4th Sunday after Pentecost: Centurion

Glory to Jesus Christ! Today is the 4th Sunday after Pentecost and we consider the Centurion. As we all know, century means 100, and a centurion was in charge of a Roman regiment of 100 men so he was a man of some standing in Roman society. The scriptures speak highly of the Centurions. We have St. Longinus the Centurion standing at the foot of the cross saying (Matt 27:54) “Truly this was the Son of God.” Later after guarding Christ’s tomb and witnessing the miracle of His resurrection, St. Longinus refused to be bribed by the Jews to say Christ’s body was stolen and went to Cappadocia to preach the good news of Christ’s resurrection. It wasn’t long before Pilate sent soldiers to silence him and his 2 other soldier companions and he was martyred very early. We also have the Centurion Cornelius who was in charge of the Italian regiment. He was the one who God told to send for Peter and when Peter arrived, he became the first official non-Jewish Christian when the Holy Spirit fell upon him and those with him and Peter baptized them all. Today we have another very special Centurion. In all of the gospels, this is the only passage where it is recorded that “Christ marvelled” in a positive manner. The only other “marvelling” Christ does is at the unbelief of those in His home town of Nazareth.

The main quality which causes Christ to marvel in this short passage is the centurion’s faith. Christ tells us “Assuredly I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel.” Love, compassion and humility are also very evident. It was not a normal occurrence to care so deeply for a servant, but here we see a man greatly filled with love and compassion for his fellow man. We have the story of this Centurion also given to us in Luke with some additional information. In Luke’s telling, the Centurion’s faith and humility are such that he does not even feel himself worthy to approach Christ himself, but rather first asks his admiring Jewish Elder friends to approach Christ on his behalf. After all, he knows that this is the Jewish God that he is approaching, and his humility keeps him from being presumptuous. It is a similar attitude to the one found when the gentile women was entreating Christ to heal her daughter and Christ told her (Matt.15:24-28) “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of Israel…It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she answers “Yes, Lord yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” Christ praised her saying “O Woman, great is your faith.” So we see how humility and faith go hand in hand.

Interestingly, in today’s gospel in Matthew, the centurion begins by addressing Christ as “Lord,” a very significant title from one in command of a Roman garrison when the Roman’s are overseeing the subjugated Jewish people. This was even before the Apostle Peter tells Jesus (Matt. 16:16) “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In Luke’s version where it is not the centurion himself but rather his Jewish Elder friends who initiate the conversation with Christ, they do not call Him Lord, they really don’t get who Christ is. It says (Luke 7:4) “And when they 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.” God has obviously been working in the centurion’s heart, filling him with true faith and revealing to him His son.

We get a sense of how well regarded the centurion is amongst his Jewish friends by how they present his request to Christ. But notice that Christ does not have the same reasoning as the Jews of what it is that is to be commended in the centurion. The Jewish elders are very impressed with what the centurion has done for them. He is a great benefactor and has built them a synagogue. He sees that they are the superior and God chosen nation on the earth. This is the reason he is deserving in their eyes. Christ sees that the Centurion has great qualities of the heart; faith, love, compassion and humility. God is always concerned with our hearts, with our true spiritual state. He is not impressed with any of our activities and accomplishments and successes, unless they are the fruit of our hearts loving Him and our fellow human beings. We can accomplish much good work, but the question is always Why? What is our underlying motive? Paul says (Cor. 3:11) “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid which is Jesus Christ.” If our foundation is to impress others, even dad and mom, to win the praise and admiration of our peers, to establish our reputation or any foundation other than Christ, it will be a very temporary structure we build. We can put a beautiful looking building with the very best of materials and workmanship on a bad foundation and all of the wonderful work and effort put into the building will end up in a rubble pile when the foundation is tested and fails. While the centurion’s Jewish friends were most enamoured with the cathedral that he built them, the centurion’s love and compassion for his servent who lay suffering, his great humility in not even feeling worthy to have Christ under his roof, and his faith that Christ could heal his servant with a word is the story that has come down to us and to every generation for the last 2000 years. This is of true lasting value and he took this with him beyond the grave, the cathedral he built has long ago ceased to exist.

We have been considering the great treasure that is ours in the Orthodox Church these last three Sunday’s as we consider the formation of the saints. It is true that God has given us everything needed to grow and develop into the image of Christ here within the fullness of the Orthodox Church. He has placed His image within each one of us of the race of Adam, and grants us His grace to allow that which He has placed within us to develop into fullness through Theosis here in His Church. However, we must always be very careful not to become complacent and comfortable with our Christian walk, somehow assuming that now that we are members of the Church, now that we have found the true Church, now that we have arrived, we can just relax. No, the whole point of having access to the entire treasure house of the Church as our heritage, is that we make use of the treasure. We can know that what we taste, and learn, and absorb here within the protection of the Church is tested and safe and of help in our salvation, but it is only of help if we actually partake of it. The question is not just where is the Church, but what do you do within it once you have found it.

The Jews who came to Christ on behalf of the centurion assumed that the Kingdom of God was theirs by inheritance. They were very impressed with their centurion friend because he helped confirm that they were the chosen people of God. They were correct, but only in as much as they allowed God to change their hearts to conform with His image. We are not God’s children just because we are privileged to be born into a certain race, into a certain church, that would be called being racist, not Christian. As John the Baptist said to the Jews when they claimed to be the children of Abraham (Luke 3:8) “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” Christ never denied the fullness of the Jewish people being the chosen race of God, but all through the gospel’s we see Christ presenting non-Jewish people as models for the Jewish people to emulate. Today Christ holds up the centurion as one with greater faith than any in Israel and then he tells His people the Jews “…many will come from east and from west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the utter darkness,” Membership is not enough, even though it should be a great advantage, we must allow our hearts to be united to Christ. In the same manner, Christ has said He would establish His Church as a real and tangible body founded upon the teachings and blood of the Apostles and saints, and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against her. That is us, the Orthodox Church. But there are also notable and faithful centurions who are not a part of the Orthodox Church, who have never encountered her except as a distorted misrepresentation. Some will also come and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. They may even be given a greater reward, as they had far less truth than we in the Church have to draw from, and yet managed to keep their hearts turned towards God.

The centurion’s faith in Christ was not based on seeing a miracle. He did not say “if you heal my servant I will believe in you.” It was a simple faith that Christ was God and could accomplish anything. The Jews continuously asked for a sign, Christ said to the Jews (Matt 12:39,40) “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Faith in the resurrected Christ, not in miracles and signs is what is needed. Faith is having our eyes open to see that all of life is a miracle. Who can explain anything really, define the life force that causes the smallest creature to the great towering Cedar tree to live; all of life is a miracle far beyond our comprehension. This faith of the centurions was based upon the true humility that comes from this understanding that all of creation is a miracle far beyond our grasp. The author of all of creation stood before him; of course Christ was capable of healing his much loved servant, but he the centurion wasn’t worthy to even stand in His presence. Through this great gift of faith which he demonstrated, he showed the entire Jewish peoples and indeed all of us here in the Church, that faith is completely intertwined with humility. A few verses back, Christ has just finished talking to the people saying (Matt. 7: 22,23) “Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesized in Your Name, cast out demons in Your Name, and done many wonders in Your Name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me, you who practise lawlessness.”

The faith healer with the type of faith that boldly goes out in great self assurance and confidence and lists and promotes all the great wonders they have accomplished – in Jesus name of course – is greatly to be avoided. We have a huge and ever present tradition of wonder-working saints in the Orthodox Church. I challenge you to find me one who wished to have anything they did made public. If you asked them about the many miracles that it was well known had occurred through them, they would deny they had any giftings of the sort. Fr. Phillip explained to me when we were serving an Unction service with 7 priests that having 7 priests was a great safeguard, as when healings of a notable nature occur, as they often do at such services, no-one can take credit. For “Yours is the power and the glory” and when any of it starts to stick to any of us it is a very dangerous situation. As our icon of Christ says (2 Cor. 12:9) “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

When I was first ordained, I asked a number of priests for a word of wisdom. Fr. Anthony Karbo, our son, Subdeacon Michael’s priest, told me to remember the donkey that Christ was riding during His entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The donkey was quite proud of himself seeing everyone lay down the palm branches and shout praises to him and after when describing to another donkey friend how great it was to be shown such deference, his donkey friend just said “It’s about Christ dummy, not you,” What we see today with our dear centurion is what true faith looks like. It is always wrapped in true humility and never seeks its own glory. Glory to Jesus Christ!