We are in what is called “Ordinary Time” in the church. Christmas, Epiphany, an early Lent, Easter, Pentecost, the Holy Trinity – we haven’t had an “ordinary” Sunday in months. The occasion of our gospel story might have seemed somewhat ordinary to the disciples as well. The story takes place immediately after what is called in Luke “the sermon on the plain” when Jesus taught the Beatitudes to a vast crowd of people. Now he has come to Capernaum, on what seems to be an ordinary day, and a most unusual thing happens.
The centurion of the town sends for Jesus. He has heard about his healing power and has faith that Jesus can cure his slave who is desperately ill. Bu the centurion doesn’t come himself, he asks the elders of the town to go to Jesus on his behalf, which they are happy to do because apparently this centurion is so benevolent towards the people that he built a synagogue for them. Jesus goes along with them towards the house of the centurion, but messengers intercept, saying that Jesus does not even have to come to the house and see the slave, his word will be enough to heal him. So we never meet the centurion, nor do we meet the slave who is so ill.
Yet we learn a lot about the centurion’s character. He is a man who cares so much about his slave that he will send for a rabbi, someone not of his own faith, to cure him. He does this simply on the strength of reports he has heard about his ability to heal. He appears to be sensitive to the fact that it would be problematic for Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, to enter the house of a gentile. It might also not be good for his reputation to be seen with a centurion. But this particular centurion is not just respectful but caring towards the people among whom he maintains order. They respect him and are grateful to him for building them a synagogue where they can worship. Finally, he has complete faith in Jesus’ ability to heal his slave, so much so that he requests that he only “say the word” and his slave will be healed.
Although this is an amazing story in many respects, the most amazed person of all is Jesus. We learn throughout the gospels that he receives requests from many people to be healed or to have their loved ones healed. But this is unusual – the centurion feels comfortable sending messengers to ask Jesus for his healing power, and then he has confidence that Jesus can perform this healing without even coming into contact with the slave who is ill. Jesus declares to the crowd who followed him that he had never witnessed such faith before.
This is one of many stories in the Gospel of Luke that raise the question, “Who is Jesus?” We can just imagine the crowd, as well as the disciples, wondering among themselves, “Who is this man that he can heal someone without even seeing them? Who is he that a centurion, a person of authority, yet not of the same religion, has enough faith in him to merely ask and have confidence that it will happen?” The question appears throughout Luke – the shepherds ask “who is this child?” The crowds, the disciples, even Herod, want to know, “who then is this?”
Some of you are aware that I teach the Early Church History class for Diakonia. As the final assignment, I ask the students to write a paper on their choice of one of several topics. One of the topics is “Who is Jesus?” Last year I had a student named Madelyn who is a convert from Judaism. In her paper she explained that growing up she never thought about “Who Is Jesus?” because he was never mentioned in their house. She did not know very much about religion in general, she was taught that there were Catholics and Jews and she was Jewish and therefore not Catholic. Her church experience was limited to attending Girl Scout meetings in church basements and visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral once with her troop.
She had a friend whose Dad was Jewish but her Mom was Catholic so she was raised Catholic. Madelyn was jealous of her because she got to celebrate both Jewish and Catholic holidays; she got double presents and wore a beautiful dress for her First Holy Communion. She also got a huge basket full of chocolate at Easter. It was years later before Madelyn discovered that had nothing to do with the religious meaning of Easter.
Judaism regards Jesus as a rabbi, but only one of a number of people who claimed to be the messiah throughout Jewish history. They forbid the worship of a person as a form of idolatry, so the belief that Jesus is the Son of God or that God is revealed in the Holy Trinity is incompatible with Jewish teaching. Although it was difficult for Madelyn to leave the tradition in which she was raised, in 2005 she had a “conversion of her heart, soul and mind and was baptized as a Christian.” She states, “Whenever you come to believe that something is true, there is no disputing it for yourself. That experience finally answered the question for me as to who Jesus was and gave me a peace that surpassed all understanding.” She goes on to say that the question “Who is Jesus? once answered for ourselves, will allow us to find our identity in him and experience unconditional love, salvation and peace.”
As part of their paper I ask that students answer the question not only from their own perspective, but to also ask other people to answer the question, “Who Is Jesus?” Madelyn’s personal response is, “Who Is Jesus? He gave us a face for the invisible God, unconditional love for God that was always revealed to us as austere and who gives us the opportunity to freely worship him no matter what our economic status or our lot in life. He doesn’t judge what we have done or not done and awards us grace on a daily basis.”
Based on her realization that Christianity is more about a relationship than a religion, she asked many others the question “Who Is Jesus?” The replies are: “Son of God, my Lord and Savior, the Redeemer of my sins, the one in whom I put my trust to forgive and redeem, the one I turn to for guidance, understanding, support and encouragement, healer of my wounds, champion for my causes, helper in time of grief, struggle and confusion, my friend, the face I want to reflect when people see me. He is the air I breathe, my best friend, my teacher and rabbi, my beloved brother, my truth, the wellspring of my life, the everlasting arms wrapped around me, my friend who I dearly love, the one I turn to in trouble…the one who loved us and taught us to love each other, my everything, he’s there when I need a shoulder to cry on, he answers all of my prayers (even if it’s not the answers I expect), he gives me the strength, he provides all my needs. That is who Jesus is.” As you can see, Madelyn asked more people than any other student ever has, and she resonates with all their responses.
The people who encountered Jesus during his ministry here on earth asked themselves that question. His disciples asked themselves that question. Today that question is the title for a paper for a course in Early Church History. Millions of people have asked that question over the last two thousand years and are still asking it today. Our gospel stories for the next few weeks will continue to search for answers to that question. What is your answer when asked “Who Is Jesus?” Amen.