The Christ in Our Midst who Suffers As We Do
Sermon Preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, July 2, 2023
In the Gospel reading we just heard we are given the account of a Roman centurion and his meeting with Jesus Christ. The centurion had come to Jesus on behalf of his servant who lies afflicted in his home and is paralyzed. Having compassion for the situation, and on behalf of the centurion’s servant, Jesus agrees to come to the man’s home and heal him. Now, this is a fairly significant encounter for a number of reasons, the foremost of which involves a Roman centurion beseeching the Jewish Messiah for a miracle. Lest we forget, not only was this centurion not Jewish, he also was in the employ of the Roman state, and therefore in the eyes of the Jewish people a the stark reminder of Rome’s oppression and occupation over all of Israel.
To give a short bit of backstory, about 90 years prior to this Gospel account, the Roman general Pompey had marched into Judea, sacked Jerusalem, and established the Roman province of Syria, over which the entire region of Israel was subject. Shortly following this event, Herod the Great was installed to govern all of Judea, and he wasn’t very kind to the Jewish people. Some years after Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate enters the scene, and most of us already know how Pilate figures into this picture. Both of these men were hated by the Jewish people because they were seen as occupiers, and oppressors to their faith. Both made trouble for the Jews, both inflicted suffering upon the Jewish people, and both upended the Jewish way of life. So when Jesus enters Capernaum in today’s Gospel reading, and a man in the service of the reigning Herod and Pontius Pilate, approaches the purported Jewish Messiah to ask for a miracle — and Christ agrees to it! — the scene is one of incredulity.
But here is the sheer beauty of this moment. The centurion, despite his Roman military status, approaches Jesus out of compassion for the suffering of his servant, and Christ, also known to us as the Suffering Servant, responds to his request also out of compassion. Jesus doesn’t take any time to ensure the Centurion is of the same faith as the people of Israel, or that he has the right belief. He simply recognizes the man’s compassionate and awakened heart, and responds to his request. And this must have been an enormous ask on the part of the centurion knowing the social stakes in play here. For he not only presents his initial request to Jesus, but he also acknowledges Christ’s greatness, and very likely His divinity, as indicated when the Centurion calls Him “Lord.” Had there been another Roman official on the scene who happened to overhear him referring to Jesus as “Lord,” this very well could have gotten him killed. Roman soldiers, after all, are required to take a military oath, which directly invokes the Roman gods when they their pledge allegiance to the reigning Emperor. (Incidentally, this is also why I dissuade fellow Christians to from pledging any form of allegiance to our own nation-state here in the US. Because as Christians we pledge our allegiance to no one but God. Lest we forget, It was through baptism that we made ourselves slaves to Christ, and committed ourselves to nothing other than the way of Jesus). Turning back to our story, it must have taken immense courage and a change of heart for the centurion to acknowledge Christ as Lord! We see him confess, additionally, his own unworthiness in the mere presence of Jesus! Taking into account all of these social circumstances, and the risks undertaken by the centurion, it should come as no surprise that Christ responds by exclaiming: “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
There is also something more that is quite remarkable and perhaps offers some additional clarity to the unexpected faith of the centurion. And that is simply that he cares for his servant who lies home in suffering. This type of concern is not typical of the relationship formed between a master and slave in first century Rome. Slaves had no legal personhood under Roman law. They were considered the legal property of their masters, and could be subject to torture, excessive manual labor, and sexual exploitation. They had no rights at all. But here — and we don’t know why — the centurion recognizes the slave’s suffering, and chooses to act on his behalf. This is only what I can guess is an awakened heart to the reality of Christ in his midst.
There is a deeper question still that runs beneath this Gospel narrative, and it’s one I’m certain all of us have wrestled with on more than one occasion. And that question is on the very nature of suffering itself. The centurion, as we have seen, had compassion on his suffering slave, but why does God allow the vast amount of suffering we see all around us, and in our personal lives to begin with? This is a question I’ve been asked a number of times over the past year, and in each circumstance I’ve had to tell the person there is no satisfactory answer one can offer, especially when one is in the very midst of their own suffering. But one answer I choose to offer is that when we do suffer, we are in the presence of God. For God chose to come to us as a human being who suffers as we do. Christ became human and suffered voluntarily on our behalf that we might understand a little more of what it is to be divine. As Father John Behr repeats so often, “Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way he dies as a human being.”  This is to say that “Christ does not show is what is to be God by being ‘Almighty,’ as we tend to think of this — as moving mountains, throwing lightning bolts and so on— it is rather by the all-too-human act of dying, in the particular manner that he does.”  Christ, as a human being, chose voluntarily to take on suffering — as we humans experience suffering — and he chose to die, as all of us will eventually die.
But let’s make a little a thought experiment out of this to help drive the point home… what if God did come to us as an “Almighty” God; as one who throws lightning bolts from the heavens. What benefit would that have for us? How could any of us actually relate to that? None of us can throw lightning bolts from the heavens, after all. Moreover, what does humanity as a whole have in common with such a feat? Nothing. Now, bearing this idea in mind… how does God come to us instead, that the whole of humanity can relate to God? He comes to us sharing the one thing common to every single human being that ever lived… And that is that we suffer, and we die! This process of Christ becoming human — suffering and dying — is what links every last one of us to the divine! The Apostle Paul breaks this idea down for us in 2 Corinthians, telling us that:
we have been “afflicted” in “every way,” yet we are “not crushed.” We are “perplexed, yet not despairing, persecuted yet not forsaken, cast down yet not perishing, always bearing in [our bodies] the dying of Jesus so that Jesus’ life might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. For we the living are always being delivered over to death on account of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” 
Now when each of us takes upon ourselves what it is to be like Christ — that is, to suffer on behalf of another — we learn to embrace (and imitate) Christ as He experienced suffering for each of us. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul tells us elsewhere to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” just as the centurion in today’s Gospel passage bears the burden of his suffering servant. He risked his very life that Christ might come and ease the suffering of his servant, restoring him to life again.
Truly God is with us (and within us) in the midst of our suffering. May each of us bear with one another in our collective sufferings, that we might exemplify Christ to the suffering world.
1 “John Behr: Dying to Live? Or How to Become a Human Being?" Human Flourishing in a Christian World: A Christian Perspective, August, 9 2018, https://www.christianflourishing.com/blog/2018/8/8/john-behr-dying-to-live-or-how-to-become-a-human-being.
2 John Behr, Becoming Human: Meditation on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image. (Yonkers, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013), 21.
3 2 Corinthians 4:9-10 (The New Testament: A Translation, David Bentley Hart).