The faith of the centurion

The story of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Luke 7 ends with a remarkable statement by Jesus: “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

What was so great about the centurion’s faith?   I think the answer lies in the contrast between the statement of the Jewish elders (vv. 4-5) and that of the centurion himself (vv. 6-8).

This centurion, evidently a generous man and a good citizen, was able to convince some Jewish elders to speak to Jesus on his behalf.  So, as Luke records it.

When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”

The Jewish elders were impressed by him.  “Jesus, he is worthy of your attention.  He deserves to have you help him.  He is a good man. He loves God’s people. He gives back to the community. He helped build the synagogue!”  Even in those days I guess making a contribution to a building fund was a good way to win friends and influence people.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything, but he does go with them.

And now the story takes a twist.  Jesus never makes it to the centurion’s house; he is stopped in the street.  And there a new set of messengers approach him – friends of the man.  They deliver a message from the centurion, and it is quite different from the message the centurion himself sent.

“Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.”

There’s quite a difference between  “Lord, this man deserves to have you do this…”  and “Lord…I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”  The elders were praising his worth, and he is denying it.  He continues,

“But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  I tell this one, ‘Go’, and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes.  I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion, by implication, has just made a very strong confession of faith in Christ. When he says, “But say the word, and my servant will be healed,”  He recognizes that Jesus’ word is as good as his deed; more than that, he knows that Jesus can accomplish whatever he pleases, just by saying the word. The centurion is saying that whatever Jesus says, will come to pass.  Who has that kind of power?  There is only One.

Whenever I read this story and hear the confession of the centurion, I think of Isaiah 55:10-11 –

As the rain and the snow
   come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
   without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
   so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
   It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
   and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 

“But say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  This is a confession of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Only God could provide what the centurion was asking for.

What’s interesting about this story is that the centurion says this at a time when the disciples still don’t understand who Jesus is.  They weren’t quite sure what to make of him at this point.  They knew he was special – obviously, they were following him around – but they didn’t realize he was divine.  It is not until two chapters later that Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah of God.

It is truly amazing that this Roman officer – a pagan – has a better sense of who Jesus is than the religious people.  The Jewish elders haven’t figured it out.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law haven’t figured it out.   It’s this foreigner who has to teach them a lesson in faith.

And so it is very fitting then that Jesus says at this point, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”  He has been spending all his time with the people of God, and yet none of them have recognized him as the Son of God.  They question him, they argue with him, they reject him…but this non-religious soldier recognizes him and shows great faith in him.

And the greatness of his faith is found precisely in the fact that he trusts not in his own worth, but in the power of God’s Word.

The elders say, “he deserves it”; the man says, “I don’t deserve it, but say the word”;  And Jesus says, “now that’s faith!”

Leaving the graveclothes behind

A while back I was preaching on the raising of Lazarus, and I got thinking about the narrative shape of this passage of scripture (John 11:1-43).

From a dramatic perspective, the climax of the story of the raising of Lazarus comes at the end, when the dead man walks out of his tomb after four days.  But from a revelatory perspective the real climax of this story comes in verse 25, unexpectedly, as Jesus is talking with Martha.

When Martha, anxious to see Jesus and no doubt exasperated by his two day delay, runs up to Jesus on the road outside of town, she says “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus’ first answer is “Your brother will rise again.”  Martha replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Martha has a completely orthodox (if somewhat distant) hope that one day she will see her brother again – that he will rise on the great Day of the Lord which is to come.  But Jesus’ next statement reveals to her the deeper truth about resurrection:

I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

Life comes from God, we all know that.  And it is a mistake to think that we can know and enjoy apart from God, who gave us life.   Later, in John chapter 17 Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  To know God is to participate in his life; and to know Jesus is to know God – he is God incarnate.

Therefore, resurrection is not some remote benefit that we get because we believe in God; Jesus is not a ticket to heaven; he’s not giving out resurrection gift certificates, so that we can cash them in when our number is up.  No, resurrection is a personal communication of Jesus himself, who is the divine life; if we are raised, it is not because we have obtained resurrection as a benefit, but because we are joined to him who is the resurrection.

Paul says, “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom 6:5).    Even more poignantly Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

Jesus’ gift to Martha, though I’m not sure she understood it at the time, was to show her that his plan was not simply to raise Lazarus from the dead, but to unite him, and her, and all of us, with himself, so that we might truly share in the love that he shares with the Father and the Spirit.  By being united with him who is resurrection and eternal life, we can know that death will not have the last word.

Why do I think Jesus statement to Martha is more of a climax than the actual raising of Lazarus?  The proof is in the grave clothes.

This is a seemingly strange detail to the story.  If Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead, why couldn’t he remove his grave clothes?  Why did have to ask others to do that for him?

The grave clothes remind us that there is a difference between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus.  When Jesus was raised, the grave clothes were left behind.  The disciples found them in the tomb.  It was a once and for all resurrection.  He now and forever lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit, one God.  When Lazarus was raised, on the other hand, it was only to die again.  Tradition has it that Lazarus lived for thirty years after Jesus death.  But he did eventually die.   What Jesus did for Lazarus was a truly great miracle, but it was only a pale reflection of the resurrection of Jesus.

That’s what Jesus is saying to Martha.  Lazarus will rise again.  But I am the resurrection.  And one day you will understand that by uniting yourself to me, you have a far greater hope; right now you are just wishing that you brother would have survived his illness;  but that is only a temporary hope, a deferral of death until a later date.  My resurrection, on the other hand, will bring complete and permanent healing.  We will leave those grave clothes behind, once and for all.