The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Readings: Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Psalm 96:1-9; Luke 7:1-10
How appropriate that the gospel reading in the lectionary texts assigned for today would be about a soldier. How many here today have served in our armed forces – please stand up to be recognized.
Now if this had been first century Palestine and you had been Roman soldiers, we would not have been applauding you. We would have likely cowered before you, or booed and hissed, or even thrown rotten vegetables. Because Roman soldiers were feared and hated. They were regarded as ruthless oppressors not to be trusted. So to have one show up in a gospel story in such a positive light would have been shocking to the first readers of this passage from Luke.
The soldier sends word to Jesus asking for him to heal his beloved servant. The Jewish elders vouch for him, explaining that he helped them build their temple and was a friend to them. This would have been very much out of the ordinary for the first listeners of this story. Even more surprising was the fact that this centurion could have just tossed this servant aside knowing he could have gotten another one – they are just expendable work animals to the Romans. But the gospel portrays him as actually caring for this servant. Jewish listeners would have been uncomfortable with this, because not only is this outside the typical negative expectations about a Roman soldier, but this also shows us that soldiers are human – they are capable of showing compassion. So we have a Roman soldier in a liminal position between Gentiles and Jews, and between life and death for his servant. Which means that the gospel is blurring the lines between foreigners and natives, between who we think is inside the circle of God’s love and who is outside.
But given our lesson from 1 Kings and Psalm 96, it shouldn’t surprise us. Because Jewish scripture has many passages that speak about welcoming the foreigner. When Solomon prays to God at the dedication of the Temple, he says, “When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from the distant land because of your name, for they shall hear of our great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm – when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you” (1 Kings 8:41-43a). Likewise, Psalm 96 speaks of declaring God’s glory among the nations – meaning the Gentiles. “Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength” (Psalm 96:7).
This tells us that God’s love extends beyond the typical boundaries of clans and tribes, beyond distinctions of religion and race and culture. “Families of the peoples” extends the family of God in ways we would not expect, and that, frankly, many people are not comfortable with. What we hear instead in our media and from certain politicians and from voices filled with fear and anger are calls for walls to be built to keep away the families of the peoples, to keep out the foreigners. And to use soldiers to patrol these walls and defend against any intruders.
But that’s not the vision for the human family that God has in mind. Apparently what God envisions is for soldiers to actually help escort people across those artificial lines so that they may be welcomed into healing and safety. Because that’s what the centurion did that day in Capernaum. He sent an escort for Jesus, seeking healing for his servant.
Notice that the soldier is well-aware of the boundaries and respects them. He knows that it would not be acceptable for Jesus, a Jew, to enter into his house. This would make Jesus unclean, and the soldier had no intention of disrespecting Jesus. Which, again, is uncharacteristic for a Roman soldier. By rights, they can enter any house at any time, drag anyone anywhere they want with impunity. But that’s not what this centurion does. Instead he sends word to Jesus recognizing his authority.
“For I also am a man set under authority,” his messenger says on the soldier’s behalf. Again – shocking! Here was a professional officer of the Roman army acknowledging that Jesus is under orders from the highest authority – God. And like a centurion who can order his soldiers and officers around as he sees fit, God has given Jesus the authority to wield power as he sees fit. But it’s not military power. It is a much deeper and life-giving power. It is the power of healing, the power of life over death.
And the centurion doesn’t even need to see Jesus or have him come into his house in order for this power to be exercised. So many others seek to touch Jesus, to crowd around him, demand signs of him. But the centurion says this:
“Only speak the word and let my servant be healed.”
Only speak the word! You know what that’s called? Faith! Trust! This shocks even Jesus! And to think that this is coming from none other than a Roman centurion – the last person the gospel listeners would expect to get it.
There is a line from a popular song called “Fix My Eyes” by the band For King and Country: “It takes a soldier who knows his orders to walk the walk I’m supposed to walk.” The soldier never even sees Jesus – but he is ready to take his marching orders from this rabbi. Only speak the word, and I will trust the power of that Word.
Today as we welcome a child into God’s family through baptism, that Word will be spoken again. Like that soldier, we have never even seen Jesus. But we know the power of that Word which extends across time and space and through this scripture and over this water and says to this child: You are washed. You are welcome. You are loved.
How about you? What is that Word saying to you?
Our prayer is that of the soldier, trusting in faith:
Only speak the word – to the soldier and to the servant: you are healed.
Only speak the word – to the foreigner and the native: you are welcomed.
Only speak the word – to the parent and the child: you are loved.
Only speak the Word.