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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Archimandrite Kyril Jenner
In today’s gospel reading we have an account of the healing of a centurion’s servant.
The first thing that we might note is that the centurion was not of the house of Israel. His position as an officer in the Roman army makes it clear that he was part of a foreign force occupying the land. Roman armies of occupation were always drawn from other parts of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, he came to Christ, and, more importantly, Christ offered to come to him.
Other people seeking healing from Christ mostly asked him to come to them. In this case, by contrast, the centurion does not. He simply asks for healing for his servant. He recognizes our Lord’s divine power, and that that power can operate anywhere, even without the physical presence of Christ. He knows about human chains of command and perceives that the same rules apply in the divine realm. He says: “I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:9) The first phrase can be rendered in a different way. If we remember that ancient Greek was written without any punctuation, this phrase could read: “I am human: one under authority”. The word usually translated here as “man” is the generic form which applies to any human rather than the specific word which denotes a male human being. The point being that he is emphasizing his humanity in the face of Christ’s divinity. He recognizes our Lord’s divine power.
Recognizing that power he sees not only no need for our Lord to come to his servant, but also that it would not be fitting: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” (Matthew 8:8) Despite his earthly status and military rank, before Christ he is humble.
Our Lord responds by commending his faith, which is far greater than that of many of those around, who supposedly knew more of the ways of God, yet managed to be far from him. Christ said: “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 8:10-12) This saying was followed by the healing of the servant.
The words of the centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,” are words that should be very familiar to us. They are used in two of the standard prayers of preparation for Communion, both attributed to Saint John Chrysostom.
In the first we read: “Lord my God, I know that I am not fit or worthy for you to come under the roof of the house of my soul because it is wholly desolate and ruined, and you do not have in me a place worthy for you to lay your head.” We are not worthy to receive Christ, and yet, in the mystery of Holy Communion, he comes to us, despite our unworthiness.
In a second prayer we read: “I am not worthy, Master and Lord, that you should come under the roof of my soul; but since, as you love mankind, you wish to dwell in me, with courage I draw near. You give the command; I will open the gates which you alone created, and you enter with love for mankind, as is your nature; you enter and enlighten my darkened reasoning.” We need to open ourselves to Christ. We can never be worthy of him. We need to accept that he wishes to come to us. We must be humble before him, and accept that in his humility he comes to us. In Holy Communion he gives us healing of body and soul. We accept this as his gift. It is not a reward for doing well, but a freely given means of healing to help us along the way – along the way to a life lived for Christ and with Christ and filled with his love.
In his compassion he healed the centurion’s servant. Let us pray that we may also accept that healing which he gives freely to all who turn to him.