7 After Jesus[a] 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.
NOTE: Sometimes I can’t help but fill in the blanks of scripture and come up with a narrative that might have happened in just that way. I have taken extra liberties with this passage in order to present some meaning for you. I am indebted to George G. Hunter III and his wonderful book, “The Apostolic Congregation: Church Growth Reconceived for a New Generation” (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2009) Enjoy!
Of all the people in all the towns of Galilee it had to be the centurion.
During that famous Sermon on the Plain, Jesus had explained to the crowd what it looks like to be a disciple. One of the marks of discipleship is loving friend and enemy alike. At the completion of this retreat, he had entered Capernaum.
As I said, of all the people in all the towns in all of Galilee, it’s an alleged enemy, who sends for help.
When Herod Antipas and Pilate had assigned him to Capernaum, the centurion knew his mandate: keep the peace at any cost; keep those Jews in line, or else.His men were more than capable and the centurion had the authority to make it happen. He had servants to care for him and his household. He held the power of life and death in his hands given to him by none other than the Caesar.
He can’t remember how it all began. Did the Jews begin conversing with him or he them? It was gradual, at first. He had expected these Jews to behave differently. They didn’t. Most of them were happy to be left alone. A few got out of hand from time to time, but often the Jewish elders took care of their own.
One day they came to him to share with him that one of their major feast days was approaching. This was a day of prayer and atonement, they explained, and they hoped hi didn’t read into it any effort to riot against Rome. Maybe that was the day his interest piqued.
He became curious. What did it mean to “eat kosher”? Why were the women treated so well? Who was this God they kept referring to? Was there only one?
Conversations began between some of the elders and this man who held their lives in his hand. They became longer; he began to hear their history: a man named Abraham who had such faith in this God that he left his land and his people for new life elsewhere; a king named David who ruled with a steady hand — well, most of the time. The history of the downfall of the kingdom.
Sometimes, while on his rounds he’d meet up with the rabbi and they would talk. The rabbi was a credible man; most of those in Capernaum just wanted to be left alone to take care of business and their families and to worship in a synagogue.
One day he found a way to give back and to express his respect. They needed a place to worship. So, he built them a synagogue. That opened the door to a strong, respectful relationship on both sides. They accepted him and went the extra mile to make his job easier on him. They respected and cared about him. The centurion could never remember feeling this way in his Roman culture or when he worshiped the Roman gods.
As the months and years passed he learned about their worship and that their God cared about them. This God seemed alive and involved with the people. He would stand outside the door of the synagogue watching their worship; he didn’t enter because he understood the purity laws.
He became more compassionate and, at the same time, a better commander. His leadership in Capernaum was firm but not mean or cruel.
By the time we arrive at this scripture this morning, we see more than respect on both sides. We see a crossing of boundaries: the boundary of culture; the boundary of religion; the boundary of politics.
So, when his servant (possibly Jewish) became ill and edged toward death, the centurion was devastated. He remembered that Jesus was in town and wanted to seek his help. Remembering the purity laws, he didn’t want to create a situation where Jesus could become impure and unable to enter worship.
When the Jewish elders learned of his plight, their trust and respect for him made it a natural act to go to Jesus. “He’s one of the good guys; he cares about us. He even built our synagogue. Please. Will you come and help his servant?”
Jesus went immediately; he was needed and the boundary between captive and enemy was dropped.
As he comes near the centurion’s fortress, Jesus was met by another delegation. To enter his home would make him unclean, do don’t do it. The centurion knew that Jesus wouldn’t have to be present to heal the slave. Because of his faith that had developed over a period of time, he understood who Jesus was and that his authority from God surpassed that of even Caesar.
He explained that understanding of Jesus’ authority through the lens of his own position. He was Rome’s authority in Capernaum. He expected his troops to obey him without questions. His decisions were final and he expected them to be carried out to the letter.
And he also understood that his authority ended and Caesar’s took over. More than that, though, he saw where even Caesar’s authority had its limited. Jesus, through YHWH, was the final authority. He knows what he can do.
He’s Joseph and Mary’s son; he told the disciples of the Baptizer that He’s the one who is to come; he’s a teacher and preacher; a healer. He’s the Messiah greater than a prophet.
But, not just a teacher, he’s a teacher who speaks with authority; not just a healer, but a healer with authority over even unclean spirits; not just a miracle-worker, but one with authority even over nature.
This centurion discovered relationships in Capernaum. He found relationships with the so-called enemy Jews. He had friends who were willing to go to bat for him.
What are your relationships? Who’s got your back? What are the relationships that sustain your faith and integrity?
And whose back do you have? How do you help sustain others’ faith and integrity? Who do you call on?
We see centurions all too often. Perhaps they’re in authority or are our alleged enemy. But, that’s not always the case. What they hold in common with our centurion is a deep desire to be in relationship with authentic, caring, and loving people. They hunger and thirst for word of a second chance; or that life really can hold meaning; that God is offering them an adventure they never dreamed of.
The centurion understood this. Despite his job description and his ability to make difficult decisions alone, he also knew about community.
In community he gave and he received. In community he learned about the joy of knowing YHWH. In community he learned from others.
In community he found freedom and meaning.
In community he became unbounded.
All glory and honor be to God.