Saturday, 28 May 2016

A Centurion and Slave: Unpredictably Saved!

I think it is far easier for most of us to think that we are in control, that we have things in hand, that things are predictable.  But all of us know that when it comes down to it there are limits to what we can control and there is an unpredictability to life.

Today we heard a story from the gospel of Luke which reminds us that there is an unpredictability to being saved.  This notion of unpredictable salvation might be disconcerting yet I believe on deeper reflection the idea of being unpredictably saved could be a source of great hope for us all.

To understand the hope contained within this story of Jesus’ healing of the Centurion’s slave we need to dig a little deeper into the characters and the implications of Jesus’ actions.

Picture by Tomas Fano Creative Commons
So let us first contemplate the Centurion.

According to the commentaries I read on this passage it is unlikely this man was a Roman.  As the
Roman Empire expanded it drew soldiers into its army from the lands it conquered. 

Yet, whether or not a Roman it appears that he was not a Jew but was sympathetic to the Jewish community in which he lived.  We are told that he was a good man and had built a synagogue for the people and that he loved them.  Although not a Jew he may have even engaged in some form of belief and practice.

Despite this, as a Centurion with authority over a cohort of 100 soldiers, this man was still to be considered a part of the occupying enemy force.

He also had some understanding of Jewish practices as he did not approach Jesus directly but rather sent Jewish leaders from within his community to make contact.

It is unclear what this man knew about Jesus but this event appears to be relatively early in Jesus ministry.  So when it comes to consideration of the centurion’s faith it would be naïve of us to read too much into this.  He has faith in Jesus ability to heal the slave, even from afar, but we should not think of it as faith in Jesus in the way we might express faith in Jesus as the Messiah or the Son of God or as our Saviour.  Even his use of the title ‘Lord’ for Jesus should not be overplayed in a way that suggests he had an insight into Jesus identity that even Jesus followers did not.

Throughout the interaction between Jesus and the Centurion, which all occurs through messengers, the focus of the conversation is on the worthiness of the Centurion for the miracle not on the worthiness of the slave.

The sum result of the interaction is that without Jesus even arriving to see the slave or ever meeting the Centurion the slave is healed. 

The inference of the passage is that without the healing the slave will die yet even from afar Jesus can do the miracle - healing occurs. 

For those embedded in the story, living in the moment, there is an unpredictable edge about the way the healing occurs and even Jesus’ response to this outsider – Jesus is impressed or amazed at the faith of the Centurion!

If were to travel back into Jesus’ time the notion of salvation did not revolve around dying and going to heaven.  To be saved was a ‘this life’ experience.  I can’t but help think of a story we find later in Luke’s gospel, the story of Zacchaeus in which Jesus’ declares, “today salvation has come to your household.”

In the act of healing the slave no less should we think of the Centurion: “today salvation has been visited on your household!”  He has encountered salvation in the healing of his slave.

Could anyone predict that Jesus would reach out and help this foreign soldier, this centurion?

Could anyone predict that Jesus would hold up to his disciples and followers the faith of this gentile?

Could anyone predict that Jesus did not even have to visit the slave for the healing to occur?

But more than that could the slave himself predict or understand his fate?

Think about this slave for a moment.  Once again probably not a Jew and maybe someone bought in marketplace and brought to this foreign land.  A man viewed as a commodity but clearly more than that for the Centurion – he valued the slave more than the cost of simply replacing him.

The slave does not ask for healing.

It is possible that the slave knew nothing of Jesus.

It is possible that the slave was disconnected from his homeland and family.

It is possible that the slave did not feel that same connection with the Centurion as the Centurion felt to the slave.

This anonymous character is left mysteriously ambiguous and a step away from this miracle.  Yet the truth of the situation is that the salvation visited on the home of the Centurion is visited on him personally.

The slave is found to be in good health.

He is saved by Jesus.  He is just as much the recipient of grace.

So often, my experience of the Christian story is a domestication of salvation to those who confess Jesus as Lord and believe in Jesus in a particular way.  More than that so often being saved is only associated with what happens when die.

Yet this story has an unpredictable edge that shatters the domestication of what it means to be saved and reminds us that when Jesus healed and gave hope to people salvation visited in this life – the coming kingdom of God is glimpsed in these moments and maybe it is when people encounter salvation in this life, a miracle, that it is on earth as it is in heaven.

For the early Christian community that Jesus was writing for the story might have opened up the possibility of gentile converts being valued by the community of faith – maybe, like the Centurion, their faith could be an example to the followers of Jesus that were of Jewish background.  Remember, when Luke was writing his gospel that majority of followers were meeting still as part of the Jewish community.  Maybe the story addressed the unpredictable number of gentile converts after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.

Yet as we listen to this story of the unpredictable nature of salvation in that ancient community and reconsider what it means for us I think there are words of hope grounded in the unpredictability of being saved.

When I think about the Centurion I think about all those people who are sympathetic to the church in our era, maybe they even work for the church.  People who seek out the help of Jesus, or maybe simply they co-operate with Jesus followers, to bring aid to others.

At Synod we heard about the work of UnitingCare and Wesley Mission Brisbane and the Schools commission and the Residential Colleges.  Whilst many of the people who work in the church may not yet have committed their life to Jesus in the way we have I wonder if their faith is a bit like the Centurion so long ago.  Like the Centurion they build synagogues of hope and they risk making contact with Jesus and his followers.  Trusting in Jesus mission, and trusting his followers to bring a better life to others now – a little bit of heaven on earth. 

When I think about the slave that was healed I consider all of the people that the church reaches out to in need.  People who are sick and dying, people who are frail and aged, people who call lifeline for a listening ear, people in remote locations and in the inner city.  Unpredictably saved, helped out, given hope by people in Jesus’ name – even though they may not realise it or have even sought it they receive from the wellsprings of the grace of God.

What this means in terms of their relationship with God beyond this life remains obscured from our view but the story indicates Jesus’ willingness to save a person in the midst of his life even without knowing that someone else had interceded.

As followers of Jesus, I would say that you and I are unpredictably saved – we have encountered the mystery of God which is beyond our domestication and comprehension yet closer to us than breathing.

As part of the crowd that follow we can only look upon the unpredictable nature of how God saves people and celebrate it and share it.  And maybe we too can become like the Jewish leaders and the friends of the centurion in the story, emissaries and messengers between people and their needs and Jesus, who we believe can bring healing and hope to any situation.

We become the storytellers of God’s grace: we latch our lives on to the hope that people we know and love will be saved in this life and the next; we also consider the possibilities of God’s love for our enemies; we gather together to listen to the stories, to be astounded as we celebrate the surprisingly unpredictable salvation of our God.

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