Pastor Chris Tweitmann
We find ourselves increasingly becoming a more and more polarized society – and not just as a world or a nation but even within our families and neighborhoods.
The last few years of sheltering in place and social distancing have only intensified our innate tendency to exist in echo chambers that reinforce what we already believe to be true in matters of faith, politics, science, education, and history.
These days, we tend to be more conscious in labeling those with whom with disagree as our enemies than we are comfortable in acknowledging that those with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye still can be our friends, our family.
But even as we continue to make that ill-advised post or response on social media, even as we can’t help ourselves from saying aloud that passive aggressive, judgmental, and perhaps even condemning comment, even as our default is to keep throwing stones, Jesus teaches we should extend a hand
– we should seek to love our enemies
– the people we look down on with disgust, that we hate or despise,
– the people we are convinced are ruining this world, our country, our faith,
– the people we think are so terrible
– we can barely stand their presence.
Jesus said plenty of countercultural and challenging things.
But inarguably, the most shocking command he gave was to love our enemies.
To be honest, it’s hard to find practical teaching in the Church on how to love our enemies.
Make no mistake, we are well equipped to identify our enemies.
In several corners of the Church through so-called Christian sermons, books, podcasts, or radio shows, there is no lack of teaching and conversation warning us to beware of people in other political parties who want to take away our rights, people living other lifestyles who may destroy our nation or people with different theological interpretations who are likely to contaminate our faith.
Yes, warnings abound.
However, teaching and conversation about the call to love our enemies – let alone how to practice this – are few and far between.
But what about going back to the source? What about Jesus?
Did Jesus simply tell us to love our enemies or did Jesus show us how to begin to do so?
Now, of course, Jesus taught us how to love our enemies through his work on the Cross.
But besides the grand finale, the ultimate gesture of the Cross, did Jesus model for us what loving our enemies looks like in our day-to-day, everyday lives?
And the answer as we turn to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 7, is yes.
Immediately after finishing his famous and longest recorded sermon which included raising the bar beyond the standard expectation of just loving your friends, Jesus takes the opportunity to practice what he just preached – to show us what it looks like to love our enemy. (TEXT)
This next chapter of Luke’s gospel account begins by letting us know this encounter happened immediately after Jesus finished his most famous teaching – what is known as the Sermon on the Mount.
The focus of that message was a detailed series of instructions by Jesus for his would-be disciples of what it means, what it looks like to follow him.
Included in that teaching was a specific command to love friend and enemy alike but with a particular emphasis upon
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. – Luke 6:27 – 28
doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you, and praying for those who mistreat you.
And now as Jesus finds himself back home in Capernaum – his primary base of operations for doing ministry – he finds himself being asked to practice what he just preached.
“When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.” – Luke 7:1 – 3
For a group of elders from the local synagogue approach Jesus, requesting he heal the servant of a Roman centurion who is posted in the town.
Immediately this might strike us as odd, given that Roman centurions and Jewish elders typically weren’t friends.
Centurions show up rather frequently in the Gospels and the book of Acts.
Centurions served in a middling role in the hierarchy of the army of the Roman Empire, commanding about 80 – 100 soldiers.
According to the military pecking order, centurions were situated below those who lead Roman cohorts and legions.
During the first century, most centurions served as the primary Roman colonizing force in Judea and Galilee.
Hence, to most Jews, Roman centurions were the enemy – the sort of people you opposed or at least avoided, Roman centurions were not counted among those you tried to help.
Now, we might argue, based on what Luke shares with us, that what is going on here is not the average situation or relationship.
After all, it sounds like this Roman centurion isn’t such a bad guy.
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.” – Luke 7:4 – 5
In either financing or allowing the building of the local synagogue, the soldier appears to be more of a friend to the Jewish people.
The Jewish elders who approach Jesus, in pleading earnestly for this centurion, would appear to have some genuine affection for him.
However, there is more than meets the eye in this story.
A little cultural background is necessary for us to appreciate what is really going on.
Specifically, we need to understand how most day-to-day relationships worked in the ancient world.
In the Roman Empire, life happened, things got done, through a system of patronage.
Getting things done and advancing forward socially revolved around knowing the right person and negotiating a favor from them.
Whether you needed a material good that was rare and hard to acquire or you sought a specific job or political appointment above your station or even if you wanted an audience with someone beyond your reach, you needed a benefactor – someone who could make that happen for you.
This benefactor or patron did you a favor and in return, you owed them.
You then became their “client” – meaning they had earned and you owerd them your unswering loyalty.
Clients were expected to publicly honor and promote the generosity of their benefactors as well as, when asked, to perform various acts of service for them.
Sometimes, there also were go-betweens.
Perhaps you didn’t know anyone who had direct access to what you wanted but you knew someone – a friend of a friend – who could broker a deal for you.
Once this liaison negotiated on your behalf, you’d owe them as well as your benefactor.
In truth, this practice of requesting a favor by proxy was more common.
The logic being, one was more likely to be granted a favor from a complete stranger and to make a better deal, if that person was approached by someone they knew and trusted – someone with more influence.
This elaborate system of patronage did not exist only on an individual basis.
No, quite often the wealthy or the powerful became benefactors to an entire town through their hosting of a public festival or feast or by funding the construction of key buildings in the community – say, the local synagogue.
All of this serves to shed light on what is happening in this encounter.
This centurion, who has a beloved servant teetering on the verge of death, has heard about Jesus’ reputation as a healer and so he wants a favor from Jesus.
But seemingly, this soldier anticipates Jesus will be more likely to consider – let alone respond to his request – if it came from one of his own people.
There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. – Luke 7:2 – 3
In seeking a middle party, we learn something about how the Roman centurion understands himself in relation to Jesus – as an outsider and more specifically, as a perceived adversary.
And so, as the benefactor of the town, having funded their synagogue, perceiving this earns him some honor and loyalty from his clients, the Roman centurion calls in a favor in order to request a favor from Jesus.
He expects these Jewish elders to intercede on his behalf – to speak well of his generous reputation and coax Jesus into responding to his request. So, to be clear, this isn’t initially the story of Jesus interacting with two parties normally opposed to each other who defy the odds in becoming friends and looking to help each other.
No, initially this is the story of a soldier, who as a benefactor, is trying to work the system to his advantage, by pressing his clients to get Jesus to heal his servant.
In other words, this is still a request for help from an enemy – from someone who represents the face and muscle of the occupying, persecuting force of the Roman Empire – an empire that wielded power more often through terror then benefaction,
– an empire that would crucify persons (by the dozens or hundreds) along busy highways as a reminder not to step out of line.
And yet, despite this, Jesus agrees to help.
So Jesus went with them. – Luke 7:6
Jesus, without hesitation, purposes to love his enemy and immediately heads towards the home of this Roman centurion.
If this was not surprising enough, then something even more remarkable happens – something that even amazes Jesus!
The Roman centurion interrupts the process he has set in motion.
He [Jesus] 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. – Luke 7:6
Instead of letting the normal wheels of benefaction keep on turning and cashing in on an owed favor, this centurion sends a second delegation to Jesus – not to make an additional appeal or negotiation but as a gesture of great respect and faith.
This centurion who enjoys both a significant level of prominence and power in the community, humbles himself before Jesus.
Again, in order to recognize what is going on here, we need a bit of cultural context.
Jesus is on his way to enter the home of this centurion – an outsider, a Gentile.
According the purity code of the Jewish faith, outlined in the book of Leviticus, this centurion was unclean.
For a devout rabbi like Jesus to enter the house of a Gentile and eat with him – as hospitality involving food would have been expected – would mark Jesus as unclean.
By the way, this purity line of demarcation only further emphasizes the perceived distinction of this centurion as someone not to associate with – as a threat, as an antagonist.
Jesus, however, in the name of love and the grace of God’s kingom, already has determined to cross this supposed enemy line.
But the Roman centurion, who could have just let things play out – leaving Jesus to deal with the fallout,
the Roman centurion, who given his authority could have forced the issue under the penalty of arrest or worse, the Roman centurion purposes to spare Jesus the awkwardness, the controversy, the penalty for coming into his home.
The Roman centurion underscores this as he explains through this next group of intercessors,
That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. – Luke 7:7
that he has sent this second delegation not because he is too proud to make his request to Jesus personally, but rather because he feels unworthy to have Jesus come under his roof.
Mind you, the Roman centurion pronounces himself unworthy, even though the Jewish elders previously have pronounced him worthy.
There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 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.” – Luke 7:2 – 5
This is not a power play – an act of benefaction. Again, this is a gesture on the Roman centurion’s part of respect, humility, and most importantly, faith.
For the Roman centurion, offering Jesus an out for coming into his house, doesn’t then cancel his request for the healing of his dying servant.
Instead, indicating not only his awareness but his belief in Jesus’ power, the Roman centurion expresses his confidence that Jesus need only say the word and his servant will be made well.
But say the word, and my servant will be healed. – Luke 7:7
He goes on to explain his conviction about Christ by way of an analogy to his military background.
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.” – Luke 7:8
Equating his experience, his authority, in having instructions being carried out by his troops in his absence, the centurion recognizes Jesus’ divine authority over illness as being likewise capable of being exercised – of healing from a distance.
And Jesus, apparently, does speak the word from afar.
Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well. – Luke 7:10
Even though, Jesus does not go to the centurion’s home, even though Jesus never meets the centurion face-to-face, even though Jesus never physically touches the dying servant, when this second delegation return back to the Roman centurion’s house, they find his servant fully healed.
This story of a miraculous healing – a sign of the promise of God’s coming Kingdom reign on earth as it is heaven – is simply astonishing.
But the truth is the healing is not the most surprising part of this story.
Hands down, the most surprising part of this story is that Jesus is the one who is amazed
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him… – Luke 7:9
– not the Roman centurion,
– not the delegations of Jewish elders who go to speak with Jesus,
– not the ailing servant who is made well,
No, it is Jesus himself, who is amazed by the response of the Roman centurion.
Jesus is so taken back by his interaction with this Roman, this Gentile, Jesus declares aloud for everyone to hear, that this is greatest expression of faith he has witnessed so far.
Actually, if we were paying attention, Jesus explicitly says more than this.
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” – Luke 7:9
Jesus proclaims the faith of this enemy of Israel surpasses any expression of faith he has seen in Israel.
That’s analogous to Jesus marveling and stating he’s witnessed better and bigger evidence of believing and following him outside of the Church than inside of it.
Could it be possible Jesus would say that today?
That Jesus would herald the practical, tangible way those whom the Church labels as enemies of the faith –
Who’s on your list? Atheists? Muslims? Heretics? Progressives? Democrats? Republicans?
Is it possible Jesus would herald the practical, tangible way those whom the Church labels as enemies of the faith – engage and respond to him over and above what we profess as Christians, as the Church?
If it could happen here – then, why couldn’t it happen again now?
To put it another way, when’s the last time you caught Jesus by surprise?
To answer this question, it might help to reflect on what made the response of this Roman centurion so incredible.
So then, what’s so amazing about the faith of this centurion?
We might perceive it is the amount of faith the Roman centurion has in Jesus
In other words, the Roman centurion just has more faith in Jesus than everyone else.
But this is a serious misunderstanding on our part.
All too often we approach faith as if it were a possession or a goal.
We talk of faith in static terms – as something we cultivate or maintain by our effort.
We afford faith to something else.
We give the object meaning or value by placing our faith in it or behind it.
And so we put our faith in our investments.
We place our faith behind certain morals and values by which to raise our children.
We have faith that everything is going to be alright.
If we hold to this view of faith in our relationship with Jesus, we perceive faith as this ladder that reaches from us to Christ.
The more faith we have in Jesus, the higher we can climb on the ladder, the closer we are to heaven, to Jesus, and therefore the more our faith in Christ rewards us with good things – the answers to our prayers.
But the Christian understanding of faith, the way Jesus presents faith is much different than this.
Biblically, faith is not a commodity, a goal, or a possession – something we acquire, accumulate or amass.
Faith is not something we manifest. Faith is not our grasping for and reaching up to God.
Faith is a gift.
Faith as a gift means it isn’t something we possess unless or until God provides it.
And while faith needs to have an object, we don’t create or validate the object.
The object affords the faith that we have.
Therefore the gift of faith is the gift of God reaching down to us in the person, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As Christians, we don’t put our faith in God – God puts his faith in us. God reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ.
Put another way, our faith doesn’t make God real or true.
We know that God is real and true because God reveals himself to us – through the gift of faith.
“Our faith” is only possible because of “the faith” of Jesus Christ.
The reaching down faith of God in Christ is always here, available, and active through the Word and the Spirit.
We are invited to respond the object (Jesus) who affords such faith.
We participate in, open ourselves to, and receive the faith God offers to us.
Hence, the Bible, Jesus calls us to be faithful – to be full of, to be transformed by the faith of God in Christ.
To be faithful is to yield our sense of power, our claim of authority and allow the Spirit to move as it will, allow Jesus to speak the word.
That’s what the centurion did that was so amazing.
That’s what the centurion did, that, despite all that Christ offers – everything we need, the security and assurance of our identity and our destiny,
that’s what the centurion did, that, despite all that Christ offers so few of us actually embrace.
This Roman centurion is a man of power and authority.
The hierarchical structure of the Roman army was one of control.
The centurion controlled his soldiers, just as his own commanders controlled him.
The centurion could tell those under his control what to do, and they did it. They obeyed without question and without hesitation.
This centurion also knew how to work the system of benefaction – to accumulate even more power and influence beyond his army rank by doing favors for others and having them in his debt – even an entire town like Capernaum.
But suddenly this Roman centurion, unexpectedly reaches the limit of his perceived authority and power.
As a servant who is dear to him becomes deathly ill – well beyond his control to resolve.
There is nothing this centurion can say or do to fix this situation.
He cannot order his servant to get well or to be healed.
This centurion needs a greater authority than what has been given him, not one that commands the actions of others but the authority to command life and death.
Even though this centurion has never met Jesus in person, from the little faith he is offered secondhand as he hears about Jesus going around the countryside both proclaiming the Kingdom of God and offering signs of God’s inbreaking reign, he recognizes and yields to the divine authority and power being revealed in Jesus Christ.
The Roman centurion embraces the divine faith extended to all as he willing receives the word Jesus has to give to him.
He does not try to verify it or test Jesus.
He simply opens up his life, surrenders control, and trusts and acts on whatever Jesus says.
And that word of God given in the Spirit, as is always the case, does not return void or empty.
No, the Roman centurion experiences the transformative, life-changing authority and power of Christ.
And so it can be for each of us.
For we have each stood and will stand again in the same place the centurion finds himself.
Just as this man of great authority and power reached the limits of his perceived sense of control, so will we.
We all want to think we are in control. We all try to act like we have more control over our lives than we do.
Deep down, the fears and frustrations that haunt us arise from our unconscious awareness that we are not in control.
And despite every effort we undertake to maintain our illusion of control – that we have the authority and power to make our lives whatever we want them to be – it all comes crashing down, when we confront our limits, when we cannot avoid facing what we cannot control. Life in a broken world inevitably pushes us to the end of our own resources.
Our beloved servant who is dying may or not be an actual person as in the case of the Roman centurion, but we each will one day confront the potential tragedy, sorrow, and loss of someone or something which has cared for and served us – someone or something to which we have become attached and depend.
It could be the termination of a longstanding career.
It may be the reality of an consuming addiction.
It might be the medical diagnosis that alters our perception of the time we have left.
It could be the end of a marriage.
It might be the loss of beloved parent, sibling, or child.
We all reach our wit’s end. We each will come to the end of our rope.
No one is immune from reaching the end of themselves – when our words carry no meaning, when our actions are not longer effective, when we can no longer do life the way we used to.
Strangely enough, perhaps surprisingly to us, these are the moments when God’s grace – when the gift of faith – the reality of Christ’s presence, our ability to hear Jesus clearly, and our capacity to receive what the Word and the Spirit offer to us – are the most visible and most accessible – when everything else has been stripped away – all our posturing, all our pretense, all our play acting.
Ironically, however, these also can be the moments when we most resist surrendering ourselves to Jesus.
As we persist, despite our sheer exhaustion, despite being burned out, lifeless, and without options, as we persist in trying harder, trying smarter, trying to bargain and barter with God in order to still hold onto to some measure of control over our lives.
But the Roman centurion knows this will not work.
The Roman centurion humbly accepts that will power and self-determination are not enough.
And so the Roman centurion yields his power and authority – his sense of control – to the faith of Jesus – Jesus, the embodiment of God’s power and authority.
Instead of looking to command, the Roman centurion awaits a command to follow.
“But say the word, and my servant will be healed,” he says to Jesus.
This is what amazed Jesus.
We may think it is hard to amaze Jesus. But from what we learn here, it’s actually not hard at all.
All that is necessary to amaze Jesus is to stop trying to have faith in God and instead receive the gift of faith God seeks to impart to us through Christ.
It’s not so much about having faith as it is being full of faith – faithful – yielding our power and authority and allowing the Spirit to move and to speak the word of God in and through us.
And in so surrendering, we shouldn’t be surprised if that gift of faith reaches as far as our self-professed enemies.
Because the reaching down faith of God that is offered to us refuses to be confined by the usual and accepted boundaries and lines of separation we create, but instead purposes to amaze us through its authority and power to transform anyone – without exceptions. This is the Gospel. This is good news of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!