40 - The Centurion's Faith

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Romans 6:18-23

Matthew 8:5-13

In the book of Exodus, one finds this that may explain why the LORD was so moved by the centurion’s faith: “You shall worship the LORD your God, and I will bless your bread and your wine and your water and I will turn sickness away from you” (Ex 23:25). Let me explain why I think this might be the “back-story” to our Gospel this morning.

Biblical doctrine reveals that God did not create death, nor did He inject the poison of dissolution into the world. His Kingdom is of life, not of death. He created the world for salvation, i.e., for freedom in the well-being of eternal life (Wisd 1:13-14). Sickness and the destruction of death came into the world through the envy of the devil and from ungodly men who made a covenant with death by wandering away from the righteousness of God (Wisd 1:23 & 1:12, 16).

We hear this biblical doctrine again in this morning’s epistle. St Paul says to the Romans: What was the fruit of your sin, when you were “free” from righteousness? (How many of us view the Christian Faith as a restriction of our freedom?) “The end (telos) of those things,” he says, i.e., their final blossoming, “is death.”

We are therefore taught in the Church that sickness and death are not “natural” to us; they are the evidence of our turning away from God and giving our heart to idols of uncleanness and lawlessness, idolatry. These produce, before the blossom of death, as St Paul says, shame and more lawlessness, and so more shame until the downward spiral of shame and lawlessness ends in the grave. This is what it is to be “free” from the righteousness of God.

Adam was raised to life from the dust of the ground, yet he turned away from God, choosing to eat from the serpent’s tree; i.e., to live in idolatry, and so he was expelled from the Garden. Israel was raised to existence in a resurrection from the dead, for Isaac was born when Abraham and Sarah were “as good as dead” (Heb 11:12). Yet, like Adam and Eve, Israel, too, chose to worship the idols of her neighbors, or rather to live in idolatry. Israel wanted to become like her neighbors rather than to become like God; not unlike us, when we want to be like everyone around us and give no thought to becoming like God.  

So, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden, Israel was expelled from the Promised Land, suffering terribly at the hands of her lovers, the idolatrous nations she had become like.

Even so, the LORD in His mercy, called out to Israel through Isaiah the prophet: “O sinful nation!” He says. “You have forsaken the LORD and provoked the Holy One. Why would you be smitten any more, transgressing more and more? Your whole head is in pain, your whole heart is sad. From the foot to the head, there is no soundness in you. Neither wound nor bruise nor festering ulcer are healed!” (Isa 1:4-6) Is this not an apt description of how we feel in our soul when we give ourselves over to being like the world?

But, the LORD cries out to Israel: “Come, let us reason together. Though your sins be as purple, I will make them white as snow. Though they be as scarlet, I will make them white as wool. … If you are not willing and do not hearken to me, the sword shall devour you” (Isa 1:18-20). I.e., if you continue to present yourselves as slaves of uncleanness and lawlessness, i.e., devotees of idols, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, your end will be shame and more lawlessness and finally, death.

In this light of the prophets, we now can see the centurion’s servant as an image of sinful Israel. His servant, says the centurion, was paralyzed and dreadfully tormented. I.e., the servant in his paralysis was like a corpse on a bier. He was like Israel who had become like the idols she worshipped: she had eyes but could not see, ears but could not hear, hands that could not feel, feet that could not walk; i.e., she had become spiritually paralyzed, as good as dead. And, if the centurion’s servant was dreadfully tormented, he was like Israel who was sick and in torment from head to foot because of her sins. The centurion, now, looks like an image of the kings and priests of Israel. Their sacred service was to worship the LORD according to the commandment, and to intercede before the LORD on behalf of the people.

But, the centurion is a Gentile. And yet, he is doing what Israel would not do. He is worshiping the LORD and he is interceding for his servant as Israel’s religious leaders were supposed to intercede for Israel.

Israel, Isaiah says, is worse than the ox and the ass, for the ox knows his owner and the ass his master’s crib. But, like rebellious children, Israel does not know the LORD nor does she pay Him any regard (Isa 1:2-3).

The centurion is presenting himself to Jesus and calls on Him as LORD. I.e., he shows that he, unlike Israel, knows the Holy One of Israel. He is Jesus!

And, when, to take the words of St Paul this morning, the centurion “presents" himself to the LORD on behalf of his servant, his servant’s sickness is “turned away”, as the LORD said would happen to Israel if she worshipped the LORD. Moreover, the centurion’s servant is raised from his bed as from the dead. This is what the LORD promised to do to Israel through Ezekiel, whose prophecy we read on Great and Holy Friday: “I will raise you from your graves. I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land” (Eze 37:12-14).

Now we see how the LORD would turn away Israel’s sin, and bless her bread, her wine, her water: it is by His death and Resurrection in the Eucharistic mystery of His incarnation – i.e., in His Body, the Church.

This is what St Paul is telling us: the fruit of presenting ourselves to the LORD is to become one with Him in His death, and so to become one with Him in His Resurrection, and so in His Paschal mystery "we have received the Heavenly Spirit", the cleansing of our sins and the gift of eternal life.

Now, consider the shape of the LORD’s healing of the centurion’s servant. Does it not look like the LORD calling Lazarus from his tomb in answer to the prayer of Mary and Martha? As well, it has the shape of creation: “And God said: ‘Let there be Light!’ and it was so.” The LORD says to the centurion: “Let it be to your servant as you have believed.” And, the centurion’s servant was healed that very hour.(This is “Cross-language”, for the LORD will say: “My hour has not yet come,” until He says: “My hour has come!” which refers to His Cross. Together with the LORD’s WORD: “Let it be” the LORD’s WORD by which He heals the servant tells us that the servant’s healing is a re-creation accomplished, or shall we say “finished” in the mystery of Christ's Holy Cross.)

Can you see also the shape of the Exodus? Moses intercedes before the LORD on behalf of Israel and the LORD delivers Israel from her bondage to Pharaoh. The centurion intercedes for his servant and in answer the LORD delivers his servant from his paralysis and raises him from his bed.

The healing of the centurion has the shape not only of Lazarus, but also the daughter of Jairus and the widow’s son. All of these were raised from the dead at the WORD of the LORD.

Note well! The LORD speaks, and creation comes to be. The LORD speaks, and people are healed, even raised from the dead. Behold the WORD of the LORD! It is not a "word" as we understand a word. It is life-creating and healing, Obey the WORD of the LORD and be raised from the death of your sins and trespasees. Obey the WORD of the LORD and "come to be" a child of God.

But, is this not the shape of our baptism? The Church presents herself to the LORD and intercedes for us, like the centurion interceding for his servant. And, as the LORD sent His WORD into the darkness of the void, as He sent His Angel into Egypt, as He sent His WORD into the centurion’s house, so also He sent forth His Spirit into the tomb of our heart. He delivered us from death and raised us up to life, a New Creation. He made us His own! As the priest led us from the font to the chalice at our baptism, so the LORD goes before us as our Joshua, leading us in the way of the Gospel’s “inner Exodus,” into His Tomb as into the Jordan and out into the Garden (Jn 19:41) of His Resurrection, the Garden of Eden, the Land He gives to us as our inheritance.

Through faith, we freely choose to become slaves of God by presenting ourselves to God in the doing of His commandments that we may become like Him, righteous and holy. We no longer give ourselves to the idols of the world – uncleanness, lawlessness, envy, fornication, anger, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life – for, we do not want to become like the idols, having eyes and ears but neither seeing nor hearing; we do not want to become a spiritual corpse.

The freedom and well-being in eternal life that is the flower of this divine “slavery” we begin to taste and see and smell even now, in the sacred fragrance of the heavenly joy not of this world that we first experienced at our baptism, in the heavenly beauty of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental worship that calms our soul and gives peace to our life. These are the pledge of our eternal salvation given to us in the Holy Spirit that we have been made to stand in even now, while we are still making our way through the wilderness of this life. In this Grace and Joy, in the love for God that sprouts from it, we present ourselves to Christ daily with the eye that is the lamp of our body trained on Christ, Himself the Way of this inner Exodus to the Kingdom of Heaven that is within you! Glory to Jesus Christ! Amen!