Under the Influence

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Luke 7:1-10

Here is the most interesting line in the passage for me:
“When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him…”

Truth is, I cannot think of too many times when Jesus was amazed, can you?… I would think it would take quite a bit to amaze Jesus, but here in this story, we have him astounded by what he has just heard… A Roman Centurion has asked Jewish elders to pass on his request for healing for his slave… And the centurion has told Jesus that all Jesus has to do is to say the word and he knows his slave will be healed. After all, that’s how it works in the military!

This is just amazing to Jesus. Never, he says, has he seen such faith in Israel!

That’s quite a statement for a Jewish messiah to make. Jesus was amazed.  I think you  would have been as well.

After all, Roman Centurions worked for the occupying army of Rome. Like a soldier serving in Afghanistan, this was a Roman who was stationed in this Jewish territory to help keep the peace. If he came from Rome, he was 1500 miles from home.  As a veteran soldier who had risen through the rank, he was now in position of authority. So there he is, living among the Jews… serving his country… in military service. Like hundreds of others like him – just doing his duty.

But unlike the others, there is something different about this soldier. He is friendly to the Jews… in fact, he had built a synagogue for them.

That by itself is an amazing thing to say about him. It raises all sorts of questions about who he is… he doesn’t seem like your average Roman soldier (if you ask me) who was just doing their duty… serving their time, waiting to go home to his family.

No, he is different:

I mean, if I had been there I’d be asking,
“What kind of person is this who not only is unprejudiced towards someone else, but is willing to build a temple for their religion. Imagine a Jew in Israel building an Arab mosque? Does that make sense? Or a Palestinian building a Jewish synagogue? Or a Hindu building a temple in Pakistan? Or a Pakistani building a temple for his enemies in India? What kind of person is this centurion?”[1]

Well, we see what kind of person he is as the story unfolds. This centurion is a caring and kind person. When one of his slaves becomes gravely ill, he cares enough to send for Jesus. This was one lucky slave. Most slave owners would not have bothered. Most slaves in the first century were just things—they were branded, mutilated, sexually abused and worst of all, crucified. They had no rights to speak of and were at the mercy of their owners. One story tells of a Roman woman who had her female slave killed because she did not like the way she fixed her hair!

So, no wonder Jesus was amazed to see care and compassion come from him. That is impressive to be sure.

But I don’t think this is what really amazes Jesus. Look deeper.

Behind that caring and compassion of the centurion was a deep and profound faith that was breaking through ever social and cultural norm that was ruling his society. This Centurion was not just being kind, for as one commentator said, “he had come under the influence of the God of the Jews…”

I love that image: he was “under the influence”… makes you think of drinking doesn’t it. I imagine more than one of you in this congregation has been “under the influence” (but you won’t talk about it with the preacher)…

I’ve seen people under the influence… of alcohol… and it is interesting in a way. I had a grandfather and a uncle who were known to be under the influence but it affected them in different ways:

One became abusive and it was tragic and devastating for my mother. He did not handle alcohol well. The other was what my Dad called a “happy drunk”—when he drank he was friendly and generous… in fact, right before the great depression he was so happy that he sign off on all sorts of notes for friends who wanted to borrow money. Then my uncle lost everything.  Both my grandfather and uncle were “under the influence”.

Well, this Centurion was also under the influence… but not to alcohol… but to God– the God of the Jews… a God whose grace and love was meant to be shared with people even in the lowest social condition: a slave!

He was, what was known as a “God-fearer”—a Gentile who worshipped the God of Israel but would not submit to the ritual circumcision… He prayed regularly… went to worship faithfully, gave money to the poor. He lived out his faith.This particular man loved the Jews so much he built them a synagogue. So when his slave becomes gravely ill, he wants to ask Jesus to heal his slave. As I said, very few slave owners would have bothered… but this man was under the influence of his faith! Of God!

When the Jewish elders pass on his request and tell Jesus about the centurion, Jesus does not hesitate for a moment but follows the Jewish leaders in the direction of the soldier’s home. I think Jesus wants to see this with his own eyes!

But the Centurion, sensitive to the fact that no Jewish person can enter the home of an ‘unclean’ Gentile, sends a message to Jesus. He acknowledges that (as a Gentile) he is not worthy of a visit from the rabbi from Nazareth. (But, thanks to the military, he understands authority and he recognizes that Jesus possesses a vast authority).

Then something surprising happens—I almost missed it! I wonder if you notice that Jesus utters not one single word of healing. He only marvels at the faith of the Gentile God-fearer. Jesus has never seen anyone under the influence of their faith in quite this way! Not even in Israel!  So, without even being present in the home that is ‘not worthy’ for him to enter, and without even saying a single word, Jesus heals the servant.

I hope you are able to see that what we have here—and this is easy to miss—is not so much a healing story, but a faith story… This is a story of what happens to a person—even a person with great influence, power and authority—a story of what happens when they come under the influence of their faith.

That is what faith is meant to do—it is meant to transform us, challenge us and to change us. Under the influence, faith changes us…sometimes it takes time, but it happens. Like the Centurion, it might even have you love the enemies of your nation or ethnicity… faith under the influence will cause you to care in a way you never thought you could care…

You’ll even care for people no one else cares about in your world— like slaves. Under the influence of faith, lives are changed and people are healed, relationships transformed.

Today I think about all of our Stephen Ministers who faithfully week in and week out gather on Monday nights to train, to learn, to grow… What would drive people to dedicate themselves in a ministry of caring? What would motivate people to stand beside others who are going through painful and difficult times? Don’t they have better things to do on Monday nights?I think I know… they are under the influence! They are under the influence of their faith!

Faith in God… especially faith in Jesus will do that over time.

This week I read about such a story of someone under the influence of faith that broke barriers in our time.  I read it in one of my devotions this week. Maybe some of you read this story.  

Lucimarian Roberts remembers during the early years of integrating the military, she  sometimes was the only officer’s wife not invited to an event. She said,

“Being the only black woman in the organization, it was easy to feel alone, excluded, and marginalized. I learned to orchestrate the situation by quietly asserting myself in the proper role of an officer’s wife. …

I admit it was difficult to thrust myself into situations where some people did not want me. Often conversations would cease when I walked into the room. I kept reminding myself that Larry had earned every promotion he received, and I had my dignity and self-respect to uphold too. …

In the 1970s Larry was serving in Vietnam while the rest of our family remained behind in Biloxi. I was invited to attend a women’s prayer group. I remember feeling my blackness acutely among these white women. One woman in particular kept staring at me. I could sense that the other women noticed too and felt uncomfortable with her obsession over me. As the only black woman in the group, I tried not to let it bother me, but it was a challenge to concentrate on prayer with this woman’s eyes constantly fixed on me.

Several weeks later, I answered my front door and discovered the woman who had been staring at me. She was holding a poinsettia and extended it toward me. I invited her inside, and though she seemed a little uncertain, she stepped into my home.

After a brief moment, she made a confession. “I feel right with God except for this one thing,” she said, referring to her racial bias. “I want you to know something. I have come to love you.”

It seems that during our prayer time together, she had been confronted by her own racist attitude. Gratefully, she had come to more fully understand that we are called to love one another in Christ. It was a humbling experience, both for her and for me.”[2]

I think Jesus would have been amazed had he heard that story. Seldom did we see such faith back in the late 60s and early 70s. Even in the church.  I know, I was there!

Many Christians were more under the influence of their culture and prejudice than of Christ!But others, under the influence of Christ… found themselves being changed… and sought to bring about change in society… Which is the way it should be…

For  under the influence of faith, under the influence of Christ—amazing things happen all the time. People are healed… relationships are healed… barriers are broken… we begin to care for those who are hurting… we begin to reach out to the least, the last, the lonely and the lost… Under the influence, grace and love abounds! 

May God always find us to people who are under the influence… so that grace and love may abound in and through us! Amen.

[1] -Edward F. Markquart
Sermons from Seattle (textweek.com)

[2] – Lucimarian Roberts
My Story, My Song