Sermon by Archbishop Nikon (Rklitsky, 1892-1976)
on the Fourth Sunday of Pentecost
The Faith of the Centurion of Capernaum
“They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them”
(1 John 4:5).
“And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12).
This warning by the Lord given to His contemporaries fully applies to us, for we too, born of Orthodox parents, baptized in the faith in Christ and belonging to the Holy Orthodox Church, are sons of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the danger of being cast down in the coming age into outer darkness hangs over each one of us to the extent that we do not follow the Lord in this life.
So those of us who wish to escape this peril and inherit the kingdom of eternal bliss, to partake of the never-ending glory of the Lord, must always clearly remember the circumstances under which this warning by the Lord was uttered, and why the faith of the Centurion of Capernaum earned His special praise.
The Lord Jesus Christ, concealing His Omnipotent Divinity in the form of a humble Man, endured many sufferings in His earthly life. The thorns of His Crown and His sufferings on the Cross began from the very first day of His mission, His first encounter with a world immersed in sin. As soon as He spoke the words in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor… This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:18-21), they already sought to kill Him, and from that day the hatred of His enemies followed Him at every step of His Divine ministry. He was even deprived of understanding by His closest disciples, who were devoted to Him, but who misunderstood His teaching about the descent upon them of the Holy Spirit after His Ascension into heaven. He therefore completed His earthly mission with great self-denial and exclaimed with sorrow: “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you?” (Matthew 17:17).
But sometimes, like rays of sunlight cutting through the darkness in which mankind is immersed, the faith He came to instill in the world did warm His sorrowful heart. Just such a ray of light was the faith of the Centurion of Capernaum.
Israel had by this time lost its political independence and was conquered by the mighty Roman Empire, whose policy towards vanquished nations was that they could have full autonomy as long as they paid their taxes in a timely manner and did not rebel. To protect the interests of Rome, military garrisons were established in its cities.
Because of the enormous size of the Roman Empire, which covered much of the known world at the time, garrisons did not have large forces, but were known for their strict discipline and brutality. Garrison leaders had the fullness of authority over the city and its people.
Judging from the Gospel, the Centurion of Capernaum was a pagan, but possessed a Christian soul, for the soul is by nature Christian. He was filled with love for God, which was expressed in the fact that he had a synanogue built for the local Jews, and in the fact that he loved his neighbor, for he was persistent in seeking help for his dying servant. He was apparently among the chief, and maybe the very top, leader in Capernaum, for building a large house of prayer, as archeologists have determined it was, would not have been possible for an underling. The Lord Jesus Christ, preaching in Capernaum, was a simple Man from Nazareth, a carpenter by trade, holding no office in society. And this commander, instead of summoning this Teacher of Judea when he found need for Him, appealed to Him with piety and trepidation through His countrymen. He asked the elders of Israel to intercede on his behalf before this Teacher, deeming himself unworthy to speak to Him in person. When he learned that the Teacher was prepared to come to his house, he asked that He be halted, thereby revealing his faith and the nobility of his soul. In his words, as Luke relayed them, we can glean the following message:
“I cannot receive You, the Messiah, sent to His chosen people, into my house, for I am a pagan. I know that the law of Your people forbids them to commune with pagans, and if You enter my house, You will be condemned by them. In order to fulfill my wish, You have no need of entering my house and seeing my sick servant, like an earthly doctor. You have all the power, and command all of nature’s laws. For You it will suffice to say the word, and it will be fulfilled, for You are the master and commander of the Heaven and earth. I understand power myself, for I command my servants and they fulfill my orders without hesitation. Yet the entire universe is under Your command. From knowing Your people and their laws, I learned that the Messiah, Whom the entire world awaits, will be the incarnated Omnipotent God. From Your works in this city I have become convinced that You are that very God Incarnate. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.”
The Centurion of Capernaum was like the Three Kings who came from the distant East to worship the Savior of the world born in Bethlehem, like the Canaanite Woman of whom the Lord said “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt” (Matthew 15:28). He was like King Agbar who sought to save Christ the Savior from crucifixion on Golgotha, and who received in return an icon “not made by hands” and miraculous healing.
These had all been pagans, but they all bore witness to the fact that Christ the Savior was “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” as Righteous Simeon had foretold of the Child, and that faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world was close to the heart of everyone who fears God and is untarnished by hatred, pride or passion.
Delivered during Divine Liturgy on June 12/25, 1961, at Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY.