1 Kings 8.22-23,41-43, Luke 7.1b-10
The most important person in the Bible story we’ve just heard, apart from Jesus, is the one who isn’t actually there at all. He’s just a voice offstage. He’s the centurion whose slave Jesus heals. First, he sends some Jewish elders to Jesus with a message, then, when Jesus heads for his house, he sends out some friends. But he never shows up himself.
So who is this man? Actually, we can tell quite a lot about him, even though we never meet him, and the fact that he doesn’t appear himself is one of the most important clues of all.
Why doesn’t he come to Jesus? Why does he send others? Is it that he can’t be bothered? Is he too busy? Does he think he is too important? No, actually it is quite the reverse.
He is a centurion, we are told; and that means that he is a Roman soldier. The Romans were occupying what is now Israel. Galilee, where this story is set, was the area where most of their garrisons were based. The people of Galilee had to feed, pay for, put up with these soldiers, thousands and thousands of them, tramping all over their land, throwing their weight around. They were an ever-present, visible reminder of the fact that they were under the thumb of a foreign power, and a brutal power at that. Added to that, these Romans were Gentiles, not Jewish. They followed laws and customs which the Jewish people found abhorrent. They ate food that was forbidden. They worshipped foreign gods. Eating with them, even casual contact with them could make you ritually unclean, as well as leading to the suspicion that you were a collaborator.
Of course, some of them were perfectly, good, decent, kind people – as this centurion seems to have been. He is respected and liked by the Jewish elders. He even paid for their synagogue to be built, they say. He’s probably interested in Jewish faith, an admirer. But he can never really belong, not fully, not properly, because you have to be born Jewish. Conversion was possible, but it was difficult, and some people would always have looked on you as an incomer. An incomer who was an enemy soldier, part of the system that was causing so much suffering to the Jewish people, would be even worse. You would know that some people would never fully trust you.
That’s why this centurion doesn’t come to Jesus himself. He’s internalised the suspicions and fears he sees around him. It would be hard not to. He knows that many teachers, holy men like Jesus, wouldn’t even want to come near him, never mind enter his house. He doesn’t want to make Jesus uncomfortable, or show him disrespect. “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof”, he says, and he means it.
But he’s desperate. The slave who is ill is obviously dear to him. That isn’t as strange as it sounds. Slavery was an unquestioned part of the social system, but it was quite common for slaves to become valued members of the household in their own right. This slave is more than just a unit of production to the centurion; it sounds as if he’s a friend, and the centurion is prepared to try anything to save him. So he summons up his courage and asks for help, although he knows that he could be rejected.
And, as we see, the gamble pays off. Jesus heals his slave, and praises his faith as well – not just the faith that Jesus can heal, but the faith which gives him courage to ask for that healing at all from someone who had every reason to hate and fear him, every reason to say no.
That’s why this story is important. That’s why it is so powerful, because how many of us have ever felt we weren’t good enough, or felt humiliated by our shortcomings and our needs? My guess is at least 99.9% of us, and the 0.1% are probably just kidding themselves. As a priest, I often have the privilege of seeing the underside of people’s lives, the bits they hide from others, and I’ve discovered that feeling unworthy is a universal human experience. That sense of unworthiness comes out in all sorts of ways, and it starts early on. We rapidly take in the messages of the world around us that we aren’t clever enough, or thin enough, or organised enough, or strong enough, or whatever our Achilles heel is. We’re not good enough parents. We’re not good enough at work. We’re not good enough in our relationships. We may be good at pretending – that’s why everyone else looks as if they have it sorted out - but the truth is that under the surface we are all the same, a mess of self-doubt.
Like the centurion, we don’t want other people to come under our “roofs” – the roofs of our hearts as well as the roofs of our homes. What will they think when they see the real us?
But Jesus isn’t put off, despite the centurion’s protestations. It doesn’t even seem to occur to him that he shouldn’t go and meet the centurion. That’s entirely in line with his behaviour throughout the Gospels. He’ll sit and eat with anyone who will sit and eat with him. Fishermen, Pharisees, prostitutes, collaborators, lepers, women and children, foreigners, outcasts of every stripe; it’s all the same to him. There’s no condescension, no revulsion. There are no conditions, no hoops to jump through. You don’t have to be good enough, holy enough, clever enough, strong enough to deserve his company…you just have to be human.
The whole of the Gospel, the good news that God loves and accepts us as we are, is in this little story so it’s a great story to have at a baptism. You can be baptised at any age, of course – it is never too late – and the message is the same. God loves you and accepts you as you are. But when we baptise a baby, that message is particularly clear.
Ethan is six months old. He’s a lovely baby, of course, but let’s face it, he hasn’t yet got many achievements to show for himself! He hasn’t got a single GCSE. He hasn’t earned a penny, let alone made a fortune. He hasn’t won Britain’s Got Talent, or the Olympics. He isn’t at all famous, except to his family and friends. He might be one day, but right now he can’t even manage to feed himself. But in baptism we proclaim that God – like us – looks at him and loves him. Nothing will ever make God love him any more or any less than he does right now. We make him the star of the show today, the centre of our worship, because just as he is, he is precious, not because of what he’s achieved or might achieve, not because of the honours the world might one day heap on him, but just because he is. Baptism, first and foremost is a celebration simply that Ethan James Lee is here, a child of God, beloved and infinitely special.
But Ethan’s baptism also reminds us that we are all just as precious. Ethan is a message from God to us today, no matter how inadequate we feel, no matter how harshly we’re judged by our bosses, our social circle, or by our own hearts, which are our fiercest critics. Ethan says to each one of us today that just as we are, God love us. Just as we are heaven rejoices at our existence – mine and yours, and yours. May we have the courage, like the centurion in the story, to dare to trust that love and live in its light.