A Centurion’s Example

Scripture: Luke 7:1-10

A lesson from Luke 7:1-10 on the power of ones worldly vocation to develop ones spiritual maturity. This sermon further expounds a concept introduced in the Lord of the Earth-Created lesson from Five Aspects of Man.


Today is the first Sunday after Trinity, last Sunday being Trinity Sunday, and you see the altar vested in green. Green is the color that identifies the long, ordinary life of the faith as we march over the next 26 weeks from this Sunday –  the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday – to the 27th Sunday after Trinity at the end of November. 

The gospel lesson for today is especially suitable for the beginning of a season of the church calendar that is long and unmarked by high feast days or pronounced penitential seasons. Luke's report of how a Roman centurion approached our Lord on behalf of one of the centurion's servants has a pedestrian flavor about it. There are no flamboyant miracles here. We readers, no more than the onlookers, don't get to see something fantastic in what happened. If this is a sign, it is a sign that no one would never assign the label “wonder,” for there is nothing wondrous to see on the surface of what Luke reports.

There is, however, something wondrous from the viewpoint of our Lord. The one who found something wondrous was not the crowd who didn’t see much of anything, but Jesus found something really wonderful - something so flamboyant and fantastic from his point of view, that he remarked on it. And most teachers and commentators on this passage simply skip over this particular thing. I'm referring, of course, to the only words by our Lord that Luke actually records in this event – “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” 

Most people who notice these words by our Lord treat them lightly. They suppose that Jesus is here making a simple exaggeration, that he has lapsed into hyperbole, much as you might look at recent news reporter to say about a tornado in Oklahoma, and he says, “Never in my life have I seen a storm like that!” When we make such statements, we're NOT apt to be taken in any literal sense by those who hear us. A comment as our Lord makes here is ONLY supposed to tell us something about His reaction to the Centurion's faith, that he found it remarkable, and that's that.

But, this overlooks a detail that Luke includes in this gospel passage, and overlooking that detail causes us to miss a critical point. And, so this morning we are going to pick up on that small detail, and then we are going to consider the astounding implications of what Jesus is looking at when servants of the Roman centurion come to him, to intercede on behalf of that centurion’s dying servant.

First the detail: here it is in Luke 7 and verse 9: “When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!”

Now, our Lord at this point in his ministry is attracting large crowds that follow him about, as much as they are able. And, they follow him around, for the most part, because Jesus quickly got a reputation as a healer, as a miracle worker, one who had authority over demons, one who did amazing feats – such as feeding 10,000 or more people on five loaves and two fishes. 

But, in THAT miracle – where Jesus fed  more than 10,000 people – (it’s called feeding of the 5,000, but that was just the men; there were women and children present as well and, you see, the crowd following him about on that occasion was over 10,000!) – well, our Lord was not fooled into thinking that they followed him around because they loved him, or because they knew He was come into the world to save sinners. No, our Lord's assessment of the crowds on that occasion is found in John 6:26, when he told the crowds this: “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” 

In other words, the most fundamental motivation for seeking Jesus was this – what can I get out of it? What personal benefit will come to me from this wonder-working rabbi? How can Jesus give me my best life NOW, as one modern teacher on the television encourages us to think?

Well, let's go back to the centurion for a moment – from one angle, the Roman centurion is no different from the crowds that followed Jesus around Palestine, looking for him to perform some wonder, especially a wonder that would benefit them. The centurion has a servant whom he loves, and the servant is sick and near to death, and the centurion wants this servant to recover his health. The centurion knows about this rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth, and how he has healed so many people. And, so, the centurion hope that Jesus will heal his desperately ill servant.

In all this, the centurion is the same as the crowds following Jesus in his travels throughout Israel. But, what Luke shows us is INCREASINGLY how this centurion is NOT like the Jews following along in the wake of our Lord and his disciples. How so?

Well, first of all, the centurion does not come in person to approach our Lord. He is, after all, a Roman and a Centurion. His mission is to carry out the political and military policies of the Roman emperor, and the centurion knows quite well how much his own authority and duties are resented and barely tolerated by the Jews. So, what does he do?

Well, he sends Jewish elders to Jesus instead. These men are very likely synagogue officials, equivalent perhaps to deacons in a Baptist church. The centurion reasons thusly: this Jewish rabbi will be far more likely to listen to an appeal from officials of his own religion than an appeal from an official representing the Roman Emperor! 

But, it's not merely that the emissaries are credentialed Jews, as it were. No, they come with a recommendation as well as an appeal – “And when [these Jewish elders] came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, 'for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.'” 

Now, this is remarkable! The Romans do not have a reputation as benefactors of the Jews; quite the contrary! The Roman reputation among the Jews is one of extortion, oppression, and persecution. But, this centurion – from his own resources evidently– has built a synagogue for the Jews! Moreover, these elders report that the centurion “loves our nation.” We're not told anything about what this means, but it's certainly out of character for Roman centurions to love the nations over which they impose Imperial policy! I don't think we would be very far off the mark to read into this report that this centurion recognizes that the God of the Jews is a deity truly worthy or worship; and, for that reason, he is what the Jews call “a God-fearer” who shows his fear of the God of the Jews by blessing the people whom God calls His own.

So, these elders insist that this centurion is “worthy,' that it's proper for Jesus to reward the centurion's blessing of Israel by blessing the centurion in return, by healing his servant who is near death.

And, our Lord seems to agree! He sets out on a journey to go to the centurion's house to heal his servant. And there’s no reason why the Lord would set out that way if he was not intending to grant this centurion’s request. Now, in all this, there is nothing especially amazing about the manner of our Lord's miracles that have occurred already in His ministry. It’s interesting here also that neither Luke and certainly not our Lord seem to be wanting to make the point that ends up being made. And it being made, interestingly, not by our Lord, but by the centurion!

Things start to get really interesting after Jesus sets out to go to the centurion’s house. Someone obviously has run ahead to alert the centurion that the appeal to this rabbi is successful, and that he's on the way. And so what does the centurion do? Does he sit there and wait for the rabbi to show up? Rejoicing already that this rabbi will show up and maybe my servant will be healed? No! He immediately sends yet another delegation back to Jesus with these words: “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.” 

If this were all Luke had told us, we would conclude that this centurion is a very humble man (which, again, would be VERY out of character probably for a Roman centurion!) Yes, he is very humble in his approach to Jesus, but WHY has he said what he says here? Is it because the centurion is – in his character – humble? Does he approach anyone else with this sort of humility because he is humble??

Not at all! For the centurion gives an explanation for his humility toward our Lord: Listen to it again: “For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

Again, we will miss the point if we run over a very small word here. The centurion says to Jesus “For I ALSO am a man placed under authority ...” The centurion acknowledges that our Lord himself is a man placed under authority – just like a centurion, our Lord has authority – power and the discretion to use it as he chooses – and so, just as the centurion only has to say the word and it will be done, so also Jesus can simply say the word, and the servant will be healed.

In that confession by the Roman centurion we have testimony to his correct understanding of our Lord. It's an understanding which causes Jesus to marvel. You'd think it would be the JEWS who would recognize their messiah when He comes, that they would recognize their own God when He takes on human flesh and speaks to them the way I am speaking to you now! 

But, no!! John tells us at the very beginning of his gospel that our Lord came to his own and his own did not receive them. Yet, here is a Roman who has heard reports about Jesus, and HE correctly apprehends who our Lord is, and how he has the power to heal the centurion's sick servant.

Our Lord call that “faith.” Amazing faith. So amazing that our Lord stops and turns around to face the crowds following him, and He says this: “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!”

WHY is that?? What has led to THIS centurion understanding and believing in Jesus in a way that our Lord had never seen, at this point, in His own people? 

Well, the centurion's contact with the Jews is obviously a big part of the answer. He has learned from the Jews about their own God. He has believed what he has learned about that God from the Jews, and he has shown his faith in what he has learned by building them a place in which they may worship their God. 

BUT, that is NOT what the centurion points to in his embassy to our Lord. He doesn’t say to our Lord through the emissaries, “I am a man who believes who you are and I’ve done these good things for your people.” The emissaries say that, but that’s not what comes out of the centurion’s mouth.  Instead, the centurion points to his own knowledge of his own work in the world – “For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” You see, from his faithful pursuit of his calling as a centurion, THIS centurion comes to understand our Lord's ability to heal the servant!

The great profit of this episode to us is very easy to miss, because the point of it all is almost never understood. It was never understood by the Jews, and so when God came down from heaven to talk to them man to man, they crucified him instead of believing what he said. So, what IS this point that everyone misses? 

My friend Steve Hutchens, in the January 2012 issue of Touchstone, wrote a short essay which he entitled “God in the School of Labor.” He began his essay with these words: “Our Lord used examples from the world of work – the [work] of the building trades, [the work] of the household economy, [the work] of agriculture. He did this, not so much because these areas of work gave him “good illustrations” of truth; rather, he did this because he wished to teach us that we learn about reality and the nature of the CREATOR of that reality through our daily work.”

Many Christians and most so-called “religious people” have a very wrong idea about how their spiritual life works and how it grows and matures. Religious people seem to think that their advancement in spiritual life is measured by how many hours they log inside the walls of a church, or how many hours they devote to some supposedly “spiritual” activity. They suppose that people like pastors or priests or bishops MUST be spiritually advanced people, because that's what they do all the time! 

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that when I ministered in Vienna I was privileged to travel to Poland.  The Iron Curtain was up in those days; the communists were in power in Poland. It was many years before Solidarity overthrew the communist regime. The Navigators had a big ministry on college campuses and talking to one of the Navigator missionaries, I said to them, “What’s the biggest challenge you face with these converts on the campus of Polish Universities?” And he said, “The biggest challenge we face is to keep the men from all becoming Roman priests and the women from all becoming Roman Nuns.”  And I said, “That’s interesting. Why’s that?” And he said, “Because they believe that that’s how you do Christian life – that the spiritual, enthusiastic, committed Christian is going to enter vocational Christian service. They’re going to become a priest if they’re a man; they’re going to become a nun, if they’re a woman. 

That’s the very same mistake. That these people suppose the only spiritual people are the ones who get involved most of the hours of the day, days of the week in some explicitly religious activity. Meanwhile, people like plumbers, or mothers of small children in the home, or bank clerks, or waitresses, or farmers who are out there in the dusty dirt often by themselves most of the time – all these people must be spiritually retarded, or spiritually compressed – isolated -  because they spend all these hours out there that are away from the church. They only spend an hour or so on Sunday morning in a church, and the rest of their time is out there “on the job.”

Now the centurion and our Lord show that this point of view is pure flummery, and our Lord's commendation of the Roman centurion shows just how full of flummery this idea is! Trust me, there is much to learn in church. But, can one learn through ordinary labor outside the church just as well. And the question arises – what you learn “out there” -does it have any eternal or spiritual value?

Again, listen to the answer from my friend's essay in Touchstone. Hutchens rightly tells us that a worker in the world “learns respect for good authority; care in the use of scarce resources; [he learns] that shortcuts are dangerous; that dangerous things are to be treated as such; that good work endures and bad work does not; … that failure happens despite one's best efforts; that care-lessness injures and kills; that preparation is as important as execution; that no job is too small to do well; that in the world fire consumes, and moth corrupts, and thieves break through and steal; that good work should be admired, praised, and copied; and bad work should be exposed, and condemned.”

Now, these things we learn from faithful, diligent work in the world, and I say that if you learn them there, you’ll probably learn them far better than if you heard them spoken to you in a Sunday school class. All these things that you learn “out there” lead straight to God and a knowledge of Who He is and what He is like; because – as the Psalmists are constantly telling us – the earth is full of His glory. 

Some of the most spiritual men I have ever known were farmers. One of them is my father-in-law. Another was a cotton farmer in Lubbock, Texas who attended the Bible church I attended. That farmer once told me that each spring he would go to the bank, borrow half a million dollars, then trade that money for cotton seed and machinery, and then go out into the dusty red clay fields of West Texas where he would throw most of that half-million dollars into the air where it would land on the ground to be covered up by dirt. Year after year after year. This was his vocation. This farmer marveled that ANY farmer could do this and be an atheist, unless he were going to go mad in the process. 

Some years later, when I was a student in a seminary, I compared the spiritual character of these farmers with the spiritual character of the ivory-tower types who haunted the shelves of books in the library. There was a difference, of course. But, the difference was mostly in favor of the farmers, who spent 96 percent of their lives struggling against blowing dirt, and birds and insects, and torrential rains that washed away crops, or the utter absence of rains that parched them. Now, what about you and me? Here we sit in this sanctuary, listening to the good Word of God (much, as I'm guessing, this Roman centurion heard the Jews reading the prophets of the Old Testament). We sing the words of God as we sing the Psalms. Our prayers are riddled with quotations and allusions to God's promises to us as we ask him for us things like this centurion asked. And, all this is good; it's quite necessary in fact.

But, let's not fool ourselves – our spiritual life as Christians, who we end up being in eternity – these things are NOT settled inside these walls. This space where in right now is not the venue where those kinds of issues get settled. They are settled in how we take what we hear within these walls, and go out into THAT world out there through the week, and by what we choose to do and what we choose to avoid in THAT world, and how we take each step of every day of the rest of our lives outside these walls. That’s where the eternal issues get settled.

God grant you and me to perceive how this centurion, so many centuries ago, had learned – by being a good and faithful centurion – what he needed to learn from his labors, so that he was able to understand the Son of the living God when he actually heard about Jesus walking around the countryside. Yes, Jesus is here this morning, within these walls, in His Word which we read, and in the sacrament of his body and blood which we receive. But, our Lord is not confined to these walls – when we pick up a stone to clear the ground, Jesus is there too. When we smash our thumbs with a hammer as we make a repair in our house, we hear not only our own voices howling in pain, but we hear the voice of the Lord who also learned what he learned in this world by the things that he suffered.

May we learn as this centurion did, and so attain to the faith which he had – a faith that made our Lord marvel.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.