Jesus had as many conflicts in Capernaum as the Northampton City Council does. This was his home base for much of his ministry. This fishing village of about 1500 is where Jesus called Peter, James, John and Andrew to leave their nets and follow him. I would say there is some faith in Capernaum. It was also the home of Matthew the tax collector, another man who made a great leap of faith to follow Jesus. So why was Jesus so impressed with the faith of a centurion, given that half of his disciples came from the same village?
This passage is in the flow of controversy over the healing ministry of Jesus. Jesus comes to town and heals a man possessed by an unclean spirit. Soon their village is clogged with people seeking healing, so packed that one group carrying their paralytic friend on a mattress can’t get near Jesus, so they actually take him up on the roof and pry up the tiles to lower him down through to where Jesus is teaching. In Luke 5 it says, Jesus sees their faith and says, “Friend your sins are forgiven.” See, there is plenty of faith in Capernaum. But here is where the trouble really begins. Someone says, “Hey, only God can forgive, this is blasphemy.” Jesus ends that argument by saying, “pick up your bed and walk,” and heals the man. Next Luke tells us about a whole series of controversies about Sabbath observance. Jesus picks grain on the Sabbath and heals another man on the Sabbath, and things get so heated in Capernaum that Jesus decides to take a break and preach elsewhere for a time.
We are picking up the story as Jesus decides things have settled enough to come back to town. Now a centurion hears that Jesus is a healer and he has hopes for a slave he favors, so he works through the town elders to entreat Jesus to heal. Is this the same group of elders who were angry and challenging Jesus just weeks before? If so, there is a great irony in them now coming to Jesus and asking for the healing of the centurion’s servant.
So Jesus is on his way and the centurion sends a messenger to say, don’t trouble yourself with the long walk Jesus. I know you are a busy man, just like me you have your duties to attend to. Just say the word and I know my servant will be healed. Jesus responds: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” This seems meant not only to compliment the centurion, but also a statement back at all those who were upset with how Jesus healed previously. They didn’t want Jesus’s healing power when he was helping the lame and the poor, (you know, THOSE PEOPLE; all the folks filling up the benches and loitering on Main Street. That’s bad for business.) But now they humbly request healing for the wealthy benefactor to the synagogue, a powerful centurion.
A lesser man might have said to the elders, “You want me, a blasphemer, and one who commands devils, who disobeys the Sabbath, now you want me to heal a Gentile centurion’s slave?” Jesus could have focused on the hypocracy, but he chooses to let that linger in the background, and instead focuses on the faith of the centurion, as a righteous Gentile, as one charged with keeping the peace through military repression of Israel, but who also acts with benevolence towards the houses of worship and acknowledges the authority of Jesus as a healer from God.
Looking at Luke’s Gospel in this manner has changed my understanding of the purpose behind the narrative. It should be subtitled: “Amazing Faith.” Luke the physician, who also wrote Acts of the Apostles as the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, has a consistent narrative theme of amazement and what God is doing, first in Jesus and then in the Holy Spirit. Four fisherman leave their nets and immediately follow Jesus. Amazing! A tax collector named Matthew leaves his lucrative occupation to be the next disciples. Astonishing! Friends believe in the healing power of God and are willing to climb a roof and tear it off to get to Jesus. Astounding! A Roman centurion requests healing from Jesus. Flabbergasting! Luke will revisit this theme in the book of Acts. The first baptism is an Ethopian Eunuch who is the Queen of Sheba’s Treasurer. Dorcas, a wealth merchant of purple cloth joins the movement. Cornelius, another Roman centurion, also joins the faith. Luke keeps repeating to us again and again. The response to the overflowing and healing love of God is astonishing. Faith is awakening and you just can’t imagine who will be next. Later Jesus says in Luke, that the reign of God is like a great banquet, where the usual guest are just too busy to come, so the master of the house fills the chairs with the lame and the blind and the poor begging on the streets so the food won’t go to waste.
Amazing faith responses to God is not the whole story here. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That is not only Newton’s law of motion, it is a great spiritual dynamic as well. Every time Jesus inspires faith and heals, someone else is angry and thinks he is out of line. Crowds get so large Jesus has to preach from a boat, but he is rejected in his home town of Nazareth. The same dynamic happens to Peter and Paul in Acts. Paul starts awakening faith and draws people in, then he gets arrested and thrown in jail. And then jail gives him time to write his many letters, which becomes the first Christian scriptures we still ponder today.
So our brief text this morning about the amazing faith of the centurion, is part of the underlying structure of Luke’s understanding of the dynamics of faith. We are both amazed at who responds, and baffled by the small-minded and angry resistance. As readers of this Good News we are challenges to choose where we stand. Are we the ones leaving our boats, walking away from our tax booths, tearing off the roof to get to Jesus, amazed that even a centurion or later a prostitute, will be people of great faith? Or are we the ones arguing the finer points of law and theology, complaining that some of our favorite traditions are being upset, or feeling threatened by such an astonishing array of sinners joining our club?
I wish I could say exactly which side of that line I stand. I want to say I am on that side of amazing faith, ready for what the great love of God will inspire next. Sometimes I rise to the occasion. But I also have places of resistance inside, feelings that the love of God calls me to places I don’t want to go. I like some security, some predictability, I like my job and wouldn’t want to threaten that security. I have cherished notions I don’t easily let go. Am I any different than the religious leaders in Capernaum? Don’t star tearing off my roof, do you know what we paid for that slate? And God, I could really use some help with getting some big donors like the centurion. It’s fine for all the newly healed lame and blind and formerly demon possessed to come to the new member class, but could you bring me a centurion?
The Gospel of Luke makes room for uneasy believers like me as well. Peter leaves his boat behind in a great act of faith one minute, and tries to lecture Jesus about going to Jerusalem, angering Jesus to the point of saying, “Get behind me Satan.” Peter wants to walk on water, but soon sinks. He vows to never leave Jesus’s side and then cruelly denies him three times. And on the story goes. The Gospel and the love of God awakens great faith in our hearts. We celebrate God’s healing power one minute and then resist it the next. We move from action to reaction.
The best news of this story is that Jesus can still be amazed by the human response to God. If Jesus can be amazed by the faith of the centurion, then God can perhaps be amazed by me. God is ever-ready to be amazed by you, by First Churches, by the people sitting out on the benches of Main Street, tourist and beggar alike. Awakenings are ever possible!