The Christ who commands - Matthew 8:5-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Did you know that one of Britain’s most famous detective novelists once lived at number 80 Westbourne Avenue? It is true. Her name was Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Dorothy L Sayers was born in a parsonage, her father was a well respected clergyman in the Church of England. But soon after going to Oxford University she rebelled, lived a fairly dissolute life and even had an illegitimate son, which in that society of course was a much rarer and more shameful thing than it is today. But then later on in life she came back to the faith of her youth and in fact became one of the most ardent apologists for Christianity of her generation, alongside her Oxford colleague - C. S. Lewis. And Sayers had this wonderful ability to cut through any sanctimonious clap trap and do what her Lord and Saviour, Jesus, often did - shock. She once wrote these words: ‘ The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man. Christ himself was no household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies, but God made flesh, a shattering personality, a dangerous firebrand, hero and victim... I believe it to be a grave mistake to present Christianity as something charming and popular with no offence in it.. we cannot blink the fact that gentle Jesus meek and mild was so stiff in his opinions and so inflammatory in his language that he was thrown out of church, stoned, hunted from place to place, and finally gibbeted as a firebrand and public danger. Whatever his peace was, it was not the peace of amiable indifference.' You see the Jesus of the Bible in contrast to the Jesus of popular imagination, is a most disturbing figure. He is Christ the controversialist. People either loved him or hated him, what they could not do was ignore him. Now what we shall be seeing over the next few weeks is that exactly the same holds true today. It is simply not possible to keep any sense of personal integrity and ignore the figure of Jesus. If you seriously take a look at his life you will end up either loving him or despising him. And just how controversial Jesus is we see in this amazing encounter with this centurion as recorded Matthew 8 - which revolves around the question ‘What is faith? ’
First of all, we see the humility of faith vv 5 - 8a (read).
Now to see just how remarkable this whole episode is we need to understand a little about the soldier who came to Jesus. You see, centurions formed the military backbone of the Roman Empire. They were NCO’s who exercised discipline, trained recruits, carried out orders from on high and unlike other senior officers went over the top with the rest of the men. Now at this particular point there were probably no Roman centurions in Palestine - so he could have been a recruit from say Lebanon or Syria. That as it may be, the point remains that these were the enforcers of a hatred occupying power. As far as the Jews were concerned God owed them no favours whatsoever, rather he would have done everyone a favour had he ousted them, as the Nazi’s were eventually driven out of Holland and Norway in 1945. What is more, centurions were not renown for treating those they occupied with anything remotely approaching respect - contempt - yes, but never respect.
And so it is absolutely breathtaking to find one of their number coming to Jesus, one of the conquered Jews, and calling him Lord - a term of great respect and deference, and treating him as someone of such exalted rank that the home of a humble soldier was far beneath him. Who was he to have someone like Jesus deign to come to his house? That is what he means in v8
Now humility is not only the first lesson we have to learn if we are going to make progress in the Christian faith, but it is the first lesson we must learn if we are going to make progress in anything. Tell, me, those of you who are teachers or parents, which child would you rather be dealing with - the one who thinks they know it all and has everything sewn up or those who know that you know more than they know and want to learn? It was Winston Churchill who said that when he was young he always thought he knew far more than his father and when he became a man he was amazed at how much his father had caught up in the meantime! Humility.
Now it is important to point out that humility is not the same as gullibility. There are those who think that in order to be a Christian you have to be so stupid as to believe anything and that the request for humility is nothing but a disguised plea for gullibility. One such person who thinks this is the Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins. Several months ago Dawkins was interviewed by the Christian columnist and author Ann Atkins. She asked him why he hated Christianity. To which he replied he hated all forms of religion - he wasn't prejudiced. . He said that it was not possible for any intelligent person to believe in miracles like the Virgin Birth and the feeding of the 5, 000, they were nothing but ‘party conjuring tricks’, he said, of the Uri Geller variety. When it was pointed out there were many eminent scientists who did believe in such things and carried out good science - he stubbornly refused to budge - it was impossible and that was that - they were simply wrong. Ann Atkins went on to remark that she found it amazing that Professor Dawkins was not willing to apply the same sort of critical thinking to the claims of Christianity that he applies in the scientific laboratory - a humble bowing before the evidence, going where the facts lead, rather than ruling out certain possibilities before hand. You see, even science is based upon humble faith - the belief that it is reality and not our cleverly designed theories or preconceived ideas which must have the final word. Scientists are not meant to be gullible and neither are Christians. Both are meant to be open to the truth.
And that is what this centurion was doing. He was no fool. He was a good judge of character, his career let alone his life, was dependent upon that. He was trained to ask: who could he trust in battle, who would make the grade? And you can be sure he applied the same discernment when it came to his assessment to Jesus. He didn’t just have some passing whim one day and said ‘Oh, here is this carpenter from Galilee' I think I will ask him to heal my servant. ‘He was not a clot - he used his judgement he didn't suspend it. He would have heard about Jesus miracles, his teaching. He may even have heard some of it first hand - quite probable, and so having heard Jesus, having observed him, he realised he was someone utterly different from anyone else he had ever met. And so he had the humility to ask him to help.
Now it may well be that you are here this morning and you have some hazy ideas about who Jesus is, but to be frank not much of it makes sense to you. Well, that is fine. Just be honest about it. And that is why here at St John’s we are keen on helping people find out about the Christian faith for themselves, not taking it at second hand or based upon what you might have picked up from school or Telly. Now in a few weeks time I shall be running a Christianity Explored course which is brilliant for folk who want to look into what Christianity is all about. Maybe you need a refresher course, perhaps it is all new and unlike Dawkins you have an open inquiring mind - well why not come along. But whatever you do, follow the example of the centurion - check things out for yourself. And who knows what you might find.
In fact the humility of faith invariably leads on to the perception of faith vv 8b - 10 (read).
Now what would you have expected the centurion to say to Jesus? Wouldn't it have been something like this: ‘Lord, my servant is very ill and I have heard that you are a healer, would you come with me now and perhaps say a prayer or lay your hands on him.' ? Well, this man says something which, quite frankly, was unheard of: ‘Lord, you simply have to say the word and it will be done.' Just who does he think Jesus is? Why its like healing by email. Well, he has a very accurate idea of who Jesus is, this man is pretty astute. He says in effect, ’ I know what it is like to be a man under authority too, just like you Jesus - I tell a soldier to march, he marches. I order a troop to attack - they attack. I don't have to be there supervising every single soldier on the spot - my command is enough to ensure that the job gets done.'
Both at the same time the centurion sees himself as being under authority and having authority. So what’s the point of that? Well the point is this, which reveals a remarkable perception of faith, in the Roman military system, all ultimate authority was invested in the emperor - a little like the president of the United States who is Commander - in - Chief. Now that authority was delegated all the way down the chain of command to the lowliest foot soldier. So when a centurion commanded a legionnaire to do something, it wasn’t Maximus Pontificus from the sticks of Syria giving the order - it was the emperor himself, the whole authority of Rome was behind the command to dig the latrine and what Rome said you did. To disobey an order was to disobey the emperor and so to commit treason.
So now can you see what the centurion is saying? What he is believing about Jesus? Jesus is under God’s authority and so perfectly in tune is he with his heavenly Father that what Jesus says God says, when Jesus speaks God speaks. So he is well able to heal the centurions servant with a word because God can do anything. Which is also why the centurion had a humble faith asking Jesus, you no more demand things of God than you demand things of the emperor, although some Christians seem to think you can. Do you see?
Now this does not only give us remarkable insight as to who Jesus is, because in v10 he later goes on to commend the centurion for seeing what no one else has seen, it also gives us a very important handle for understanding what faith is. There are always two aspects of true saving faith. There is faith that and faith in. Belief that certain things are true and acting upon that belief, having trust. There are two things I often hear said, both of which reveal a complete misunderstanding about faith. The first is: ‘ Don't question, just believe. Its not a matter of fact but of faith.' So belief in God is a matter of taking a leap in the dark. Where facts end, faith begins. Well, that is not what we see here. This centurion has good reasons to believe that Jesus is invested with divine authority - a fact. He rightly believes that certain things are true. - he has faith that. But of course it doesn’t end there, as a result he goes on to act, he approaches the Jesus he believes in him, trusting that he can do the most remarkable things. Which brings me to the second thing people often say to me which is : ‘I wish I had your faith’ As if I possessed some special stuff called faith which I just happen to have and the other fellow can’t find. Well, think of it like this. Supposing you have a good doctor, she is terrific, she is able to analyse symptoms with remarkable speed and always gives the right diagnosis and never misses on the remedy. You know certain things are true about her - facts and that is why you have such faith in her - trust. Now if someone were to come up to you and say ‘ I gather you have a great doctor’ I wish I had your faith.' You would say, ‘No what you mean is that you wish you had my doctor.' It is the object of your faith, who or what you are trusting in which is the thing that matters. So it is when it comes to the Christian faith. Christians do not possess something special called faith which non - Christians don’t have. None Christians, including professing atheists like Dawkins are full of faith. They believe all sorts of things without having first hand, cast iron evidence in support, like faith in their doctor for example. How do you know for sure your doctor is properly qualified? We have all read in the newspapers where there have been cases of bogus doctors. But you don’t go checking through a doctors credentials every time you go to the surgery do you? No, you exercise a reasonable belief - faith - that certain things are true and then act accordingly. Well, Christians are simply those people, like this centurion who have come to realise that Jesus is special, human, yet divine, worthy of our love, worship, devotion and trust. And so everything in life has now to be referred to him - our hopes for our family and friends, our use of money, our ambitions, our time, now come under Jesus authority, his loving rule, always asking the question: what will please him, what does he want? That is Christian faith. It is nothing magical or mystical, but it is something which is reasonable, intensely personal and practical - like trusting a person in fact. Now let me ask you: is that the sort of faith you have here this morning? A faith which makes a difference.
And just what a difference that makes we see in vv 11 - 13 - the rewards of faith (read).
First of all there is the immediate result of this trust in Jesus - as we see in v 13, from that very moment the servant was healed. And when Jesus says it will be done ‘just as you believed it would, ’ he is not saying that the centurions faith caused the healing or that it was in proportion to his faith, but rather it happened just as he expected it to happen.
But then there is the eternal result of trusting in Jesus and this is where we come across the shock in vv 11 - 12. You see there is so much more in store for this Gentile soldier and millions more like him - because of faith in Jesus or unbelief, for it actually seals our eternal destiny. Do you realise that ? When Jesus talks about people from east and west coming to share in the great feast in the kingdom of heaven it is a picture of the joy and celebration at the end of time when Christ’s kingdom is fully established. And there is only one entry requirement - the same faith as the centurion. He saw his need, how helpless he was and how Jesus alone could meet it. That is a perfect picture of every man, woman and child on this planet. Paralysed by sin, doubled up with moral guilt - no one can restore people to God, except Jesus - he alone has the authority to proclaim - ‘you are cured of your spiritual disease of sin, you are forgiven, I will give you free of charge an eternal future of unmitigated bliss where you will be with me into all eternity.
But not everyone is going to be there and this is where we come to the horror of what Jesus says. Did you nice who won’t be there? The very ones who naturally assumed they would be there - v 12 ‘the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ - a place of unrelenting misery and terror. In the context that means the Jews who lived under the Old Covenant. That doesn’t mean that all Jews are excluded because Abraham, Isaac and other are mentioned. But there is no automatic advantage for such people. You see, there was a widespread belief at the time that not a single Jew would be excluded from God’s kingdom because they were descendants of Abraham - as if their genetic code ensured salvation. And you know there are people today who are making the same grave mistake in their thinking. They assume because they were baptised, confirmed, went to the Christian Union as a student, watch songs of praise on telly or simply by virtue of being English, St Peter is waiting at the pearly gates ready to usher them in. Sadly, it is Satan who is standing at the gates of hell rubbing his hand in delight that people have been so proud and self sufficient and misguided as to trust in anything but Jesus - and it is heart breaking. Do we honestly think that if these Jews with their impeccable religious qualifications cannot get into heaven, then we can by virtue of our church connections? To reject Christ is to reject God and so be guilty of treason.
And so there is one and only one thing that matters - faith, trust in Jesus. It is the good, moral religious people many, dare I say, who will be filling may of our churches today who will be thrown outside, while it is the despised, helpless and left to himself hopeless, centurion and others like him who find themselves on the inside - forgiven and accepted. Now do you see why Christ is so controversial? Now do you see why Christ is so crucial?
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