Who comes to mind when I say Francis? Sir Francis Drake in tights? The medieval saint who talked to animals? Perhaps you think about your auntie who smelled like lily of the valley.

Mary DeTurris will hear the name and almost instantly turn into a junior high girl telling her friends about her newest crush. “I’ll admit it: It was love at first sight,” she wrote back in March. “I have got a crazy pope crush – … he had me at ‘Hola.’ Actually, he had me at ‘Francis.’ And so far I’ve still got stars in my eyes. … Some of my non-Catholic friends have joked about my Pope Francis obsession, but I think even they can sense that there’s something really special here, something outside the papal norm. From the minute he stood on that balcony shyly waving and then bowed and asked for the people to bless him, I was hooked. … And then came one thing after another — the lack of the usual red cape, the impromptu stop at the hotel to pick up his bags and pay his bills, the photos of him riding the subway in Argentina, … the unusual blessing for non-Catholics and non-believers at his meeting with journalists. With every new thing, I found myself thinking, ‘This is too good to be true.’”[1]

Too good to be true? It’s not just middle-aged Catholic women who have been getting all giddy over the new pope; many of my friends, men and women, young and old, have been praising his humility and particularly his statements about the poor and about people of other faiths or no faith. A Presbyterian colleague posted on Facebook last week, “It’s official. I now have a Pope crush. I <3 Francis.” My colleague had read the news about a homily during which the Pope said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, and he invited all his hearers, whether they identify themselves as believers or not, to meet at the place of doing good works.[2]

Pope Francis understands that working side by side changes how we talk about beliefs and doctrines. He understands that the witness of service is proclamation of the gospel at its best, because Christ is among us as one who serves (Luke 22:27).  The priest from Argentina has surprised many people around the globe by opening windows with a smile instead of slamming doors shut for those who don’t confess as the church of Rome teaches. At the Vatican, I imagine, the honeymoon is over and the various interest groups are busy discussing strategies for getting the pontiff back on message. But they can’t undo his actions and words that have filled so many with hope. They can’t undo the joy that rises after grace breaks in. They can’t undo the beautiful surprise of a pope “outside the papal norm.”

Luke tells us a story about a centurion that is full of surprises. Finding a centurion in Capernaum is not surprising, though. The Roman Empire occupied Judea and Galilee and maintained a sizable military presence there, including lots of centurions. They were mid-level officers in the Roman military who were in command over about eighty soldiers. Folks in Capernaum would have known this one to be the man in charge; the one who didn’t just tell the soldiers under his command what to do, but pretty much everybody else in town. He was used to a life of receiving and giving orders. The first-century historian Josephus describes the daily duties of Roman soldiers in this way:

Nothing is done without a word of command. At daybreak the rank and file report themselves to their respective centurions, the centurions go to salute the tribunes, the tribunes with all the officers then wait on the commander-in-chief, and he gives them, according to custom, the watchword and other orders to be communicated to the lower ranks.[3]

Reading in Luke’s story that the centurion had a slave whom he held dear is no surprise either; it was pretty common among officers. And there’s no surprise in his sending some Jewish elders with a message to Jesus since nothing is done, after all, without a word of command. So wouldn’t you expect him to tell Jesus to come to his house without delay? Wouldn’t you expect him to order Jesus to his house? Instead he asks.

A Roman historian described the qualities of a centurion as follows:

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 is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak, keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod, and that the arms are burnished and bright.[4]

There’s a hint here why this centurion doesn’t tell Jesus to come and heal the slave. The man is “more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak.” He knows how to take orders before giving them. His world is the military, and he is confident that Jesus is in command of healing forces just as he is part of a chain of command, and his confidence informs his words and actions. He addresses Jesus as he would petition a superior officer.

Now that’s a huge surprise, especially in the world of the first disciples: an officer of the Roman Empire petitioning a Galilean Jew for a miracle! Wow! This is where the lights come on and instantly the mighty warrior becomes recognizable as a human being, as a man whose heart is heavy because a loved one is sick and he is helpless.

You may suspect that quid-pro-quo politics is still part of the picture when the elders tell Jesus that this man deserves his help because he loves their people and has built the synagogue in town. A great benefactor like that would certainly be worthy of his attention and a favorable reply! But the centurion himself responds to that suspicion, sending word through a group of friends, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” Only speak the word – the centurion’s world is defined by the chain of command, and it’s not surprising that he would imagine divine authority to be organized in similar fashion, with Jesus as commander-in-chief or at least lieutenant general.

What I find most remarkable in this little story is how it depicts the humanizing power of love and suffering. All the categories we so readily use to define ourselves and others as either Jews or Gentiles, rich or poor, slave or free, believever or non-believers, insiders or outsiders – all these categories become less rigid and lose their defining power. The story captures a moment in which the ordinary human experiences of love and suffering allow the characters and us to look beyond all the simple dualisms and notice the complexities: this Gentile has built a synagogue for the Jews, despite our assumption that Gentiles are hopeless idolaters; these Jewish local elders speak well of the Roman officer, despite our assumption that Rome’s regime is brutal and oppressive and that the locals despise the occupiers; this representative of Rome’s might is caring and kind, despite our assumption that systems of power leave no room for such gifts.

Nobody was more surprised, according to Luke, than Jesus himself.  He was amazed. He hadn’t expected to find such faith, let alone in an outsider, and, yes, he called it faith, regardless of what we might call it because of our assumptions. The centurion didn’t ask to follow Jesus or promise to do so. He didn’t even seem particularly interested in meeting him in person. Maybe he did become a follower of Jesus, maybe not; we seem to be the only ones interested in these questions. Jesus enjoyed the moment of surprise and praised the centurion’s amazing faith.

I stumbled upon this quote by Gene Bartlett. It’s primarily about worship, but like everything we do in worship, it both reflects and impacts the entire context of our life with God.

What surprises there are! We are such planners! We decide how God must come into human affairs. We treat it all with a kind of public relations twist. We pick the time and the place. We insure that the right people are there to meet God. We get the news releases out as to what to expect. ... But God has an uncanny way of taking care of times and places and entrances. While we wait at the airport, as it were, with a representative committee of dignitaries, an escort waiting for the coming, God has a way of quietly arriving at the bus station, walking up the side street, and slipping, unnoticed, through the servant’s chambers.[5]

God shows up when we least expect it and in places few of us would associate with divine presence. Likewise, human faith has an uncanny way of quietly arriving on foot while everybody is waiting at the airport. We simply don’t know as much about these things as we like to pretend. It is wise for us to meet in the place of doing good works, drawn together by suffering and our God-given capacity for compassion – the best surprises await us there. And it is good for us, very good to have leaders who open windows with a smile.


[1] See also the very funny post by Rabbi Kasher


[3] Josephus, J.W. 3.98, quoted in Wendy Cotter, CSJ, The Christ of the Miracles Stories: Portrait through Encounter (Baker Academic Press, 2010), p. 106

[4] Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, quoted in Cotter, p. 114

[5] Jones, Kirk Byron (2010-09-01). The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy (Kindle Locations 56-61). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.