Sermon delivered on Sunday, July 14, on the reading from Saint Matthew 8:5-13.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.
We need to give some historical and cultural context to today’s Gospel lesson, before looking at the main point.
The centurion who approached Christ was a Roman soldier in charge of about 100 soldiers. Hence, his name – centurion, similar to century – 100 years. Being a Roman soldier, he was also a Gentile, meaning non-Jew, or pagan. Also, being a Roman soldier, he was not allowed to get married and have a family. Which could explain his great worry for one of his slaves. Servants could be like family for a man who had no family.
It took a lot of courage, even though, he was a Roman soldier, the mightiest warrior our planet has seen, it took a lot of courage for him to approach Jesus and beg Him for help. Again, the centurion was a pagan, he believed nothing that the Jews believed, but being stationed among the Jews, he must have heard about this great man, Who was walking around teaching and healing those who desired to be taught and healed.
The centurion approached Jesus, called Him Lord, and asked for help. Pagans were not supposed to be doing such things. They could not believe in the same God as the Jews did. The Jews mistakenly believed that the Messiah was only promised to them, the chosen people of God, not to some lost and misguided pagans.
Yet, the centurion asked Jesus for help and Jesus decided to go to his house and heal the servant. But the centurion, knowing that the Jews would not even enter the house of pagans, told Jesus that he was not worthy to have the Lord come into his house. He’s a pagan, he knows his place.
The centurion also told Jesus that he was a man under authority, and he had others under his authority. And whatever he told them, they did it. Therefore, recognizing that Jesus is not simply a great miracle-worker, but very likely God Himself, Who has everyone and everything under His authority, the centurion asked Him to only speak the word, and the servant will be healed.
Jesus was amazed by this faith, by this conviction of a pagan that all things are possible to Christ. And He turned around and told the crowd that always following Him, and this crowd was mostly Jews, that even in Israel, the place where God’s chosen people lived and awaited their promised Messiah, that even in Israel He had not found such faith.
This pagan soldier expressed greater faith than anyone who was supposed to have it by, basically, inheritance, by heritage.
And then Jesus told them something I would like to focus on today, He said, “Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Meaning, pagans, non-Jews, will come from east and west, and would believe in Christ as their Savior, and would convert to the true Faith, and would take the seats that were meant for the sons and daughters of the Kingdom, the seats that were meant for God’s chosen people.
Two further points on this. Eating with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven is an image of a banquet, a feast. The Jews believed, as do Christians, that the Kingdom of God is an unending party. Recall the best party you’ve ever been to…and toss it out, because God’s party is incomparable to anything feeble that we can do on this earth. God’s banquet is beyond anything we can imagine.
So, missing out on the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – is missing out on everything.
Many will come from east and west and take their places. This is not a warning, nor a threat, but a prediction of the future and reminder for us today to keep what’s important first, and what’s not important – not first.
For many of us, especially those who claim to have an ethnic Christian background, growing complacent in our faith and taking things for granted is a real and serious problem. We run the same risk of ignorance as the Jews did.
They were literally guided by God to prepare the world for the Messiah, but they botched the whole thing. They forgot that the Savior was promised to everyone, not just them. Instead of being God’s chosen people, they became a group led by a desire to preserve their ethnic heritage, their descent from Abraham.
And this led them to doing some really weird things. For example, if a man died childless, his wife had to marry his brother, and if they had a child, it would be counted as the dead man’s child.
The Jews believed that as long as they maintained their ethnic relation to Abraham, they were ensured their admittance to the banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven.
In our complacency, we also tend to think that our ethnicity or heritage or belonging to the Orthodox Church will guarantee us anything. If nothing else, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required, and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48), as we hear Christ say in the Gospel according to Luke.
If we truly believe that we are members of Christ’s Church, then we have been truly given a lot. But it was not given to us because we are the descendants of great people. Our ancestors might have been great, but the faith we have was given by the grace of God, and it was given for the glory of God. And it was given for us to grow it, not simply preserve it, within our families and communities.
This gift of faith can be preserved, it becomes real, when we share it with joy and love. We grow it, first of all, in ourselves, and share it with our families, and then share and grow the faith with our neighbors and our communities.
And only one thing stops us from sharing our faith – thinking that what we have and what we are is enough. Basically, becoming complacent.
Complacency leads to being thrown out and missing out on the banquet all together, while those with whom we refused to share the gift of faith, take our places.
Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with being ethnic or having a certain heritage. We can’t change it, we are who we are. But we need to guard it from taking priority over Christ and His Gospel.
Recall the Gospel lesson we heard three weeks ago, where Christ says some really harsh words, “Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). Notice what He says and does not say here.
He does not say hate or reject your father and mother. But He does say that if we want to have a part in Him, we can’t put anyone above Him, and that includes the closest people to us – our parents.
Same thing goes for ethnicity. Christ just as easily could have said, “Whoever loves their ethnicity more than Me is not worthy of Me.” We are who we are, we can’t change that. First of all, we are Christians.
At the same time, we are where we are, in this specific geographical location, in this specific multi-ethnic nation, because that’s where the Lord wants us to be, that where He wants us to live out and share our faith.
I would like to leave you today with the words of Saint Tikhon, who was our bishop here in America from 1898 to 1907. He said these words on Sunday of Orthodoxy in 1903:
Holding to the Orthodox faith as to something holy, and living it with all our hearts, we endeavor to spread it among the people of other creeds and beliefs. Christ the Savior has said that we do not light a candle and put it under a bushel, but we put it on a candle-stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house (Matthew 5:15). The light of Orthodox Christianity was not lit to shine only on a small number of people. The Orthodox Christian Church is universal. And we remember the words of its Founder, the Lord Jesus, Who said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). And, “Go, and teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We share our spiritual wealth, our truth, light, and joy with others who are deprived of these blessings, but they often are seeking them and thirsting for them, and not finding them.
God has us exactly where we need to be, at this time, in this place. The gift of faith He has given us is meant to be shared with the many people who will come from east and west, so that all of us would enjoy the same banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven.