To be as inclusive as possible, Knox has both in-person and Podcast Services. For those who can’t access these we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my sermon notes into text.
Scripture: Matthew 8:5-13
The story of the Centurion’s servant could fill several sermons. Capernaum was a small fishing village of about 1500 people – so why did a Roman Officer, a Centurion, in charge of a century (100 soldiers) have a home there? Especially since it was not technically Roman territory?
Galilee was still under the rule of the younger king Herod who was a client king of Rome but he had his own army, no Roman soldiers. Was this like the American military bases around the world now? Friendly reminders of where the real power lies?
There’s no clear answer to this but there’s lots of meaning attached to this Centurion. He is an enemy of Israel and his empire has occupied Judea and Jerusalem, the holy city.
Luke’s gospel says he was generous and contributed to the building of the local synagogue, which inclined his neighbours to like him. He might even have qualified for the category of “righteous Gentile” which in those days could be used for non-Jews who attached themselves to Synagogues out of respect for the justice they saw lived out by Jewish people of faith. A lot of these people became early converts to Christianity.
The fact that the Centurion was not Jewish means that if Jesus were to enter his house, Jesus would become ritually unclean for days. Jesus was willing: he volunteered to do this despite the fact that this man represented so much that Jesus opposed.
This man clearly knew Jewish customs and practices well enough that he let Jesus off the hook. He told Jesus that he was under authority himself and was accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed, so Jesus didn’t have to come to his home. “Just say the word, and it will be done,” he says.
Jesus goes on to make a lesson out of the Centurion’s faith and to chide his audience for not believing as completely.
I would like to draw some human lessons out of this exchange because the Centurion summarized military reality very well in his brief encounter with Jesus.
This officer is in the middle: he gives orders and he has to obey orders, too. He does not set policy; he does not decide who the enemy is. Rather, he follows the policy set out for him and obeys the rules. He doesn’t turn off his brain or suspend his own judgement. Our modern war crimes courts have made it clear that simply following orders is not a defence for doing unspeakable things.
They didn’t have a definition of war crimes in those days and Rome was renowned for ruling rebellious people with terror – that was the whole point of crucifixion. But they did have boundaries between army life and personal life.
This centurion was making friends in the local community, contributing to their synagogue fund, being a good neighbour. He was not a personal enemy but he also didn’t have complete autonomy: if Rome ordered him to pull out he’d sell his house and move away from his neighbours and friends because it was above his rank to set policy or decide on troop deployment.
This is the same position most military people face as we have been reminded so clearly in recent weeks. Canada’s pull-out from Afghanistan was ages ago, but our failure to protect many Afghans who helped our troops is much more recent.
The return of the Taliban to power reminds us of the limitations we face. First: that Canada can’t solve things alone; we simply don’t have the resources. Second: that military intervention is useful to stop dictators and abusive regimes but it doesn’t solve the underlying problems. Winning battles can be accomplished with a military; winning the hearts of the enemy is much harder and is the aspect of life Jesus tried to teach us.
I cannot image the frustration felt by the veterans who went into Afghanistan to free women and girls from the Taliban’s misogynist rule, as they watch those same people return to power and start their violent oppression again.
For our troops, their mission was more than just following orders. It was a campaign to do something we believed in and it must be terrible for them to wonder if all the sacrifices they made have gone to waste.
I would pray that the seeds sown when we built schools for girls and did other practical, peaceful things to express respect and love for the Afghan people will have taken deep root and that all those sacrifices will have a lasting effect despite the renewed efforts of the Taliban to erase them.
At the core, this terrible conflict of ideals will only be resolved by a change of heart.
We’ve seen this in history. After World War II we left troops in Germany & Japan for decades. It wasn’t just to eliminate fascism: the Cold War had a lot to do with that decision: but they became friends and allies over that long time. Germany has worked very hard to stamp out racism while Japan had to change from a Feudal structure to a democracy for the first time.
And despite all that time, and the continued presence of troops, fascist groups are popping up all around Europe and hearts have to be won again so we don’t face another military crisis.
We simply don’t have the resources or the will to keep people in Afghanistan for over half a century.
So maybe we should follow the example Jesus set: he was prepared to put himself out to help this Centurion, this enemy who was, at base, a decent human being. Jesus found within this enemy an unexpected and delightful connection: a practical understanding of how things can work, but more importantly, a faith that it would work, that Jesus could heal the servant.
We don’t know whose heart can be won over until we try, even reaching out to enemies like Jesus did.
That’s easy to say here in the safety and security of Canada and much harder to do especially when you see those enemies tearing apart the good work that you’ve spent years doing; when you see them involved in bloody oppression against vulnerable people.
But consider: Rome was capable of even worse atrocities than the Taliban and Jesus reached out to this centurion and found an unexpected ally. That’s the example we have been given and that is our calling: to reach out and change hearts. I don’t know all the ways this might be accomplished but I do know we have to try.
Our troops have made their sacrifices and paid a great price to help the people they went to support. Now we have to work through Non Government Organizations, relief groups, and maybe find some new ways to make connections, to keep on changing hearts.
I can’t think of a better way to remember the sacrifices of our service men and women and their families than to find ways to continue their work, to change hearts and turn current enemies into future allies.