Sermon Preached by The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley on 22 February 2004
In movies, if you hear a cop announce that he has only one week to retirement, then you know he is doomed to be shot by the bad guys within minutes. Likewise, if it is a war film and two guys are sharing a dug out (and it really doesn’t matter if it is a Vietnam film or one about the first World War) if a chap pulls out his wallet and shows the other chap a picture of his beautiful wife and new baby son he hasn’t seen yet, then you know that he is going to stop a bullet and make the hero really really angry. Stock-characters you see, behave in predictable ways and do predictable things to show off the heroism of the major characters in a movie. Life, though, is more complicated and that is why there is a genuine ring of authenticity to the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Roman centurion. For this centurion is full of surprises !
The Gospel story is packed with details which Luke conveys with his usual economy. If you had to write a story about a centurion you might make him a tough, regimental sergeant –major type. Perhaps you would expect him to be ruthless and demand toughness from his men. You might expect him to be fairly impatient of the religions of the country occupied by his army. I suppose I must have seen too many films like Spartacus, but you wouldn’t expect a master to go to so much trouble on behalf of a slave. William Barclay, in one of his excellent commentaries, quotes the ancient writer Polybius for the qualifications looked for in centurions, “They must be not seekers after danger but men who can command, steady in action and reliable. They had to be men of integrity and courage”. I have never been in an army or any other uniformed force (in fact I got thrown out of the girls brigade when only six, but that is another story) But I know that for an army to function there has to be iron discipline, so that each member of the force is so well trained that they each know what to do and who to defer to in the heat of battle. There is little room for sentiment and personal reactions if the army is to function efficiently when it matters.
This centurion was a man full of unexpected character traits. We learn, for example, that he was on very good terms with the Jewish elders. The Jewish leaders tell Jesus, “He is worthy… for he loves our nation and he built us our synagogue.” We don’t get told how he helped: did he get permission for them to build, did he lend labourers, did he give money? We do not know, but understand that this man was interested in the One God, and was willing to assist in His worship. His sympathy is in strong contrast to the contempt with which most Roman regarded the Jews and their religion.
We are told that the centurion had heard about Jesus, so we must assume that it was of Jesus’ spectacular healings and miracles that news had spread. So when the centurion’s slave fell ill, it was to Jesus he sent. We think of slaves as menials, toiling in the kitchen or working on the land, but actually they filled all kinds of positions within Roman households, doing accounts, teaching the children, or acting as scribes. The slave may well have been a key part of the centurions’ domestic life, but more than that we are told that the centurion didn’t just find him useful, he was dear to him. So in a few words we have a very sympathetic portrait of a powerful Roman man.
What this story seems to me to be about was not only Jesus’ wonderful
power to heal, which we meet in many forms in the Gospel, but about the way
the man surprised Jesus with his humility. In the story the normal
expectations are turned upside down. The Centurion cared about his slave
enough to go to great lengths to give him a chance to live. The centurion
employed the Jewish residents of Capernaum to intercede with a healer for
him. That healer was not even a famous, important member of the priestly
caste, someone with recognised status, but merely a young rabbi, without
rabbinical family connections, from an obscure province. We might expect
that the Roman would summon Jesus in a lordly fashion if he wanted Him. But
no, the centurion makes it clear that he recognises Jesus as a man of great
Jesus must have agreed to see the slave and set off with his friends and
the usual crowd of curious onlookers. Perhaps Jesus was intrigued by this
unusual request from an army leader. Perhaps the disciples were nervous, for
after all the Romans could turn violent and nasty if their will was crossed.
But then the story took a stranger turn for Jesus was intercepted with more
messengers, this time friends of the centurion. They delivered his message.
Understanding the message depends on appreciating the tremendous weight
placed upon hospitality in Middle Eastern cultures. The person who enters
the house as a guest is deemed to honour the house with his presence –
visiting a house is a gift to the owner. Jesus is addressed by the Romans,
the ruling caste with great respect as “Lord”. That alone would have been
shocking to the people who heard it. The centurion expresses respect for
Jesus “ I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” and “I did not
presume to come to you”. There must have been gasps as the people heard his
words relayed by his friends to Jesus in a public street.
Then the most surprising thing of all happens. The centurion states that
it is not necessary for Jesus to physically meet the slave. The roman used
his own experience of power and authority to express his belief in Jesus’
spiritual power. Alongside the power that Jesus had, the centurion felt
humble. Yet it was he who had many men under his command, he who had weapons
and armour and the trappings of rank. Jesus had none of these visible
symbols of authority, but the centurion recognised power in Jesus. We can
understand why Jesus was gobsmacked by the unexpected humility of this man.
The centurion for all his power, with the full weight of the Roman empire
behind him, knew that only Jesus could harness God’s spiritual power to
heal. Beside that power he felt humble. That is what humility really is. It
is a true knowledge of what we humans are in relation to God. We may prop
ourselves up with wealth, status, jobs of importance within politics,
commerce or industry. But in the end we are all merely humans and we are
weak, vulnerable and needy.
Humility has got a bad press as a virtue. It is seen as being grovelling
and a sign of weakness. In an age which is devoted to image, self-confidence
is all, and it is seen as a fatal flaw to admit dependence on anything and
anyone. But the centurion was willing to humble himself. He cared so much
for his slave that he was willing to plead with Jews to intercede for him
with Jesus. He knew himself to be unworthy of a visit from Jesus to his
home. He saw himself in relation to God and recognised his own
insignificance. In the eyes of the world the centurion was important, but he
knew the truth. And the truth was his salvation
Humility is a powerful thing, if it is used wisely, as a lens through
which to view ourselves in relation to our creator. It is a courageous
thing, because it strips away the things that we use to pad our fragile egos
with: the social status, the wealth, the pride. We are then left with just
our souls speaking to God in honesty and with the dignity only of being
lived and valued by God. Humility is a key tool in our salvation. In recent
times we sometimes admit the prayer of humble access which we say as we come
to the Lord’s Supper. But we need it, or a form of words like it, to
remember that we are not worthy to come to the Lord but that we are welcome.
Not because we are sufficiently righteous or important, we are there because
God loves us and wants to embrace us as honoured guests at his table.
Humility means handing our sense of our personal power or importance over to Him who truly has the real power. It means offering ourselves to God’s providence and being willing to wait upon His will for us. There is a kind of liberation in humility, a freedom from self which is one of the great ideals of the Christian life. Jesus said if any one who follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Jesus teaches us that self denial is the road to spiritual fulfilment. And the first step along that road to recognise in honesty who we are and how far, how very far we have to go to follow our Master. Amen