What would it take to amaze you? Depending on your life experience, it might be difficult for you to be surprised or taken off guard. Others might be amazed on a daily basis by the things that happen.
I was amazed this past week. I was in the Toronto area for a workshop with our denomination. Soon after the workshop, I was called by our family doctor and told that I needed to get to the nearest emergency room because my blood sugar was dangerously high. That was enough to shock me but it would only get worse. Once I was finally in a bed in the ER, things began to get interesting. I was in the bed preparing to be connected to an IV when I noticed some yelling. Down the hall were some security people trying to calm down an agitated patient. Soon there were about five security on him and the patient did not seem to appreciate it. Trying to get away from them, he began to back up down the hall. Toward my room. Tables and other medical equipment were flying but I was confident they would stop him. That is until they were all in my room trying to take him down. I was watching this scene right out of a movie and I was amazed that this was actually happening to me.
Have you ever wondered what it would take to amaze Jesus? It would take more than a hospital brawl to amaze Jesus. In fact, there are only two events in the Bible where Jesus is described as being amazed. One is when Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth where Jesus is amazed at their lack of faith. The second is the almost complete opposite and that is the faith of the centurion.
Can you imagine Jesus being amazed at the greatness of your faith? This is a passage that we dare not ignore. There is something in the experience of this centurion that we must examine and learn from.
Faith of the Centurion
The first thing that I notice in this passage is the courage of the centurion. Jesus’ ministry had been that of a Jewish Messiah within a Jewish context. The people who Jesus healed and preached to were Jews. While the Church would eventually become mostly Gentile, Jesus had almost a complete Jewish focus.
Not only this, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles was not often very good. For numerous reasons, Jews avoided contact with Gentiles. It is true that this centurion was on good terms with the Jews who knew him. However, this was after working hard to build up a relationship with them. The centurion demonstrated love for the Jewish people and even built their synagogue for them. This centurion was likely a God-fearer. A God-fearer was one who believed in the Jewish God and tried to follow the moral aspects of the faith but never officially converted. This is all going in the centurion’s favour but there is no reason he should expect Jesus to know that. In many ways, reaching out to Jesus, both as a Gentile and as a centurion, was a risky move. This prayer took courage.
As already mentioned, the faith of this centurion was partially revealed in what he did. The centurion invested in the Jewish community and tried to make a difference. There is no indication that his motivation for doing good things was for the sake of receiving miracles from God. It looks like it was simply because it was the right thing to do. His Jewish messengers brought up these things, hoping that it might sway Jesus, but Jesus already knew. The faith of the centurion, included good works.
The faith of the centurion was also humble. There is no sense that the centurion felt superior because of his race or position. We don’t see any concept of entitlement in that he deserved this miracle because of who he was and what he did. This story is often compared to the healing of Naaman by Elisha in the Old Testament. While Naaman does get right with God, we do see a superiority where he was hesitant to follow through with Elisha’s healing instructions. There is none of that in the story of the centurion.
Finally, we have the centurion understanding the authority of Jesus. All through the Gospels we have people trying to figure out Jesus. Is he just a teacher? Is he a magician? Is he a fraud? We can’t say that the centurion understood everything about Jesus, such as being a part of the Trinity. But the centurion understood authority and knew that Jesus had authority. This was what amazed Jesus. The centurion knew that Jesus did not need to come into the house to lay hands on the servant, even though he had done that before. The centurion understood what it was like it was giving and receiving orders. He knew that something like that was happening with the kingdom of God appearing with Jesus. Jesus did not need to perform magic tricks, he simply had the authority. In this way, the faith of the centurion was greater and more insightful than that even of the disciples.
So the centurion amazed Jesus with his faith. It would be a shame if we kept the principles of this passage as Bible trivia. As I look at this event, there are some questions that come to my mind.
Are our prayers too timid?
We saw the centurion take a step of faith that took courage. He had no reason to believe that the Jewish Messiah would respond to a Gentile centurion and yet he did.
What are our prayers like? What are the things that we bring to Jesus? Do we stick with the small things, afraid to ask Jesus too much? Are we just praying that we find a parking spot or is there something big that we can pray about? This is a question for us as individuals and as a church.
A number of years ago I was at a Christian event and the speaker felt led to pray for children of alcoholic parents. I had never admitted that was my situation but I had prayed about it many times. But this speaker wanted us to stand up and have the people around us pray. This would be embarrassing to me in front of people I knew, plus the lack of results from previous prayers told me that I shouldn’t bother. For some reason I did stand up and the youth group around me laid hands on me and prayed. I was single and living on my own and a week later I visited my parents. I noticed that my dad was drinking non-alcoholic beer. He saw my reaction and explained to me he had just quit drinking. Jesus had answered that prayer.
What should we pray about for this church? What is something big that we would be amazed at? And will we do more than just hope for it, but actually bring it to Jesus? Imagine if we gave up our timid prayers.
Are our prayers separated from our lifestyle?
I really didn’t want to ask this question because it is so easily misunderstood. This could sound like if we did enough good deeds that God would more likely answer our prayers. One more good deed. One more religious ritual. One more religious activity.
This sometimes comes up with the idea of fasting. I began fasting as a young Christian because I thought it would God that extra nudge to answer my prayer. Although I have had some amazing answers to prayer while fasting, I have had the same without. Fasting is meant to teach us something and not as a way to twist God’s arm.
However, the example we are given in our passage is that of a centurion who works hard to do good things. Would Jesus have refused him if he had done just a little less? Were his works a part of the equation at all? I would say that Jesus did not answer his prayer because of the works, but that his works were evidence of his faith.
I need to make it clear. You cannot earn God’s love and God does not love more those who are more active in ministry or works of charity. But I also have to say that throughout the Old and New Testaments, God expects us to live out our faith. Having faith is not about getting your prayers answered the way you want. Faith is about putting your trust in Jesus, and that should lead to some kind of outward manifestation.
Are we too prideful in our prayers?
One of the things that we discover about the centurion is that he is humble. I think is it is appropriate that, unlike Cornelius in Luke’s second volume, we are not given his name. His entire interaction with Jesus is filled with humility.
How does this affect us? This is the necessary balance to praying with courage. We should pray for big things but remember who is God and who is not. I remember as a new Christian having had a number of prayers answered in a short period of time. I felt like I had figured out the formula and kept praying. And then I felt like I was cut off. Good and noble prayers were not being answered. I knew immediately that I had developed a bad attitude toward God and prayer. I had put myself on the throne and expected God to do my bidding. I have since learned that prayer is always much better from a place of weakness than a place of strength. We must stay humble in our faith.
Do we understand who Jesus is?
The key aspect of the centurion’s interaction with Jesus was his understanding of authority. As a soldier, he understood what authority is. The centurion understood the word of command and what would happen as a result of it. The centurion perceived that this was the case for Jesus.
What kind of Jesus do we follow? Was Jesus just a religious person who tried to muddle through life and say a few wise things? Was Jesus a political rebel who got in trouble with the authorities?
When Justus was very young, he picked up a book that I had written and not being able to read, he said “Once upon a time, there was a great big Jesus.” That is who we are supposed to follow, the great big Jesus. Jesus has authority as the centurion understood because Jesus is God incarnate. This is what brings it all together. Jesus as the Son of God has all the authority to answer every prayer and to refuse us what we ask for. Jesus can and will make a difference in our life but in a way that he chooses. I have talked a lot about answers to prayer that I have seen. But there have been many that have not been answered. Some of them I can look back and give thanks that the prayer was not answered. We will never know all there is know about Jesus this side of the grave, but we should seek to see who he really is, the great big Jesus.
Imagine the look on the faces of his Jewish followers when Jesus expressed amazement at the faith of this Gentile centurion. Some were likely offended, others confused. Really it doesn’t matter when it is Jesus that is amazed in a good way.
How does Jesus see our faith? That may be a scary question but it is worth asking. It is not about whether we have enough faith to be a Christian. It is about the quality of that faith. How are we praying? How much are we trusting? Are we believing in a great big Jesus?