Second Sunday of Pentecost (Year A)
June 2, 2013
6 Jesus went with them. He had almost reached the house when the centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, “ Lord, don’t be bothered. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 In fact, I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. Just say the word and my servant will be healed. 8 I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it. ”
–Luke 7:1-10 (Common English Bible)
This story is fascinating for a lot of reasons. First, the centurion is a Roman solider, the very face of the occupying force that is oppressing Israel. Second, this same soldier is on friendly terms with the Jewish community, even building a synogogue for the residents.
But there’s something else that’s interesting. We never “see” the centurion. He never leaves his house to meet Jesus face to face. We really don’t know why. He does mention that he doesn’t feel worthy, so maybe he was aware of his position and felt unworthy to meet Jesus. Maybe he wanted to attend to his sick servant and didn’t want to leave him for a moment. Whatever the reason, Jesus and the soldier never meet. Instead, the centurion sends emissaries to meet with Jesus. The first group comes out and describes the situation, while the second group make a plea based on nothing but faith in Jesus.
Jesus was amazed by the centurion’s faith. “ I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this,” he tells the crowd following him. But what’s even more amazing is the role the centurions Jewish friends play. It had to be odd for a Roman solider, who was not usually considered favorably by the local population to have relationships with the people he was supposed to oppress. His friends go to Jesus not once, but twice to plead to heel his servant.
Faith matters, but faith is not something that’s a solitary exercise. Faith at its best is communal, it lives when strangers become friends and carry each other when times get rough.
A few years ago, pastor Lillian Daniel made waves with an eye-opening essay called “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” Daniel thinks the latest interest in being spiritual but not religious is the latest iteration of American individualism, a faith that basically doesn’t need anybody else except me, myself and I. Daniel sees the church as a place that is countercultural to the prevailing individualism:
In church, we hear scriptures like the one in which Jesus says to ordinary, fallible Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” In other words, you people are stuck with each other.
Now there is much in the church I do not want to be stuck with, including Qur’an-burning, pistol-packing pastors. It’s no wonder that many good people are like the pop singer Prince: they want to be a person formerly known as a Christian.
The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I do not want to be associated with a lot of it—particularly when I have been personally involved in it.
But—here’s a news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don’t want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. If we could just get rid of the Republicans, the Democrats could bring about the second coming and NPR would never need to run another pledge drive. Or if we could just expel all the Democrats, the fiscally responsible will turn water into wine, and the church would never need another pledge drive.
But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don’t get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It’s as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn’t have access to a shower and didn’t bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn’t seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It’s as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It’s as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It’s as close as the preacher who didn’t prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.
The reason the servant is healed isn’t just because of the centurion’s faith, even though that is important. Healing came because his friends carried the message to Jesus, who in turn healed the servant.
This faith that we encounter is one where we come together and worship and learn to bear each others burdens. We pray for each other. We care for each other. We do this because we have faith in God and can see in each other how God is working in and through us to bring healing to the whole world.
Daniel is right that churches are far from perfect. But it is in these countless faith communities where we pray for each other and work together to bring healing for a friend and for all of creation.
Go and be church.
Here is what other scholars and pastors have to say about this week’s passage:
Jeannine K. Brown: Commentary of Luke 7:1-10
David Lose: Unexpected Faith
Lauren Winner: The Centurion’s Friends
Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church in Minneapolis.