Have you ever gone to a party where you weren’t invited? Or where you didn’t feel welcome? Or maybe you’ve avoided going to an event where you didn’t feel you’d be welcome.
The gospel lectionary text for this week and for the next few weeks might be described as stories of unexpected guests and God’s surprising, amazing graciousness. In each of these passages, someone receives some kind of hospitality, even though none was required in the circumstances.
After Jesus preached his Sermon on the Plain to a great crowd of his disciples and others, he entered the town of Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
A centurion of the Roman army apparently heard that Jesus was coming. He heard about what Jesus was teaching and preaching and about the powerful healing he was doing.
We don’t know how this Roman centurion heard about Jesus. We don’t know why he cared so much about this slave or whether the slave was Jewish or Gentile. We don’t know what happened to the slave or the centurion after this encounter with Jesus.
What we do know is this: this Roman centurion had heard about Jesus and believed he could heal this beloved servant. We know Jesus heals the servant. We know that Jesus is amazed.
Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to either the slave or centurion after this encounter with Jesus. But we do know that Jesus doesn’t ask him to become his follower, or to take up his cross, or to deny himself, or to share the good news, or any of the other things Jesus often does in similar situations. He only speaks a word of healing. And he’s amazed at the centurion’s faith.
In her commentary on this passage, Jeannine Brown reminded me of just how unlikely a character this centurion is to be a model of faith.
But beyond being unlikely, he is also – and this may be even more important – unexpected.
This centurion was a gentile—an outsider—who would not have received an invitation to a party with observant Jews. Although, when we read through the Gospels and Acts, we find that centurions show up fairly often. Centurions were a part of the Roman occupation force in Judea and Galilee in the first century.
What’s surprising is that these representatives of Roman occupation are portrayed in positive ways, in this passage and elsewhere in the New Testament. They end up responding to Jesus and his kingdom message and recognizing who he is. Sometimes, like this centurion, they respond with faith.
This oppressor of the Jewish people initiates a conversation with a Jewish healer. He sends Jewish elders to speak on his behalf to Jesus to prove that he has been a patron of the Jewish people—that he has paid to have their synagogue built. They tell Jesus, “He is worthy of you doing this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
Jesus goes with the Jewish elders and is headed to the centurion’s house. But before he gets there, the centurion sends his friends to keep Jesus from coming to his house.
The centurion was probably what was known as a God-fearer, who respected and admired the Jewish religion but hadn’t converted. He probably knew that Jesus would have been ritually unclean if he entered a gentile’s house. So he sent word that he was confident that Jesus could heal his servant from a distance. “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for 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…. “
Luke tells us that Jesus is so amazed by the centurion’s confidence in him, that he says, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
As David Lose suggests, God regularly shows up where we don’t expect God to be, and never, ever stops delighting in surprising us.
I wonder if this story about the Roman Centurion’s surprising faith is shared by several of the Evangelists precisely because it shows that this man is capable of doing good… and that he is more complex than one might think. He is a Roman centurion and a man who does good for those in his community. He is part of the force occupying and oppressing Israel and he builds synagogues for the townspeople under his authority. This passage reminds us that we should never reduce someone to just one attribute or judge someone based on one aspect of who they are.
Shortly after he became Pope three years ago, Pope Francis surprised a lot of people when he said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and invited his hearers to meet all people, whether they believe or not, at the place of doing good works.
The fact that he included atheists among those who are redeemed by Christ and invited to do good works shocked many people. A Vatican spokesman quickly came out with an “explanatory note” that contradicted the Pope’s statement and said that the church’s position hasn’t changed, and that people who know about the Catholic Church and choose not to be part of it can not be saved.”
In the church, we continue to live in the midst of tensions and contradictions. The church, when it’s acting like an institution, tries to maintain the status quo and keep up the boundaries that divide the people who are worthy from the people we think are not worthy… that separate the people who are welcome and the people who are excluded and kept at the margins… the people we think will be “saved” and the people we think are outside the circle of God’s love.
And yet, if we’ve read through Luke’s gospel in its entirety, we know that Luke has been preparing us for this surprising story about one from the occupying army coming in faith to Jesus for healing.
When Jesus preached at the synagogue in Nazareth, he reminded the hometown crowd that there were plenty of widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, yet God sent him to a widow in Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but God sent him to cleanse Naaman the Syrian soldier. This enraged the people who heard it so much that they wanted to hurl Jesus over a cliff!
As much as we might like God to share our preferences—the scriptures keep reminding us that God’s ways are not our ways. According to this story about surprising faith, God can use those we perceive as our enemies to teach us about true faith.
I’m guessing that many of you know someone who doesn’t go to church…or isn’t particularly strong in their faith…or isn’t a Christian at all. Today’s gospel lesson invites us to imagine that this person is one of God’s beloved children and that God may use this person to do good things… and even to demonstrate surprising faith.
Even if we have decided someone is unlikely to do wonderful things… even if we have decided that someone is unworthy of God’s love… or unworthy to serve God in leadership, we need to open our hearts and minds to see that God’s love and work and salvation reaches far beyond the confines of our human rules and limitations and traditions.
God keeps showing up and surprising us, reminding us that God’s love shows no partiality. God in Christ Jesus has come breaking down dividing walls, reconciling us all to God in one body through the cross… bringing strangers and aliens and all of us together into the one household of God.
Thanks be to God!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
May 29, 2016
 In the Working Preacher blog at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1678
 David Lose, in Working Preacher blog: Unexpected Faith. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2592