THURSDAY AFTER 2 PENTECOST — 2020
Hello again! I am Jim Jelinek, and my colleague The Rev. Alan Neale and I serve the people and community of Trinity Church, Newport, RI. Today I would like to talk about one of the several passages on healing that we find in the Gospel according to Luke [7:1-10]:
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly saying, “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.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set 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 he does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. The Word of the Lord.
The author of this gospel is thought to have been Luke, the physician who travelled on missionary journeys with Paul and Barnabas, and perhaps also Mark. This gospel is the favorite of many for all the healing stories in it, obviously what a physician would have found most interesting and most compelling about Jesus. This is from chapter seven, well before the middle of this gospel, and already Jesus has expanded his ministry to those outside of the house of Israel. He is very purposeful in this, because he is fed up with the hypocrisy of many of the Pharisees and Sadducees who are trading off the pedigree of their ancestry, making a great show of following the rules, obeying the Law, but seem not to have a genuine faith, much less a relationship with the living God. This is why Jesus tells stories like the Good Samaritan, because Samaritans were at best second-class citizens, and were considered inferior to Jewish people. So, how could a Samaritan be “good?” Impossible, right? Well, not when Jesus makes him the central character in a story and compares him to a Priest and a Levite, those who are supposed to practice hospitality and compassion. Both of them cross the street to avoid having to look at the many or listen to his cries for help.
The Samaritan stops his journey, puts the man on his donkey, takes him to an inn, cleans up his wounds and gives the innkeeper money to pay for a room and food for the man. Then he goes his way, but not before saying that if there are any more costs, he will pay them on his return journey. Clearly, he went out of his way to help the injured man and stayed long enough to take care of him to start the healing and recovery process. Jesus revealed his heart and showed him to be a “good” Samaritan.
I would bet that he told that story more than once, and I would also bet that any Levites or Priests in the crowd would have been doing at least a slow burn.
The story I read for today is also about a foreigner, a Roman centurion, meaning he commanded a regiment of a hundred men. This time it is a story happening in Jesus’ life. The man comes to him, or has others approach him out of humility, which might be quite rare in an officer of that rank. Most of the Jews did not like the Romans, in fact, they resented them because they had conquered Israel and during their occupation of the country, they collected taxes and tributes.
This man seems to be unique. The Jewish elders describe him as loving the Jews, rather than remaining aloof, and even building a synagogue for the people of Capernaum. I imagine that he underwrote it and used his troops to do the work, both an act of generosity, and since that played well with the people of the town, surely his superiors did not mind.
Jesus is willing to go and meet this centurion and heal his slave, and they set off. But the man sees them coming and goes out to meet Jesus, and says something to Jesus that we Christians have been praying in our Eucharistic liturgy for two millennia: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but say the word only and my [servant] shall be healed.” (I will say more about that later.)
The centurion goes on in what seems like a very down to earth and matter-of-fact way. “I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me,” and when I tell them to do something, they do it. There seems to be no arrogance about having such authority. Notice, too, that he describes himself as a man “under authority.” In the military, as in the Church, even the highest ranking leader is under authority, and no one is above the law or the code of conduct that is part of that body. For the military, in our country, the authority is the Constitution. In the Church it is Scripture and Canon Law. I remember hearing when I was a young priest an elder describing a colleague with ambition to become a bishop. The elder priest said, “Unless he can learn to live under authority, he will never be able to be one.” In other words, he will never have what it takes to really oversee others, because he will not know what authority means. I have seen clergy like that, and usually they do not get elected bishop because people do not believe they will have respect for the office which they hold, an office which they serve.
This centurion seems to hold authority lightly and with grace. He has no attitude and he does not sound like he is lording it over anyone in his command. Jesus is truly impressed, even calling his way of talking about this as an act of faith, a faith that is stronger than any of his fellow Israelites have shown. And his faith was justified, for when he returns home, his slave is healthy again.
In some of these healing stories in Luke, Jesus comments on the faith of the person who is sick, like the woman who was bleeding for 18 years who believed if she just touched Jesus’ clothing she would be healed. She was, but Jesus felt something happening, perhaps the healing energy going from him to her, and he called her on it: “Who touched me?” That might have been harsh, but probably was just a question, and the woman, somewhat frightened, indicated that she had. He simply told her that her faith had made her well. In today’s story, it is the centurion who has the faith that Jesus can do the healing. Same with the story of the four men who put their sick or dying friend on a stretcher, and take him up on the roof of a house where Jesus is teaching, make a hole in the roof and lower him in front of Jesus. The four of them believed that Jesus could heal their friend. We don’t even know if he was conscious until he was healed.
This is why we pray for the sick, for ourselves when we are sick, for our friends when they are sick, and for all those we do not know because we do not want anyone to be sick. I like to think that we “hold people up” in prayer, so that God’s far-descended healing energy can surround and enfold them.
Not everyone can be healed from a disease, especially if it is very invasive or we do not catch it in time. But we also need to remember (or learn if we have not yet heard it), that even if someone’s body is wracked with illness and disease, the person can still die well. By that I mean that the person can die without terrible regrets, without unfinished business between him or herself and a relative, and without a crippling fear of what is on the other side. That’s why we pray in The Great Litany: From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.
One last thing: I miss praying what the centurion said to Jesus in church, but I cannot find a creative way to use it in the Eucharist. Where we used to say it, and where Roman Catholics still do, is just before communion. For us to do it there is to say that the absolution we just received after the confession is not real, or it has already lost its power. The RC’s do not have a true confession in the liturgy, and so they do not have an absolution. For them that only comes when you are making your confession to the priest. We do believe the authority of that absolution is real and that it comes from God. Amen.
Be well, stay safe, and God bless each and every one of you. +JLJ