Luke 7 When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
In the little towns along the Appalachian Hiking Trail, that Sarah Kahle from our church is walking, you find two different kinds of reactions to the through-hikers, the people who are going all the way from one end of the trail, either in Maine or Georgia, to the other. When they approach a town looking for a hot meal, to stock up on supplies, check their email, they get two kinds of responses. Some establishments try various ways, legal or otherwise, to discourage them from coming in. Others, like some restaurants hide the hikers in their own section, way off on the far end of their establishment, down in the basement, beyond the water softener and the recycling.
On the opposite end of the spectrum there’s what is called “Trail Magic.” Hikers come to a road crossing or an access place and they might see a sign saying, “Trail Magic,” with an arrow pointing in its direction. By “trail magic” is meant free, hot food, cold drinks, free first aid for your scrapes and blisters, a comfortable place to sleep for free, companionship and conversation, maybe even a hot shower. But if its food, cold drink, conversation, or a bed you need first, the shower and change of grubby clothes can wait. You’ll find the “trail magic” in rv’s and trailers, quick stops, campgrounds and in homes and churches near the trail.
Now what explains the differences between “trail magic” and “through-hikers not allowed?” How people can handle the hikers’ smell and appearance. Your casual day hiker or weekend warrior might stand a chance of getting a meal or a cup of coffee anywhere, because they haven’t had time to build up the tell-tale layers of grime, sweat and bug spray. But you can tell the through-hikers by their smell and their appearance. Both are pretty rank. And as a general rule of thumb, the farther back the through-hiker has come before ending up at your door, the worse he smells, the worse he looks.
One day, up to Jesus, comes a Roman Centurion, with the first recorded Gentile confession of faith in Jesus. He also comes with a request. Centurions like him came from the class of Roman nobility, and from the way he describes his faith, we can tell that he is used to power and its many perks: I have “soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
But for all his polish, prestige and power, the man still stinks to high heaven, at least spiritually and morally. There is no way to minimize or rationalize or over-estimate the kinds of violence, hierarchy, oppression, idolatry that went with his background, his training or his job. And I can’t see a devout Jew’s Jew like Jesus shrugging it all off and saying, “Well, all roads lead to God,” and “different strokes for different folks.”
But what Jesus says is both more gracious and yet more demanding at the same time, one of Jesus’ hardest sayings, and yet also one of his most hopeful for everyone, including us, and not just for the Centurion. He says, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”
This is a hard saying on Jesus’ part, one of many. Were I one of the twelve disciples, or a fellow rabbi standing there, my jaw would have dropped to the ground. I would have stammered in shock and surprise before I could fiinally spit out, “How can a Gentile Roman oppressor have more faith than we, who have regularly attended the synagogue services, while he was burning incense to Mars, the god of war? We, who have attended not just the Sabbath day prayers, but the daily prayers and scripture readings too? We who have kept a kosher home, observed all 632 biblical laws plus the thousands of supplemental traditions, who for generations have born the yoke of the Covenant? And you say that we have less faith than him?
“Sure, he’s a sympathizer with our people. As Centurions of the occupation army go, he’s better than most, I guess. But he’s still an occupation officer of the army that has its boot on our necks. Okay, so he paid for a synagogue, too. But we know the type. Gentiles, who sit in the back of our synagogues on a Sabbath evening, behind the lattice work screen with the women and the children, listening to the reading of the scrolls, the prayers and the teachings, or a running translation at least. They confess to have great admiration for us and our high moral standards; they confess to being deeply touched by our high and holy spiritual vision. Fine. But how many of them ever actually pay the price and take the leap of converting to Judaism, with all that that means? And costs? Some may call people like him, ‘God-fearers,’ but others among us us think that he’d be better called, a ‘fence-sitter.’
If that’s what they’re thinking, I can understand where they’re coming from. I could add a few questions of my own. Like, what do we make of the man’s hierarchical, top-down, command-and-control understanding of the kingdom of God? “I say to this person, ‘do this,’ and to that soldier, ‘do that,’ so Jesus, just say the word.” Why does Jesus affirm that man’s faith when he’s going to have so much trouble driving the same imperial, top-down, hierarchical, command-and-control mentality out of his disciples? “In the world, people lord it over each other and call themselves, ‘Benefactors,’ but it is not to be so among you. The one who is greatest among you is the one who serves. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
What if that man, and others like him, come into the church with their imperial, hierarchical, top-down, command-and-control mentality, set up shop, and try to run the show? Oh. Oops. That happened already. And we had a Reformation over it, one that is still unfinished. This man comes to Jesus fairly reeking of his imperialistic, militaristic mindset. And he wants a seat at the table? With us?
But Jesus doesn’t apologize for, nor back off from his statement, “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel.” Because Jesus sees not only how far away he is from a state of grace, as a Gentile and a militarist, he takes into account and appreciates the way in which the man is heading, and how far he has had to go to come to his confession of faith. For he was on a very long journey, from a far distant country, not only geographically, but spiritually and morally. For observant, religious Jews like Peter, becoming a disciple of Jesus was like running a hundred yard dash. But the Centurion’s journey toward Jesus was like running a marathon. For this Roman, staggering and stumbling toward him from afar, of course Jesus isn’t going to keep sending him back to improve his time over the last five miles. He’s urging and encouraging him along in the right direction, wherever he’s at. This long-distance through hiker in Roman uniform is getting Jesus’ spiritual “trail magic.”
That is exactly what we at Emmanuel Mennonite Church committed ourselves to offering other long-distance through-hikers in our vision statement, “As followers of Christ, EMC commits to worshiping God, choosing peace, nurturing community and extending hospitality.” Hopefully this includes hospitality of the home and in this sanctuary for each other and for visitors. But Jesus demonstrates toward this morally and spiritually rank and ragged officer in the army of his oppression, in the uniform of his impending crucifixion, a hospitality of the heart, a “trail magic” of the spirit, that looks not only at where the man is, but at where the man is compared to where he began, and where the man is heading.
We could look at how far this man has yet to go, and despair. Like other Roman soldiers who would later become Christian, they would have to deal with the dilemmas of being believers in the belly of The Beast that was the Roman Army. Many would die for their faith. Many would end up rowing galley ships. Many would seek demotions to non-combatant assignments until the end of their contracts, at great loss of title, time and treasure. But we can also look at how amazingly far he has come by his confession of faith, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; only say the word and my servant shall be healed.” Among all those fellow Jews standing around observing this encounter, he has heard nothing like it but from the lips of Peter.
This hospitality of the heart is spiritual “trail magic” for “outsiders” so-called, like Cornelius. It is the same for “insiders” so-called. For how much farther along the trail can we really claim to be, compared to our lofty and distant destination in God? Another rule of thumb along the Appalachian Trail is that its always easier to smell how rank another through-hiker is than oneself; its always easier to see how ragged and rangy another through-hiker looks than we do ourselves. In the same way, its easy in the church to make comparisons among ourselves and take measurements as to who is closer along on their journey toward God and goodness than others, and then pat ourselves on the backs. We use all sorts of sanctity detectors, like, “Do they talk Christian lingo? How do they vote? What radio station do they listen to? What do they believe about X, Y and Z?”
But when we turn our attention to God and try to take the measure of God’s infinite majesty and magnificence, God’s holiness, God’s love, God’s wisdom, justice and generosity, such as what he showed to the Roman Centurion, then any differences among people are so picayune as to be pointless, even silly. Among ourselves, each other, we’re comparing inches and centimeters of comparative virtue against the divine backdrop of light years of lighty years of divine holiness. Compared to the character and nature of God, we never stop needing the same extravagant grace and generosity that Cornelius received. We are all rank and ragged through-hikers on a tough trail toward a lofty and distant destination. We depend just as much upon the “trail magic” of God’s grace, and it is just as dependable for us.
Which is not to say that all roads lead to God. But I do believe that God walks all roads to find whom he can, whomever and whenever anyone is willing and open to turn in the direction of Jesus. In today’s gospel story, we see that God was even walking the far back roads in the bad neighborhood of idolatrous Roman imperialism and militarism, where he met and helped a man who was turning toward Jesus. Just as we cannot underestimate the depth of depravity that went into the job of a Roman Centurion, we can never overestimate the grace and goodness of God toward anyone.
So, whenever we meet other through-hikers like this Centurion, whoever they are, wherever they are in their journey, whatever they have done, our job is not to meet them with a twelve-page morals and heresy checklist to tell them if they are qualified to go any further. Our job is to help and encourage them along with whatever their next step of faith might be. It might be a meal, or a place to rest, or a listening ear, long before its a shower and a change of clothes. We might not be the one who helps them over the line to say Yes to Jesus and all that he stands for. But if they should do that some day, hopefully they can say about us that we befriended them on the journey and helped them along toward it.
Because we are all through-hikers on a long, rough road, needing a little “trail magic” now and then.