After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
We typically invest a high level of energy and effort at the start of a relationship, to woo someone or put our best foot forward. But, after a time in relationship with someone — once all your good stories and jokes have been shared, once it feels like you’ve learned all there is to learn, once it feels like you’ve got nothing new to say — that takes a persistent creativity. To reinvent ourselves for one another, or to approach each other with fresh eyes, to not take each other for granted, it all takes creativity. The same is true in how we relate to God. The Centurion’s faith is a great example because, as a Roman military commander, he should’ve been the last person on earth to believe in Jesus. Rationally, he should’ve been the last person to ever have a strong relationship with the local Jews and synagogue; rationally, he should’ve been the last person to humble himself to this wandering Jewish rabbi in Jesus; rationally, he should’ve been the last person to have this special insight into Jesus’ power and authority (to be able to command this healing even from afar). The Centurion represents that even though we must be obedient as disciples, it doesn’t mean we check our insights, experiences, and ideas at the door. Guided by the Spirit, we can personally, creatively and with humility understand and relate to the Lord. Being in the making as a disciple takes creativity.
Where is this in Luke’s narrative and what are these sayings Luke alludes to? Luke 6 is chock full of teachings. It is a rich smorgasbord of Jesus’ disciples eating grain on the Sabbath, then the Pharisees hating on them about that, Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, the Pharisees calling him out about that, but he did it anyway and they were (not surprisingly) furious and that’s just the first 11 verses. After he names the disciples, verses 17-19 say, “He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”
So the centurion had heard about Jesus and, no doubt, about the miracles he had performed in the town, like healing a man with an unclean spirit right there in the synagogue for which the centurion himself had given a lot of money. The centurion was likely a commander in the army of Herod Antipas rather than a Roman soldier. We can infer this since Capernaum was a minor trade center and toll station along the Via Maris, which was the trade route that led from the countries in the Fertile Crescent down to the Mediterranean. While Capernaum was not a combat post, the centurion was nonetheless a military veteran who may have seen his share of combat earlier in his career. If that were the case, then his slave would likely have been right beside him in the thick of battle, thus forging a relationship that was less master and slave and more like comrades in arms. His most valued slave was ill and close to death so he stepped out in faith, as we have seen all Jesus’ disciples do. He had the faith that Jesus could heal his battle buddy. Unlike most of the Gentile soldiers, Roman or otherwise, who were stationed in the notoriously revolutionary region of Galilee, this centurion not only built the synagogue for them (the foundation of which still stands in the ruins of Capernaum) but he went so far as to love the Jewish people. The centurion already saw the world differently than many of his peers, and his creative imagination allowed him to formulate a different vision of reality about the Jewish people AND about the itinerant Jewish preacher and healer who was now back in town.
Still, he recognized that there was a separation between him and the Jews. He wants to be respectful to this Jesus, so he sends some of the Jewish elders to speak with Jesus about his servant, knowing that a pious Jew like Jesus could not enter a Gentile house. The Jewish elders see this generous Gentile as a “worthy” candidate for a healing miracle, but the centurion believes himself to be “not worthy” to have Jesus come under his roof. The centurion understands orders and believes that it isn’t necessary for Jesus to be physically present in order to heal. Indeed, as a commander of men, the centurion knows that he doesn’t need to be present in order to get things done. He gives an order and it is obeyed, even in his absence, and he now assumes that Jesus has the same kind of spiritual authority. All Jesus has to do is say the word and his healing order will be carried out. The centurion imagines another reality made possible by Jesus, and then acts on it.
Sister Joan Chittister tells the story of a priest who once traveled to see a renowned spiritual teacher, to spend a time on retreat with him.
“Master,” he said upon arriving, “I come to you seeking enlightenment.”
“Well, then,” the master said, “for the first exercise of your retreat, go into the courtyard, tilt back your head, stretch out your arms and wait until I come for you.”
Just as the priest arranged himself in that position, the rains came. And it rained. It rained the rest of the afternoon. Finally, the old master came back. “Well, priest,” he asked, “have you been enlightened today?”
“Are you serious?” the priest asked, in disgust. “I’ve been standing here with my head up in the rain for an hour. I’m soaking wet. I feel like a fool!”
The master said, “Well, priest, for the first day of a retreat that sounds like great enlightenment to me.”
The centurion has all the power in his relationship with Jesus. Yet, unlike the priest in the story, he is no fool. He could have lorded it over Jesus, but instead he sets his personal authority aside and submits himself to the authority of Jesus, a Jew — a subjugated member of a captive people. This wise officer understands that spiritual humility is the prerequisite to healing.
Jesus is surprised at this Gentile centurion’s ability to imagine a different outcome. “Not even in Israel have I found such faith,” Jesus says. It’s like he’s alluding to the two disagreements with the Pharisees in Luke 6 and the instructions at the end where he’s preaching against hypocrisy of the highest order.
Luke 6:46 -49, “‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you? 47I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.’” This centurion’s house is built on rock and Jesus rewards him for it.
What is a disciple? The centurion is obedient. No doubt. He followed through. The centurion owned his own sinfulness, by humbling himself before Jesus. Remember the Heng story. How Vietnamese kid in the orphanage that would sacrifice himself for his friend? The centurion made the sacrifice. Even to ask Jesus to heal his servant would be looked down upon by his peers, but he did it anyway. And he had the creative imagination to envision a different reality for himself and his friend. He believed and had faith in Jesus to heal just by saying the Word.
A recent sign I saw said, “Faith is like Wi-Fi. It’s invisible but it has the power to connect you to what you need.” The centurion had a desperate need and Jesus had the power to fill it. Faith can lift us toward a vision of a different future. The writer of Hebrews says in chapter 11, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Even if we do not receive a miraculous healing, a restoration of a relationship, or the satisfactory resolution of any of a thousand other circumstances in which we might find ourselves, faith invites us to begin moving, even if only a bit at a time or a step at a time, toward hope and wholeness.
Like the centurion, we need to be willing to ask for help, even if we feel unworthy of it. Jesus specializes in those of us who believe we are unworthy. Jesus will take on even the roughest of our cases with healing grace. All we have to do is reach out in faith, to bring our hurts to the surface, and allow him to meet us there.
Dr. Harold Koenig, an associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, and Director, Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke, is considered to be a pioneer in the scientific study of the potential of spiritual healing. After studying thousands of people since 1984, Dr. Koenig found that religious faith not only promotes overall good health, but also aids in recovery from serious illness.
“By praying to God,” Koenig said, religious patients “acquire an indirect form of control over their illness.” They believe that they are not alone in their struggle and God is personally interested in them. This safeguards them against the psychological isolation that batters so many people with serious disease.
In a study of 455 elderly hospital patients, for example, Koenig found that people who attended church more than once a week averaged about four days in the hospital. People who never or rarely attended church spent about 10 to 12 days hospitalized.
When Koenig initially began telling his colleagues about these observations, many were skeptical. They saw spiritual healing as irrelevant to medical science. In recent years, however, more scientific journals have been publishing reports with similar findings. More and more doctors are beginning to understand that faith can have a role in healing.
A Dartmouth Medical School study found that heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following a surgery if they did not participate in group activities and did not find comfort in religion. Within six months of surgery, 21 patients had died; but there were no deaths among the 37 people who said that they were “deeply religious.”
Researchers in Israel studied 3,900 people living on kibbutzim (Jewish communal living at its finest) over a 16-year period. Their findings: The religious had a 40 percent lower death rate from cardiovascular disease and cancer than their secular peers.
A Yale University study of 28,212 elderly people found that those who rarely or never attended church had twice the stroke rate of weekly churchgoers.
So there are definitely health benefits for people of faith, who are actively walking the walk and talking the talk. Mike was telling me about the stradivarius violins last night. They were built during the 17th and 18th century by the Stradivari family from Italy. Their sound is unparalleled and all sort of stuff goes into the making of one. Recently they discovered, the more you use it, the better it sounds. It’s like prayer and walking alongside one another in community, the more you use them, the better your life will be. God can use us to minister to and encourage others in their walk as disciples of Jesus. It’s faith lived out in relationship to others in the body of Christ. Sometimes we have to have faith that God’s got this so that the world may see and know. Sometimes we have to have faith FOR someone, like the centurion asking Jesus for the healing of his servant. That’s called intercessory prayer and that’s what we do intentionally every Tuesday at prayer group. That’s also why I created the facebook group “Point Hope Prayer & Encouragement.” So that we can more fully share life with one another. So when one of us wants to give up, give in, or give out, we pick one another up and spur each other on. We’re not meant to live this life or walk this walk alone. The truth is that we can be the healing presence of Christ to each other, helping one another, supporting one another, encouraging one another, being church to each other. We all need people who can speak into our lives and be the physical presence of the spiritual reality of Christ among us. We are members of one Body, says the apostle Paul, and the members should have “the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26). The Jewish elders in Capernaum saw the Gentile centurion as a neighbor and wanted to alleviate his suffering by going to Jesus. Can we be agents of healing for each other in the same way, acting as intercessors and faith-walkers for those around us? An old Irish Proverb says, “In the shelter of each other the people live.” I believe that. We shelter one another, covering one another’s weaknesses with our strengths.
Who do you know who is struggling? How can you be an advocate, an intercessory healer, a representative of Christ? How can you help others envision a different sort of outcome for the brokenness in their lives? And if you are the one who is suffering, whom can you ask for help? How will you take the step of faith not only to trust Jesus to heal you, but also trust the members of his Body to intercede and advocate for you?