Power is an interesting commodity. Either one has power or one does not. Here in the Washington, DC area, we know about power. Power won. Power wielded. Power fiercely guarded. Power clutched in tight fists. Of course Washingtonians are not the only people who have had power, or who have had power wielded over them. It’s just that in this particular time in history, power struggles in our legislative and executive branches of government have resulted in paralyzing gridlock. The tug of war and paralysis has made Americans more keenly aware of power and its potential for good or evil. Its potential to shrink souls or expand hearts.
True, deep power—the kind that has integrity—is rare. Yet in today’s gospel, we meet someone who has that kind of power. He lives in Capernaum. Capernaum is “one of several ancient fishing villages on the Sea of Galilee.” After Jesus leaves his hometown of Nazareth, he uses Capernaum as “home base.” This is not because the town is much different from other fishing villages that dot the Galilean shores. It’s just that Jesus’ first converts—Simon Peter and Andrew—live and work there. In fact, most of Jesus’ teachings occurs within three miles of Capernaum.
Capernaum is a crossroads in the first century, which makes it a “minor trade center and toll station.” In addition, Herod Antipas, the Jewish ruler under the authority of the Romans, seizes the opportunity to make money with heavy taxes. How? Fishing is the major economy here. “Fishermen [lease] their fishing rights from persons called ‘toll collectors’. . .for a percentage of the catch. Historical evidence indicates that such lease fees could run as high as forty percent.’” (We think 28% is bad!) With such heavy taxes levied by those in power, the Jewish people struggle to make ends meet. Yet it is important that they build a synagogue, a place to worship. Enter a Gentile man with power: a centurion.
This centurion holds power—either under the authority of Herod or Rome or both. He is in charge of one hundred soldiers, and has authority over them. He gives orders. They take orders. In the words of a fifth century historian: “A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He. . .keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod. . .”
In a first century Hellenistic world bound by honor and patronage, this Gentile centurion has power and money. He also seems to be generous. He becomes benefactor of the local Jewish people, building them a synagogue. So when one of his valuable slaves becomes gravely ill, the centurion asks the Jewish elders to go find Jesus. The centurion has been their benefactor. He holds both political and economic power over them. So in some sense, because he has built their synagogue, the people “owe” him.
Two things seem clear. First, this centurion likely knows Jesus because of Jesus’ use of Capernaum as home base. Second, it is clear that the Jewish town fathers respect the centurion, because when they appeal to Jesus, they do so “earnestly.” They tell Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who build out synagogue for us.” Yet Jesus does not get very far down the road before the Gentile centurion sends a second delegation—this time, he sends his friends. Perhaps the centurion has suddenly realized that if Jesus enters a Gentile home, he will be ritually defiled. Yet there seems to be more to the centurion’s sending his friends. The man with power has found another man with power. Somehow, the centurion knows that Jesus holds more power than he does. Jesus is more than a transplanted home boy from Nazareth. Jesus is more than a prophet. The centurion has recognized that Jesus’ power comes from a source beyond him—power from God, Creator of heaven and earth. It is that divine power which the centurion acknowledges. He makes a natural bridge between the kind of power he knows and the kind that Jesus knows: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
Jesus is amazed at the depth of this Gentile’s faith. He heals the man’s slave without going a step further. One man is willing to yield his own power for that of someone else. Power that has been held for the good of a political and socio-economic world yields to a power that expands the Christian faith.
In our lives today, we hear, see and read about power won. Power wielded. Power fiercely guarded. Power clutched in tight fists. Those who hold power—whether it is in the halls of Congress or in the Church—forget that they do not really have ultimate power. Their power and control are at best illusive, at worst, destructive and evil. Holding power in a tight fist only shrinks the soul.
The best power is, in the preacher’s estimation, that which is held lightly. Power in Christ has nothing to do with rank or ordination or age. Power in Christ has to do with one’s deep, core identity. When someone knows who he or she is in God and is willing to claim the power given through the waters of baptism, the kingdom of God has come very near to us.
Two Sundays ago, then at the later service last Sunday, we reaffirmed our baptismal vows. If you were really paying attention, then you know that in doing this, we don’t just utter empty, powerless words. We claim the power given to us by Jesus Christ through baptism. Every one of God’s children has power. God give us power to live out our faith every day: in our offices, at the grocery store, in the gym, in rush hour traffic. At Starbucks, on the playground, as we travel with our families. Each one of us has gifts to share: gifts of love, of compassion, of generosity, of hearts willing to open, then expand with God’s love, grace and power. Each one of us has the choice to acknowledge God, through Jesus Christ, as the core of our existence and identity. Out of that core of power, we then shape our lives as Christians, following Jesus. We tell the good news of God’s love to people we meet. We open our hearts. We become willing to speak someone else’s language of life in order to share our language of faith. We teach our children that language of faith by learning to pray, then teaching them how to pray. We feed the poor, shelter the homeless, do outreach in the name of Jesus.
None of us is worthy for the Lord to come under our roofs. Yet amazingly enough, the Lord is always among us: in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. As the Lord nurtures and empowers us, so we are to turn, to go out, to nurture and empower the world.
How will we use such power? Will we recognize it? Will we clutch it tightly in fear? Or will we give it away in love?
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 Marianne Rice & Laurie Brink, In This Place: Reflections on the Land of the Gospels for the Liturgical Cycles, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 81.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX: Luke & John, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995),155.
 Idem, Rice & Brink, quoting Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh in Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 44. Rice & Brink reference on 83.
 Alyce M. McKenzie, quoting Vegetius in Epitome of Military Science as quoted on Cotter, p. 114, “The Faith of a Soldier: Reflections on Luke 7:1-10” from http://www.patheos.com//Progressive-Christian/Faith-Soldier-Alyce-McKenzie-05-27-2013.html. Accessed at http://www.textweek.com.
 Idem, New Interpreter’s Bible, 154.