All Saints Homilies:
The account of the devout centurion that appears in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, and obviously it is Matthew’s version that we are considering today. The centurion serves as a model, I believe, for how Christ our Lord is to be approached, unless Christ our Lord is to be approached as a figment of our own imagination or simply as a projection of what we want out of religion.
And since we’re gathered here today for no other reason than to approach Christ our Lord, reason prompts us to consider this man carefully that he may serve as a model of how the thing is done. How does one come to Christ our Lord? Today’s centurion gives a format.
First, he is a man of ardor. He understands the proper structure of society and knows his place in it. Notice this man emphatically does not come to Christ our Lord as an individual. It is very clear in the text that he tells our Lord, “I also am a man under authority and I have soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
This I think is the first requirement of someone who comes to Christ our Lord. He does not come as an individual but as a member of society. Our society and all societies are structured. There’s order in societies. If it’s individuals, you have an amorphous mass. But if you have a society, there’s structure and organization in the society. And structure and organization require authority to which each person out of a sense of his own integrity, places himself.
This is the first thing I would observe about our own centurion. He knows himself, subject to authority. He entertains no rebellious notions about social equality. He does not chafe under discipline. He does not complain about his duties in obedience. He is a man that respects proper structure in society and depends on that structure in order to regulate his own life.
That is to say, he is emphatically not an American of the 21st Century. He might be an American of about 50 years ago, when I remembered something about this. There were reasons for structured society back in those days. One important reason was that every single male spent two years, at least, in military service. It was very good for society, because it meant that before one could assume adulthood, every single male in society was expected to submit himself to the rigors of discipline from boot camp on.
Now there were some difficulties with that, but let’s not overlook the difference between then and now. It is an essential requirement of anyone who wants to come to Christ. Indeed, it is why Christ founded the Church and remains the head of the Church, because the Church is an ordered and structured society. Let us be convinced of this my brothers and sisters, no one comes to Christ as an individual.
He does not take you and walk with you in the garden and tell you things he’s told nobody else. “The things he said to me, no other has ever known.” Oh yes they have! It’s the same Jesus. It’s not your own private property Jesus. We come to God, in fact, by joining society, a society that Christ Himself established – the Church, with whom He identifies Himself.
Indeed, let me say that this was the very first lesson that St. Paul was taught at the time of his conversion. “The voice from Heaven said to him ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” Notice the “me.” Our Lord does not ask him, why do you persecute Christians, but, “Why do you persecute me?” You see how completely our Lord identifies Himself with the society that He has founded.
And then when our Lord had gotten Saul’s attention on the road to Damascus, Saul asks him, “What must I do?” He directs that question to Jesus. Now noticed carefully, my brothers and sisters, the reply of Jesus. He says, “Go into the city, and it will be told you what you are to do.” In other words, you will be a man subject to authority.
Notice that Christ our Lord will not directly instruct the Apostle the Gentiles. He makes him go into the city and submit to the very authority of the society he was persecuting. And Paul learned this lesson from the earliest moments of his conversion. He must enter Damascus and place himself under the discipline of the society that Christ founded. That is to say, if he wants to come to God, he must be subject to authority.
Now that authority is vast. In fact, it seems to get vaster all the time. It’s always been massive, because it’s founded by Christ our Lord. But it’s been around for 2000 years and seen the rise and fall of empires. And it’s not going to take any nonsense off anybody. It’s been around. It’s seen things. It’s been hearing the confessions of Christians for 2000 years. It has the experience of what man is made of. It can’t be fooled about the human potential. But more significantly and far deeper, it has the authority to bind and to loose.
Again, this is not 21st Century American Religion. Unless I’m mightily deceived, but I don’t think I am in this case, people in America do not pick a church on the basis of its authority to bind and to loose. Most Americans would not want to have anything to do with a Church that claimed the authority to bind and to loose.
When I was asked why I joined the Orthodox Church, I said because I need somebody who will tell me my sins are forgiven, and mean it, not just wishful thinking. A society that has heard the confession of Constantine and Charlemagne, that is the society that placed its stole on my head and has pulled at every last rotten tooth from my heart. And then I was told, “I absolve you in the name of Christ.” That was the authority I was seeking.
Any Church that is picked for any other reasons is simply a figment of our imaginations. Now this is extremely important, my brothers and sisters, because it tells us something about what it means to be a human being.
The modern world tells us that each of us is an autonomous being, but this is a lie; a most serious deception. Watch out for that word autonomy. Autos Nomos means one’s own law or a law unto one’s self. The Greeks have another name for that idiotes, which literally means somebody who belongs to himself. He doesn’t fit into the society, and he makes no effort to fit into the society. He belongs to himself. He’s an idiotes, and he’s autonomous.
But you see, this is not what it means to be a human being. People who walk to different drummers end up walking over the cliff. They don’t know anything about corrupt cadence, particularly when it’s a God-given cadence. Human beings were created to be social, for the very simple reason that it is not good for man to be alone.
I remember back when I was teaching college in the ‘60s. That was the saying around the campus. “Do your own thing.” I know most of you don’t remember the ‘60s, and I suspect most of you were not teaching in the ‘60s. I remember it very well. And that was all over the campus, “Do your own thing.”
And then somebody would be missing for a few days, and we’d go to their apartment and hold your nose because they had done their own thing. I don’t know how many students I lost, because they went into their apartments, wound up their arms, took a needle and did their own thing.
The first condition for coming to God then is to be a human being, to fit into human society. We don’t come to him as individuals but as persons. The very definition of persons requires at least two because the person is a term of relationship. So we come to Christ as persons as members of society, and specifically of the society that He Himself created.
The second thing that I would note about the centurion is that he is a man of devout humility. Now obviously, I’m in shaky territory here talking about humility – a subject in which I have read a great deal and know nothing about personal experience. I qualify the humility as devout, because I’m theoretically suspicious of any humility that is not devout and of any humility that simply has to do with subject of sentiments or even a relationship with others.
It appears to me that the only really human humility pleasing to God is a devout humility, and I’ll talk about that in a moment. Now that this was a trait of today’s centurion is manifest when he says to our Lord, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof.” That has always been the deepest of Christian sentiments, and from the earliest times, Holy Church has required us to say that before we receive Holy Communion. I’m hoping you’ve all done it. You’re required to do it.
If you look at page 49 of your little red prayer book, there’s the prayer. It’s the third prayer before Holy Communion, part of your nominal preparation for receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord. Here’s the way the prayer reads:
O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficient that thou shouldest enter under my roof into the habitation of my soul, for it is all deserted and in ruins, and thou hast not a fitting place in me to lay thy head.
We say that every time we receive Holy Communion, and then we say some other things. You know the rest of the prayer. Although the Church provide this prayer before receiving Holy Communion, my brothers and sisters, the sentiments of devout humility exemplified in this centurion are not reserved for just this special time of Holy Communion. I can’t spend a whole week in pride, arrogance, and irreverence, and then when I come to say my prayers before receiving Holy Communion, I have about two or three minutes of devout humility. It won’t quite cut it.
Devout humility is not the fruit of an inferiority complex, and it is compatible with a great deal of excellence and personal achievement. Devout humility is rather a humility born of a sense in standing in the presence of God. It consists in the constant remembrance of the living presence of God. Indeed, I believe the only proper theological basis for humility is devotion to God. It is a relationship to God that renders a man humble.
Why does the devout Jew wear a yarmulke? It sits on his head and reminds him that he is subject to authority. Now that’s just a custom of Judaism. I’m not asking you all to go out and get yourselves yarmulkes. In fact, that would look rather strange.
Devout humility in the Christian Church prescribed that men should pray with heads uncovered and that women should pray with heads covered. The reason for that, given in the New Testament, has to do with submission to authority. The New Testament distinguishes between the sexes on this basis. In both cases, Christian men and Christian women manifest that they are subject to authority. It’s a way of saying I’m subject to authority. That’s why I don’t wear my ball cap here into church. There are other reasons too.
You see, my brothers and sisters, devout humility is not just an internal sentiment. It is parsed in the way we dress, the way we speak, the way we carry ourselves, and the way we treat one another. This is the humility we see in Abraham, in Isaac, and in Jacob. This is humility of Moses, who’s described in Holy Scripture as the humblest of all men. This is the humility of Hezekiah and Josiah. This is the devout humility of John the Baptist who said of Christ, “He must increase. I must decrease.”
Thirdly, this centurion comes to Christ through the prayer of faith. He comes not to seek anything for himself, but to intercede on behalf of the servant who is dear to him. You see, he finds his place in society, and it’s structured. But that doesn’t mean he despises those below him in the structure. On the contrary, he’s the servant of those who are beneath him. That’s why he goes to Christ on behalf of this servant who is sick.
He prays in trust, and this too is required of anyone who would come to God. The centurion says, “Speak only a word and my servant will be healed.” There’s the prayer of faith. The centurion does not simply trust God in general. He trusts the word of Christ, “Say only the word,” the word that proceeds from the mouth of Christ.
And this is why the Lord accords him the uncommon praise we find in the Gospel story. “Amen I say to you, I have not found such faith even in Israel.” The centurion strikes me as man without pretense. He has nothing to prove. The simplicity of his faith and the directness of his prayer are of a peace with his devout humility and his sense of being under authority.
You know, the truly fortunate man in this story is the sick servant, who attends on such a master and who is loved by such a master and who is prayed for by such a master. The prayer of faith, after all, is not something separable from other matters we have considered, i.e., devout humility and being under authority. None of these things will be possible without the others.
What then should be the hope that we ourselves take from this story? Surely, it is the hope of being included in the multitude of which Christ our Lord says, “Many will come from east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
You see, this centurion was no Jew. He was the servant of the Roman Empire; by title the commander of 100 men. Yet Christ our Lord admits him to the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (our forefathers in the prayer of faith) in devout humility. Let Christ our Lord enable us to sit in the Kingdom of Heaven.