurance to the early Christian community – and to us today!  A word of assurance is that Jesus continues to respond to our prayers even though he is not immediately and physically present with us.   And so I wonder if this story isn’t also promise, instruction, and encouragement about prayer.   The promise that Jesus can respond to our prayer even though he is not physically present and the instruction and encouragement that he has the authority to do so.

 

In other words what we do here in worship matters.  What we do in the formal, rehearsed, beautifully written prayers matter as well as the informal, desperate, drop to your knees pleading prayers for help.  They matter.

They remind us that God is in control…

They affirm that we are not…

They affirm our trust that with God all things are possible…

Even healing the sick…

Finding life after grief…

Joy after sorrow…

Peace in the midst of violence…

 

Prayer matters, calling on God matters, praying to God matters, asking God for help matters, trusting and having faith, not only matters, it makes all the difference in life and death.

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie, www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Faith-Soldier-Alyce-McKenzie-05-27-2013 (Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, quoted on Cotter, p. 114)

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