a homily for Proper 4C
Text: Luke 7:1-10
[Listen to "A Powerful Faith" here while you read along.]
Making it personal
Man, that Centurion looks good, doesn’t he? Generous? Check. Compassionate? Check. Faithful? Double-check. That guy sure looks good in the end, doesn’t he?
The basics of the story are these: Jesus strolls into Capernaum. A Centurion hears about him, and sends the Jewish elders of the town to convince Jesus to come heal his slave. When they get close, the Centurion sends some friends to Jesus to discourage Jesus from entering his humble home, but perhaps he can heal the slave from a distance.
Jesus’s response to the request is heavy with subtext: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Our focus is instantly driven to the Centurion’s faith.
And this story morphs into a story about a faithful Centurion and Jesus. That the healing of the slave is the means by which that personal faith is first revealed, then rewarded.
The physical matters in the text are obliterated. The fact that Jesus doesn’t physically touch the slave is a significant development in the text. Perhaps more significant is that the Centurion already believes Jesus doesn’t need to be in the same room with the slave. That He doesn’t even need to know the slave’s whereabouts or what he looks like or who he even is! That Jesus can heal without physical knowledge of space and time.
Our focus on the faith allows us to ignore the strange new capacity for Jesus’s ministry in the world.
Solo Jesus Time
We do this, of course, because we’ve decided this is a personal allegory of faith. That, if we have the faith of the Centurion, even the matters of matter are irrelevant to the power of GOD. Our friend, Jesus can heal us where we are, with who we are.
I think we do this easily with a text like this because it seems like a perfect reading for us: 21st Century North Americans. We are much less likely to read this text with an eye toward the literal than other texts. I guess because that line about faith trips the wire in our thinking and sends us into “spiritual” territory, rather than “scientific”.
The problem with this reading of the text, then, is that we impose that same filter onto the text: that, as 21st Century North Americans, we are pursuing a personal relationship with Jesus. That it is a matter of competitive faith. If our faith were better…If we had his faith…If we believed harder….
We get there because we think this is only a story about Jesus and a Centurion. We forget that we never actually meet the Centurion. That Jesus never meets the Centurion. That, as a character, the Centurion, and the slave for that matter, need not exist.
The only characters in this story are Jesus, his followers, the Jewish elders, and the Centurion’s friends.
Taking needs to Jesus
The truly powerful dynamic in the story is that these intermediaries are doing the work of the story. They go to Jesus for the Centurion and vouch for him. They vouch for the slave. They make the request for him. It isn’t the Centurion that Jesus listens to and follows, it is the Jewish elders.
Then when they get close to the home, it is the Centurion’s friends that take his very words to Jesus. His words of humility and faith. They take the audacious request of long-distance healing.
And it strikes me that Jesus’s words of response aren’t to the Centurion. Or not to him personally. They are to them all: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Perhaps the faith to which Jesus is speaking isn’t some abstract faithfulness in the heart of the Centurion or even the devoted hearts of his friends, but that this very moment is infused with faith. In this space in which these friends bring before Jesus this audacious request, this inexplicable belief they have that it might work, that they are all doing this as one mighty act—that is the expression of faith that provokes Jesus.
Jesus even calls this faith unrecognizable—that it hasn’t been witnessed in even Israel. It isn’t what they believe that matters, but how. That it is not a silent, solo act of piety, but a communal moment of tremendous faith.
And the kicker in the last line is that it doesn’t say that Jesus healed the slave. It says that when they got back, the slave was already healed.
Seeking Christ Together
What we can’t know from the text is the physics of the healing; the how; the means. We don’t even get the certainty that Jesus Himself is responsible. He doesn’t touch the man. He isn’t caught whispering some incantation.
We get a picture of Jesus encountering a unique act of incredible faith on the behalf of what we can only describe as a blessed community. The Centurion’s friends, bringing his needs to Jesus. And after this, we discover the slave is already healed.
Our challenge in this story is that our North American, rugged individualistic ethos gets in the way of demonstrating such profound faith as community. But this story gives us a way in.
The faithfulness of the community in carrying the needs of another to Jesus is the one truly demonstrable act in the whole story. And it is the one thing we know we need to do. That it isn’t enough to believe in Jesus or love our neighbors, but that we carry their needs to Jesus. Many of us are used to praying for our friends. Praying for their healing; praying in the midst of their pain; praying for comfort or wisdom.
What if we speak those prayers out loud with others? Perhaps our true power, our ability as the blessed community of St. Paul, is made manifest in a moment like that. A moment of true faith together, for others. A moment that might provoke from Jesus, “not even in Israel have I found such faith as in St. Clair.”