Matthew 8:5-13 The centurion is a middle man. In the military pecking order, the centurion has several levels of authority over him. The centurion is in charge of a century, a company of about 100 soldiers. Like any soldier in the Roman army, he had to be a Roman citizen. We might call him a captain. Someone else gives him orders. He gives orders to others.
The centurion makes a connection between his position and Jesus’ position. I wonder… does he see Jesus as a middle man too? God directs his work—he answers to a higher power. And he gives orders. Not so much orders to people, but orders to demons, to illness, to diseases, to an unruly sea, to traditional ways of doing things, to injustice, to anything that creates a barrier between a child of God and health and wholeness, shalom. He orders them out, he orders them to cease, he orders them to be quiet, he orders transformation into sanity, health, freedom and fresh ideas. So maybe he is a middle man, standing with his feet on the earth, commanding earthly things to obey him, and all the while answering to a voice from heaven which calls him a beloved Son, a voice which expresses content at his actions.
The centurion understands the power Jesus wields, an inexplicable, amazing healing power that comes from God. No one else seems to have it. This Roman soldier not only understands that Jesus’ power is from God, he believes it. Any belief in the power of Jesus’ healing has to be a change from whatever his religious persuasion was before Jesus’ arrival in the Galilee. He may have worshipped any one of a number of gods—the kind with a little g. He most certainly was a good Roman soldier and at least outwardly worshipped the emperor when that was called for. If he did not bow down to the almighty emperor, he would not have stayed long in his position of authority. In his heart he may have been like 20% of the adults in our country who fill in the box marked “none” when the question about religious affiliation is asked. Pew Research center reports that more than a third of those adults also indicate that they are SNRs. Spiritual but not religious.
We don’t know exactly where the centurion fit on the faith continuum. But we know the arrival of Jesus creates a change for him. He is transformed from whatever he was before into a man of faith in the God who was directing this entire operation we call salvation. He doesn’t know the whole picture. Even the disciples who were traveling with Jesus had trouble getting that. But the centurion had heard tell of this man’s God given, God directed, God inspired, God equipped healing power. And that was enough for him. Before Jesus could even say or do much of anything in Capernaum, this Roman citizen, this leader in the community of oppression, this Gentile, calls Jesus “Lord”. Keep in mind that is Jesus the Jew. Jesus, one of “them”, one who belonged to the people who were to be kept in line by the centurion, on behalf of the emperor, of course. He calls him Lord, signifying that he would submit to this Lord’s authority, perhaps kind of like submitting to his military superior’s authority. Calling someone Lord indicates a willingness to obey him
It is like he had been waiting for Jesus, hoping for his arrival, setting aside all other duties and responsibilities so he could bring his servant’s need for healing to Jesus. What does it matter that the residents of the lakeside fishing town would have been shocked at his request for help from a Jew? They were used to soldiers who treated them with indifference at best and with cruelty at worst. What does it matter that he probably seemed a little pushy, perhaps a little presumptuous, nosing his way to the front of the crowd and addressing Jesus as Lord? None of that seems to matter to him. What matters is his servant, who is clearly more than someone who swept the floor, washed the clothes or baked the bread for the family. His servant who is paralyzed and in terrible distress is clearly a person beloved by this centurion.
Often we see this encounter as one more example of Jesus breaking boundaries, working outside the traditional, expected Jewish community and agreeing to heal, even from afar, the servant of a Gentile soldier. Like he broke the boundaries with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the people with leprosy, and the children who he invited to come to him. He is a boundary breaker, all the way up to his breaking the boundary of death, refusing to let it hold him down, bursting through the shadow of death into the light of life.
But what about the soldier here? This soldier too is crossing all kinds of boundaries—religious, social, economic, cultural. And actually, he took the initiative here. He chose to come to Jesus. I have wondered if his visit to Jesus could actually be dangerous? Could he potentially lose his job or even his life because of it? Was he taking time off work without permission to seek healing for a beloved member of his family? Risky or not, the centurion takes a leap of faith. He crashes through the traditional barriers between soldier and citizen, between Gentile and Jew, between master and servant. He pleads for one he loves. He pleads to the One he trusts can heal.
Confronted with the apparently urgent need expressed by this brave and brazen Gentile boundary breaker, Jesus responds right away. He agrees to go and cure the beloved servant. Only then do we see how deep the centurion’s faith really is. Not only does he believe that Jesus heals, but he believes he heals from afar. Without a physical touch. Without a gaze into the servant’s eyes. And indeed Jesus does heal from afar.
And Jesus continues to be in the healing business. There would be no sense in praying for healing if we did not believe the One to whom we are praying was a Healer. We believe that God will heal our child, our parent, our neighbor even when we are told the outlook is bleak. Sometimes there is a miracle of physical healing. I’ll never forget a pastor announcing to the congregation that Sylvia, who had been in the hospital for some time, was soon going to die. All indicators certainly pointed in that direction. God had another plan. She came out of it and returned to church, living for at least a year beyond that day. Many times there is no physical healing miracle. We can feel let down by our healing God when our fervent prayers and appeals to God for the healing of a loved one seem to just be flying right out the window, either unheard or ignored.
We try to make sense of unanswered prayers for healing by saying to ourselves—it was just her time to go. God had a better plan for him. God is testing me or strengthening me or teaching me to depend only on Him through the illness of my loved one. Any one or more of these may be true. The bottom line is that healing is not only physical. Jesus heals in multiple ways, often in ways we are unable to see.
When we don’t get what we ask for, do we stop praying? I hope not. Prayer enables us to break through the webs of doubt that can hang over us, darkening our outlook, making us cynical, eroding our trust in a God who can and does heal. Prayer is our way to seek out Jesus, bringing our beloved family member or friend or coworker to the one who heals.
At any given time, most of us know someone who is seriously ill, or recuperating from surgery or dealing with ongoing treatments for cancer. Where do we go with those needs? How do we take those requests to Jesus, our Lord? I imagine that you pray for them at home in the silence of your conversations with God. On a weekly basis, those kinds of requests are part of our intercessory prayers here in the sanctuary, when we come together as a community, seeking healing for a beloved family member or friend, asking for wholeness, asking for strength, asking for hope in the face of fears and in the depths of disease we call it the prayers of the people.
This morning I would like to invite you to participate in a different form of the prayers of the people. Instead of waiting for me to lead you through a list of names or situations where healing is needed, I am going to invite each of you to lift up one person in silent prayer. You might want to have the February announcement page nearby, with the prayer list. Just in case you need an idea of someone to pray for. First, get comfortable in the pew. Put down anything in your hands. Let them rest lightly on your thighs or your knees, whatever is comfortable. Close your eyes gently, but be very aware and awake to how God might speak to you this morning. Take a moment to ask God this question: Lord, who am I to bring before you now? See who comes into your thoughts. It could be several individuals, but take a moment to settle on just one person for today, one you are led to pray for at this time, one I will refer to as your friend.
In your mind, or even with softly spoken words, tell Jesus what you know or what you think you know about your friend’s need for healing. Tell him your feelings about what your friend is facing……. Now imagine introducing your friend to Jesus. Then imagine how Jesus deals with your friend. What does Jesus say or do? Allow your imagination to run. Ask Jesus if there is any way that you are to have a continuing part in your friend’s healing. Stop and listen. ……Leave your friend in Jesus’ care, as you close with thanks…… Amen.