41 The Faith of the Centurion - June 24, 2007

Romans 6:18-23

Matthew 8:4-13


When I read this story of the centurion outside its placement in the lectionary of the Church’s liturgical cycle, it makes little sense to me. The Lord seems to extol the centurion’s faith because he recognizes that Jesus is a man of power just as he is. If he has power over his soldiers, then the Lord surely has power over the sickness of his servant. To me, this reading sets forth an understanding of faith that sounds hollow, having no substance, as though faith is nothing more than accepting as an intellectual fact that Jesus is God. I have never been able to embrace such a notion of faith. Faith is not hollow. Faith has substance. It is the substance [upostasiV] of things hoped for, the evidence of unseen, spiritual realities, St Paul says.[1]

It’s when I read this story of the centurion in its liturgical setting that a whole new vision opens up that to me feels right. Liturgically, the setting in which we are reading the lectionary of the Church these days is still the light of Pascha and Pentecost. And that light, if I read the indications aright, is the union of the primordial light of the Church that was from the beginning, created before sun and moon, with the uncreated light of Him who dwells in unapproachable light.

 In this paschal light of the world’s re-creation in Christ, I turn again to this story of the centurion to read it in the Greek. Perchance there will be some detail in the Greek that the English translation obscures that will reveal a deeper vision; and indeed there is. From the Greek, I am struck by the words of the Savior: “As you have believed, let it be done to you;” or, translating the Greek more literally: “As you have believed, let it come to be for you.”

 “Let it come to be.” These are words of creation. They reveal shining behind this story of the centurion the primordial light of creation and therefore the spiritual light of Pascha. They are saying that faith is much more than trusting in God so that he’ll overlook your sins and consider you righteous and let you into heaven when you die. Faith is an ontological mystery that has to do with dying in the Lord here and now, in this life, and being re-created in the holy resurrection of Christ as a child of light born of God from above, of being called out of the darkness of sin and into the world of Christ’s holy Church. This is the real world as it came to be in that primordial light of the Church that was from the beginning, created before sun and moon,[2] the world as it is in its primordial goodness and as it has been re-created in the death and resurrection of Christ.

In this light, I turn again to read the words of the centurion in the original Greek, and wonder if they shouldn’t be translated differently from how they read in most English translations. Reading the centurion’s address to the Savior now in light of the Church’s paschal mystery, I do not hear him saying, “I, too [kai], am a man under authority – like you – and if I say the word it happens for me just like it happens when you say the word.” Rather, I hear him saying: “Indeed [kai], Lord, I am a man under authority. But, Lord, I am caught up in the lust of the worldly power and authority I have over men. Soldiers, men of valor and strength, men you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, do whatever I tell them to do; and yet, I am powerless over the paralysis of my servant. Caught up in the lust of the worldly power and authority I have over men, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof. I come to you confessing my unworthiness, and bowing my neck I implore Thee, do not turn your face away from me nor cast me out from among your servants. But only say the Word and my servant will be healed.”

This season of the Church is centered on feasts of saints: the saints of all the “old countries”, the saints of America, all those saints known only to God, the glorious forerunner and Baptist John (whose nativity we celebrate today), Sts. Peter and Paul, St Herman of Alaska, all of these feasts of saints culminating in the feast of the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos, pre-eminent of all the saints. This season moves out from Pentecost to the Dormition of the Theotokos through the weeks of summer, when the sun, having reached its greatest strength now begins to diminish. It would seem that the Church, having revealed to us in her eight-week paschal celebration the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection, of his Ascension into heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost, is now teaching us in the lessons of her lectionary how we can become saints, so that our dying – our diminishing like the sun – can become a dying with the Theotokos and all the saints in the Lord, and our death transfigured into our own pascha, our own passing over from death to life in the living waters of the Holy Spirit, the sacred waters of the Church. In this season, then, we turn to the story of the centurion to hear what the Church is teaching us about how we can become saints and so realize the fullness of our baptism in the high calling that is ours in Christ Jesus.

The lesson of the centurion is obviously a lesson on faith: “Lo,” the Lord says to his disciples, “I have not found such faith even in Israel.” If I am right to interpret the words of the centurion as I have, then we can say that the first lesson we hear in this story is that faith becomes active in us in the sincere confession of our unworthiness. That means, practically and concretely, confessing our sins in the sacrament of confession. This is how, in faith, we die in the Lord that we may be raised up with him in the new creation of his holy resurrection.

This lesson opens onto others. We hear them when we read the centurion’s story in light of all the scripture lessons assigned for our daily reading since Pascha, but especially this last week.

We have been reading this last week from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans. St Paul has been talking about faith and works of the law in the context of love, the heart and desire. In one place he writes: “If the root is holy, the branches will be holy.”[3] In another place he writes: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies to obey its carnal desires.”[4] In another place, arguing against the view that righteousness comes from doing the works of the law, he quotes Deuteronomy: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart;” and then he explains, “This is the word of faith that we preach. If, then, you believe in your heart that God raised Christ from the dead, you will be saved.”[5]

From these indications, I hear the Church teaching us that faith is rooted in the heart; and that the heart, the root of our being, is made holy – recreated – through the confession of our sins in the sacrament of confession. Rooted in the cleansing waters of the Spirit in confession, the substance of faith is uncovered and begins to glow in its character as desire and love for that on which it places its hope. Faith, then, proceeds from the heartfelt confession of one’s sins to manifest its character as desire and love for Christ God on whom it hopes: this is our second lesson from this morning. It takes us back to last Sunday’s Gospel, and to the words of the Lord: “The lamp of the body is the eye,” i.e. the desire of the heart. “If your eye is light your whole body is light.” If your heart’s desire is for the uncreated light of Christ God, your whole body will be full of light for you will be born from above as a child of light.

But listen more closely to St Paul. He says, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies to obey its carnal desires.” I hear St Paul saying that it is I in the root of my heart who chooses whom I will serve. I therefore have no excuse if I am bound by carnal desire for the pleasures of the world and do not love God. It means that deep in the root of my heart I have chosen to love the world. On the one hand, this is troubling. I’d like to think I’m a lover of God. So why do I resist submitting to the Church? She is, after all, the body of Christ. Why do I resist the call to confession? Why do I prefer reading the newspaper to studying the Scriptures, or watching TV or just sitting around daydreaming to an ascetic discipline of prayer and fasting? But at the same time, St Paul’s lesson is terribly encouraging.

When he says, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies to obey its carnal desires,” is he not saying that in my heart I am free to choose whom I will serve, whom I will love? If I am bound by carnal desires it’s because I have chosen to love them. But that means I can just as well choose to love God. In my heart, I am free. Neither God nor the devil can make me choose whom I will obey. I choose my master. This is the third lesson of faith from this morning’s Gospel: faith is the freedom to choose whom we will obey: the darkness of carnal pleasure or the light of God’s commandments. This is to say that faith is nothing less than going deep into our heart – this is the work, the movement of confession – to lay hold of our heart’s desire at its root in order to turn it toward its natural end: the love of God. On Pentecost, Christ says: “Come to me you who are thirsty.” He means: come into the new creation of my resurrection. We can choose to obey Christ’s command and come to him in his re-creation of the world by presenting the members of our body no longer to carnal desires but to Christ our God by practicing the commandments of Christ that he may re-create us as children of light.

In this light, one goes back to the words of the centurion. I am a man under authority, he says. He is acknowledging a fundamental truth of faith: he is not his own master. None of us are. It is in faith that he has therefore chosen to present himself to the authority of the Lord in the hope – the substance of faith – that his servant will be healed: i.e., that he will be raised up out of the darkness of sin and death and into the light and life of the new heavens and the new earth of Christ’s holy Church. This takes us at once to the fourth and last lesson on faith that I hear in this morning’s story of the centurion.

His request for salvation is not for himself but for his servant, who is paralyzed. In the beginning, God made man in his image and likeness. God is three persons in one essence. Created in the image of God, man does not exist in himself; he exists, as does each Person of the Trinity, in the other. This is to say that our being created in the image of God as persons who exist in the other is the primary principle of our nature, and that when we love our neighbor as ourselves faith, which is the stirring of love extending from the root of our heart, effects in us the coming to be of the new creation of Christ’s holy resurrection. It makes a clean heart, a new and right spirit come to be in us. In this movement of faith, we die to the darkness of self-love, and we come to be in the resurrection of Christ’s love. Therefore, when the centurion asks the Lord to heal his servant, he is coming to be in the substance of faith that faith hopes for, the love of God. In the substance, the love, of faith, the centurion is identifying with the other, his servant, and in this act of faith he is coming to be like Christ. If he is identifying with the other, then he is making the other to identify with him, and making the other come to be also, with him, in the love of God. Perhaps this is something of what St Maximus the Confessor has in mind when he speaks of the exchange or the reciprocity of love. And so the Lord says, “As you have believed, let it come to be for you.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.

Having just returned from our Church camp, this lesson of the centurion is comforting to me as it should be to the parents, and to all the clergy, the coaching staff and the counselors who felt sincere concern for the spiritual welfare of the campers entrusted to their care. The word for servant in this morning’s Gospel can also be translated as child. The centurion of this morning’s Gospel therefore can represent all the parents, the counselors, the monastics and the clergy; the campers are our children, our servants. All the children at camp are wonderful kids; but a number of them are sick. They are paralyzed in their soul and mind from having fallen to the seductions of the dark pleasures of the body’s carnal desires, a seduction that assaults them nowadays in the intimacy of their own home, in the seductive and insidious images of the internet and TV. They have become paralyzed; they seem to have become wholly enslaved to the mesmerizing desires of the flesh and altogether blind and deaf to the beauty of the light of the Gospel. Parents, counselors, coaching staff and clergy look on with a sense of helplessness. We grieve, we mourn, we fuss, we fume. How can we awaken our children out of their paralyzing stupor to see and experience the beauty and joy, the freedom and life of Christ’s holy Gospel proclaimed in words of light by his Holy Church? This morning’s lesson of the centurion tells us what we can do. We can pray to the Lord in the faith of the centurion. Lord, indeed, we are people of authority, but we are not our own masters. We are under the authority of whomever we choose to obey; and we choose to place ourselves in obedience under your authority in submission to your holy Church. Lord, we confess that we are not worthy to receive you under the roof of the house of our soul. We have not kept your commandments. We have not loved one another as we should. We, too, have fallen in so many ways to the paralyzing lusts of carnal desire. But we love our children and we want them to be saved. Lord, say the word, and our children will be healed.

Parents, teachers, all who, like the centurion, have been given power and authority over others as your servants and who love your servants and wish their salvation: pray to the Lord in this faith of the centurion. For the sake of the children, let us who are centurions lay hold in faith to the desire of our heart and let us choose to become slaves of God. Submit to the Church, the body of Christ God, and confess your sins in the holy sacrament of confession. Be not your own master, but make yourself a disciple of the Church and place yourself in obedience under her authority. She is the body of Christ; her words are the words of the Lord. Her instructions are the commandments of Christ. Obey them and obey Christ. It is in this faith that we pray to the Lord: “Lord, only say the word, and our children will be healed.” I think that the lesson of the centurion is this: if we truly pray in this faith – this desire – that is rooted in our heart, we will hear the Lord say: “As you have believed – as you have confessed your sin, as you have desired God, as you have chosen obedience to his commandments – let it come to be for you.” Come out of the darkness of death and into the light of Christ’s holy resurrection and rejoice as servants of the Lord. Amen.

[1] Heb 11.1

[2] 2 Clement 14. Cf. the sermon for June 10.

[3] Rm 11:16

[4] Rm 6:12

[5] Rm 10:8-9; cf. Dt 30:14