There are, of course, things going on in this story which we don’t see through our own cultural lens, particularly since the world Jesus lived in was ordered so much by ‘class’ in ways we may never fully understand.
Recognizing my own ignorance, I know I need to wonder, for instance, why the centurion would give so much credit to Jesus. They come from different worlds, and the world Jesus comes from is one beneath that of the centurion in most every way. It was not to be expected that the centurion in the story would turn to one such as Jesus for help.
Even so, the centurion had heard about Jesus. And to hear about Jesus would be to know that Jesus had no issue with crossing all kinds of social barriers. To hear about Jesus was to know that Jesus consistently reached out to people ‘beneath’ him. And to hear about Jesus was to know that Jesus was one who offered something which could bring wholeness again to the centurion’s highly valued slave. I expect the centurion’s whole life had taught him that sometimes authority is given. And sometimes authority is earned. No doubt, he recognized in Jesus both sorts of authority. And so in spite of all that might keep him from doing so, he turned to Jesus when he needed him most.
I think it still happens. I have known this to be so — that people in impossibly dark places look to Jesus. And from time to time you and I are called to be bearers of the gifts of God, and by association alone we carry some of the same authority the centurion in this story recognized in Jesus so long ago.
I found this to be so last week. The call came at 4 a.m., jolting me out of a sound sleep. I was on call at the hospital and they had a family in need. A baby had died. Would I come?
I have always been one who could wake up quickly when needed and I was glad for this then. Only being so fully awake I also found myself deeply aware of the terror I was feeling then. I had knelt down to pick up something off my bedroom floor and I found myself staying on my knees, breathing deeply, praying the simplest of prayers: “God, help me.”
For you see, I did not know these people whose pain was unfathomable. I did not know what to expect when I walked in there. I only knew it would be awful. For that matter, they did not know me. They only knew to say ‘yes’ when asked if they wanted a chaplain. They were looking for someone, anyone, to walk in and say or do something, anything at all. As I walked across the parking lot to the hospital, I found I was still shaking inside, knowing I did not know what I would say or do. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I still go in scared sometimes.
When I entered the room, the baby’s mama was holding him close, weeping. I knelt down next to her and in an act of attentive kindness the hospital supervisor tossed me a blanket to cushion my knees. When the young mother looked up and saw I was the chaplain she pleaded with me to baptize him.
Now I was taught in seminary that it is not right to baptize those who have died. I know this is so for baptism is not some trick we perform to open up the arms of God. I knew to my bones that little one was already with God. Only I knew my simply saying so would not have been enough. So I was brought some water and we baptized her baby as his mother held him. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we baptized him then.
Mostly I stood nearby after that as family and friends arrived. Soon another family member called her priest — who came as well. Leaving the hospital, leaving that baby behind, was excruciating for the child’s mother, of course. She clung to me in gratitude when I offered to walk with him down to the morgue, something that turned out to be unnecessary as the coroner came directly to receive him then.
I walked the family to the parking lot a while later. I did not know if I would ever see them again, but have been watching the obituaries ever since. I thought perhaps I would ask the funeral director to see if it would be all right if I attend the child’s funeral. Yesterday he made a connection with the mother and gave her my number. They had been trying to find me, she told me when we finally spoke. For I had baptized him. Would I speak at the funeral lunch on Friday? Would I get up and say a few words? And later, sometimes, when all this is past, would it be all right if we talk again?
I did not know what to say that long night turned into morning. Still, I went not on my own authority, but on the authority of Jesus himself. Jesus who walked into dark places of unspeakable pain, promised to go before me and so I was able to go. I did not think at the time that I said anything particularly profound. I felt I had nothing to offer which could take away the cause of her wrenching grief and guilt and pain. On the other hand, what I did was speak aloud the name of the One who could and would and will. I named the one who has ultimate authority over life and death. This was what this young mother was looking for. I was blessed to be the one to carry it to her then.
The centurion in this account in Luke’s Gospel knew about authority. He knew what it was to speak and to be obeyed. In spite of all that might have kept him from seeing it, he recognized authority in Jesus, too. Now this authority was not one which would command armies, rather Jesus had the authority to cast out sickness and death, suffering and pain. You and I, people of God, we also are called to act on that authority. This is what this young mother recognizes in me. And yes, sometimes I walk in afraid. Perhaps this is true for you as well. Still, somehow I am able to put one foot in front of the other and go, knowing I don’t ever go alone. Jesus walked into dark places and so I can, too. And people recognize God in that, they do.
After nearly twenty-five years of taking late night calls sometimes this is all I know for sure. If I simply get up and walk into the darkness itself, God will find a way to act. Sometimes through me. Perhaps more often in spite of me. It seems to me that Jesus’ authority was earned, at least in part, by his willingness to step beyond where most would be comfortable. Where fear threatens to overcome hope. Where darkness seems to prevail. And then that is where God works. That is where God always works. This is still true today. I have seen it to be so.
- Why do you think the centurion in Luke’s account shows such faith? Have you ever witnessed such faith?
- Is Jesus’ authority given or earned or both?
- When have you walked into darkness and then seen God work? When have you carried the authority of Jesus?