Preached 16 March 2003 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
On the North-West shore of the Sea of Galilee, in the curve of a small bay, there are, among some eucalyptus trees, four columns of white limestone, a bit of wall, the stumps of some pillars, a few steps, and a small area of paving on which lizards lie basking in the sun. The ruins are part of an ancient synagogue. And they’re all that remain now of Capernaum — the village which provides the setting for the story that I’ve just read to you from Matthew’s Gospel.
Capernaum was Jesus’ home — and that of his mother and his brothers and sisters. They’d all moved there just a few months earlier, shortly after Jesus had begun his ministry and had been thrown out of the synagogue at Nazareth. And there too was the house belonging to Simon Peter and his wife; and the house belonging to Matthew who wrote our Gospel. At the time of this story, Matthew was not yet a disciple of Jesus but was the tax-collector who manned the Customs and Excise post in Capernaum.
In Jesus’ day, Capernaum was an important place. It had a wonderful climate, a spring that kept it well-watered, marvellous views over the Lake and to snow-capped Mount Hermon in the North. And it was a border-town … it lay on the border between the territories of King Philip and King Herod Antipas … which is why it had its own Customs Post and its own military garrison. Not only that, it had its very own synagogue — possibly the very one whose ruins I’ve just described — and in Luke’s version of the story that I read you this morning, he tells us that the synagogue was built for the town as a gift from this Roman centurion who came to Jesus seeking healing for his slave. Indeed, in Luke’s version of the story, it is the town councillors of Capernaum who pave the way for the centurion’s request by telling Jesus: “He deserves this, for he loves our nation and he built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5).
So who was this centurion? Well, he was part of the Roman army of occupation that, for about seventy years, had been running Palestine through a governor and a number of puppet-kings, like King Philip and King Herod Antipas. The Roman army was an immense, well-oiled military machine that consisted of a number of legions. A legion was headed up by a legate and consisted of between four and six thousand men. Each legion was split into ten cohorts headed up by a tribune; and each cohort was slit into six “centuries” of between seventy and a hundred men. And each century was commanded by a centurion.
Centurions were a kind of lieutenant. They were long service, regular soldiers, all of Roman birth, chosen from the ranks purely on the basis of merit. Each had behind him a long, unbroken record of stability, courage, honour and fair-dealing. Their prime responsibility was for the discipline and obedience to orders of those under their command. Someone has called them “the glue that held the Roman army together.” And it’s perhaps not without significance that every centurion mentioned in the New Testament (and there are half a dozen of them) is mentioned favourably. And so it is with the one on whom our spotlight is turned today.
We don’t have a name for him, but we do know quite a bit about him that is not actually told to us in the gospel. We know, for instance, that he is single — because Roman soldiers were not permitted to marry during their 20 or so years of service. Many of the conscripts struck up illicit relationships with local women, but not centurions. They were not permitted any such irregularity of conduct. But centurions were well-paid and could afford to buy slaves, and because a centurion and his slaves made up his entire household, close bonds often developed so that the slaves became almost “family”. So it was, it seems with our man in Capernaum. He had a slave who, says Luke, “was dear to him.”
We also know that if our centurion was stationed in Capernaum then he belonged to a cohort on assignment from Syria to King Herod Antipas. And that in turn means that week-in, week-out, he would be in Herod’s command headquarters at Tiberias a few miles further down the Lakeside. As he reported there for briefings and fresh instructions, he would mix with Herod’s other officials and members of staff … eating with them, sharing a drink and a chat. And that is very important because it almost certainly tells us how this centurion came to have the remarkable understanding of Jesus’ ability to heal that we were told about in this morning’s gospel.
You see, according to John’s gospel, just five months before today’s story, one of those very officials from Tiberias had ridden to the village of Cana to catch Jesus who was on a visit there; and had begged him to come and heal his son who was at death’s door. Jesus had simply told him: “Go home. Your son will live.” And when Herod’s official had got back to Tiberias he had found that his son had indeed completely recovered, and that the healing had begun from the moment Jesus had said: “Your son will live”.
And we can imagine that, for five months, that story, told to our centurion over a cup of wine maybe, had been remembered, mulled over, pondered, as the centurion marched from Tiberias to Magdala … from Magdala to Corazin … from Corazin to Capernaum. Tramp, tramp, tramp. “How can a mere man banish sickness?” Tramp, tramp, tramp. “How can one human being simply dismiss disease from the body of another?”
Well, by the time his own favourite slave came to be struck down with paralysis, our centurion had the answer and he ran to Jesus with it. And I think that in doing so he gives us one of the most important insights we can ever have as to how healing works.
Let’s remind ourselves of the conversation:
“Lord,” says the centurion to Jesus. “My servant lies at home paralysed and in terrible suffering.” And Jesus replies: “I will come and heal him.” Now the centurion knows full-well that no Jew could ever enter his gentile house without becoming ritually contaminated and unclean. So he immediately tells Jesus that that is not what he is asking for. “Lord,” he says. “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just 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 slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” And we are told that “When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.’”
The centurion’s entire understanding of Jesus and his ability to heal, stemmed from his understanding of his own status as one of the commissioned officers of his Imperial Majesty, Tiberias, in Rome. Caesar! He, as a centurion, was almost at the very end of a long chain of command, but that long chain of command stretched all the way back to Caesar himself. And that was the important thing. Caesar commanded the legates, the legates commanded the tribunes, the tribunes commanded the centurions, and the centurions commanded the ordinary rank and file of the army. And this centurion understood that, when he stood in front of seventy or eighty men, all armed to the teeth, and told them to do things that they didn’t necessarily want to do, it was only the power of Caesar, standing behind him, way down the line, in Rome, that made those men obey him.
He as an ordinary man had no power to compel eighty men to do his will, but as one of Caesar’s centurions he did have the authority, backed by the imperial might of Caesar, to command the obedience of those men and to receive it.
For many years I used to read this Scripture wrongly. I used to read that the centurion was a man “of authority” and took it to mean “a man of power”, but that is not what it says. He was a man “under authority” and he came under authority by giving his allegiance to Caesar and making a vow of unquestioning and unswerving obedience to him. And it was from that wedding of his weakness with Caesar’s power in the bond of obedience that there sprang all that centurion’s ability to command armies and rule nations. Nothing of what he achieved depended on any power belonging to him. Nor did it depend on how he looked, how he felt, how he spoke, or on whether he was liked or disliked. Everything depended on the authority he was under and the power of the one wielding that authority — Caesar himself.
“You are in that position with God,” says this centurion to Jesus. “I understand that. For Tiberias Caesar read ‘God’ … for me read you. I tell Sextus Brutus to jump and he jumps … because it is really Caesar who is telling him to jump, not me. You tell leprosy to clear off and it clears off because it’s really the Almighty God who is telling it to clear off, not you. God has commissioned you to carry out his will. You have vowed unswerving obedience to him and given him your total allegiance, and now you are under his authority. He is your back-up so what you command is done.”
And he was right. Not right perhaps on the finer points of who Jesus was and what the fullness of his relationship was to God the Father … but right in his understanding of power and authority and the difference between the two. It is important that we get this understanding of the difference between power and authority right too … particularly if we intend to avail ourselves of the laying of hands later in this morning’s service.
And here is the difference. Power is something you either have or haven’t within yourself, independent of anyone else. Authority is something you can either exercise or not but it depends on the power of someone other than yourself — the one under whose authority you are. If you are a person of power, the power lies in you. If you are a person of authority, the power lies in the one whose authority you are under.
A policeman stepping out into the road and flagging down a car has actually no power to stop the car. The driver can, if he wishes, drive straight over the policeman. But a policeman stepping into the road has authority to stop a car and if the car stops it is because the driver recognises and responds to that authority. It is the power of the Crown that lies behind the policeman that stops the car. Do you understand?
So it was with Jesus. And so it is with his followers today. During his three years of ministry, Jesus freely admitted he could nothing on his own. He could, he said, “only do what I see the Father doing” (John 5:19) Even when it came to speaking, he said: “I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it” (John 12:49). Jesus was indeed a man under authority and he would never speak or act outside that authority. He was always “about his father’s business” and all he did was under the father’s authority.
And here’s the thing. At the end of his earthly life, he put his followers under that same authority too. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me!” he says. “Go and make disciples of all nations …” (Matthew 28:18-19). “Go, and these signs will accompany those who believe … in my name (that is under my authority) they will lay hands on the sick and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18). “Go … as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21).
There will be four of us offering the laying on of hands to each other and to you this morning. David and Kathleen, Jenny and myself. And the important thing for us all to grasp and to be in absolutely no doubt about is that not one of us has the power to heal or to change lives or to alter situations. But we are all under the authority of one who does have that power, and we lay hands on you in his name and in exercise of that authority. Our hands will be a symbol of God’s mighty hand … his hand of power. And it will be his hand of power that will touch bodies, minds, spirits, situations and circumstances this morning. Come in that understanding and in that faith.
And to encourage you to come in that understanding and faith, let me close by telling you of something that happened to me just nine months ago. I had developed a very bad, chesty cough that had gone on for a month or two and had not responded at all to the medicines I had bought and taken. And I was getting more and more short of breath. So much so that it was all I could do to get the wheelie bin down the drive and back up again. But, being a male, I kept putting off going to the doctors. However, at the Parish Weekend at Parcevall Hall, various people expressed such concern that, on getting home I made an appointment and went off to Moorside Surgery on 10 June. Dr Sullivan started to check me out and began to look increasingly concerned. When he’d finished he said, “I don’t want to alarm you, but I want you to go straight from here to St Luke’s and have your chest X-rayed as a matter of urgency. I think you might have heart failure.” Now some of you may remember Kathleen announcing this and praying for me in the intercessions on 16 June last year. But before then — the very day after the diagnosis in fact — I rang David to tell him what had happened, and his response was immediate. “May I get one or two people together to come and lay hands on you and pray for you?” “Yes, please,” I said.
And on the Wednesday evening David and Kim and Anne and Mick came round and the four of them joined with Yvonne in laying hands on me and praying for God to heal me. Now I can’t say that I felt anything extraordinary as they prayed for me. But as the little group continued to stand there with their hands on me, for some reason I began to try and identify the hands. That was surely David’s hand on my head. That was Mick’s on my shoulder. That was Anne’s on my other shoulder … And then, as I was doing this, I clearly heard inside my head and heart, a voice that spoke just seven words: “There is another hand laid on you.” I told everyone what I’d heard and we all took real assurance from that and went our ways.
What happened next? Well, my cough began to go! And my breathing began to improve. Then X-rays came through and they were clear. Dr Sullivan was puzzled. “Perhaps I was wrong and you have asthma,” he said. So he sent me for tests at BRI. No, I didn’t have asthma. Indeed my lung capacity and so on was 97% of what it should be. Might it be something to do with the kidneys? Off I went for a scan. All clear there. And in the end the verdict was: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with you.”
Now … mis-diagnosis? Coincidence? A fluke? I don’t think so. I heard those words: “There is another hand laid on you” and I firmly believe that there was — a hand behind the hands of David and Kim and Mick and Anne and Yvonne; the hand of God.
Those five were “under authority” and it was in the exercise of that authority, given by God, that the power of God worked within me bringing wholeness and health.
Well, as you come up here this morning we can promise you that there will be another hand laid on you also. And, as I have already said, it will touch bodies, minds, spirits, situations and circumstances and it will do so to bring blessing and to bring wholeness and health. It will, as David is fond of saying, touch you at your point of deepest need. So, a little later, when the opportunity is given, do come to receive that touch from God … and as you do, think again of the centurion, and come in his understanding and in his faith.