Even more than other miraculous healings, this one is an astonishing display of divine power. Once again, Jesus heals a man. But this time, Jesus heals from distance, without ever seeing the sick man or having any direct contact with him.
It is an impressive feat. But the emphasis in this story is not actually on Jesus. The emphasis in this story is on the amazing faith of the centurion.
You just heard the story. The centurion sends messengers to ask Jesus to heal his slave. Jesus agrees. The centurion sends a second set of messengers saying two things. First, the centurion admits that he is not worthy to receive Jesus under his roof. Second, the centurion recognizes that Jesus has the divine authority to heal his slave with a word.
That is a lot of faith. Jesus himself comments on the centurion’s amazing faith.
Making the centurion’s faith even more impressive, he was not part of the covenant community of Israel. Jesus comments on that, too. The centurion was a Roman soldier and part of the military occupation of the Promised Land. And still he was a model of faithfulness for Jesus’ followers. Amazing!
That is all we know about this centurion. We do not even know his name. All we are given is this one brief episode.
I would love to know more. I would love to know how this centurion learned such incredible faith. What brought him to this place? And I would love to know what comes next, what the centurion does after his faith is so powerfully vindicated by the miraculous healing of his slave. I want to know what a life of such great faith looks like in action.
These are questions that get us to the very heart of what it means to be Christian. How do we grow in faith? How do we live out our faith?
These questions are particularly appropriate today because our Bishop is joining us at the 10:00 service to confirm two of our teenagers. And that is what confirmation is all about: growing in Christian faith, and living the Christian life.
To understand what confirmation means, you need to know a little history.
In the earliest Church, baptism and confirmation typically happened at the same time. Candidates for baptism went through a long period of preparation, a period of training and formation during which they grew in their Christian faith.
Then, when they were deemed ready, candidates were baptized. They were baptized in the nude by full immersion. That meant baptisms had to be separated by gender. Women were baptized with other women, and men were baptized with other men.
But baptizing men and women separately created a theological problem. Baptism is all about unity, about being made one in the Spirit. As we say at the beginning of the baptismal service, there is “one Body and one Spirit,” “one hope,” “one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.” And yet people were baptized separately.
Confirmation was the answer to that problem. After separate baptisms, the congregation would come back together as a single Body, and the Bishop would lay his hands on each newly baptized person, confirming that they were baptized into the One Body of Christ.
Going forward, the newly baptized and confirmed Christians took their place in the Christian community, committed to living out their Christian faith.
It was a good way to form Christians in the Christian faith and life. Preparation led to baptism. Confirmation immediately followed as a sign that the baptized believers were united in Christ’s body. Baptism and Confirmation went together, but Confirmation functioned as the primary ritual of Christian unity.
The combined Baptism and Confirmation worked well as long as candidates for baptism were old enough to benefit from that initial time of preparation, as long as their faith was already at least partly mature when they were baptized.
Pretty quickly—within a couple of generations, so still during the time of the early Church—infant baptism became common. Infant baptism changed everything.
First, infants could not be dunked, which meant baptisms no longer had to be in the nude and separated by gender. Baptisms could happen during the regular service in the presence of the entire congregation.
That is better, but it changes the emphasis of Confirmation. Confirmation no longer symbolizes Christian unity. Baptism is the sacrament of Christian unity. Confirmation had to mean something else.
The second change when infant baptism became common was that baptism now came first. Preparation, that time of growth and maturation in the Christian faith, now came after baptism. That preparation culminated in Confirmation, which became a sacrament of growth in the Christian faith and life.
That is the point.
Like most of us, the girls being confirmed later today were baptized as infants. At baptism, they were united with the Body of Christ. They do not need Confirmation for that.
But when they were baptized as babies, they were still obviously unformed as Christians. They needed time to grow in their faith, time to commit themselves to living the Christian life. They needed the preparation that originally came before baptism.
When I met with the girls last week, I asked them the key Confirmation questions, the questions that are also raised by our Gospel reading this morning. Have you grown in your Christian faith to the point that you can make a mature commitment to God? And, presuming you have, how will you live out your Christian faith going forward?
That second question is really important because people sometimes act as if confirmation were a kind of graduation from Church, as if confirmation marked the end of our Christian formation, as if there were no more growing to do after confirmation.
That is a fundamental misunderstanding of Confirmation. Confirmation is a sacrament of ongoing Christian growth, ongoing Christian commitment.
The danger is not limited to confirmation. As we age, it is easy to assume that we have grown enough, or at any rate that we have grown as much as we are likely to grow. We have the faith we have. We live the way we live.
But God invites us to continuous growth, to a deeper and deeper relationship with Him, to a life of greater and greater faith, greater and greater love.
In just a moment, we will renew our baptismal vows. We renew baptismal vows a lot. That is a good thing, because every time we renew our baptismal vows, it is like a mini-Confirmation, an opportunity for us to confirm, once again our baptismal promises, an opportunity for us to confirm, once again, our desire to grow in faith and love.
Take a few minutes to reflect on the Confirmation questions this week, perhaps with the baptismal covenant in front of you. Ask yourself how God is inviting you to grow now, as you continue your journey deeper into the God we know in Jesus Christ.
And give thanks. Give thanks to God for the example of the Centurion in our gospel reading. Give thanks for Confirmation, the sacrament of Christian growth. Give thanks for the people who have helped you grow. Most of all, give thanks to God for the grace that makes it all possible.
In the name of Christ, the Son of God who came that we might have more and more abundant life. Amen.