The Gospel for today from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew tells the story of a centurion, an officer of the Roman army who was in charge of one hundred soldiers. This was a man who described himself as being “under authority, with soldiers under me.” In other words, he was under orders from Rome, from higher officers in the Roman army, but he also had one hundred men who were under his orders.
Now, the Orthodox Church is certainly very different from the Roman army, but there is an important sense in which the Orthodox Church is similar to the Roman army: we too live under authority, under the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Head of the Church; He is the person to whom we can turn when we need help There are also many others in our families and among our friends who see us as being in authority. Like that centurion, we also have many people who may turn to us for help and assistance in how they might live their lives.
Our Lord Jesus Christ was very impressed by the great faith of this centurion, who was not Jewish. In fact, this soldier had been sent to Palestine primarily to make sure that the Jews did not revolt; that the Jews did not cause their Roman rulers any trouble. Yet this centurion recognised that Christ had an authority over everyone, including Romans. When Christ offered to come home with the centurion to heal his servant, the centurion declined Christ’s offer and make a remarkable statement.
He said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Christ was so impressed that He healed the servant immediately and told the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” In other words, Christ said to the centurion that because you… to whom I have not come; you… who are not Jewish, have believed, your belief in Me has brought forth healing from Me.
I must admit in all honesty that the behaviour of the centurion surprised me, as did the reaction of Christ. A few weeks ago I was preaching about the importance of recognising that we are all worthy to love and serve Christ, yet here this centurion is admitting that he is not worthy; and Christ is praising the centurion for his faith. What is going on?
The Greek word that the centurion is using here that is translated as “worthy” is not “axios” but “semnos” which has the sense of not being sufficient, not being part of the people to whom Christ had first been called, the Jewish people. The centurion knew that he was a gentile, a pagan to whom Christ had not yet reached out and offered salvation, but this centurion also had the vision and the courage to ask Christ to heal his servant. Even today, the Roman Catholics remain so impressed by this centurion that they have taken his words as a model for what every Roman Catholic everywhere in the world says before receiving communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the Word and my soul shall be healed.”
As Orthodox Christians, we make a longer affirmation of belief in Christ before we receive communion. We begin with a statement of belief: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” And we end with a request that Christ will remember each of us in His kingdom, precisely because we have affirmed our belief in Christ by “partaking of Thy holy mysteries… unto the healing of soul and body.” So many different Christians continue to live with the model of this centurion who believed in Christ as a mentor for how we can live with Christ. With the centurion, we affirm our belief in Christ; and we seek healing for ourselves and for those whom we love.
Now the centurion knew that whether the healing of his servant took place or not would depend upon Christ. All 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 and his Wisdom is sufficient for our needs.
To conclude, whatever our backgrounds or our knowledge of Christ, let us believe in Him. Let us believe that within our Church the body and the blood of Christ Our Lord are as present today, as Christ was present in first century Palestine for that centurion. Let us believe in Christ and rejoice that our belief 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 ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.