In the reading today from the gospel of St Matthew, Chapter 8, Verses 5 to 13, a Roman centurion is seeking 2,000 years ago what we each seek today—a relationship to Christ. Just as this centurion asked Christ to intervene in the life of his dangerously ill servant, so we too can ask Christ to intervene in anything that is not good in our own lives. We can ask Christ to intervene in our lives because of our faults and because of problems that we are not able to solve with our own wills and our own resources. Christ does not expect any of us to be perfect people. What Christ does ask is that we are honest with ourselves and with Him, that like this centurion, we learn to accept that we need the help of Christ to protect ourselves, our families and our friends from dangers, from illnesses and from problems.
What is striking about this particular Roman soldier is that here is a person who is responsible for leading 100 men into battle, responsible for giving orders to others, for telling everyone around him what they should do. So how does this soldier relate to Christ? He simply asks Christ to heal his servant. Then, when Christ responds immediately and amazingly “I will come and heal him,” what does the centurion do? He says to Christ, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”
Christ is impressed! “He marvelled and said to those who were following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.” That is quite a statement. Christ is saying to the apostles and to all of those who are following Him that their own faith is less than that of this Gentile Roman soldier. What we often remember about this gospel passage is its conclusion when Christ says to the centurion, “‘Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed that very moment.” Yet we often forget that we too are under authority. We seek to live our lives under the authority of the Orthodox Church. We believe in the beauty of its worship, in the truth of its theology, in the strength of its prayer life and in the power of its icons. Over the years of the limited span of our lives we can each experience the authority of this worship, this theology, this prayer life and these icons, such as the magnificent icons behind the iconostasis. It is right then that like this centurion, we should plea to Christ for help and at the same time recognise His authority over both the Church and the whole of our lives.
We are a community; and, in one sense, we are all in the same boat in terms of seeking a relationship with Christ. Yet we are also each rowing our own boat to various destinations in our lives. In the midst of the storms of life, we row our boats and we bail out the water of our problems, illnesses and disappointments.
I was surprised to discover that the attitude of this Roman centurion to Christ is the same as the attitude of St John the Baptist to Christ when St John the Baptist said in Chapter 3, Verse 11 of this same gospel that he was, “not fit to remove [the] sandals [of Christ].” Both the centurion and St John the Baptist are using the same Greek word, “hikanos” which has the sense of not being sufficient, not being able to complete an action. The centurion knew that he was a Gentile, a pagan to whom Christ had not yet reached out and offered salvation, but this centurion did have the vision and the courage to ask Christ to heal his servant. St John the Baptist knew that he could not bring others the Holy Spirit, yet he could ask others to repent, to prepare themselves to receive the Holy Spirit. Today we are in the same position as both this centurion and St John the Baptist. We can recognise that we are not fit to receive Christ, yet we can ask for His help; and we can repent.
Clearly, Christ does not ask the centurion or St John the Baptist or any of us to be perfect. What then does Christ ask of us? Faith. Christ asks that we wish to have a relationship with Him. Those of us who are older learn that over time this relationship to Christ can grow. At first, perhaps we are like that concerned father who wants his son to be healed and who cries out in the gospel of St Mark, Chapter 9, Verse 24: “I do believe; help my unbelief.” None of us are perfect in our belief in Christ. We just have to wish to relate to Him and to pray that He will help us.
St John Chrysostom comments that the behaviour of the centurion is impressive precisely because the centurion is not Jewish, because the centurion has not been brought up in a household that believes in one God. In St John Chrysostom’s view each person “is to be praised according to the capacity of that person. For an [illiterate] person to say something profound is a great thing, which from a philosopher is a matter that excites no wonder.” There is no gold standard of faith which we must attain in order to be blessed by Christ and to receive the Holy Spirit. We or our parents simply have to decide that we want to have a relationship to Christ and to His Church, that we wish to be baptised and that we wish to ask Christ to come into our lives, especially by coming to communion each Sunday and special feast day.
Once we make a request—once we ask Christ to come into our lives now—what happens then depends not only on us, but on Christ. This centurion knew that whether his servant would be healed depended upon Christ, not upon him. It is the same for us. All that the centurion could do was to believe, to pray, to hope that Christ would heal the servant who was much loved. It is the same for each of us today: all we can do is to believe, to pray, to hope that Christ will heal. Whether and when a healing takes place is up to Christ. His wisdom is sufficient for our needs.
It is necessary to remember that Christ does not intervene in every danger, every illness, every problem that we face. Christ treats us as one of His children; and like every loving parent, Christ does not give us everything we wish to receive. At times we may complain, we may question why our every wish is not being met, but Christ is not going to spoil us. Like the apostles who were not able to heal that son of the father who asked for help with his unbelief, we too have to learn to pray, to increase our belief in Christ, to increase our desire to have a deeper relationship to our Lord.
To conclude, whatever our backgrounds or our present knowledge of Christ, let us believe in Him. Let us believe that within this church today the body and the blood of Christ Our Lord will soon be as present as Christ was present in first century Palestine both for that centurion and for St John the Baptist. Let us believe in Christ and rejoice that our belief and our prayer can bring forth healing—healing in our own lives and in the lives of others.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise
to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Father Deacon Emmanuel Kahn