What I said a week last Sunday – Trinity 1 (Proper 4)

This week we had a family service with all our uniformed groups on parade. It was a fairly informal talk and mainly preached from a few notes. It’s not possible to post it, but I realised I had completely forgotten to post last week’s sermon, so here it is. The gospel reading for the day was the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant.

Luke 7.1-10

Mothers are full of pearls of wisdom. A survey by Clinton’s Cards last year discovered that on average mothers pass on 41 pearls of wisdom to their children. I hope you all listened to the pearls of wisdom that were passed to you as you were growing up. When asked people remembered being given such good advice as:

  • No 33: Don’t eat cheese before bed.
  • No 28: Don’t leave the house with wet hair.
  • No 20: Watching too much TV will make your eyes go square.
  • No 11. Always wear clean underwear.

Such things might seem rather flippant. And you may remember growing up and being given such good advice! I have to say that the one recurring instruction that I remember being given by my mother isn’t in the list: Do as you’re told and don’t ask questions! She would have made an excellent Roman centurion!

Amusing though those pearls of wisdom may seem, many of the pearls of wisdom given by mothers and recorded by Clinton’s are universal. And it would seem that somewhere along the way they have been picked up by the Roman centurion we hear about in today’s gospel reading. Remember that he is an officer in an army occupying a particularly difficult province in the Roman Empire. The Jews didn’t much like Romans and the Romans didn’t much like the Jews. He was someone who knew full well that he was in a position to be like my mother: Do as you’re told and don’t ask questions. And yet here we have a centurion who is clearly aware of and lives by – perhaps unusually for someone in his position – some of the motherly pearls of wisdom that appear at the top of the list:

  • No 15: Treat others how you wish to be treated yourself.
  • No 10: Treat people with respect.
  • No 5: If you don’t ask you don’t get.
  • No 1. Always try your best.

Treat others how you wish to be treated yourself – he has a slave whom, we are told, he values highly. He cares for him and when he takes ill he wants to do something about it. He could have thought, ‘I’ll get another slave,” but he doesn’t. What he does is seek to have the slave made well.

Treat people with respect – which he does in a remarkable way. Remember, this is an officer in an army of occupation. And yet not only has he treated the Jews with respect, he has built them a synagogue. And the love he has shown for the Jewish people has resulted in the Jewish elders supporting his request.

If you don’t ask you don’t get – and the centurion must have known that he had no right to ask and no right to expect that Jesus would respond to him, a Gentile. And yet he has enough faith in this Jewish teacher to know that Jesus has the power to heal his slave. And he’s only going to find out if Jesus will do it by asking.

Always do your best – and that’s clearly how this centurion is trying to live. He has tried his best in spite of the difficulties of being a Roman soldier trying to keep order in a difficult situation to not just get along with the local people but to help them. He is trying his best to find healing for his slave. This was clearly a highly unusual man given his role. So unusual that even Jesus is surprised by him, and he comments on his great faith – faith that he hasn’t found in his own people.

We hear in our gospel reading how the centurion sends the Jewish elders to Jesus with the request that Jesus come and heal his slave. They support his request, urging Jesus to come and help. And yet when Jesus is near to the centurion’s house he sends his friends out to meet Jesus. Perhaps he did this because he assumed that Jesus, a Jew, wouldn’t enter the house of a Gentile because of the constraints of the Jewish Law. And he sends them with a message: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

Today, I want you to think about those words of the centurion, and to imagine that he is passing a pearl of wisdom on to you. He spoke those words through his friends with complete faith that Jesus would answer his request. A little later in our communion service we too will use words based on that request. And the pearl of wisdom that we have from the centurion is that as we approach the altar to receive Jesus in the bread and wine, is to ask with the same level of faith as the centurion for healing from Jesus and believing that he will do what we ask.

For those words, of course, have found themselves in a slightly altered form in our communion service. Traditionally they were: Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed. In Common Worship they have been simplified to: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.

We probably just say the words each week automatically. But today I want you to think about them: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed. Each of us knows that we are not worthy to receive Jesus, just as the centurion knew that he was not worthy. And yet Jesus still comes to us and gives himself to us. As you prepare to receive Jesus in the form of bread and wine today, think about what healing you need in your life. We’ve all got things that we know Jesus needs to sort out – physical, spiritual things that need his healing. And as you say those words –  only say the word and I shall be healed – believe that he will heal you. Have the faith that he had.

Learn from the wisdom of the centurion. Reach out in faith. And know that as you reach out your hands to receive the bread and the wine, the body and the blood of Jesus – or as you bow your head to receive a blessing – that Jesus has truly come to you. He has come under your roof and spoken words of healing right to your very soul.