Sermon / May 29, 2016 / Luke 7:1-10 / An Odd Reversal / Pastor Terry Defoe
Luke, chapter 7, verses 1 to 5:
1 When Jesus had finished saying all this ... he entered Capernaum. 2 There, a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” (N.I.V.)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
At this point in the church year, the season of Easter and the festival of Pentecost have come and gone. Over the next few weeks in our Sunday Bible readings, we’re going to hear some amazing stories -- stories of healing and renewal similar to the one we’re looking at this morning. I pray that God the Holy Spirit would bless our encounter with the Scriptures this day!
The events of our text follow after Jesus’ so-called "Sermon on the Plain" in Luke chapter 6. His theme was caring discipleship. Jesus said that being one of His disciples meant loving friend and enemy alike. In Luke chapter 6 verses 27 & 28, Jesus said:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (N.I.V.)
Verse 31 has the famous Golden Rule:
Do to others as you would have them do to you. (N.I.V.)
In verse 41, Jesus says, in line with His theme of loving discipleship:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (N.I.V.)
Jesus had returned to Capernaum, home base for much of His ministry. This fishing village of about 1500 people was where Jesus called Peter, James, John and Andrew to leave their nets and follow him. Capernaum was home to Matthew the tax collector, an individual who had made a great leap of faith to follow Jesus. Our text shows us that Jesus practiced what He preached when it came to loving His enemies.
The main character in Luke 7 is a Roman centurion. Luke doesn’t name him or his servant. The centurion sought out Jesus with a request that Jesus heal his servant who was near death. The centurion, by virtue of his role in the Roman military, would have been considered an enemy of the Jewish people. In those days, Rome was in charge, occupying Israel. The centurion was one of the people directly responsible for Israel’s oppression.
Earlier in Luke’s gospel, we heard about an Old Testament character whose situation was similar to that of the centurion. In Luke 4, beginning at verse 14, Jesus had been invited to read the Scriptures in the synagogue at Capernaum. The reading was from the book of Isaiah and Jesus caused quite a stir when he told the people that Isaiah’s words about the Messiah were fulfilled in him. In his comments on the reading, Jesus’ referred to Naaman the Syrian. Naaman was an army commander from Aram, a country hostile to Israel (2 Kings 5:2). Naaman was afflicted with leprosy. He had heard about a healer in Israel by the name of Elisha. He travelled to Israel to visit a healer he never actually met. Naaman, like the centurion’s servant, was healed at a distance. Luke tells us how God’s prophet Elisha had brought healing to an enemy of Israel, a situation surprisingly similar to the one we're looking at this morning. Like the centurion, Naaman confessed his faith, saying
... there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. (2 Kings 5:15, N.I.V.)
Centurions were a key part of the Roman occupation force in Judea and Galilee in the first century A.D. They were veteran soldiers with a position of prestige. They were paid fifteen times as much as ordinary soldiers. Centurions are mentioned occasionally in the New Testament. In Luke chapter 23 verse 47, for instance, describing the aftermath of what Jesus had endured at the cross, we read:
The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ (N.I.V.)
And in Acts chapter 10 (vs. 1 & 2), Luke describes a centurion by the name of Cornelius:
He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (N.I.V.)
For Luke, faith is a spiritual awakening made possible by the working of the Holy Spirit and you never know who will be next.
The centurion asked some Jewish elders to speak to Jesus on his behalf, requestin that Jesus heal his critically ill servant. The centurion could do that because he was a patron of the Jewish people. He had generously provided resources for the building of the synagogue in Capernaum. (7:3).The centurion fit a surprising profile. He was a Gentile and a Roman. He was one of those unusual Gentiles who had come to faith in Jesus.
In Jesus’ day, people wouldn't have expected a centurion to turn to Jesus for help. But I wonder if that’s not the reason why his story is included in two different gospels, Matthew and Luke. As one pastor says:
Just because this man was in the Roman legion didn’t mean he was incapable of doing good!
Clearly he already had done good. That's why the Jewish leaders in Capernaum commended him to Jesus.
The centurion is a complex character. He’s a high-ranking Roman soldier as well as a man who does good for his community. He’s a member of a military force that was occupying and oppressing Israel as well as a man who built a synagogue for the townspeople under his authority. He was a righteous Gentile who acknowledged Jesus’ authority as a healer come from God. Luke presents the centurion to us as a positive example of faith. Even though he had several strikes against him, he fit Jesus’ description of a good man. In Luke chapter 6, verse 45, Jesus said:
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. (N.I.V.)
The Jewish elders felt that the centurion was worthy of Jesus’ attention because he loves our people and because he was a benefactor of their synagogue. One pastor says:
In the patron-client relationships of that time in the middle east, the centurion had scratched their back, and now it was time to scratch his by putting in a good word for him with Jesus.
Later, however, the centurion sent some friends to discourage Jesus from coming to his house, saying, quite honestly and forthrightly, that no matter what the elders said about him, he wasn’t worthy of Jesus’ intervention. (7:6-8). Instead he said that he believed that if Jesus would just say the word, his servant would be healed! That was a remarkable faith and Jesus knew it. Jesus responded positively to the centurion's request, but not because of his worthiness. As we saw when Jesus healed the man at the pool of Bethesda, He doesn’t require worthiness in order to intervene. Thankfully, receiving Jesus’ blessings, including our own precious salvation, doesn’t require us to be worthy of His gifts. In Ephesians 2:8, the Apostle Paul said,
For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God... (N.R.S.V.)
The centurion wasn’t making claims or demands. He was expressing profound trust in the compassion, the kindness, and the authority of Jesus. That's what faith is all about. It’s all too easy for Christians to try to bargain with God, saying, in effect, ‘If you give me what I want, I’ll believe in you.’ It's tempting to believe that faith gains special favors with God. But that’s not what the centurion thought. Jesus’ authority was enough for him. Whatever Jesus directed, would be acceptable to him.
In our discussion of all these things, it’s easy to overlook the centurion’s servant. The account before us this morning, when you think about it, is really about him. After all, it was his situation that set these events in motion. He was critically ill. He had run out of options. He had no control over what was happening to him. He was entirely dependent on the benevolence of others. There may be times in life when this is our situation, too. And that’s when we certainly appreciate our Christian friends interceding for us! Our community of faith is a critical link between us and the Lord. It serves a key role in nurturing our life of faith.
By virtue of his rank and status, the centurion enjoyed a great deal of authority. He had power to make things happen. He was in control. Until he wasn’t. Let me explain. Although he had a great deal of power and authority in other areas of his life, he was helpless when it came to healing his servant. He needed Jesus. We can relate to the centurion’s situation. We like to think we have control over our lives in the form of good health, financial security, and material blessings of various kinds. Yet, like the centurion, there are times when we run up against the limits of our own abilities. There are times when we can’t control things. We find ourselves powerless in the face of sickness or some other misfortune. We are forced to confront our limitations. The crisis may arrive in the form of a frightening diagnosis, a sick loved one or child. The crisis may come in the form of a failed relationship. It may come in the form of an addiction, or unemployment. Thankfully, like the centurion, we know where to find help.
As we get to know Jesus from the New Testament, we realize that He often acted outside the norms of expected behavior. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He associated with outcasts. He touched dead bodies and those with leprosy. Jesus knew the expecations of his culture, but He didn’t let them get in the way of his ministry. And Jesus wasn’t the only one who stretched social norms. The centurion was also not put off by such things. He came to believe that Jesus could heal his servant. I suspect that's why the centurion, in spite of strong social pressure to keep him from doing so, turned to Jesus when he needed him most.
The Roman centurion was a foreigner in a society in which foreigners were regarded with suspicion or outright hostility. Remarkably, he found a way to rise above these things. The centurion may not have been a Jew, but he was certainly a friend of the Jews. He had carefully built a bridge between himself and his community to the Jews.
You’ve heard that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s not only Newton’s law of motion, it's also a basic spiritual truth. Have you noticed that every time Jesus inspired faith through healing, someone got angry and thought he was out of line? We are thankful for those who respond positively to Jesus, and we are baffled by the small-minded and angry resistance that often arises. In response to the hearing of God’s word, some left their fishing boats, and others walked away from lucrative tax booths. So why should we be amazed when a centurion or a prostitute turn out to be people of great faith? On the other hand, we shouldn't be surprised to discover that some people complained that their cherished traditions were being upset by what Jesus either said or did.
Jesus was surprised, even amazed, at the unconditional trust the centurion demonstrated in Him (7:9). Jesus was surprised to discover extraordinary faith in a Gentile - a non-Jew. What we are dealing with this morning is the account of an enemy soldier proving to be an outstanding model of faith. We shouldn’t be surprised by the unlikely places that faith sometimes shows up in our world. It can even show up in those we consider to be our enemies. The most unusual element of this story is that it is Jesus Himself who is amazed, not the centurion, not the various groups that speak with Jesus, but Jesus himself.
Our text this morning emphasizes just how unlikely this Roman centurion is in terms of demonstrating true faith. But beyond being an unlikely hero, his faith is also unexpected. This unusual situation portrays an odd reversal, with the soldier, usually in a dominant position with the people, voluntarily placing himself in a subservient position. This story has the same surprising element as Jesus’ parables do. Genuine faith is not based on life’s changing circumstances. It believes that God is utterly faithful, that He loves us no matter what, and that nothing can separate us from His love. Genuine faith makes a real difference in the way we see the world around us.
Luke chapter 7 shows that Jesus does indeed love his enemies. And the centurion, too, was not subject to commonly-held Roman prejudices regarding Jews. The centurion was an unusual character, an original thinker. This passage reminds us that we should never reduce an individual or a group to just one attribute or judge them based on just one element of who they are. I pray that God would keep us from jumping to conclusions about others based on their ethnicity, their social status or other things that are normally barriers to relationship. I pray that God would enable us, instead, to build bridges of trust to those who are different in some way. We shouldn’t be surprised that it is often unlikely and unexpected people who demonstrate amazing faith and do good works. Our text brings to mind Jesus’ words recorded for us in the previous chapter of Luke’s gospel (6:27):
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. (N.I.V.)
Luke wants the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to see that God’s love, His will, and His work extend far beyond the walls of our own community of faith. Our text this morning is a timely reminder that God never stops delighting and surprising the world by His amazing grace in Christ. Amen.
And now may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and your minds in this same Christ Jesus. Amen.
Let's Pray -- DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER -- We thank you for the gift of faith. Help us trust you unconditionally. Like the centurion, w know we're not worthy of Your gifts. We thank You for your grace and mercy. Help us to love our neighbor, and, as the catechism says, to defend them, to speak well of them, and to explain everything in the kindest way. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.