Have you ever come to Jesus feeling like the centurion in our story today? Knowing that you need what Jesus has to offer, but not feeling able to fully commit to the life of discipleship Jesus models? In our Gospel story this morning, the centurion was a supporter of the Jews, but not Jewish himself, which was rare although not completely unknown in Jesus’ day. He built a synagogue for the Jews of his community, so that they could worship God, but he didn’t convert to Judaism. He knew of Jesus’ ability to heal, but he didn’t leave everything and follow Jesus himself. He clearly loved God, but that didn’t compel him to change his life completely. And so when he turned to Jesus for help, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was unsure whether he would get what he asked for. The centurion was righteous, but not that righteous. He was drawn to the God of Israel and Jesus, but he didn’t let it change his life. And he knew it. When Jesus did come to help him, the centurion professed himself unworthy of Jesus’ direct presence. He wanted Jesus’ help, but he wasn’t ready for Jesus to come right into his house. “Help me, but no need to come all the way in.” That might be too much of a commitment. Allowing Jesus to come all the way into his home might make the centurion one of Jesus’ followers, which would mean some serious upheavals in his life. The centurion wanted Jesus’ help in this little matter of his slave’s health, but he wasn’t interested in going the whole hog, as it were.
So, have you ever felt like the centurion? Turning to Jesus for help, for love and for healing, but not wanting to go all in? It’s true that we’re pretty much all Christians here. We’re not quite like the centurion in that respect––we both recognize who Jesus is and we’re committed to following him. But we are like the centurion in the sense that we could be much more committed than we are. We could all stand to be better Christian disciples, and I know that, at least for me, there’s a hesitancy to allow Jesus to come all the way in and truly transform my life (again) because, generally speaking, I like my life the way it is right now. So, I’m like the centurion, asking for Jesus to fix a few things here and there, but from a distance, without making any serious, life-altering changes.
And yet, as much as this is the story of the uncommitted centurion, it’s also the story of Jesus saying Yes to him. Yes, I’m committed to you, even though you don’t feel the same. Yes, I will help you. Through Jesus’ actions, he even says, Yes, I love you. And if you notice, Jesus doesn’t ask the centurion to convert, or question the centurion’s commitment to God. Jesus doesn’t push to come into the centurion’s home. Jesus simply does what Jesus alway does. He heals––loves––without asking why the centurion doesn’t commit more. He responds to the centurion without asking for anything in return.
The centurion isn’t the only one in this story, however, and his isn’t the only experience of Jesus. Maybe you don’t resonate with the centurion this morning. Maybe your experience is more similar to the Jewish elders. They already know that they’re God’s beloved children, and that they’re fully committed to God. They already live with God fully immersed in their lives. The story of the Jewish elders in our Gospel reading is the story of people who are confident that they’re part of God’s people, but who aren’t so confident that God is there for those outside of their group. They’re sure of their own status in God’s eyes, rightly so, but they’re not sure about those who aren’t Jewish. They know that Jesus has been sent by God to help them, but they don’t know if Jesus is there to help the non-Jews, too. That’s why they come to plead their centurion friend’s case to Jesus, and why they seem somewhat defensive when they do it. “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.” In other words, we know he’s not part of God’s established community, and we know that he might be seen as your enemy, but please do this for us, because we care about him. Just like we wonder if God comes to those outside of the church, the Jewish elders wondered if God would come to those outside the people of Israel. We know he’s not one of your flock, but won’t you please help anyway? Their care for their neighbour, who’s not quite like them, does them credit.
So, have you ever felt like the Jewish elders? Maybe you’ve prayed that Jesus would look with kindness on someone you love, even though that person doesn’t go to church or isn’t a Christian. Maybe you want Jesus to love your friend or family member as much as you do, but you’re a little worried that he won’t. And so you go to him, asking on their behalf, hoping that it’s enough. This experience is a common one for us, especially as our families grow bigger and more multicultural and inter-religious.
And, once again, in the story of the Gospel reading, Jesus says Yes. Jesus says yes to the Jewish elders. Yes, I will help this person whom you love. Yes, I am here for those outside of the flock. Jesus doesn’t criticize them because they love this non-believer. Jesus doesn’t tell them he cares only for fellow Jews. Instead, Jesus says yes to the Jewish elders and goes to the centurion. Jesus loves those they love, and heals those they want healed.
Of course, there’s another person in this story, whose experience might be common to your own. And that’s the slave. The experience of the slave in this story is surely the most unusual. One day he’s sick, and the next day he’s better. From his perspective, he probably has no idea what’s going on. After all, who explains things to slaves? The slave was highly valued by the centurion, but that’s an economic term, not a relational one. He was a slave, not a servant. His life was restricted to his master’s house and he lived exclusively according to his duties there. So what would he have known of what was going on? All the slave knows is that his life was a dismal and dim experience, that he was sick and ailing (and no one has use for a sick slave), and all of a sudden, for no reason that he could see, the sun was shining, life was beautiful, his body and mind felt whole and clear again, he felt loved.
Maybe this has been your experience. That you lived for a while in darkness, and then for no reason that you could see, there was light and love and healing. If it has not been your experience, because you are even now living in darkness, then have hope––your story may very well end the way the slave’s did. With a light and life that comes from Jesus.
Because Jesus is, of course, in the slave’s story, as well. Jesus healed the slave, without even knowing who he was. Jesus sent wholeness to the slave knowing that the slave would probably never know where that healing came from. That slave would probably never know about Jesus, or even care about the God of Israel. And yet Jesus loved him and healed him anyway. Jesus said yes to him, when the slave didn’t even know he was asking a question. Jesus healed the slave, even though the slave was completely oblivious to the source of his healing. Jesus said yes to the slave without any expectation that the slave would, in any way, say yes to Jesus in return. Jesus’ love for all of God’s creation was so great, his desire to heal our hurts so deep, that he did so without any expectation of commitment or love or even thanks.
The story of the slave is actually the story of all of us. Jesus died on the cross and was raised to new life, so that we, too, would experience new life. And Jesus did this before we were even born, before we became aware of him, while we were as ignorant as the slave. Two thousand years ago, Jesus said yes to the world––to us––before we even knew what was happening, without any expectation of thanks or even acknowledgement in return.
Jesus in the Gospel is the Jesus we know today. Jesus says yes, and Jesus loves. Jesus loves those who don’t fully commit to him. Jesus loves those who are loved by us. Jesus loves those who don’t even know he loves them. Jesus goes to them to share the healing power of God’s presence, and doesn’t ask for anything in return. Jesus comes to you, is committed to you, heals and loves you, and doesn’t ask you for anything in return. This is the gift of God’s love for us, offered without expectations of any kind. This is the Gospel we proclaim––the Good News that Paul is so eager we cling to in the letter to the Galatians we heard earlier. This is grace. And so, even though there are no expectations from us, we freely and abundantly respond, Thanks be to God. Amen.