Luke7v1to10: THE FAITH OF THE CENTURION

(A) Introduction (Read the passage.)

I am not much given to alliteration but in this exposition all the headings begin with the letter, 'C'. A study of this passage is easy to organise. I will deal with: The Centurion, The Confidents and The Christ. During the course of preparing this message I read Dennis Bardens' excellent biography of Elizabeth Fry. This both touched my heart and provided some apposite illustrations for what follows.

(B) The Centurion

The centurion had several admirable characteristics:

(1) Competence and courage.

It was not possible to become a centurion in the Roman Army - in command of about 100 men - the equivalent of a British Army captain - until you had proved yourself. Promotion from the ranks depended upon a demonstration of courage and competence. It is significant that all references to centurions in the Bible are favourable.

The church needs men of courage and competence - men and women prepared to make decisions and able to carry them through. Mr Greatheart in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress was such a Christian. He defended Christiana and her family from both Giant Grim and Giant Maul.

There have been many believers through the years with courage and competence. I read only this week in the Daily Telegraph for Tuesday, May 13th 2008, the inspiring obituary of Irena Sendler who died the day before aged 98. She is credited with having saved the lives of some 2,500 Jewish babies in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War. She was a Polish Roman Catholic social worker in that city with links to Zegota - the code name for the Council for Aid to Jews. In 1942 Zegota put Irena Sendler in charge of its children's department.

It soon became clear to Zegota that the ultimate destination of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto was the Treblinka death camp. It was decided to save as many children as possible. Irena Sendler became a prime mover in this rescue mission. Infants were smuggled out of the ghetto in coffins, suitcases and sacks. Irena kept a list of all the children she saved, in the hope that she could one day reunite them with their families.

Eventually Irena Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. They took her to Pawiak prison, where she was tortured; although her legs and feet were broken, and her body left permanently scarred, she refused to betray her network of helpers or the children whom she had saved. Eventually she was sentenced to death but managed to escape after her organisation bribed a guard to set her free.

In her latter years Irena Sendler was cared for in a Warsaw nursing home by Elzbieta Ficowska, who - in July 1942, at six months old - had been smuggled out of the ghetto by Irena in a carpenter's workbox.

I think this is a wonderful story - a celebration of outstanding courage and competence.

(2) Compassion.

There (Capernaum) a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. v2.

Matthew's gospel informs us that the servant was paralysed and in pain - possibly with a virulent form of malaria.

No all Romans cared for their slaves who were considered by some to be nothing more than tools. If the tool broke - it was discarded. However, the Capernaum centurion was a man of compassion and compassion is a lovely quality. In Dennis Bardens' excellent biography of Elizabeth Fry he quotes from, 'An inquiry, whether crime and misery are produced or prevented by our present system of prison discipline of 1818,' by Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (who was well known for his leadership in abolishing the slave trade): It will naturally be asked, how and by what principles the reformation in Newgate (prison) is accomplished? How were a few ladies ..... enabled with such facility to guide those who had baffled all authority, and defied all the menaces of the law? .... I found (when visiting Newgate) that the ladies ruled by the law of kindness, written in their hearts and displayed in their actions.

This is what Mrs Thomas Geldart wrote about Elizabeth Fry:

I have .. felt her soft touch, and heard the sweet tones of her melodious voice ... and I have been conscious of breathing an atmosphere of love. ... I have seen her in the house of sorrow and mourning, when hearts were ready to break from sore bereavement, and the loving look was a balm ... so soft, so compassionate, so thrilling ... .

We all hope that when trouble comes to us we will be shown compassion. Will we receive it when we most need it? Will the nurse come when we press the bedside buzzer? Will the carer we need in our old age and infirmity be kind and considerate? Will someone remember us when we have outlived all our contemporaries and have no friends left?

It is far more important for the church to be compassionate than right about everything!

(3) Conviction

The centurion was a man of deep religious conviction. He was sufficiently committed to Judaism to build a synagogue. He spent a lot of money to promote the worship of the one true God.

Strong religious conviction is a powerful motivator. Elizabeth Fry the Quaker and prison reformer would not have achieved what she did without an intense belief in a personal God who cares about us. At the age of 17 she experienced a profound change of heart while listening to the American Quaker, William Savery, preaching at the Norwich Meeting House. She was so moved by the experience that she wept all the way home and recorded in her diary words which were to have a great effect not only on her life but upon the lives of countless others. She wrote: Today I felt there is a God. I have longed for virtue. I hope to be truly virtuous."

The Countess of Huntingdon was another woman whose strong Christian faith had a practical outcome. By the time she died in 1791 she had founded 64 chapels and a college at Trevecca to train men for the ministry. She was a keen sponsor of the evangelist George Whitfield and is thought to have spent 100, 000 in the cause of Christ - a huge amount at the end of the 18th century.

We will achieve nothing in Christ's service without a burning desire to please him!

(4) Character.

The centurion was a man of good character. The Jews who had no great love for the Romans went to Jesus and said: "He deserves to have you do this because he loves our nation." v4. The centurion was a man of such stirling worth that even his traditional enemies commended him.

Christian with a good reputation have always been able to get things done that others cannot. Pilate released the body of Jesus to Nicodemous and Joseph of Arimathea because they were both highly respected in Jerusalem.

It certainly helps the Christian cause when notable believers are admired for their character. Dennis Barden tells a lovely story about Elizabeth Fry who was summoned to be presented to Queen Charlotte at the Mansion House in the City. For some reason she was overlooked and placed on the side of the platform in the Egyptian Hall to await the arrival of the royal party. However, after a while the Queen recognised Mrs Fry - perhaps because of her plain Quaker dress - and went up to her and greeted her. Suddenly and spontaneously the great gathering began to clap. Elizabeth Fry had become to the men and women of England a symbol of mercy - a rare quality in those days - and her acceptance by the Queen was judged to be Royal approval of social reform.

During my time as a teacher at Debenham High School some of the older ladies on the staff would occasionally speak in disparaging tones of 'born again Christians'. Pastor Geoff Blake's name cropped up during the course of one of our conversations. He had been pastor of a local chapel and secretary of the Grace Baptist Association of Suffolk and Norfolk. My elderly lady colleagues immediately chirped: "Oh Geoff Blake - we know him. He used to be a governor of the school - such a nice man." I could not resist telling them that Geoff was one of those, 'born again Christians'. However, they were not having it - he was too nice to be one of them!! I have to say that Geoff had an excellent reputation in Mid-Suffolk and was a force for good in his community. His premature death was a sad loss for the Grace Baptists.

(5) Considerate

The centurion showed remarkable consideration for Jesus. He had no wish to compromise Jesus in the eyes of the strict Jews who thought it wrong to enter a Gentile home. So the courteous soldier sent a message: "Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you." v6and7. The centurion was a real gentleman. It shows great humility and sensibility to show such consideration to a stiff-necked, subject people.

When Elizabeth Fry entered the woman's section of Newgate prison the turnkey feared for her safety. Over 300 women were crammed into a space intended for 60. Some were emaciated with starvation, others wild and hollow-eyed with misery and fear, others drunk with spirits which they had bought in the prison and were dancing and yelling curses at anyone and everyone. Yet when Elizabeth Fry appeared among them the turbulent, seething women became quiet. Her gentle bearing, quiet manner and utter humility impressed them. The prisoners, in spite of their depravity and vulgarity, recognised in Mrs Fry an exceptional woman who really cared about them and did not despise them or mock them in their misfortune.

Our society seems almost to admire macho, aggressive, bullying behaviour. Cricket is bedevilled by sledging. Even the youngsters of my cricket club try and intimidate the opposition. TV shows, like Alan Sugar's, 'The Apprentice', known for the star's catch phrase, 'You're fired', glorify rudeness and ruthlessness. Nasty, unemployed teenagers who can scarcely read or write must have 'respect' and carry guns and knives to get it!

Even in the church there are bombastic Christians who call a spade a bulldozer! Perhaps, I am one of them! Certainly there are some pastors who go about cleansing their fellowship of the doctrinally unsound and then wonder why their church falls apart.

Paul in his letters to the churches consistently urges Christians to be gentle and considerate. For example in his epistle to the Romans he wrote: We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Rom15v1.

(6) Confidence.

The centurion had a wonderful confidence in Jesus. He drew a remarkable parallel between his own life and that of Jesus: "But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go', and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this', and he does it."

The centurion accepted the authority of Caesar and knew it was from this and this alone that he derived his authority over others. Soldiers obeyed him because he spoke in the name of Caesar. Somehow the godly soldier realised that Jesus was under God's authority - that Jesus spoke in God's name and it was this that gave him power over everything - even men's diseased bodies.

We shall have confidence in Christian service if we believe what Jesus said - "I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name." v23. Anyone engaged on the Lord's work will be given whatever they need to accomplish it.

(C) The Confidents

We shouldn't overlook the centurion's Jewish friends. It is a great blessing to have good friends and neighbours. Sadly, some people have none. When they die no-one even notices!

The centurion's friends were:

(1) Concerned

I like to think that the godly soldier heard about Jesus from his friends. Some of the Jews who attended the synagogue in Capernaum were so concerned for the happiness and well being of the centurion that they told him about the miracle worker from Nazareth.

It is great when we are able to point our non-Christian friends to Jesus. This is the way so many come to faith in the Saviour.

The centurion's friends were so concerned about him that they went to Jesus on his behalf. I wonder if we are so concerned about the eternal felicity of our friends that we pray for them each day.

(2) Complimentary

The centurion's friends could not have been more complimentary about him. They said to Jesus: "This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue." v5.

We don't want friends and acquaintances who run us down or damn us with faint praise. We surely hope that our friends will stand up for us and speak well of us. I can remember during my teaching career at Debenham High School writing a few words in Suzi Smith's logbook about the busy life she led - so busy that she never had time for her Geography homework. Many years previously I had also taught Suzi's mother! She took umbrage at my comments and stormed in to see the headmaster saying, among other things, "I know that Mr Reed. There's nothing you can tell me about him. I know what he's like. He can be very unreasonable..... ." Well, I was given some cautionary advice from the headmaster; then he continued, "I asked Mrs Smith what her children had to say. (I taught four of her children!) She said with some disgust, 'They all stood up for him.'" This rather cut the ground from under Mrs Smith's feet!

There are times when we need people to speak highly of us, surely none more so than in prayer. When we pray for our friends and fellow Christians I am convinced that God is pleased to hear about their better qualities.

(3) Convincing

When the centurion's friends came to Jesus they pleaded earnestly with him. v4. They were so convincing we read: So Jesus went with them. v6.

James wrote: The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. James5v16. Our prayers for the lost should be urgent. We must plead earnestly for the unsaved. The time is short!

(D) The Christ

Jesus was:

(1) Contactable

It is very frustrating when you cannot get in touch with the person you want to speak to. Numerous of my friends have stories to tell about how difficult it is to get hold of the official you need by phone in the local bank, British Telecom or the public utilities. When you have a problem it is extremely unlikely that you ever get the appropriate individual to talk to about it. There is no chance at all of speaking face to face with 'important people' like the Prime Minister, the Chief Executive of Barclay's Bank or the Director General of the BBC.

The centurion's friends easily found Jesus! None greater walked this earth! He was and is the King of Kings and Lord of All - yet ordinary folk found him readily accessible. Jesus can still be accessed by people in need. In the words of Alfred Tennyson:

        Speak to Him for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet
        Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.

He is so near that the rather more banal words of the old Sankey hymns can be sung with conviction:

          I've a message from the Lord, Hallelujah!
          The message unto you I'll give;
          'Tis recorded in His Word, Hallelujah!
          It is only that you "look and live!"

          "Look and live," ..... my brother, live!.....
          Look to Jesus now and live;
          'Tis recorded in His Word, Hallelujah!
          It is only that you "look and live!"

(2) Caring

After the centurion's friends made their case and Christ was acquainted with the problem, Jesus went with them. What hope and sense of anticipation these few words give. Jesus cared about the centurion's anguish, the slave's agony and the friend's anxiety. It was not an easy problem to solve! But Jesus went with them and as we read those words we know that all will be well.

It is because Jesus cared that he came to deal with the dread problem of our sin. There was no easy solution to man's fallen condition! Jesus endured the cross, scorning its shame (Heb12v2) to set us free from the curse and consequences of sin. It is because he cares - the Great High Priest of the sons of men - that he still comes to those who call out to him.

          Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
          Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
          Jesus ready stands to save you,
          Full of pity, hope, and power:
          He is able,
          He is willing; doubt no more.

(3) Confounded

Jesus wasn't often surprised! He was surprised by his hometown's lack of faith, his disciple's lack of understanding and Philip's lack of knowledge. Perhaps, the dying thief's conversion surprised Jesus and certainly this Gentile's insight astounded him.

Jesus was not just surprised by the centurion - he also admired his great faith. It may no longer be possible to astonish Jesus - by our faith, endurance and devotion - but it is wonderful whenever there is something about us he can admire.

Elizabeth Fry did not have it easy! Her husband's business failed and he went bankrupt. This was hard for the Quaker banker and his wife, who had poured out their money and time on so many charitable causes, to bear. Things were not made easier by the reaction of some of their fellow Quakers who had not approved of Joseph Fry's comfortable standard of living and love of entertainment and who were, perhaps, jealous of Mrs Fry's standing in society. The lack of support forthcoming from the Quaker fraternity embittered Elizabeth Fry's children and bitterly disappointed her husband. But this is not how Elizabeth reacted. She wrote in her diary: When I look at this mysterious dispensation permitted by Almighty wisdom, I am ready to say, How is it, Lord, Thou dealest thus with Thy servant, who loves Thee, trusts Thee and fears Thy name? .... I cannot reason upon it, I must bow ... and say in my heart ... "Not as I will, but as Thou wilt." Surely faith like this is admired - even in the courts of heaven.

(4) Capable

Elizabeth Fry was an immensely capable woman. On her first visit to the women's section of Newgate prison she and her friend moved swiftly from child to child, distributing clothing, ordering straw as bedding from the warders, tending to the sick, speaking comforting words to the mothers. Mrs Fry always brought practical help to the distressed. She also had some excellent ideas for the reform of prisons for which she was a persuasive advocate. Elizabeth Fry was a good organiser, able to delegate responsibility and remarkably industrious over a long period. So, she was able to bring about remarkable changes in the prison system. But there were some things Mrs Fry was not capable of. It is significant that whenever she visited prison she read the Bible to, and prayed for, the inmates.

The centurion, for all his many praiseworthy qualities, couldn't deal with the problem he had and nor could his friends - but Jesus could! There is no life that Jesus cannot save and change and there is no problem that is beyond his help. I love the words of Joseph Hart's hymn:

          Lo, th' incarnate God, ascended,
          Pleads the merit of his blood;
          Venture on him, venture wholly,
          Let no other trust intrude:
          None but Jesus
          Can do helpless sinners good.

I hope I will be forgiven for one last reference to Mrs Fry. She wrote in her journal for Nov 28th 1825: Still a time of trial and anxiety in business. My mind much ruffled by it yesterday, but in tender mercy after seeking for help, the storm was gradually quieted and became a calm. How many ups and downs of life have I know! But if I sought for Grace, sufficient was found to sustain in every state.

That is the testimony of so many Christians. He is able - he is able - praise his Name.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net

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