There are many things that I marvel at. Many things I am amazed by. Many things that make me wonder. Many things that push the limits of my understanding. But there is only one thing that Jesus ever marveled at. One thing that Jesus said, “that is amazing!” In response to the Centurion’s faith Jesus says to the crowd, “ Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. “ The faith of the centurion was a marvelous faith. What was so marvelous about the Centurion’s faith? To answer this question we need to understand two things.
- The life of a centurion
- How this life prepared the centurion to understand Jesus’ authority
First, a little background on the life of a Centurion. One reason that Jesus was so amazed at the Centurion’s faith was the Centurion was a Gentile. Many point to this passage as the beginning of military ministry. But that misses the shocking nature of this passage, that being that Jesus is complimenting not just a non Jewish person, but a man who was sent to his country to occupy it. In Luke’s account we are told that this man was a faithful God-fearer. He helped build his local synagogue he just didn’t want to adapt every Jewish custom. But in Matthew’s account we are not told that he was respected in the community. Even if the man was a faithful attender of the synagogue his presence would certainly be divisive. As well intentioned as he may be he is a representative of the Roman Government.
Each Centurion was in charge of 100 men. And there job was basically to implement the policies of Rome. As long as you paid your taxes and didn’t cause trouble the Romans would give you some basic freedom. But cross the line and they would put you down brutally. Centurions often supervised the putting down of revolts. In the first century Rome was notorious for the siege of Jerusalem from AD 66.-70 some 36 years after these events took place. Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem if his people did not heed his warnings and indeed the event came to pass. One does not necessarily have to be God or a prophet to predict such a thing. You need only to know how the Romans worked and connect the dots. Although we put the Gospels first in the New Testament they were actually composed around A.D 80-90, after the fall of the Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Paul’s letters, were either composed before the destruction of the Temple or around the same time as the destruction of the Temple. The Gospel of Matthew was written to Jewish followers of Jesus. So Just imagine what it would be like to hear these words from the mouth of your savior. Your Holy City, the center of your faith, the center of your nation, has been razed to the ground. It would be like the movie Red Dawn, the original with Patrick Swazi, not the remake where the North Koreans invaded because the directors didn’t want to alienate the Chinese, the rising super power in our time.
Roman Centurions were often Roman Citizens that sought higher social status through military service. Many of them were battle hardened veterans that had worked their way up the ranks. One commentary I read said the required length of service for a centurion was 20 years. After that you would be granted land rights which would make you part of the Equestrian class, a step below the Senator class, those who were allowed to serve in the Roman Senate, the ruling class. So men who served in the Roman military not only did so out of national duty, but out of a desire to improve the status of their family. Though they were paid well, especially when they rose to the level of a centurion, there was great sacrifice. Though one could be a centurion through imperial appointment, most rose through the ranks and were tested by combat. Considering that a minor cut or wound could mean infection and death it seems unlikely that many centurions would make it through their mandatory 20 years of service. And even if they did the lifespan of most folks those days didn’t go past 40 so they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the wealth they were given for very long. And if you think six month or year long deployments are hard think about being deployed for years at a time. Even with the most advanced roads of the time land travel was slow and sea travel was dangerous.
Centurions knew the meaning of sacrifice. They gave their lives not only for the Roman Empire but so that their children and their children’s children could have better lives. They gave their lives for an inheritance that they would not be able to enjoy. Much like Moses was not allowed to enter the promise land, Centurions sought to lead their families into a promised land, many at the cost of their lives. Acts speaks of a Centurion named Cornelius and his household being converted. But one commentary I read suggested that many Centurions were not allowed, not able, or chose not to bring their families with them. Perhaps that is why this Centurion cared so much for his slave. The Word used in this passage could either be translated as Son or slave. It is used to describe little children or slaves with no rights. And perhaps that is the point. This centurion had no family. He had left his family to give his family a better life. And he knew he may not live to see them again. All he had was this slave. And this slave had become as dear as a son to him. If he died the Centurion had no one else. This man had sacrifice for his family to give them a better life. They would never know their father. But their lives would forever be affected by the sacrifice their father made for them. By the time a soldier became a Centurion they had already seen so much death. He had already lost so much. This Centurion was trying to hold onto something, any meaningful relationship he had left. And he was willing to humble himself in front of the people he was sent to keep in line in order that a slave whom he had come to love as a son would be healed.
So that is a brief sketch of what the life of a Centurion might have been like. If this description is an accurate description of the average experience of a centurion how then does this explain how many centurions displayed a marvelous faith? This text and the context give us some hints.
- The Centurion knew what it was like to follow and give orders.
- The Centurion believed Jesus could do something he had no experience of
This Centurion recognized that all authority on heaven and earth belonged to Jesus Christ before his resurrection. Even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t recognize this fact till after his resurrection when he gave them the Great commission to preach the Gospel to all nations. The Centurion says he understands Jesus’ authority because he too is a man under authority. He knows what it is to follow orders and give orders. This suggests that the Centurion knew the key to spiritual authority. That being submission and taking risks.
Being a Christian isn’t just about believing that Jesus is God. Many people believe in a God of some sort. They just believe in a God that lets them believe and do what they would have believed and done before they believed in that God. We find something to worship that suits our lifestyle we don’t change our lifestyle to suit the God we worship. To call Jesus Lord is to acknowledge that he is not just our savior and friend. It is to acknowledge that our lives belong to him. It is to acknowledge the importance of the Spiritual Discipline of Submission.
In a culture where liberty is defined as the freedom from other people telling us what to do, may it be the government or our spouse, submission is a dirty word. But we practice these spiritual disciplines not to be saved but so that grace can be worked out in our lives. For when we let grace into our lives we shall find peace, we shall find a freedom that is greater than the freedom of having our own way. Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster has this to say about the discipline of submission.
“I said that every Discipline has its corresponding freedom. What freedom corresponds to submission? It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today. People will spend weeks, months, even years in a perpetual stew because some little thing did not go as they wished. They will fuss and fume. They will get mad about it. They will act as if their very life hangs on the issue. They may even get an ulcer over it.
In the Discipline of submission we are released to drop the matter, to forget it. Frankly, most things in life are not nearly as important as we think they are. Our lives will not come to an end if this or that does not happen.
If you watch these things, you will see, for example that almost all church fights and splits occur because people do not have the freedom to give in to each other. We insist that a critical issue is at stake; we are fighting for a sacred pri9ncple. Perhaps this is the case. Usually it is not. Often we cannot stand to give in simply because it means that we will not get our own way. Only in submission are we enabled to bring this spirit to a place where it no longer controls us. Only submission can free us sufficiently to enable us to distinguish between genuine issues and stubborn self-will.” ( Foster, 111).
The Centurion recognized Jesus because he recognized the power of submission. He recognized that Jesus only did what he saw His Father in heaven doing. He recognized how Jesus humbled himself. Perhaps he had implemented good orders and bad orders in his service to Rome. Perhaps he had been under good generals and bad generals. He had learned through many battles the costs of battle. He had learned what battles were worth fighting and which were not. Jesus says know the cost before you enter a battle. If every decision, if every conflict, is a battle you have to win, you will be left exhausted and alone by the end of your life. People who always insist on their own way don’t know anything about spiritual authority. They know nothing about true power. Even Jesus, who could have lorded it over us, did not. Instead he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).
The Apostle Paul tells us the rulers of this age did not recognize Jesus for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). Both the rulers of the Jews and the Gentiles did not recognize Jesus’ power because when you get to the top of the ladder often you forget how you got there and who helped you get there. You forget the power of compassion, empathy, and submission. You become prideful and you make yourself into a god. Sometimes God hands us over to our sinful desires, our idols (Romans 1:24). May that be power, sex, money, or fill in the blank, sometimes God gives us the desires of our heart even though we desire the wrong things. And sometimes we can go through life with things going well for us even when we are desiring the wrong things. We may be rich and successful but secretly or publicly treat people awfully. Just because we have billions of dollars or armies of men that will fight for us does not mean we have true power. Jesus says someone who knows how to give into the will of others, someone who knows how to pick and choose their battles, has more wisdom than someone who will fight every battle, even if they seem to have a long winning streak.
Along with being willing to take orders, the Centurion tells Jesus he understands Jesus, because he gives orders and people do what he says. The fact that the Centurion is willing to humble himself before what appears to be a Jewish peasant, for someone who was the Centurion’s slave, suggests that the Centurion’s authority was based on more than just his position and title. If the Centurion was willing to publicly humble himself for his slave before those whom he had been sent to keep in line, what would he be willing to do for the men under his command? This was not a man who commanded battles from behind the front lines. This was a man who went into battle with his men. When he ordered his men to go off and die, he would go with them, and they would go without question, because they knew that he would die for them without question. He would not ask them to do something he would not do himself for he knew the costs of his orders. He had born the cost through many battles. By his decisions his brothers lived and his brothers died. He wasn’t some politician moving pieces on a chess board. He loved his slave enough to embarrass himself publicly. How much more would he love his soldiers? While Senators in Rome debated policies thousands of miles away the centurion knew that their decision were not about small government or big government, liberal or conservative. He knew politics at its heart is about people. It is about authority and power. It is about love and responsibility. It is about life and death. We don’t know how the rich man who Jesus asked to give up everything accumulated his wealth. But we know how the centurion earned his power. He had to make decisions by which people lived and died. He had to take risks. And he had to live with those decisions. He knew that his life, and the life of his men hung by a thread, that there were so many things out of his control, and in the chaos of battle he had to keep calm and do the best he could. And perhaps he realized that by the time he became a centurion that there was no possible way he could have survived by his own merit. A mere cut could have gotten infected and he could have died. There was no medicine, no V.A to take care of wounded veterans. The fact that he had lived this long suggested to him there was a greater power at work in his life. A power in which he lived and moved and had his being. A power greater than any god he had been taught to worship back home. He was alive by luck or by grace and he knew he wasn’t that lucky. And when he heard of Jesus he recognized instinctively that in Him was the same power that kept him alive through the many battles of his life.
Finally, the texts makes clear that the Centurion’s faith was a marvelous faith because he believed Jesus could do anything, even something Jesus hadn’t done yet. The centurion had never met Jesus. He had only heard stories of what Jesus did. And yet, up to that point, there was no indication that Jesus had ever healed anyone at a distance. And yet the Centurion believed with a Word that it was possible. Because Jesus is Lord. He is a God of Love and power. Perhaps you have heard the old argument that God is either a God of love or a God of power but he can’t be both. If he is a God of love then he must be powerless to help us because look at all the evil in the world. If he is a God of power then he must be more like the Devil, a sadist, because look at all the evil in the world. But our tradition, the Reformed tradition of the Christian Faith, has always affirmed that he is a God of power and love and with but a Word he could change our circumstances.
And yet I would say that the Reformed tradition, and people in general, have a problem with the idea that our actions, our faith, our prayers are really that important. I think this is mainly because many of us feel we have had such faith and not be rewarded in such a manner as the Centurion was. We have prayed till we were blue in the face and our loved one still died, our relationship still ended, we still lost our job, you name the disappointment. But I think the centurion knew that Jesus did not have to give the word. Indeed, perhaps he had wished for different orders from his superiors but it did not go his way so he was prepared for that possibility. He knew that some campaigns would be disasters but still he sent his men to die. Is there free will or does God control everything? I think the Centurion’s faith suggests that the answer is both. God controls everything and we have free will. God knows what we are going to pray but our prayers do matter and do change things. How does this work? We have been arguing about this for thousands of years. The details are above my paygrade but I know the heart of the truth. God controls everything and it matters deeply what we do and how we pray. There are things in our control and out of control. In some circumstances we have more control. There are times in our lives we have no control. Sometimes we are given the chance to change things and sometimes things happen and there is nothing we can do about it. The Centurion knew this but he had the faith to take a risk and ask anyway knowing that Jesus was able but he could say no if He wanted to. Often we think that God has made up His mind in regards to our prayers. But that is just an assumption. The only things that we can assume is that He is love and He is powerful and just. The battle may not always go our way but sometimes the battle is worth the scars. Some of you who are visiting today because your children went to our Vacation Bible School. And you came because your children were loved in such a way that they wanted to come back without you encouraging them to do so. Let me just say that if you are looking for all the bells and whistles we cannot give you that. But there is a sweet, sweet, spirit in this place and I know it is the spirit of the Lord. The Lord has given this place a Spirit of love that warms the heart. And he wants to warm your hearts.
As a pastor I have prayed for many people. I have fought many battles. I was not planning on telling this story but the Lord put it on my heart so I am being obedient. Once I prayed for two couples in a church. Both were about to have miscarriages. I laid my hand on one woman’s stomach and pray her child would come back to life. But the child still died. In another case I drove through the rain one night to pray for another woman who’s twins were in danger of miscarriage. I felt the power of God move through my hand and I had a sense they would be okay. They made it through a difficult surgery and she bore them to full term. Many doctors thought it would not be possible. Why did God answer the prayers of many for one and not another? I don’t know. That is above my paygrade. I just know that Jesus is love and power. The Christian discipline of submission is both about following orders and taking risks.
Sixty two years. Sixty two years this congregation has ministered in this community. And there is a Spirit of love in this place. A Spirit that restores broken hearts. I know because you all have been a blessing to me. But for the next sixty two years we need not just a faith of love but a faith of power. A faith that believes that with but a word the Lord can fill our pews and our hearts. The scriptures say no man can know what God has in store for those who love him. And we sure do love God.
I believe I am called here to move you into the future, into a marvelous faith, a place where nothing is impossible with God, where you shall see things that you cannot imagine, that God has prepared for those who love him. There is a faith that comes with joy and tragedy. There is a faith that comes from knowing when to give in and knowing when not to give up. There is a faith in the power and authority of the Lord Jesus, for all authority on heaven and earth has been given unto him, and as we are faithful through the battles we win and lose, he entrusts more of that authority to us. The faith of the Centurion is a miraculous faith, a marvelous faith, and it is faith that is worth fighting for.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.