By an intriguing coincidence, we hear about a Centurion this Memorial Day weekend. Centurions, of course, were mid-level Roman military officers, roughly equivalent to a Lieutenant or Captain today. So far this seems appropriate enough.
We remember this weekend the men and women who sacrificed their lives for our nation as heroes. But Centurions would have been considered nearly the opposite by Jesus and his friends. Oh sure, they were thought of as brave individuals: they led battles from the front, wading into combat alongside the men they commanded. But in Palestine, they were the backbone of an occupying army that had no qualms about using violence to get its way. If you saw a Centurion coming, the smart thing do would be to turn and walk away as fast as you could. The guy who could make you walk a mile carrying a burden was a Centurion. The guy who carried a stick around with which he could beat even Roman citizens was a Centurion. The guy whose men crucified Jesus was a Centurion. Centurions were scary, and they were the enemy.
But they weren’t all bad. The centurion mentioned here and in the parallel story in Matthew gets along with the Jewish elders in his district, and builds the neighborhood synagogue. And there is Cornelius, the Centurion Peter is sent to convert in the Book of Acts. Still, they were the enemy to most Jews, symbols of repression and ritual uncleanness in the land of Israel. That’s even more the case for Christians, who began as a strictly pacifist sect. If you can believe it, Christians debated for centuries over whether or not soldiers of any rank could join the church.
So while the Centurion mentioned in today’s gospel lesson does have some redeeming characteristics, it’s really quite odd to hear Jesus compliment his faith.
On the other hand, Jesus did just tell his followers “Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, if somebody takes your coat, give your shirt as well.” So here’s a great test case: will Jesus show love even to a Centurion, the very symbol of Rome’s brutality and exploitation of the people of Israel? Why yes, yes he will. Not only that, but he tells his followers, “This guy has more faith than even you Jews!” This, shall we say, is not the way to make himself popular with the crowd.
Now, one of the rules of thumb for making sense of a story in the gospel is to ask who it’s written for. Who’s supposed to get the message here? You might think it’s the disciples, but no, they’ve already lived the story, they don’t need to hear it again.
No, this one is for Luke’s people, who were wrapping their heads around the idea that the good news of Jesus Christ might be available to more than just the Jewish people. These are the people going out to the Gentiles to convert them. Luke tells them it’s more than okay to do so: it’s exactly what they should be doing. Don’t forget, he says, that even the Romans might make good Christians. Even a Centurion.
We could have a long and interesting discussion about who might a Christian’s enemy these days, and why, and how we ought to respond. But I think it’s actually more interesting to turn things around and try to see them from the Centurion’s perspective, so to speak.
Let me explain it to you like this. A friend who studies “digital ministry” talks about what she calls LACE:
• Listening • Attending (noticing and be present to people) • Connecting • Engaging (building relationships)
These practices are how real ministry gets done online, my friend believes. But if you stop to think about it, they’re the same way any kind of ministry happens, aren’t they? Doesn’t matter whether it’s online or off, these are the same things everyone needs from interactions with another person. Even a Centurion.
He needs Jesus to listen to his plea without rejecting it out of hand. He needs Jesus to attend to the needs of his slave. He needs Jesus to connect to him across the social boundary. He needs him if not exactly to build a long-lasting friendship, then at least meet him where he’s at. You don’t even need to come over, Jesus, he tells him. Long-distance is just fine, because I know you and I have enough in common that you can heal this man. That’s engagement.
You didn’t know the Bible talked about online relationships, did you?
LACE: Listening, Attending, Connecting, Engaging. It’s what we all need.
We spent a fair amount of time at the Shift meeting this past Wednesday talking about all the people out there in the world who feel disconnected and even alienated from the church. They don’t know how to come to church, don’t know what they’d do once they got here, don’t know how to have faith. And I’m sure you know how many of those same people feel disconnected and even alienated in their own lives. That might not be a conscious thought for them. But on some level, we all know that it’s more and more difficult to meet our needs to be in community these days. That’s why we’re here today, in church, when we could be up north or out on the boat. (You people get gold stickers for being here today.)
We know that we need somebody to listen to us, to pay attention to us, to connect us to our friends and family, to engage with us in a meaningful way. If we didn’t want these things, we’d go off to a big church where we could be anonymous, or maybe just stay home and watch tv…or play on the internet. But you and I, we know we need our church family, and that’s what drives us here, even on a hot summer morning.
Many people have perfectly happy lives without a church community, to be honest. Some of them live and die without the church, and that’s fine. That’s their business. Some of them discover their need when a crisis erupts in their lives. That’s the Centurion. He didn’t realize that he needed to be considered a part of the family of Israel until his servant got sick. And some people not that they need more to their life, even if they’re not sure what that “more” is. Those last two are the people we’re interested in, because they know they need God. What gives the Centurion such remarkable faith is that he knows he needs Jesus, and he’s willing to admit it. He is willing to humble himself and trust in Jesus’ power to heal, even though he’s supposed to be Jesus’ enemy. He needs Jesus, and he knows it.
It’s fair to ask if we know the same thing, if we’re willing to admit it. It’s so easy to pretend like you have everything under control until you don’t. And friends, I know from pretending to have everything under control, even when the wheels are coming off my life.
But remember who this lesson was written for: not the disciples, not the Centurion, and not us. For the people of Luke’s church, who were struggling with the idea of reaching out to people who were very different from them. This is the work of the church in every time and every place, and it’s the work to which we need to set ourselves. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says, to which we might add “and love the people who don’t know how much they need Jesus.” If I understand what people were saying at the meeting on Wednesday night, the good news is that we’re actually in a pretty good place to love those people. We’re good at being a church family, good at listening, attending, connecting, and engaging one another. Now the trick is to take that out in the wider world somehow, to do it for and with the people who need it out there. I think we can do it, we just have to figure out how and get going on it.
Because if Jesus can work with a Centurion—The Enemy—we can work with a few lost souls who need somebody to love them. That’s what we’re here for, and in the long run, offering that love is what’s going to heal us too. Amen.+ + +