39 - The Centurion

Romans 6:18-23

Matthew 8:5-13

The wages of sin is death, says St Paul. I think we may not catch the full force of this. Many believe that at death our soul goes to heaven to enjoy forever, on a much grander scale, what she enjoyed doing most in this life.

We might get a better sense of what our death will be like when we understand that sin starts paying us back even now in the fear and loneliness that settles over our soul like a gray cloud so that we feel troubled and restless beneath the masks we wear. When we die, we don’t go to some splendid golf game in the clouds under a sunny, blue sky. We go into what our souls are already feeling even now. In death, we continue to “live” in the consequences of our deeds that start leaving their mark on our souls even now. That is sin’s final paycheck to us. St Paul calls it the final fruit of our deeds. (Rom 6:21) One thinks of the serpent’s tree and the LORD’s warning: “On the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” As St Paul says this morning, when we present ourselves to the pleasures of the world as our master, we begin even now to receive death as our paycheck.

We become slaves of whomever we obey, says St Paul. There is nothing esoteric about this; we experience it now whenever we present ourselves to sin. For example, if we yield ourselves to lust, then lust becomes our master, so much so that, as St Paul says in another place, it becomes the law of our flesh and we find ourselves doing its deeds even if we don’t want to. (Rom 7:15) If we do resist its pull on us, we are compelled not by some physical force outside of us but from within to give in to it.

St Paul is describing for us the spiritual principle of the soul. It is imaged in this morning’s Gospel. Like the soul, the centurion’s servant is sick. We could say, in the words of St Paul this morning, that he is a slave to his sickness. He’s not free to be well, he cannot get out of bed even though he very much wants to. Whatever bacteria or virus the centurion’s servant presented himself to, wittingly or not, became his master and began immediately to give him his wages in a daily paycheck of a sickness unto death.

In the same way, we present ourselves to the bacteria or virus of sin hiding in the pleasant aspect of the world; e.g., if we are presenting our thoughts to dwell in the apparent pleasures of lust or anger or greed. And, when we do present ourselves to such pleasures as these, do we not immediately feel ourselves enslaved by a dark power that we now can feel was in them, so that it is very, very difficult if not impossible for us not to lust, not to be angry, not to covet? They leave their mark on our soul at once; we feel troubled. A certain darkness settles over us inside that we cannot shake. Look deeper and, like Adam and Eve, our eyes open into the darkness to see that fear has taken hold of us. This is the first fruit of death, our paycheck. We may try to escape the fear by rationalizing our actions away, or by blaming someone else, but the fear only goes deeper into our soul. It doesn’t go away. We look perfectly healthy outwardly; but inwardly, we are only sicker. For, we obeyed the seductive suggestion of the serpent whispering in our inner ear, we presented ourselves to the sin of lust or anger or greed, and death became our master and we became its slaves.

Sin sickens us so deeply that it makes even our will sick. As St Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For, I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do!” (Rom 7:15 & 19) How is it that even our will is corrupted by our sin? I think it’s because it was by our will that we presented ourselves to sin.

I feel this is very important to understand in order to understand how salvation in Christ works, and why St Paul says, “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” (Phil 2;12)

Through our baptism, we were set free from our old master, death. We begin to experience this freedom from death even now in the joy that descends on us from our new Master, Christ, as the Spirit descended on the holy disciples at Pentecost, as soon as we begin to seek first the Kingdom of God. This joy is the first fruit of our salvation in Christ; it means that we are beginning to live even now in the eternal life God gives to us in Christ Jesus our LORD.

And so, St Paul says: “Take into account that you are now dead to sin and are now alive in Christ.” (Rom 6:11) And, in that understanding, do like the centurion in this morning’s Gospel: present yourself no longer to sin but to your new Master, Christ, by denying yourself; i.e., don’t give in to your own will and take up your cross, the ascetic disciplines of the Church, to follow Christ by walking according to His commandments. Remember that Christ has delivered you from death. Sin is no longer your master if you don’t want it to be. And, in that “remembrance”, do like the centurion: present yourself to Christ every day, every hour, every minute.

“Pray without ceasing” and in unceasing prayer’s living remembrance of Christ, be mindfully obedient to Christ every day, every hour, every minute. Note the critical role played by our will. We must present ourselves to Christ. Christ doesn’t compel us to present ourselves to Him. Why not? Precisely because our will is corrupt because we presented ourselves to sin. If our will, like the centurion’s servant, is to be healed, we must freely choose to present ourselves to Christ as did the centurion, and willfully strive to obey Christ, willfully strive to present ourselves to Christ every day, every hour, every minute and no longer to the passions of our soul and body.

We know from our own experience that this is not easy. Because our will is corrupt, it often betrays us and we find ourselves again and again going back to “doing the evil I do not want to do.” And so, I note that when the LORD offers Himself to come to the centurion’s home, the centurion, as though in fear, begs Him: “LORD, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” The word for worthy here means “I am not strong enough” that you should come under my roof. The Church obviously has found these words of the centurion to be so therapeutic that they have been incorporated into the prayers we are given to say in preparation for Holy Communion. Because our will is still very weak, loving still the things of the world, we are not yet worthy or strong enough that the LORD Himself should come under the roof of the house of my soul. So, like the centurion, we ask Him just to say the word; i.e., just give us the apostolic words of the Church.

And yet, these apostolic words of the Church carry the LORD Himself, and even if they carry only the LORD’s “little finger” they are powerful enough to cast out Satan, they are powerful enough to raise the servant from his sickbed, they are powerful enough to heal our corrupt will – but only if, like the centurion, we are presenting ourselves not to the world but to Christ as our Master every day, every hour and every minute.

As often as we may fall because our will is so weak and corrupt, just as often by our will we get up again and persevere in presenting ourselves to Christ who assures us in the words of the Psalmist: “Though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the LORD is the stay of his hand.” (Ps 37:24) As we choose willfully to present ourselves to Christ every day, every hour, every minute, our heart is enlarged. Our falls become less frequent for our will is recovering bit by bit as it becomes stronger in the good each day, until finally we are fully well. Even if our recovery is not complete at our death, because we have willfully chosen to redeem the time of our life by presenting ourselves to Christ as to our Master again and again, even when we fell, our death becomes our final healing, for, having willfully worked to unite to Christ every day, every hour, every minute, our death becomes but the death of our death and so the full healing of our soul in the love of God that abides forever! Glory to Jesus Christ! Amen!