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. (Luke 7:1-10, Proper 4C)
Sometimes life pushes us to the limits of our own resources. It might come about from great tragedy, sorrow, and loss. It could be sheer exhaustion or the tedium and boredom that leaves us feeling dry, lifeless, and without options. Regardless, we are at our wit’s end. We come to the end of our rope. Will power and self-determination are not enough. They’ve met their match and we can no longer do life the way we used to. Our words carry no meaning and our actions are ineffective. There is, strangely enough, grace in that. The limit of our resources is the beginning of faith. Our life is necessarily reoriented.
That’s where the centurion is in today’s gospel. He is a man of power and authority. He is one who says, “Come,” “Go,” or “Do this,” and others come, go, or do. He can give these orders only because his superior, his commanding officer, has given him and placed him in a position to give such orders. Today, however, he has come to the limit of his power and authority. A slave who is dear to him, whom he highly regards and values, is unable to come, go, or do. He is ill and close to death.
The centurion has nothing left to say or do. He cannot order his slave to get well or be healed. He needs a greater authority than what has been given him, not one that commands actions but one that commands life. He needs divine authority not human authority. He recognizes and seeks that authority and power in Jesus.
We no longer, thank God, own people in the way this centurion owns his slave but we have each stood in the same place the centurion stands today. Our “slave” is not another person but that which has cared for and served us, that to which we have become attached, that upon which we depend, that which we hold dear and highly regard. That slave is our very life, our existence, our being. Whenever this “slave” is ill and dying the structure and order of our life is crumbling. In that moment whatever power and authority we have just isn’t enough.
Often when we come to the limits of our own words and ability we try harder, we try smarter, we try again and again. The centurion knows this will not work. Instead he yields his power and authority to Jesus, the embodiment of God’s power and authority. The centurion no longer seeks to command but awaits a command. “Only speak the word; and let my servant be healed,” he says to Jesus. This is the faith that amazed Jesus.
I wonder if we sometimes understand faith as this ladder that reaches from us to God. We convince ourselves that if we have more faith the ladder reaches higher into the heavens. We use the ladder to bridge the gaps of life so we say things like, “Someday we will know why,” or “God has plan for you.” That is less about faith and more about rationalizing and insulating ourselves from life. That is the antithesis, the very opposite, of faith. Faith is not our escape from the dying slaves of our lives but the means by which God in and through us enlivens, transforms and recreates our slaves.
What if faith is not our grasping for and reaching up to God but God’s reaching down to us? It would mean we do not have faith as this thing or commodity. It is not something we acquire, accumulate, or amass. The reaching down faith of God is always here, available, and active. We participate in, open ourselves to, and receive God’s faith. We yield our power and authority and allow God to speak the word. That’s what the centurion did. It’s what Jesus did throughout his life. Faith in the centurion healed his slave. Faith in Jesus healed and continues to heal humanity and all of creation.
Our God is a speaking God. It is the ongoing act of creation. In the beginning God said, “Let there be…,” and there was. In the beginning God’s Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and has never ceased dwelling among us.
In that sense faith is not individualistic. It is not ours only. It is communal and for the life of the world. We are the conduit, the channel, of God’s faith. We exhibit that faith by our actions and relations to those who are “below” us, those to whom we typically say, “Come,” “Go,” “Do this.” Is that perhaps what sets the centurion apart?
He is a leader in the Roman army, the force that occupies and controls the Jewish people. The Roman-Jewish relationship was one of enmity. Yet this centurion loves the Jewish people. He built a synagogue for them, a place of worship in which he did not and probably never would worship. He gives up his own authority and submits himself to the authority of Jesus for the benefit of a nobody, a slave, a piece of property.
I wonder if when Jesus heard the centurion’s message he somehow began to see himself in the centurion; one who loves the enemy, one who refused to live by the usual and accepted boundaries of the day, one who cares for the oppressed and marginalized, one who uses power and authority to love rather than to dominate. Such faith. Such faith is the reaching down faith of God. We see it in Christ. We see it in the centurion. What about us? Are we willing to yield our power and authority, and allow God to speak the word?