Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Columnist D. W. Wilbur once lamented that “Boys don’t play ‘soldiers’ anymore.” No doubt, he was raised, as I was, in the quiet years after World War II when America’s victorious heroes ruled the world. It was a time when the former soldiers serving as coaches and Scout leaders could still fit into their uniforms. On a cold night by a smoking fire, or while driving through a barren landscape, these same men would colorfully, and often dispassionately, tell their stories. As the boys of that age, we looked forward to birthday and Christmas gifts, when we could anticipate that at least one wrapped package could contain a bag full of plastic soldiers, toy tanks, and jeeps. It was a world where water balloons in summer were hand grenades, and sandboxes were used for espionage and acting out military battles. On Memorial Day, we attended the military services waiting for the emptied gun shells to pop from the rifles of the firing squad. In the decades that would follow, the sons and nephews would grow to know that their fathers and uncles had their faults and shortcomings, and that some were haunted by their past. What mattered then was that they fought on the field of battle for the sake of others. And for that reason, we were taught that it was noble and laudable for “Boys to play war.”
A Roman soldier in ancient Palestine, however, would not have enjoyed such earnest and eager respect. Young boys would not have been raised to look up to these men as heroes. To the Jews, any Roman soldier, regardless of his rank represented the enemy. A devout Jew’s life was to be a life of prayer and meditation focusing on God’s word, visiting the Temple and offering sacrifices. In contrast, the Roman soldier’s life was dictated by a different form of discipline. The ancient historian Josephus writes, “Nothing is done without a word of command. At daybreak the rank and file report themselves to their respective centurions, the centurions go to salute the tribunes, the tribunes with all the officers then wait on the commander-in-chief, and he gives them, according to custom, the watchword and other orders to be communicated to the lower ranks.” So Jesus’ words to the crowds, having received the plea from the Centurion on behalf of his slave, would have shocked Jesus’ followers, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” After all, they wondered, could there truly be a good, Roman soldier?
My friends, this morning’s gospel teaches us that if our children are to play soldiers in this world, they should choose wisely the leader they wish to follow. The values by which they are driven are not always noble and honorable. Nationalism and war are not sufficient. In the first two centuries of Christianity, theologians wrestled with the notion whether soldiers could be welcomed into the body of Christ at all. They were not in agreement. So what did Jesus see in this Centurion that he believed was honorable and worthy to lift up? Indeed, what was so amazing that Jesus would say, “I tell, not even in Israel have I found such faith?” That is the way you and I should live our lives.
St. Luke describes the centurion as a good man with a gentle heart. In the Scriptures we read that he cared deeply for his slave. When his slave fell ill, he had deep feelings of compassion. You wouldn’t expect to find such feelings in a rugged centurion. The Jewish crowds certainly didn’t expect such behavior. In “The Epitome of Military Sciences,” the Roman historian Vegetius records, “A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak, keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod, and that the arms are burnished and bright.” No, you certainly, wouldn’t expect to find feelings of compassion in a tough Roman centurion who was living so very far away from home. You might expect such feelings for his own son or daughter, or perhaps for a dying mother or father, or a wife, but not for a slave near death. He was a good man, with a good heart. He was a gentle, kind, and loving man. My friends, how do you treat those people who are below you in rank, or below your economic and social status? Do you have show a gentle heart?
The Centurion was an unprejudiced person. In spite of the fact, the Jewish crowds despised him as a foreign ruler, he chose to show respect for the people he met. The Jewish elders in Capernaun told Jesus that he “loves our people.” Roman soldiers weren’t known for their love of Jews. Most Roman centurions hated the Jews, and guided their cohorts and legions to hate the people on the land. Palestine was a backward corner of the empire rampant with sedition and criminals citing insurrection. Soldiers need to rule by intimidation. But the Centurion was different. Not only did he love the Jewish people, but he built their synagogue. He was not prejudiced. Instead, he had true feelings of affection for people who were different than he was, people against whom the rest of the world was prejudiced. My friends, how do you treat those who are different from you? Who perhaps practice another faith? Would someone describe your love for your neighbor as unprejudiced?
And the Centurion was humble. The Jewish elders insisted, “Jesus, the centurion is worthy to have his slave healed because he loves our nation and built us a synagogue.” Yes, the elders defended the belief that the Centurion was good enough to deserve God’s healing power. Many Christians echo this same belief today. ‘That person is a good person, God. He goes to church. He is kind, and a generous giver. If anyone deserves to be healed, that person does.” You may even fee that way about yourself. “God, I’ve been faithful. I deserve your healing presence.” But not the Centurion. He was humble. Instead, he said, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore, I do not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” My friends, are you humble before God or do you consider your worthy enough for Christ to enter beneath your roof?
Finally, the Centurion was also a man faith. He said, “Jesus, simply say the word and my slave will be healed. Jesus, you don’t even need to come to my house. You don’t need to come and put your hand on his forehead and say, “rise, get up and walk.” You don’t need to spit into the ground and take up some mud and touch his body with it. All you have to do is stand right here, and say the word and my servant will be healed.”
Perhaps that is what amazed Jesus and everyone who heard the story. The notion of a Roman centurion pleading with Jesus for a miracle would have been an amazing act of faith. The Centurion may not have embodied all the customary aspects of worthiness as then listeners then would have defined it. His faith was not a rapid fire repetition of a creed, the Apostles or the Nicene. Nor was his faith a Biblical faith. He was a foreigner and stranger who had grown to love the people where he served and posted. Did he really believe that Jesus created all the heavens and the earth? Or did he believe that Jesus would come at the end of history to judge all? Probably not. The Centurion’s faith was a simple faith not resting on creeds, the Bible, nor regular church attendance. His was a simple trust that Jesus could and would heal his servant. And Jesus said of this kind of faith: “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel.”
Unlike his own authority over 100 men, the Centurion trusted that Jesus alone had power over the forces of death. As an officer, he understood how a powerful military raw force could be. He knew how swords and spears and masses of trained men could create massive destruction in their wake. He recognized such a power in Jesus, but there was a difference. The Centurion knew that his own power and authority could not heal the sick or raise the dead. Roman power could not gain the affections of a people, but only their fear. The Centurion, however, had the confidence to believe that only Jesus had the power to heal people and build communities, and restore life to his beloved slave who was near death. Jesus saw that faith, and so he did bring good health to his the Centurion’s slave.
No, we don’t know that Centurion became a follower of Jesus, though we do know that other Roman soldiers came to believe in Jesus and were baptized. We do know, however, that only once in scripture was Jesus truly amazed by a man’s faith- and that was the faith of the Centurion. And so if we want our boys to play soldiers rightly, they should follow his gentle, unprejudiced, humble trusting example.
That is what I chose to honor and celebrate again this Memorial Day weekend. No doubt, we have all known friends and relatives, uncles and fathers, who weren’t particularly strong in their faith- maybe they wouldn’t have even called themselves Christian. But the story of the Centurion reminds me, that even these unnamed soldiers in the most expected and surprising places can be used by God to do good and amazing things. Yes, these former loyal soldiers, with uniforms that no longer fit just right, may have demonstrated a faith that even Jesus would have commended. And our prayer is that the Holy Spirit will whisper that assurance into their hearts.
There is poignant monument in Fredericksburg, Virginia of a Confederate soldier pouring water from him canteen into the mouth a wounded Union soldier. Sergeant Richard Kirkland was known as the angel of the St. Marye’s Heights in the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg. It was a lopsided battle in the South’s favor. 8,000 Union soldiers had been shot in front of the stone wall at Marye’s Heights. Many of those remaining on the battlefield were still alive, but suffering terribly from their wounds and a lack of water. Soldiers from both sides were forced to listen to the painful cries of the wounded. At some point, the young Kirkland approached his Southern e commander, and informed him that he wished to help the wounded Union soldiers. By the commander’s own account, he denied the request, but later he relented. Kirkland gathered all the canteens he could carry, filled them with water, and then ventured out onto the battlefield giving the wounded Union soldiers water, warm clothing, and blankets. Soldiers from the Union and Confederate armies watched as he performed his task. And no one fired a shot. Sergeant Kirkland’s actions remain a legend in Fredericksburg to this day.
My friends, God can do amazing things with lives that are open to follow his command and choose to “play soldiers” for his kingdom. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.