This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 29 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The scripture text is Luke 7:1-10.
We have begun the time of the church year that is symbolized with the color green. It is called ordinary time, not because it is every-day, but because the weeks of this time are numbered. As many have said, "Ordinary time is anything but ordinary."
The green season is a time for us to grow in our faith. As we grow, God will bring us people to share our faith with as we go along in the duties and pleasures of our everyday lives. Throughout this time, which can be most extraordinary, we will be concentrating on the works of Jesus in Luke's gospel. We are in this green season so that we can grow and go to share the good news.
A lot of coming and going takes place in this story in Luke. Jesus had finished with the beatitudes, and was once again on the road. Note that Jesus did not seek out the centurion. Jesus was approached while he was on his way to Capernaum.
A military man, a Roman centurion plays a key role in this passage. The centurion was the backbone of the Roman army. Centurions were commanders of the forces that occupied Palestine in the time of Christ.The centurion was an experienced, veteran soldier who held a prestigious position, with pay that was around 15 times more than that of the average soldier and he had far more authority to boot. A centurion did not have the reputation of being a warm, cuddly character. However, despite his authority, power and money in his own world, the centurion Luke writes about was powerless in the face of the disease that tormented his servant.
The centurion knew power when he heard it and he had heard of Jesus’ ability to heal. But, the centurion and Jesus were from two different worlds and their status in society could not have been more dissimilar. This particular centurion, humbled himself and asked the Jewish elders to go to find Jesus for him. The elders acted as a bridge between the Gentile and Jewish worlds, telling Jesus about how deserving the centurion was of Jesus’ intervention.
It’s really quite shocking considering the picture that is often painted of the Jewish elders. Here they are actually praising a despised Gentile, acting on his behalf to get help for a slave, of all people. This centurion further humbles himself by sending friends to tell Jesus he does not need to come into his house to heal the servant because the centurion considered himself unworthy.
But what is really the point of the story? Is it simply a healing story like so many others in the gospels? There are so many unusual characteristics to this story that it would have made the heads of its hearers spin.
This centurion outsider had such great conviction about Jesus’ power that even Jesus was amazed. The centurion knew that his own power originated from somewhere outside of himself. In his case it was Rome. The centurion did not need to see Jesus or speak with him personally or receive Jesus into his home in order for Jesus to work on his behalf. He simply trusted in the authority and power of Jesus’ word to heal his servant, asking that Jesus, “only speak the word...” (v. 7)and his servant would be healed.
Jesus’ word was enough because of Who stood behind that word. Could the centurion have been expressing faith in God as the authority behind Jesus? Perhaps! However, we don’t know if he was simply recognizing the concept of God as the creator of the universe and the source of all power or whether he was recognizing God as the God of Israel.
God’s word is powerful whether it is spoken by Jesus or his followers because of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Luke relates parallel events of Jesus' life in his gospel and the life of the early church in Acts. We have the unnamed centurion in the gospel and Cornelius the centurion in Acts. In the gospel, the centurion was good to the Jewish people and in Acts Cornelius was a good man who had a deep faith and who was generous to others. In the gospel, Jesus reaches out to Gentiles and in Acts Gentiles become a part of the church.
Luke’s gospel foreshadows the mission to the Gentiles and provides authoritative precedent for that mission in Jesus’ ministry. Neither of the centurions saw Jesus. In this way, Luke anticipates believers yet to come after the earthly life of Christ. And God anticipated us who, like the centurions, have never seen Jesus and yet have experienced the word of God’s power through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Word of Christ is effective and present to faith in all times and places. It creates and sustains the church. Biblical scholar, R. Alan Culpepper describes our situation this way:
Although we may never see Jesus or witness his mighty works, where his word is present, there the power that was evident in his works also continues to be present. The Lord we worship is mighty in word, responsive to our needs, and compassionate to heal. (R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke, 156)
R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter's Bible: Luke
Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis