Your Salvation is Right in Front of Your Face
Today, we meet a man who causes God to marvel.
Jesus Christ and his disciples had just entered Capernaum, when they were met by a Roman centurion. A few words passed between them, and something happens that’s so slight you’d barely notice it, but utterly astonishing.
At the request of this soldier, the scriptures tell us, our Lord and Savior “marveled.” Eθαύμασεν – this word, in English and Greek, expresses utmost admiration, astonishment, and wonder. One marvels at majesty, at an overwhelming work of art, at the power of a waterfall, or lightning in a storm. “God thunders marvelously with his voice,” we read in Job. Or in 1 Chronicles, “Remember his marvelous works…his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth.” It’s only natural that we should marvel over God. But today, we find a turn in events. If you look through every page of the bible, you’ll never once find another time when God or His Son Jesus Christ is said to “marvel” at the goodness of a man. But He marvels at this centurion.
The soldier comes to Christ asking for a favor. “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.”
‘I will come and cure him,’ Jesus replies.
But the centurion answers, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man 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.’
And Christ marvels, saying, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”
Can you hear what He’s saying? God has watched over the Israelites, like a shepherd or a hawk, for hundreds of years. Since the cries from Egypt, through the red sea, into Jerusalem and with all the kings and prophets of old, God has dwelt with His chosen people, and yet, he’s never found such faith?
In a poem, Ralph Waldo Emerson once struck at the heart of what it means to marvel. He writes, “If the stars should appear but one night every thousands years how man would marvel and stare.” Well something happens at this encounter in Capernaum as marvelous as it would be if the stars were to shine for the first time in a thousand years, and it causes God to stare.
What is it is about the Centurion after all?
Is it his compassion?
So often we seek God when we’re in need personally, as we should. But this soldier comes to God begging on behalf of another, of his servant, in fact. The word in Greek implies that it was a young boy, and the centurion describes this boy as suffering grievously. Something in the boy’s torment touched the centurion’s heart and woke compassion in him, like a gentle mother for a sick child. We can only speculate here. Perhaps the centurion had a hundred other servants, and could easily dispense of any of them. But he didn’t see the boy as property merely. He saw the boy as a fellow human being in pain.
Perhaps it was the centurion’s trust that moved our Lord. We often imagine that we will trust God after He’s shown us His power, worked a miracle, or answered a prayer. This kind of faith is weak, and is the reason so many people turn from God when they don’t get what they want. But this soldier had faith in God before the miracle ever happened. It wasn’t founded on getting anything or witnessing a proof. His faith was founded on a conviction far deeper.
Or perhaps, what’s most commendable about the centurion is his profound combination of humility and strength.
“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”
In the first line of his prayer he admits how unworthy He is for God’s mercy, and in the second line he reaches out regardless and clings to God’s robe.
So often, we feel a sense of shame and unworthiness the way this centurion did, but we use that shame as an excuse to withdraw. It’s easy to pray when we feel righteous, isn’t it? But when we’ve sinned and get a glimpse into our impurity, then going to the prayer corner is far more difficult. As ironic as it is, we’re much more likely to go to confession when we feel pretty good about ourselves. But when we really need confession, at those moments of shame or embarrasment, we’re more likely to shirk back. We forget that until we’re comfortable confessing to a man here on earth, we’ll never be comfortable confessing to God face to face at the judgment. If we shirk back now then we’ll shirk back then, and the repercussions will be far greater.
But this centurion is a reminder to each of us of what we must do when we’re faced with our shame. The dirtier our hands are the more we need to wash them in water. The more impure our souls are, the more desperately we need to reach out to God’s mercy.
We have a way of retreating from someone we love when we don’t feel beautiful. Can you imagine, at some point in your life when you were dating, looking into a mirror and discovering a blemish in your hair, or face, or clothes. The thought comes, “Oh great, I can’t go see him like this!” Well that is how we act with God. God is the courter waiting outside, wondering, ‘Will she come to me regardless of her bad hair day? Will she trust that I will love her no matter how she looks?’
The centurion’s prayer is so true, so strong, that the Church has us pray it every Sunday before receiving the holy Body and Blood of our Savior: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.” Humility is the most beautiful thing on earth. It’s the radical realization of who you are and who is God, and the manly decision to say: “I don’t care how broken I am, I will not give up and settle for anything short of God’s grace.”
The centurion shows us true humility.
Is this why Jesus Christ marveled?
The truth is, we don’t know, and we probably aren’t meant to know. But one thing is clear. The Centurion was the least likely person to cause God to marvel. But he did. And this is the message of our sermon today.
The centurion had everything going against him. He wasn’t Jewish. He was a pagan, and a Roman soldier at that, the enemy of the Jewish state. He didn’t live a quiet, peaceful life, suitable for spiritual contemplation. He was a commanding officer and no doubt spent his days in a bloody battlefield or otherwise swamped in bureaucracy and administration. Neither was he one of the “blessed poor,” as Christ taught, but was quite rich, the class which our Lord says has a harder time entering the kingdom of God than a camel passing through the eye of a needle. And yet, despite this and all odds, the centurion shocked everyone and his faith caused God to marvel.
What does this say to us?
We can easily spend our whole lives thinking: “If only conditions we’re different, then I’d be a better person.”
If only I were out at a monastery, then I could truly draw closer to God. If only I had fewer responsibilities, then I’d have more time to go to church. If I were richer, then I could tithe more. If I were poorer, then I could have fewer distractions. If only…if only…if only…But all of this is a delusion, isn’t it?
Sometimes we wonder, if only such and such were different on Sunday mornings, then I could have a more “spiritual experience” during worship. I want to quote something that Bishop John said to me this week, and he was quoting Fr. Alexander Schmemann before him. “We do not go to church to pray, we go to church to be the Church and to join the liturgy in heaven at the footstool of God…The purpose of worship is not to get those warm and fuzzy feelings, it’s to love God and one another.” Sometimes we think we’re being pious, when really we’re just be selfish. We forget that corporate worship isn’t me-and-God time, that’s what our private prayer life is for through the week. Sunday is about us-and-God time. But when we haven’t been giving enough time to God during the week, then we’ll always be disappointed on Sundays. Teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, desperately chasing kids, forgiving your noisy neighbor – these are no less spiritual experiences than praying quietly at the altar. We have everything we need, here and now, to draw closer to God.
And through the week, it is so easy for all of us to get frustrated and weighed down. When you show up to work and see a pile of papers (this high) stacked on your desk, when your co-worker has reprimanded you or your best friend has hurt you, when you’re doing your homework or grading papers, when your stuck in traffic or caught in the rain without an umbrella – in peace or noise, in busyness or calm, in happiness or depression, every moment is as good as any to look up to God and give Him your heart.
Whenever we’re tempted to think, “if only…” we’ve stepping away from reality and are blocking out the quiet whisper of God, saying to you, “Right now, right here, I’ve given you everything you need, so go to work.”
This is what Paul means when he urges the Corinthians, “Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (1 Corinthians 7:24). Where has God put you? He has a job for you to do right there.
Christ says to us, “Here I am. I stand at the door and knock” (Revelations 3:20). He doesn’t say, “I’m here, but I see that you’re clearly too busy, so I’ll come back at a convenient time.” No. Christ is always knocking, and the time to open the door is now.
This is the message of the Roman centurion. This is the message of the gospel. There are no excuses. Your salvation is right in front of your face.
What crosses has God placed in your life?
What weighs on your heart when you’re tempted to despair?
What burdens aren’t going away no matter how hard you try?
Maybe these problems aren’t really problems at all. Maybe they’re really just opportunities to turn to God. The Centurion had all he needed to be a saint. So do you.
Every day, every moment, wherever you are, however you’re feeling, no matter what happens, you have everything that you need to draw closer to Jesus and to do the work He has for you.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.