One part of the Roman Mass I have always liked is their Prayer of Humble Access. It is said by the people just prior to receiving communion. “Lord I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only speak the word and your servant will be healed.” This prayer is based on the words of the Roman Centurion in this morning’s Gospel.
Based on historical records, we can assume the Centurion was an agent of Herod assigned to Capernaum to keep order in the area. And according to our passage, the Centurion was a powerful man, he had oversight of the Roman forces in the area, he had the power to determine who lived or died and as to how the people of the area were treated. It is also clear, he was wealthy as he was a slave owner.
What made him different from most of his peers was, despite being a Roman Soldier and an agent of Herod, he was a man of compassion. When the Jewish leaders approach Jesus, they tell him this man is a good man, he has been kind to the Jews, and generously helped finance the Synagogue.
The Centurion in today’s Gospel was indeed a unique man, a man who held great respect for the God of Israel and his people. But what makes him even more unique is how he approached Jesus. Unless we listened carefully, it is easy to miss that the Centurion is never actually present. All his petitions on behalf of his servant are done by intermediaries. First by the leaders of the Synagogue, and then by a servant. Here is a man, a non-Jew, who has power, and who, for some reason, has come to accept that Jesus, despite being a lowly Rabbi with little earthy authority has greater authority with God than he does. In fact, he believes Jesus’ authority to be so great, that the Centurion feels unworthy to invite Jesus into his home.
The story we have before us today is not just another story of physical healing, it is also a story about faith and what it means to be worthy before God. By Luke including this story in his testimony to Christ, he shares with the world his understanding of who is worthy of God’s grace. Worthiness, he tells us, is not based on birth right, as Jesus does not heal the Centurion’s slave because the Centurion is a Jew. Worthiness, he tells us is not based on status, as Jesus did not heal the slave because of his or her owner’s wealth. Worthiness, he tells us, is not based on gender or marital status. Worthiness, Luke tells us, is based solely on faith or trust in God. Jesus grants the Centurion’s request to heal his slave because Jesus has never seen such faith, even in Israel.
One of the challenges facing the institutional church today is figuring out what does and does not define membership within the institutional structure. Gone are the days when institutional membership was clear. By virtue of baptism or ethnic identity, one could easily determine an identify with one denomination over another. Gone are the days when being born an Episcopalian, a Roman Catholic or even a Jew determined your spiritual course, and when one’s name was added to the institutional roles the rights and privileges of the institution were extended to you for life. However, in the fluidness of today’s world, our spiritual identities have become a bit murkier as we no longer see our spiritual identities tied to institutional boundaries.
Yes, we can thank New York Religious incorporation laws for helping us maintain some form of archaic understanding of membership. But have to ask, what does it really mean to be a card carrying Episcopalian, to be one who is either confirmed within this denomination, or received by the Bishop from another denomination. Does holding the card somehow make us better Christians than others or determine our status before God over those outside the church? Let’s be honest, the only advantage to beingi a card carrying Episcopalian, at least in New York State, means you can be elected as a warden or an officer within the institution. Based on my experience, this may actually be more of a deterrent to being received than a reason to seek formal membership.
I believe the more fluid our understanding of institutional boundaries becomes, the closer we, as communities of faith, come to living the Gospel. This is actually the point of this morning’s Gospel and a major part of the Gospel message. Jesus is consistent in teaching against institutional membership as the definition of righteousness. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is regularly found among those who live outside the norm of institutional Judaism or for a lack of a better description, those who lived “unclean” lives during Jesus’ day. Jesus grants the Centurion’s request, and he heals a gentile woman’s daughter. He accepts water from the unclean hands of a Samaritan woman, and even had the guile to make a Samaritan the hero of one of his parables.
Our birth right as children of Israel, does not make us worthy before God, Jesus tells the Pharisees and Sadducees, for God can raise up Children of Israel from the stones of the earth. It is, what is in our hearts along with our willingness to put our trust in God that makes us worthy of righteousness before God. Years later, St. Paul will instruct the congregation in Corinth, that “without love we are nothing.” And in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he instructs the Romans on how righteousness is determined by the faith of the heart and not by institutional boundaries with these words:
if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Jesus actions in today’s Gospel is not new to his time. In the book of Kings, on at least two occasions God’s mercy is bestowed upon non-Jews. The most memorable is the healing of Namaan, the commander of the Syrian army. Namaan was a proud man who was used to getting his way. He also suffered from leprosy and wanted to be healed. He was aware of Yahweh’s ability to heal and summoned Elisha to heal him. But pride got in his way. He refused to do what Elisha required of him and so there was a stalemate for quite some time. When Namaan was finally ready to acquiesce and follow what he was told, and gave up control to God, he was healed.
The second comes just prior to today’s reading from First Kings. In the midst of a three year drought, Elijah asks the widow of Eraphath to feed and house him for the night. The only problem, the widow was in the midst of preparing the last meal for she and her son as famine had set in and she was down to her last flour and oil. However, despite her own doubts, she agrees to feed the stranger in her midst and for this Yahweh again bestows blessings upon a gentile by providing endless flour and oil for her and her son until the drought came to an end.
Finally, the book of Ruth is the story of a Moabite woman, who, despite famine and widowhood, remains loyal to her mother- in -law Naomi. As the story tells us, despite hardship and having to leave her home, Ruth remains loyal to both Naomi and to Naomi’s family, a tribe of Israel. In the end, she is blessed. She is taken in and cared for by Naomi’s family, and is ultimately received in marriage by Boaz. According to Old Testament genealogy, Ruth’s name is further blessed by God when her grandson, David is anointed by God as the King of Israel.
So when asked who are worthy and righteous before God. The answer is simple. It is not determined by status, lineage, or holding the correct religious affiliation. Instead, it is about faith and the ability to trust and to love God with all our hearts, with all our minds, and with all our souls, in the sameway the Centurion demonstrates in today’s Gospel.