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9th September 2001
MATTHEW 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10
The Romans conquered the world by superior armies. They used foot-soldiers from conquered races in lands other than their homeland. They were led by professional Italian commanders. These professional soldiers served their empire well. They became used to living among people of different nationalities. The commander's role was to keep the peace, the Pax Romana, and ensure the population paid tribute to Rome. The resident centurion often related well with the locals, taking a wife from among the women, winning them with his charming Italian ways. His civilized and cosmopolitan experience made him attractive to the local women.
Their former boyfriends often joined the partisans in the mountains who harassed the Romans. In Palestine, the Zealots pledged their lives to killing any Roman. The Roman soldier could commander any local man to carry his baggage for one mile. Matt 5:41 But with the women he could be charming, sophisticated and so different from the village fishermen and farmers. Being Italian, he would appreciate good food and wine, be passionate about music and making love.
This week I met this Roman Centurion at our local Cinema. His name was Captain Antonio Corelli. He also loved to sing and play his mandolin. He is a Roman Captain of troops sent to subdue a Greek village during World War Two. He was billeted with the village doctor. He also fell in love with the doctor's daughter, and intelligent village girl. Pelagia desires to be a doctor too. But she is engaged to a village fisherman who fights against the invaders with the partisans in the mountains. The seaside village of Cephallonia was not unlike Capernaum.
v5 "When Jesus had entered Capernaum..." This lakeside village was the cross roads of several trade routes. It was the commercial centre of a chain of fishing villages whose fishermen brought their daily catch to the wharves and the salting works. Boats offloaded all the local wares of Galilee, the fruit and produce even silks and spices from Damascus. Archaeologists have reconstructed a third-century synagogue, including stones from its first-century predecessor where Jesus preached. The main prayer hall, overlooked from a women's gallery, the Gentiles' courtyard with gaming boards carved on the flagstones and an amazing medley of both Roman and Jewish symbols carved in stone, tell of its busy life.
The earlier synagogue goes back to the Centurion commander of troops in Capernaum, who sought Jesus' healing for his slave and was commended by local Jewish elders: "This man, Roman though he is, loves our nation and has built us our synagogue." Around the synagogue in a 100 metres square small area, the core of the Christian Gospel was preached in parable, miracle, healing and argument. The healings there include the paralytic, Mk. 2:1-13; the centurion's servant, Luke 7:2; the nobleman's son, John 4: 46-54; the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the Synagogue, Mark 5:21-43 and Peter's mother-in-law who was in Peter's house, the remains of which have been found.
2. THE CENTURION.
There are several centurions mentioned in the New Testament. This centurion approached Jesus on behalf of his ailing servant. Another witnessed the crucifixion identified Jesus as the Son of God. Mark 15:39
The conversion of the centurion Cornelius marked the beginning of the church's outreach to the Gentile world. Acts 10 The centurion Julius treated the apostle Paul with courtesy. Acts 27:3 The centurions who appear in the New Testament were all decent men. The centurions of the Roman Empire had earned a reputation for their dependability and strength of character. The Centurion garrisoned in Capernaum had won particular respect from the very people he policed and protected. He controlled a hundred men plus his own personal slaves. On this occasion, one of these slaves had become seriously ill.
Luke 7:3-7 "The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 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." So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: "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. But say the word, and my servant will be healed." Matthew, who also lived in Capernaum remembers him saying: "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just 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." Matt 8:8-9 This centurion was an exceptional man on several counts. First, he had already won the favour of the Jewish people of the vicinity. He had a genuine love for them and had built their synagogue.
Was this a simply to gain favour with the people? The elders added the words, "He loves our nation." This was established by more than one act. There was no anti-Semitism in this Roman. Second, he had a concern that extended to his slave. He wanted to do everything he could to bring him through his illness. Third, he had heard about Jesus and His power. He had faith that Jesus could help his servant. Fourth, he was well aware that a deep chasm separated Jews and Gentiles, but he was willing to ask for assistance from Jesus. He wanted to ask in the best way so he requested some Jewish elders to approach Jesus on his behalf. He later explained he did not feel worthy to speak for himself to Jesus. Fifth, he believed the word of Jesus was sufficient. He had sent asking that Jesus come and heal his slave. But when he heard Jesus was coming, he sent his friends to tell Jesus He need not come because He could say the word wherever He was. His word alone would heal his slave. When Jesus continued, he came out and met Jesus and repeated that he believed Jesus need speak only a word and his slave would be healed. Jesus was amazed at such faith… surprised… astonished… indeed, an exceptional man!
3. SUCH GREAT FAITH.
v10-12 "When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." The centurion had great faith in the power of Jesus.
He also was humble, approaching Christ with a deep feeling of unworthiness. Although he had considerable authority himself, he acknowledged the supreme authority of Christ. But the most significant thing was that the centurion was a Gentile. How do you think the Disciples felt to be told this Gentile soldier had more faith than they did? How do you think Simon felt - he was a member of the Zealots, the partisans who had pledged to kill the Romans? How do you think the Jews of Capernaum felt? Jesus had not found faith like this anywhere in His own nation. The faith of a foreigner amazed our Lord and was an example to the believers. They saw that God accepts people of all nations, regardless of race, and expects all people to live together and learn from the faith of each other.
The Interpreters Bible says: "Jesus marvels at his faith. The centurion represents Gentile Christianity. Here is a prophecy of what was later to occur: Israel rejects Christ and the Gentile world accepts Him. It symbolises the universal appeal of Christ - to men of every race and kind. One does not need to have a certain sort of cultural background to feel the attraction of Christ and to recognise the truth in Him. Jesus is "the glory of His people Israel". But He is also a "light to lighten the Gentiles"; the Gentiles see the light and rejoice in it. Christ is able to make His appeal - to reveal the divine - directly to every human heart." Jesus is saying great faith in God can be found in people of all nations and all occupations. Faith is not confined to one culture or one ethnic group and it is needed in many. The fighting in Northern Ireland still continues. Great faith is needed there. The immigration debate hurts many people from other cultures in our land. Great faith is required here for healing!
4. THE HEALING WORD.
v13 "Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! It will be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour." The healing word of Jesus is still needed between people of different cultures. Christians need to speak the healing word and rid our nation of racism and selfishness. John Bunyan says "A Roman soldier was the first fruit of the Gentile world." Peter, was a conservative fisherman from Capernaum and strongly nationalistic. But he knew the Centurion and remembered the words of the Master. Yet it took a great deal of personal change before he could come to a basic principle: "I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all." Acts 10:34?36
The Centurion was the first foreign person to find faith in Christ Jesus. v11 "I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." This was powerful! To the racially exclusive Jews, with their pride in their culture and heritage, Jesus was declaring "many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." From East and West they have come to find their places alongside the great Jewish fathers of the faith. Some of us Anglo-Celtic people have come from the West and found our place in the messianic banquet.
We have followed in the footsteps of the great men and women like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Elizabeth Fry, Catherine Booth, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pope John Paul 11 and the rest. We from the west join with the Jewish heroes like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But joining us with great faith are the men and women of the East like D.T.Niles, M.M.Thomas, Sadhu Sundar Singh, Toyohiko Kagawa, Madame Chiang Kaishek, Paul Yonggi Cho, Wang Ming Dao and the rest. We from the West join with them from the East together with the great heroes of the faith. For Jesus has called to Himself people of every culture and race and tongue. John pictures Heaven as being multi-racial: "Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne... And they sang a new song: "You are worthy …you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth." Rev 5
God's Kingdom has people from many origins equal in status and responsibility. We must worship multi-racially. We must evangelise multi-culturally. We have no right to restrict this land to which our forefathers came as migrants, to only our descendants. Other people of all races have a right to a place under the sun. Christians must live and work to break down the barriers of race that divide us, and encourage all to work together and live in harmony. We, who profess faith in Jesus Christ, are all His children. To have great faith, like that Roman Centurion, is to unite with Jesus Christ, and to allow His healing word to meet the needs of people in our community.
Rev Dr Gordon Moyes
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