A Sermon by Rev. Grant H. Odhner
Preached in Rochester, Michigan May 30, 1993

“The centurion answered and said, `Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word and my servant will be healed'” (Matt. 8:8).

Though the story is very brief, it paints quite a portrait of this centurion. He was not a Jew but a Roman, a Gentile. He was an officer, as his title “centurion” implies, a commander of one hundred soldiers. He was a man of rank and dignity, and was well paid. In a small town like Capernaum he was an important man indeed.

Given all this, there are a number of striking points about him. First of all, it’s striking that he is willing to bring his problem before Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi and prophet. The Jews had no love for their Roman oppressors and shunned them. And the Romans felt a great deal of contempt for the proud and stubbornly nationalistic Jews. This suggests that the centurion was an open-minded man. Why else would he be willing even to consider believing in Jesus’ power and going to Him for help? True, he may have been desperate, but it seems unlikely that desperation alone would have been able to overcome the enormous social gap between a Roman centurion and a Jewish prophet.

The centurion is evidently a humble man. Not only is he willing to seek Jesus out and plead with Him, he is also aware of his own unworthiness. He says, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.”

There is another telling thing about the centurion. His purpose for coming is to plead not on his own behalf, but on behalf of his servant. He had no compelling obligation to take this degree of personal interest in the welfare of a slave. No doubt he did it partly as a matter of honor and out of a sense of justice, but further, it’s clear that he also cared about him and was grieved on account of his suffering. He pleads, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.” Luke’s account of this story says openly what is only implied here: that the servant “was dear to him” (Luke 7:2).

So the general sense we have about this centurion is that he is a good man. He’s noble and humble, a man of authority who nevertheless places himself under authority, not only in his civil occupation but in respect to God. He believes in the power of things greater than himself here, in the power of the Lord, Jesus Christ. He has “great faith,” as the Lord said.

The basic message of our story is that people who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His power, regardless of their status in our eyes (as church people), find healing and are invited by the Lord to “sit down” in the kingdom of heaven. We also learn that those who have this faith are good-hearted toward their fellow human beings, are humble in their own eyes, and approach Him for help. This is, in fact, the basic message of the whole New Testament. And as such it’s the most vital one to be learned from this story.

It might be noted in this connection that we need to be careful not to just gloss over the literal stories of the Word, or spend all our time dissecting words in search of higher meaning. We may be tempted to do this because we do believe that there is deeper-than-surface meaning in each and every word of Scripture indeed, that there are deeper and deeper levels of meaning there. But we need to remember that the higher senses rest in the literal sense. The surface story conveys the basic, general idea and affection. The inner senses then infill this general idea and affection with important details, details which cast light on the general meaning and enrich it. But the general meaning is the basis for the higher. So we must first understand it and take it to heart before we can see anything deeper.

This is the case with the story we are considering. Do we acknowledge the general truth that salvation requires humility, requires making effort to approach the Lord, requires great faith in His power? Do we feel this truth? We should find strength and a sense of delight in this basic message. Only when we have felt that can we really see and benefit from a deeper meaning.

Are we ready to move on to the “internal sense” and look at a more detailed idea of the “great faith” pictured in our story? The Word’s internal sense is more abstract than the literal sense. In the internal sense we don’t take the people, places, things, and actions as concrete things outside of us but as things inside of us. For example, the main characters usually stand for different parts or forces in our own mind. In our present story there are three main characters: the centurion, his servant, and Jesus. Let’s look at what they represent spiritually.

The centurion is the “internal person” in us, the higher part of us that is aware of spiritual issues and problems. Our internal person is the voice of conscience in us. Its job is to preserve order in our mind and life, to protect us from spiritual enemies, to impose discipline and direct us in good and useful ways. This part of us should be the master, carrying out the will of an even higher Master, the Lord, just as the centurion described himself:

I … am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, “Go” and he goes; and to another, “Come” and he comes; and to my slave, “Do this” and he does it (Matt. 8:8f).

The centurion aptly pictures our “internal person.”

His servant pictures the lower part of our nature, the “external person.” Our body and senses, our natural urges, our instinct for self-preservation, our love of worldly delights, possessions, and comforts these things belong to our “external person,” to our external mind. They are not in themselves bad, but they are intended to serve our internal person. The internal person, when we give it the power and authority, keeps the external person in subordination to itself, so that heaven can flow in and be present.

(The centurion’s soldiers are also mentioned. These, too, picture things in the external person which serve the internal person. More specifically, they stand for truths, or knowledge about what is true, which help in bringing order to our mind, defending and protecting it.)

Now it’s the lower part of our nature (the “servant”) that is susceptible to the influence of hell. It is not our love for the Lord or for our neighbor that can be perverted, but our love for our self and for things which serve self; also, our love for worldly goods and delights. Our love for these lower things can be inflamed and excited so as to rise out of its proper place and take precedence over our love for the Lord, for others, for the common good.

The centurion’s servant was sick. This describes a state of mind in which our external person has risen out of its proper place and become sick from evils. When this happens the hells hold our attention in selfish and worldly attitudes and concerns (and in their negativity). It then becomes very difficult for our internal concerns and wishes to work in our life. So our external person becomes, in effect, paralyzed, unable to serve. This is the state from which we need to be saved by the Lord.

Now the “centurion,” our higher nature (our conscience, the heavenly part of us), senses the sick state of our outward person. It senses the incapacitation and “dreadful torment” of the lower mind. Our internal person loves the external part of us; it loves outer delights and knowledge and the worldly things that serve it. It loves and values it as a useful servant, and longs to restore it to health.

Note that pain and unhappiness are experienced by the outer part of us when evils sicken it, but also are experienced by the inner part of us. From our inner perception of the goodness of heaven we feel the unhappiness of evil. Our inner person, which aspires to heaven, also feels a sense of loss in not being able to express its aspirations with any power and satisfaction.

For example, take the evil of speaking ill of others. This evil has its source in our outer person, in its love of self. When we let that love of self make our own pride and sense of self-worth more important than loving our neighbor, we find ourselves building up ourselves by cutting others down, by speaking ill of them.

This evil makes our outer person “sicken.” It suffers because by speaking ill of others it reaps unpleasant consequences. It alienates itself from the people who hear us; we lose their esteem and trust (or we fear this loss). Evil brings to our outer mind many mistrustful and unpeaceful emotions, which sicken it.

Meanwhile, our higher self suffers too because it aspires to truthfulness, to feeling love for others, to serving and building them up. It grieves over the outer self’s sickness. It also feels a sense of loss because after our outer person has spoken ill, it cannot turn right around and express any of its heavenly aspirations without a sense of hypocrisy and shame, without feeling a certain emptiness, without feeling a lack of delight and satisfaction, without feeling a lack of power in doing well.

Back to our story. The centurion turns to Jesus for help. This represents our ultimate realization: that only the Lord can restore our outer mind to health. This realization comes to our internal person. Only our internal person can perceive our need for the Lord and successfully turn to Him for help. Putting it another way, only from love to the Lord and love toward the neighbor our internal person’s guiding loves can we turn to the Lord. These loves in us alone are humble and willing to receive His help.

So the centurion turns to Jesus with “great faith” in His word, and his servant is healed that same hour. Our inner person turns to the Lord with faith and our outer person finds healing. In a way it’s this simple, but let’s look at the internal sense for a more specific idea of what’s involved in the healing.

The centurion’s “great faith” was that he believed that Jesus’ word could heal his servant. Jesus didn’t need to make a big show of coming to his servant’s bedside and laying His hands on him. His word, spoken from afar, had the power.

In the gospels Jesus (or “the Son of Man” as He is usually called) stands for the Lord’s Word. When He was in the world, the Lord was the Word. This is why He calls Himself the “way,” the “truth,” the “light of the world,” the “Word made flesh.” He came to reveal the “Father,” that is, He came to reveal the Divine love and goodness. Truth is what reveals love and goodness, brings it to view and to light. Truth also enables us to love by showing us what we must do and how we must change to receive love or be aware of it. Further, love saves us by the truth; it has its power through the truth.

So to believe in “Jesus” or “the Son of Man” is to believe in the Word and its truth. It stands for the realization that salvation is accomplished by means of that truth, that the Word is the Divinely provided means for healing our external person. “Believing in Jesus’ word” also stands for obeying it, living according to it. There is no real belief that stops short of doing. How can we truly say that we believe something if we don’t act on it when we can?

The centurion let the Lord heal his servant at a distance, by His word. He was willing to walk away from Jesus without knowing for sure whether his servant was healed. He didn’t know until he got home that the healing took place. This is symbolic of the fact that the Lord’s Word heals indirectly from our point of view. It doesn’t bring immediate results. We must have faith in it. We must apply it to our life; we must experiment with living it to discover how best to understand it and make it work in our own situation. Its healing can happen only over time, through our ongoing efforts. This ongoing process of living according to the Word is pictured symbolically in the centurion’s “going his way” and walking back toward his sick servant.

This indirectness of healing through the Word is important, because it is in harmony with our need to find the Lord in freedom. It gives us a meaningful part to play in our salvation. It gives us a sense of “ownership” in our rebirth, even as we discover that the Lord is doing the work. It provides for a process of change, which enables us to come to realizations gradually, which are more life-affecting and ever-deepening. This could not happen if we were healed instantaneously, without any ongoing effort of our own.

So our story’s internal sense deepens for us our idea of what is involved in spiritual sickness and health. It puts us in touch with the different elements in us that are involved: our internal person and our external person. It gives us an idea of what we are dealing with psychologically. This distinction between our inner and outer self empowers us to identify with our inner aspirations and to challenge our own attitudes when they are working against the inner “us.” The internal sense gives us more to go on.

Our story’s internal sense also deepens for us our idea of what it means to have “great faith” in the Lord and His “word.” It leads us to reflect on the nature of the Word why the Lord provides that we be saved through it, gradually and not instantaneously. It frees us to realize that having great faith does not just mean having an emotional feeling toward the Lord (something which we cannot hope to sustain): rather it means believing that if we try to live by the Lord’s Word, He will bring about change in our life; He will give us new feelings; He will restore our outer life to health and order, so that the things we care about inwardly, the unselfish ideals that we aspire to, that we have sometimes tasted, can become realities in our life again. To believe in this promise and to patiently live this life is to have “great faith.”

May we have such faith! in the Lord’s love, in His power, and in the wisdom of His leading. May we say in the humble spirit of the centurion, “Lord, … only speak a word and my servant shall be healed.” Amen.

Lessons: Deut. 9:1-5; 7:17-23; Matt. 8:5-13; DP 172

Divine Providence 172

Since the Word is from the Lord alone and treats of the Lord alone, it follows that when a person is taught from the Word he is taught from the Lord, for the Word is Divine. Who can communicate the Divine and implant it in the heart except the Divine Himself from whom it is derived and of whom it treats? When, therefore, the Lord speaks of this conjunction of Himself with the disciples He says that they should “abide in Him, and His words in them” (John 15:7), that His words were “spirit and life” (John 6:63), and that He makes His abode with those who keep His words (John 14:20-24). Therefore to think from the Lord is to think from the Word and, as it were, by means of the Word …

That the Lord is the Word He teaches in John in these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). As this passage has hitherto been understood to mean only that God taught people through the Word, therefore it has been explained as a hyperbolical expression, implying that the Lord is not the Word itself. The reason is that people did not know that by the Word is meant the Divine Truth of the Divine Good, or, what is the same, the Divine Wisdom of the Divine Love …

Every person is a human being not from his face and body but from the good of his love and the truths of his wisdom; and because a person is a human from these, every person is also his own truth and his own good, or his own love and his own wisdom; and without these he is not a human being. But the Lord is Good itself and Truth itself, or, what is the same, Love itself and Wisdom itself; and these are “the Word which in the beginning was with God and which was God” and which was “made flesh.”

Therefore to be taught from the Word is to be taught by the Lord Himself … The fact that this [teaching] is done mediately by preaching does not destroy its immediate nature. The Word can be taught only mediately through parents, teachers, preachers, books, and especially through the reading of it. Nevertheless, it is not taught by these but by the Lord through them. This, moreover, is in keeping with what preachers know, for they say that they do not speak from themselves but from the spirit of God, and that all truth, as also all good, is from God. They are indeed able to declare the Word and bring it to the understanding of many, but not to the heart of anyone. And what is not in the heart perishes in the understanding; and by the heart is meant a person’s love. From these considerations it may be seen that a person is led and taught by the Lord alone, and that he is taught immediately by Him when this is done from the Word. This is the central truth (arcanum) of angelic wisdom.