Well, we are going to dive straight into our scripture this morning as I have one big story that I’ll save for the final third of my sermon or so.
This morning, we continue on in our sermon series on the Gospel of Luke, having skipped a couple passages from where we left off last week, where we move out of a section that was a sermon from Jesus and now back into a section of stories about Jesus. And our story today is a particularly noteworthy one in that it is one of just two stories throughout the gospels in which Jesus’s reaction is one of amazement, in fact, it’s the only positive example of Jesus being amazed by someone else.
Jesus was, on one occasion, amazed by the people’s lack of faith, and yet, here Jesus is amazed in a good way, by a centurion’s amazing faith. And it truly is amazing faith, as we’ll see more in just a bit. At first glance, this appears to be yet another run of the mill healing story, that is, as ordinary as any miraculous healing story can be. And yet, Luke seems to want to draw our attention, not so much to the healing itself, but rather, as Jesus says, to the centurion’s amazing faith. In fact, the healing itself is almost presented as more of an afterthought. And so, in light of that, here’s the big idea that I’m hoping will carry us throughout our message today.
That, By God’s grace and through our faith, Jesus does amazing things.
By God’s grace and through our faith, Jesus does amazing things. We’ll parse out the sentence in chunks, three parts to be specific, and we’ll walk through this scripture passage as we do.
By God’s grace
Let’s briefly again here set the scene: We’re introduced to a centurion, which means he’s a Roman officer, he’s a military official of sorts working for the Roman empire. And one of his servants it turns out was sick and about to die. And we’re told that this centurion, though not Jewish himself, he too had heard about Jesus. Word had been spreading like wildfire about this miracle man who had been casting out demons and healing people of their diseases. And so he sent some of the elders of Jews it says, to Jesus, asking him to come and heal his servant. And here’s where the concept of the grace of God comes into focus in our story today. One simple way to think of grace is the unmerited, undeserving love of God towards messy, broken and sinful people like you and me. The unmerited, undeserving love of God.
In fact, notice how the word “deserve” is used in various points of this story. When the Jewish elders go to Jesus, their rationale for why Jesus should heal this person is simple. This man deserves to have you do this! After all, he loves our nation and has built our synagogue! In other words, this guy, this outsider, this Roman officer, of all people, has been so very good to us, so very generous to us. We can vouch for him. He’s one of the good guys. Please heal his servant, Jesus. This man deserves it.
In other words, this man is worthy of your help, he’s earned it. Not because of your grace, but because of his merit. Because of his good works. And yet, what’s so striking is that as the story unfolds, we see that the centurion does not buy into this same narrative, this belief that he is worthy of Jesus’s miraculous intervention because of his good standing and reputation and good works within the Jewish community.
In fact, when he sends his friends to find Jesus in route later on the story, he says this, “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” Then saying, “That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.” Which is interesting. If you stopped reading at v.5 you might have looked at the centurion’s decision to send Jewish elders to make his plea for him as the centurion effectively cashing in a favor. “Hey, I helped you build your synagogue. Now guys, do me a favor, go ask Jesus, your Lord and Messiah, if he’ll heal my servant.” But no! Turns out, he didn’t even come to Jesus in the first place because he didn’t see himself as worthy or deserving.
In total, all of this points to God’s amazing grace. You see, this centurion, in his act of humility, shows that he gets it. He, like everyone else who has ever stepped foot on this earth, is absolutely undeserving of God’s love and work in his life. Here is a man who has great power and authority, great social standing, and yet he gets it. All of us are undeserving. Everything from God is an act of grace.
By God’s grace and through our faith, Jesus does amazing things.
That’s God’s grace, now let’s look at the other part of the equation, our faith.
By God’s grace and through our faith.
Together, the two make for a powerful and potent combination. Like vinegar and baking soda. Or mentos and Coke. If you don’t know what I’m talking about there, well, try it out ☺ The centurion knows he is unworthy of God’s love and work in his life, and undeserving of having his servant healed by Jesus, and yet, there’s another factor at play, that being, his faith.
Here again is what he says.
But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
It's these words from the centurion that Jesus is amazed by. Now, what it is exactly that’s so amazing about the centurion’s faith in this moment? Well, I think the centurion understands something crucial to the nature of authority, the limits of his own authority and the surpassing greatness of Jesus’s authority. In short, the centurion understands that where and when you have authority, your words have power. Where and when you have authority, your words have power.
The centurion knows this firsthand about his own authority. As a Roman official, who works under the authority of the Roman empire, who is himself regularly in charge of 100 men or so, he knows that when he speaks to his men, his words have power. When he tells one to, ‘Go,’ they go; one to, ‘Come,’ they come. When he says, ‘Do this,’ they do it.” He understands that when and where you have authority, your words have power.
This, of course, is not all unique. We see this basic principle play out all the time in our world today. If you serve in a supervisory role, as a boss, or employer, generally speaking, based on the authority structure within the company, your employee will do what you say. If you serve a coach on a sports field or as director of a choir, generally speaking, those you serve will do what you say.
And of course, if you’re a parent, you know, that when you tell your kids to something, they joyfully and immediately, with all respect and honor and full obedience, do what you say. No? That’s not always true at your house, with your kids. Yeah, it’s not always true at my house either. Whatever, the basic principle still applies. Where and when you have authority, your word has power.
And when the centurion humbly, by the grace of God, calls for Jesus to heal his servant, he’s saying, “I’ve reached the limits of my own authority. Healing my own servant is beyond the scope of my authority. But not yours Jesus. As the centurion says, Just say the word, and my servant will be healed. He’s likely heard of this Jesus, who has not only healed people of their sicknesses by the laying on of hands, but even through the very power of his word, when he healed Peter’s mother-in-law by rebuking her fever by the power of his spoken word.
The centurion knows that his authority and word only goes so far, and yet he knows that Jesus’s authority extends far, far beyond his, extending even over sickness and death. And so the centurion says, Jesus, just say the word, and my servant will be healed. And so the centurion says, Jesus, just say the word, and my servant will be healed. That’s what you call amazing faith.
By God’s grace and through our faith, Jesus does amazing things.
Now, let’s get to the one big story I want to share with all of you. With the story I’m about to tell it may be like trying to force a square peg into a round hole, trying to fit a story in a sermon it doesn’t belong in, but I’ll do my best to connect the dots before we close. And I want to take the sermon in this direction in part because I’m hesitant to tell a story that effectively communicates, “Friends, if you just have enough faith, if you too have centurion-like faith, then your loved ones can be healed too, or your prayers can be answered too.” Then only to leave us all in despair wondering if we just, at times, simply don’t have enough faith. So instead, I want to tell a story that will shift the focus a bit, yet still showing how,
By God’s grace and through our faith, Jesus does amazing things.
It’s a story from the life of the Butterfield family, I’ve shared about them before, a strong Christian family who live in the suburbs of North Carolina and who practice what they call “radically ordinary hospitality” - radical because hardly anyone practices it, ordinary because you’re inviting people into the everyday rhythms of your life.
A few years ago, the Butterfields befriended a man who lived across the street. It wasn’t easy, because he was reclusive – he didn’t mow the lawn, owned a giant pit bull that sometimes got loose, and dismantled his doorbell after the Butterfields walked over as a family to introduce themselves. But the Butterfields “genuinely believe that God doesn’t get the address wrong,” (that is, to say, who our neighbors are is not by accident, but rather divine appointment) so they kept trying. They walked their dog with this man, had conversations in their front yards, and talked him into coming over for Thanksgiving.
And then one morning, agents from the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, knocked on their front door. Turns out, their neighbor was running a meth lab from his home. The Butterfields were floored, thinking (“How did we miss a meth lab across the street?”) and felt vaguely guilty, thinking (“Did we do something wrong by trying to become his friend?”)
Rosaria, the mother, writes: “We prayed, and we talked about it, and we agreed that this what it means to eat with sinners.” The Butterfields took in the neighbor’s pit bull, visited the man in jail, and continue to this day to write him letters. Over time, both the neighbor and the woman who’d been living with him gave their lives to Jesus.
And yet, the Butterfields didn’t limit their love that one neighbor. After the DEA came and went, the Butterfields invited all their disgruntled neighbors over for coffee, then over for a cookout. Neighbors complained about the hideous crime scene tape, the obtrusive giant pit bull, and wondered whether having an illegal drug lab in their neighborhood would ultimately lower their property values. And Kent, Rosaria’s husband and a pastor himself, talked about the brokenness of the world, how nobody there was better than a meth manufacturer, and how everyone needs Jesus.
One neighbor, incensed by the Butterfields and the grace and compassion they were showing to their meth-making neighbor, eventually said. “You want to know the problem with you Christians?” “You’re so open minded it’s like your brains are falling out of your ears.” That’s right. Christians are so open minded that they even set a seat at the table for the meth dealer across the street.
I love that story so much. All this said, the Butterfield’s, like the centurion, have a deep and very real understanding of the grace of God. They know deep down that all of us are undeserving and unworthy of the grace of God, and that, in that respect, they’re really not that different from the reclusive, soon to be found out drug dealing neighbor across the street.
The Butterfield’s, like the centurion, demonstrate an amazing faith in Jesus. I love that line of theirs – “God never gets the address wrong” – they believed, to their very core, that God had placed them where he did so that they could be a blessing to those specific people. They lived out their faith by taking Jesus’s words and actions seriously – that we are called to eat and walk alongside sinners. And yet, their faith didn’t stop there. They visited their neighbor in prison, praying and hoping for their friend to know Jesus like they did. They had faith that Jesus’s power and authority extended far beyond their own – even beyond physical healing, that Jesus even has authority to change and soften people’s hearts, and authority to forgive their sins.
By God’s grace and through our faith, Jesus does amazing things. That’s true in the case of the centurion, that’s true fir the Butterfield’s too. And I’ll finish with this. Four questions that you can chew on in the week ahead:
How might the grace of God help you see yourself and your fellow neighbor in new ways?
Is there an area in your life where you could use some centurion-like faith?
What’s a seemingly impossible prayer you can pray?
And finally, where do you need to rest and trust in Jesus’s authority and power, which by the grace of God, extends far, far beyond our own?