Feeling in need of encouragement

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

I dreamt death came the other night
And heaven’s gate swung wide;
With kindly grace an angel came
To usher me inside.

Yet there to my astonishment
Stood folks I’d known on earth,
Some I had judged as quite unfit
Or of but little worth.

Indignant words rose to my lips
But never were set free;
For every face showed stunned surprise
NO ONE expected me!

I can’t think of many occasions in the Gospels where Jesus was amazed. Or at least not in a positive sense. The only other occasion was when he was visiting his home town of Nazareth. There his own people refused to accept him and because of their lack of faith, he was able to do little among them, and he left, ‘amazed by their lack of faith’. I really wonder whether he entered Capernaum in a better frame of mind?

All through his ministry until then, and of course, from this point onwards, Jesus had encountered opposition, and not a little of it, from those in positions of authority. The opposition of the Pharisees and Sadducees was perhaps not unexpected, but the ordinary people, his own people from his home town, his family and friends, also seemed sceptical of his calling. His experience here, ‘a prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home,’ has passed into common parlance. So, Jesus moved to Capernaum. Perhaps his closing words from the sermon were still in his ears; ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.’ But maybe things would be better in Capernaum, the home of Peter, Andrew, James and John.

I remember someone once asking me how I felt, and I replied, ‘fine!’, and he said he always interprets that as meaning, ‘Feeling In Need of Encouragement’. Perhaps that is how Jesus was feeling? And the encouragement came from an unusual source. He had no sooner arrived in Capernaum, when he was approached by the Jewish elders, with a request from the Roman centurion that Jesus would heal his slave, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us’. That last phrase, ‘it is he who built our synagogue for us’ was perhaps meant to be the clinching argument, and indeed, excavations have revealed a synagogue from the time of Jesus with walls made of worked stone and 4 feet thick. A fine synagogue indeed. But Jesus was not a bricks and mortar kind of person. He would later in his ministry make disparaging remarks about the Temple in Jerusalem, predicting that the time would come, when not one stone would be left upon another, and doubtless that phrase might well have come to mind in Capernaum. But if he wasn’t a bricks and mortar person, he was certainly a people person, and someone in need was always a call on his time. So Jesus makes his way to the centurion’s house. ‘Jesus, prepare to be amazed’.

And amazed he was, because the centurion sent a message, ‘do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed’. And Jesus was amazed. ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have l found such faith.

Encouragement came to Jesus, but from a completely unexpected source. This man was someone who would have normally been universally hated by the Jews. He represented a foreign power, an occupying army, someone who without a moment’s compunction would have ill-treated any Jew who crossed his path, who stripped a subject nation of their assets, material as well as human, and who would have regarded the traditions and ways of a subject nation to be laughable and beyond the pale. Moreover, he would have mocked their religion, and regarded them as utter pagans. But not this centurion. We are told that he loved the people his forces had invaded, he respected his slave, he honoured their religious traditions, even to the extent of building a synagogue for them.

‘Jesus, he is worthy of your compassion!’ Indeed he was, but to Jesus, everyone is worthy of compassion. You don’t have to rebuild your local church to be worthy of Jesus’ compassion. All you have to do is to recognise your need. And the centurion recognised his need. He was a man in a position of power and authority, yet he had come to a situation where his power fell short. Not all the armies of the Roman Emperor could save his servant. But he knew that Jesus could. He hadn’t met him, he’d only heard about him, and yet he was blessed because he had not seen, yet believed.

There is, l think, a mutuality about this story, a mutual giving and receiving. The centurion loved across all human barriers, as did Jesus himself, who came to save us all. Here was a man who had a practical aspect to his faith, not only in building a synagogue, but reaching out to ask for help when he needed it. And Jesus reached out to him in the same way, granting his request and acknowledging his great faith. Here was a man who approached Jesus in amazing humility and understanding. And Jesus responded to that, not only by healing his servant, but recognising the man’s boundaries and accepting them: notice, that Jesus didn’t go to his house, he didn’t force himself on him.

But above all perhaps, this story is a story of mutual encouragement. The centurion was encouraged by the healing of his servant, made confident that his faith was not in vain. And Jesus, too, must have been enormously encouraged in the middle of his ministry, that people would respond to his message and that he would indeed find faith amongst God’s people on earth.

What about you? Are you feeling in need of encouragement? If so, take this story to heart. In some traditions, the words of the centurion have been adopted as the words when receiving communion: ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak the word only, and I shall be healed.’

Let it be for us today, as it was then.

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