Jesus had a terrible reputation. He spent time with the wrong kind of people. He ate with the grungy and despised of the world. He associated with the worst among us. He reached out to the poor, the broken, the marginalized. In this expansive vision of hope, the gospel reaches full flower.
But Jesus also found himself among the powerful of his time. He associated with people of means and influence. He even drew near to the purported enemies of Israel and dared to praise them. Here too the gospel reaches full flower.
In either case, faith shows up in unexpected ways. In Luke 7, Jesus is approached by a centurion seeking his help. He had a deeply cherished slave who was ravaged by illness. This centurion sees something in Jesus. He believes that somehow, someway, this Galilean subject of Rome, this mere peasant, might be able to do the impossible: that Jesus might be able to heal the sick and stave off the forces of death.
Oddly, the centurion and Jesus never meet face-to-face. All their interactions occur through the means of intermediaries. First, it is the local Jewish leaders who ask for Jesus' help. The centurion, they say, "is worthy of having you do this for him" (7:4). Hearing this, Jesus sets out apparently without much hesitation. Now, no one would have blamed him for having some suspicions. After all, entering the house of a Gentile could potentially make Jesus unclean.
Even more, a centurion is not your typically friendly neighbor. Centurions are the sharp edge of Rome's power, a cruel force that has dominated the people of Israel. Later, this very same empire will order the execution of Jesus. Jesus has a number of reasons to resist helping this centurion even when he is commended by the local leaders. From the perspective of many of Jesus' neighbors, this centurion represents everything that is wrong about the world.
And yet, Jesus accompanies them. He is willing to see this centurion. We don't learn why Jesus is so eager to help this Roman soldier; we only learn that Jesus does not hesitate in the slightest to head toward his house. But on his way, another set of intermediaries enters the scene.
The centurion sends friends to stop Jesus from coming into his house. He recognizes that he is unworthy to host Jesus. This is a rather extraordinary display of humility and submission for a Roman military leader used to having his orders followed, not questioned.
Humility and power usually don't mix well as we know. A quick glance at most of our political leaders is proof positive of this. Most people endowed with power are not used to taking on postures of humility.
Jesus is dazzled by this centurion's faith, marveling that such faith is not even found among God's chosen people. This is shocking. Why would Jesus praise a foreigner, a Gentile, a centurion so highly?
Imagine for a moment if Jesus were to walk into your congregation and declare your enemies more faithful than you. Imagine for a moment if Jesus were to declare your oppressors more faithful than you. Imagine for a moment if Jesus declared a terrorist more faithful than you, a criminal more faithful than you. This is how shocking Jesus' declaration would have been.
But if we've been paying attention to the Gospel of Luke, we shouldn't be so surprised. The foreigner and the stranger and our worst enemy are as welcome at God's table as anyone else is. After all, it was mere shepherds, not the kings of the world, who welcomed Jesus at his birth. When corrupt tax collectors ask John what they should do, how they should repent, John does not tell them to stop being tax collectors. He tells them to stop taking advantage of their neighbors. When Roman soldiers come to John right after and ask him the same question, he tells them not to lay down their swords but to execute their duties with honor. When Jesus preaches his first sermon, he points out that God sent God's prophet beyond the boundaries of Israel when hungry widows at home could use Elijah's help. He also reminds us that it was a foreign soldier named Naaman who is cleansed of leprosy by Elisha.
This has happened before. This has happened before! God will not be restrained by the boundaries we draw around one another. God will surprise us; God will even enrage us when God's grace extends even over those we deem unworthy of such a gift. This has happened before, and it will happen again.
What then was the content of the centurion's faith? What did the centurion believe? What faith did Jesus see in him? The centurion believed and recognized Jesus' power over the forces of death. As a military officer, he likely understood well how powerful raw force could be. He knows how swords and masses of trained men can create massive destruction in their wake. He recognizes such power in Jesus, but there is a difference in Jesus' power, a difference the centurion believes can make all the difference in the world. Military might cannot heal the sick or raise the dead. An army can't heal his faithful servant. Imperial power cannot gain the affections of a people, but only their fear. Jesus' power is unlike that wielded by Rome or any other empire. Jesus' power heals peoples and communities; it brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. That is, Jesus' power turns the world upside down and inside out. That a centurion would recognize this power is the very essence of faith; faith is seeing the world with God's eyes, to see the possibilities of a world renewed by God's love and God's grace.
But that isn't the end of the story. This story isn't just about a centurion and his slave. This is not just about power alone for Luke; it's also about the might that abides in weakness. This isn't the only case of exemplary faith Luke gives us. In fact, right after this story comes a second. Let's turn there, to Luke 7:11. And it reads: "Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gates of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, 'Do not weep.' Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, 'Young man, I say to you, rise!' The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Now fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, 'A great prophet has risen among us!' and they said 'God has looked favorably on his people!' The word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country."
In this second story, Jesus sees a widow accompanying her son's body to the grave. His death is her death in an economic system where men generally carried all financial power. Jesus sees her from a distance and has compassion for her. She never speaks to Jesus. She never asks for his help. She never confesses like the centurion great belief in the power Jesus wields. Instead, Luke notes that Jesus had compassion on her and gives her son back to her. And that's it. At first glance, there's not much there, but if we look more carefully and read these two stories together, something marvelous becomes clear.
In these two stories, two very different people seek Jesus' healing touch in two very different ways. What binds these two stories together is that God's promise of life is fulfilled and salvation arrives wherever Jesus walks.
Simply, we can't understand the powerful centurion if we don't have in mind a weeping widow. On one side, you have a powerful centurion, beloved by the local Jewish community, but still a leader of the invading Roman force. He exhibits great faith when he comes to Jesus. Then, we learn of a grieving widow. Nowhere is her faith highlighted by Luke or by Jesus, only her grief. But perhaps in her grief, there is as much faith as the centurion had. In both cases, Jesus restores life where death and illness prevail. In both cases, unexpected individuals receive these free gifts.
What then does faith look like? How do we know faith when we see it? When we are struggling under the cloud of doubt, can we still say we dwell in faith? I think we can.
Both the centurion and the widow have faith. The centurion's faith is bold, willing to reach out to Jesus through a number of trusted friends. Due to the bitter hostilities between Israel and Rome, Jesus should have no part in healing a centurion's servant. But the centurion asks nonetheless. He has faith. In contrast, the widow's faith is rocked by grief and sorrow. Her hope is muted, dampened by the loss of both husband and son. Jesus has compassion on her and her plight. She too had faith, even if not like that of the centurion.
Where do you see yourself in these two portraits of faith? Is your faith like the centurion's? Bold. Daring. Willing to make a fool of yourself in public. Is your faith like that of the widow? Full of doubt and tears and grief. Is your faith so bold, so daring, that you are willing to cry before your neighbors, inviting them to share your loss? That's a powerful faith, my friends. No less powerful than that of a bold centurion.
Let's pray. God, we turn to you in faith and in doubt, in joy and in anxiety, in hope and in fear, with boldness and with trepidation. No matter how we turn to you, we trust that your grace and love will hold us in your care, O God. Draw us together. Inspire us to preach your good news that faith can be found where we least expect it. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.