Sermon Archives

Sunday, May 29, 2016
Proper 4 (Year C)
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
The Centurion's Discipleship

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Episcopal priest and preaching professor, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “the Bible is one long story about how God demolishes human beliefs in order to clear space for faith.”[1] I wonder if that is what happens in the story from our Gospel passage today.

There are only two stories in the Gospels that tell us about Jesus’ amazement. The first is in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. The townspeople that listened were initially amazed but then quickly took offense at him. Who was he to speak with such wisdom and authority? Wasn’t he the son of Joseph the carpenter? Mark tells us that Jesus was unable to perform miracles in his hometown. We are also told that he was amazed at their unbelief.

The second story is the healing of the centurion. In direct contrast to the story in Mark, Jesus is amazed at the faith of the centurion. Jesus is amazed that here is someone who, contrary to expectation, demonstrates faith that he has not witnessed even in the religious community that he belonged to. I wonder if Jesus was amazed because the centurion’s words and actions challenged even Jesus’ notion of the kind of faith that he expected of the centurion.

Admittedly though, this centurion is odd. First of all, the centurion intercedes for the healing of his slave. The centurion was several echelons above the social position of a slave, and to go to these lengths to intercede for someone with as little power as a slave was unusual. Secondly, we are told that the centurion built the synagogue in Capernaum. This is also a bit strange, as he is presumably a Gentile and a representative of the Roman occupying force, but nevertheless he provides patronage to the local Jewish community. Thirdly, he again subverts contemporary social hierarchy, and tells this itinerant peasant rabbi that he is not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof. Lastly, he has such faith in Jesus’ ability to heal his slave, that he deters Jesus from entering his house to prevent Jesus from becoming ritually unclean and, unlike many of the healing miracles, believes that no direct contact between Jesus and the slave is required.

But it is possibly not only the centurion’s words but also his actions that amaze Jesus. Indeed,  just prior to our passage today, Jesus preached the Sermon on the Plain, a sermon where he says things like: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… do to others as you would have them do to you. The centurion wasn’t on the plain with the crowd, but he is living out of the guiding principles that Jesus sets forth for his followers. At the cost of challenging the normative power structures between Jews and Romans, slaves and free people. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and Nazi resister. He was born into a liberal, aristocratic family in Germany. His father was a well-known professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin. He spent some time in Spain and in New York City before returning to Germany to take up a post as lecturer at the University of Berlin. It was during that time that Hitler rose in power. Initially, as Hitler’s anti-Jewish rhetoric and action increased, so did German opposition. The churches in Germany grew polarized, as some churches supported Hitler and others resisted the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was a founding member of the churches in the resistance, known as the Confessing Church, affirming that their primary allegiance was to Jesus Christ.

The Nazi government began to crack down on those who were part of the Confessing Church, and in 1936 removed Bonhoeffer from teaching at the university. He founded an underground seminary in rural Germany where he taught and lived in community with the seminarians there. It was around that time that Bonhoeffer published one of his best known works, The Cost of Discipleship.

In this book he reflects on discipleship, and critiques comfortable Christianity, a Christianity that unquestioningly assimilates to the power structures that stand over and around it. Bonhoeffer observed that the weakening of the church was related to the way that grace was being communicated. He said: “The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organised church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptised, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving... But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard."

He describes two kinds of grace: cheap grace and costly grace. He says: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Bonhoeffer lived out the reality of cheap and costly grace; making decisions about how he would choose to live out his discipleship that eventually cost him his life. He became involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested and executed one month before the end of World War II.

Bonhoeffer and the centurion show us, in very different ways, the choices we can make even when we are part of  larger social systems that seem incompatible with the Gospel. 

The Roman centurion went the uncomfortable route of being an outsider. He was an outsider in Capernaum as an active participant in the military occupation; but he was probably also an outsider among his community of soldiers because he chose to relate differently to the local community.

In his actions and in his words, the centurion shows us what discipleship looks like. Discipleship is the openness to having our whole lives transformed; it is the recognition that if we truly and deeply receive God’s grace, we will not be left unchanged.

The centurion sent his friends to tell Jesus: “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 my servant shall be healed.” These arrestingly beautiful words communicated by the centurion reflect his understanding of Christ’s identity and authority. The costly grace that the centurion demonstrates is the submission of his own power and authority given to him by the world, to the power and authority of Christ. He doesn’t force his power onto Jesus and haul him over to heal his servant, rather he invites Jesus to come, fully entrusting the life of his beloved to this rabbi who acts with the authority of God. 

May we be granted the courage to choose the narrow way of costly grace, to trust and have faith in Christ, even at the risk of our own transformation. Amen.