It’s probably not necessarily something a pastor should admit, but when I read this story from the Gospel of Luke that appears in the Lectionary Scriptures for this weekend/Sunday, I admit I needed to refresh my memory of the story; it wasn’t one I even remember being in Scripture.
So, it felt like a whole new story for me and one that has given me new insight into perspectives of faith and relationships.
The setting for our story is the fishing village of Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The main characters are Jesus and a Roman centurion. Centurions were high-ranking leaders in the Roman military, who had command over large troops of soldiers.
Centurions would have been Gentiles, meaning simply that they were not Jewish…they were not of the Hebrew race and would have been despised by the Hebrew people because they represented the face of the Roman empire in all its evil oppression against Israel.
Yet, the Roman centurion in our story is held up by Jesus as an example of great faith. This non-Jewish outsider was exceptional. One of the traits that is exceptional about this centurion was that he cared about and valued his servant and when the servant became sick and near death, he did everything he could to care for him.
Another exceptional trait in this centurion is the fact that he has a relationship of respect with the Jewish community around him, who would have been very different from him in beliefs, economic class, and power. The Jewish elders of the community speak well of him. He had even helped them build their place of worship…their synagogue, which most likely meant he respected their values, traditions and religion, even though it was different from his own. So, the Roman centurion is both a reminder of oppression and a man who does good for those in his community.
He also knew who Jesus was and acknowledged and showed faith in the greater authority of Jesus, even though they had never met. He recognized that with just a word from Jesus, his servant could know new life.
So the centurion used his network of support and relationships in the community to make contact with Jesus in order to help his servant. He started with the Jewish elders of Capernaum, asking them to act as intermediaries with Jesus. And Jesus responds with compassion by being willing to make a house call.
But, when Jesus gets close to the house, the centurion sends another group; this time a group of “friends” to meet Jesus. The centurion must have had a wave of unworthiness come over him because he has the friends deliver a message that he is not deserving to receive Jesus in his home.
Yet, Jesus did not judge the worthiness or unworthiness of the centurion. Jesus simply named what he saw…faith greater than any he had seen in all of Israel.
We are not told in our story whether Jesus and the centurion ever meet face to face, or whether the centurion ever becomes a follower of Jesus. That does not seem to matter. But we are told that when Jesus received the second message from the centurion via his friends, Jesus was “impressed” and used the opportunity as a teachable moment about faith and relationships.
The take away from this Gospel story is that Jesus once again has no problem crossing social barriers and differences, and uses what and who we don’t expect to give us a glimpse of God. It is as if Jesus says, “Look at this…this is what faith and relationship with God looks like…this is what leads to new life.”
Brian Jones is a pastor in Philadelphia. He tells a story about a wedding he officiated at that took him out of his comfort zone and put him in relationship with unexpected people and face to face with faith in an unexpected place.
Part of the role of a pastor is officiating at weddings. Most pastors could write a good book about wedding experiences. The majority of weddings pastors officiate at are in the church, but we also do weddings at other locations. You could say we have ‘home’ and ‘away’ weddings.
Pastor Jones tells about one of his ‘away’ weddings. This is the way he tells the story…”A woman who was not connected to our church had begged me to officiate at her wedding. She was six feet tall, with spiked hair, and shoulders like a professional football player. ‘Please,’ she pleaded. ‘It’s going to be a small ceremony, just friends and family at our house.’
When I showed up on the day of the ceremony, dozens of motorcycles were parked in the front yard. Men with long handlebar moustaches wore black leather jackets, and German-style helmets with spikes on top. The women with them looked as if they had come from a Las Vegas showgirl convention.
Inside I was greeted by heavy-metal music and a haze of cigarette smoke. A woman noticed that I was the only one wearing a suit and screamed over the music, ‘You must be the pastor. Take a seat, and we’ll start in a minute!’
Forty minutes later, the bride’s sister called everyone into the living room. A few men and women stood up with the groom and someone hit the CD player that played Misty Mountain Hop by Led Zeppelin.
As the bride walked into the room the men hooted and hollered. The lace of the wedding dress covered her massive arms but could not hide the tattoos that stretched from her wrists up to her shoulders.
I quickly delivered my standard wedding service and pronounced the couple husband and wife. Within seconds everyone in the room swarmed the couple with smiles, hugs and kisses. I waited my turn to congratulate the couple and then explained that I needed to leave. But the father of the bride overheard me, grabbed my arm and yelled, ‘Let’s make a toast!’
The bride said, ‘I want to make a toast myself. I want to toast all of you guys. You are just like family to me.’ She looked over at her maid of honor and said, ‘Jackie, you’re just like a sister.’
Jackie stopped her and said, ‘No, you’ve always been like a sister to me. Do you remember when I lost my baby three years ago? You came and sat with me and prayed with me. I wouldn’t have made it without you.’ Then she turned to the group and said, ‘Or without all of you. I wanted to die. You gave me a reason to live.’
Looking at another friend, the bride continued. ‘Richard, when my brother passed away, you were there for me. You were driving a rig cross-country at the time, but you still came over every weekend.’
Someone interrupted her. ‘You’ve been there for us too. When I lost my job, you brought groceries over to my house and bought school clothes for my kids. I’ll never forget that.’
This went on for ten minutes. People shared story after story. After everyone finished, the bride looked around the room, said ‘Thank You,’ and everyone understood what she meant.”
Pastor Jones said he looked around the room and saw the Holy Spirit at work. He said, “I saw faith and trusted relationships in action…what a breath of fresh air…the church should be more like this.”
The Roman centurion in our Gospel story was the true believer…he was the one full of faith and trust in the presence of God that he recognized and believed was in Jesus.
Remember, the centurion was also an outsider. He was not part of the synagogue or the religious establishment. Yet, he was an outsider with an attitude of humility that revealed the power of faith.
This is just one of many ‘outsider’ stories in the Bible. Jesus seems to have this deep love and affection for people who are outsiders. Find the least, the last, the left out, those on the margins, or those on the outside of just about anything in the New Testament Bible stories and you’ll find Jesus encouraging them, appreciating them, lifting them up, guiding them and offering them new life.
We all know and love someone who does not come to church or whose relationship to the church is sketchy at best, or who does not name faith as a priority, or who is not even a Christian. But imagine that this person is also beloved by God, that this person is being used by God to do good, and that this person may exhibit faith that would even ‘impress’ Jesus.
We can also all think of people or groups of people who are on the margins of our society and culture or who are outside the church or held from participating in the full life of the church. The list throughout the ages is quite long of those who have not felt deserving or who have been told by some authority that they are not worthy to be part of the established culture or society, including the church.
It’s the poor, the minorities, the tax collectors, the lepers, the immigrants, those with mental illnesses, those with AIDS, the divorced, the single, the gay, the transgendered, the disabled, the alcoholics, the drug addicts and the list goes on and on depending on the era, the location, or the culture.
The writer of Luke’s Gospel shows that the healing power of God is not bound by the times or location or culture. Jesus used the opportunity provided by the faith of the centurion to show us that there is space in God’s graciousness for the insiders, the outsiders and for all, without exception or exclusion.
Our Gospel story breaks down barriers and biases; throws out labels, categories, identities and stereotypes and opens the circle of God’s grace that welcomes all. Then Jesus uses this open, unending circle of God’s welcoming grace as the focal point of who we are and how we are called to live as God’s people.
God will not be confined by the boundaries we draw around one another. God surprises us by extending grace even to those we deem undeserving, unworthy or even incompatible with Christian teaching. Our Gospel story reminds us that this has happened before and continues to happen.
So, as different and diverse as we all are, may we continue to make space for the power of God’s presence to be revealed.
May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God.