To Whom Shall We Go?
By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
It has been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. I do not know if that is true but there are many stories of soldiers praying and testifying to God’s presence with them. One was Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady who had spent six days, cold, hungry, hunted and alone in the hills of Bosnia where his plane had been shot down. He was a hero but claimed for himself that he was just a scared bunny rabbit trying to survive. O’Grady was well-trained in survival skills but he gave the credit to God. Here are his own words, “I prayed to God and asked Him for a lot of things and He delivered throughout the entire time. When I prayed for rain, God gave me rain. One time I prayed, “Lord, let me at least have someone know I’m alive and maybe come and rescue me. And guess what,” he said, “that night pilot Hanford came up on the radio.” He also said he could feel the prayers of other people for him as he lay hidden in the bush.
Another soldier recognized the power of God in Jesus two thousand years earlier. We do not know his name although he was a centurion with power over a hundred men. He was stationed at Capernaum in Galilee. This Roman soldier could command men and he did. As his friends told Jesus, “I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Luke 7:8 WEB). All his Roman power and personal authority could not bring health back to his servant who was near death. Our translation says the centurion valued this slave highly. The Greek word means at root, “love and esteem.” He are that the slave was ill, deeply enough to send for Jesus to come and heal him.
Most of us have not been shot down from airplanes or been in foxholes. We do not have to eat ants or wring out rain-soaked socks to drink water. We may have watched loved ones who were ill, even deathly ill, and prayed for divine help. Most of us have recognized times when our own power and authority failed us, when we were no longer in control and nothing we could do could restore health or bring help.
Some people rarely feel safe or in any control. I read an article about poor children in violent Bridgeport, Connecticut. One latchkey child said that coming home to an empty house, he hears God talking to him, “You don’t have to be scared. Nothing’s going to happen to you. If something does happen to you, you don’t have to worry. You’re going to heaven.” Another child, Tyrese, is described as shy, sensitive and constantly bullied. His cousin was stabbed to death. For Tyrese life without God would be unimaginable. “Because who would you trust?” he asked. A commentator, Bernard Spilka of the University of Denver, noted that “life has really gotten sort of unanchored. Children and youth are seeking anchors.
Another commentator, Shannon Dailey of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote that “things are so bad for these kids that they’re almost driven beyond everyday circumstances to look where hope is…it’s no wonder that children are turning to God.” One child in the article prayed every night “to help me do my homework and not get hit.” Another child, an eight year old boy was afraid his parents will divorce and prayed, “God help my mother and my father not to get angry and not to fight,” and a little Jewish girl who thought of the deaths in the Holocaust and wondered whether “maybe we’re living in hell right now.” None of these children are able to pretend to be in control of their lives as we so often do. We pretend that we are masters of our own destinies and control our own fate. Only God has the power to help and heal and save.
The Gospel lesson is very Lukan in showing how ready Jesus is to help people. Jesus has the power to help and is ready to help. If you look carefully at the story, you see more than just a miracle of healing. Luke also wants to each us something about Jesus’ love and acceptance as well as his power. The centurion was a Gentile and therefore to be considered unclean by the Jews.
It was no coincidence that the centurion sent the elders of the Jews to beseech Jesus to help. They appealed to him saying that the centurion was worthy of help because he loved the Jewish people and had used his resources to build their synagogue. This may indicate that the centurion was a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who still followed the Jewish moral law and believed in the God of Israel. The text does not say that and the point of the passage is not to say that only the worthy or wealthy and powerful are deserving of God’s help but rather the power of faith and that was not limited by race or background.
This text is a foreshadowing of the second chapter of Luke’s account when the Gospel would go out from Jerusalem and Judaea to Samaria and the ends of the earth. What the disciples would only come to understand after Pentecost, Jesus reveals here in this text. God’s power is not limited—and to make the point even more dramatically, the centurion was not just a Gentile but part of the occupying army of Rome. At the time of Jesus, some Jews, the Zealots, were rebelling against the Roman rulers trying to drive them out of the land. But here, the Roman centurion is commended by Jesus for his faith.
Jesus never meets the centurion or his slave. A second delegation came to Jesus with the message that the centurion felt himself unworthy to have Jesus enter his house. He would not have Jesus defile himself. Yet his faith was strong enough to confess that even the word spoken by Jesus would be powerful enough to save. Jesus had the words of eternal life, health and help. Jesus never saw or touched the slave nor do we even have a direct word recorded. It was enough that when the delegation returned to the house, they found the slave restored and in good health.
Jesus commended the faith of the centurion, a Roman and a soldier, for faith greater than that found among the people of Israel. This Gentile recognized Jesus’ authority beyond those who grew up with the Law and the Prophets. This is the part of the text that is a challenge to so many of us. God has the power to help and heal and save. It does not matter if we are rich or poor, powerful or humble, Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. There are no qualifiers to God’s love, certainly not those who are worthy because they have grown up Christian, look and act and speak Christian. God is ready to help when we turn to God as Scott O’Grady did, as the children of Bridgeport do, do many of us have.
Faith is the key. When we try to save ourselves we fail. And we need to nurture and grow our faith. Charles Darwin said that he never intended to give up his Christian religion but as a young man he “put his faith away as if it were a parchment in a desk, thinking to draw it out again later in life, but later when he went back to that desk, the parchment and dried and turned to dust.”
The article about the children of Bridgeport asked a question, “How can we nurture faith in our children?” It they are trained in faith and see the example of faithful parents, they too will believe. The writer suggested this to parents, “Offer your children unconditional love, attend worship services together and show your kids in both word and deed that faith is important to you.” Emory University sociologist, James Fowler, notes, “Many parents just glibly say they want their children to choose for themselves, but give them nothing to choose from.” Studies show that parents who seldom attend worship are rearing children even less like to have a faith commitment. In my own experience, families who worship together through the years will likely have children who stay in the faith and rear their own children in faith. Those who are dropped off for Sunday school or attend only on special occasions will likely drop out themselves.
We can be inspired by those of strong faith, reassured by examples of belief in times of difficulty. The centurion like so many since, so many still, know that the power is in God. Jesus is the power and love of God for us. “To whom shall we go?” has an answer and that is Jesus. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014 James D. Kegel. Used by permission