Jesus, Peter, and a Centurion

Jesus was not in the military and did not routinely go out of his way to minister to soldiers. Yet a Roman centurion who needed help came to Jesus.

Jon Bloom, a staff writer for an organization called Desiring God, makes the following observation: Luke 7:9 and Matthew 8:10 use the Greek word thaumazo (thou-mad’-zo) which is translated as “marveled” or “amazed” to describe Jesus’s response to the centurion’s faith. The only other time this word is used to describe the Lord’s response to other people’s faith is in Mark 6:6, when he marvels at the lack of faith in the people of Nazareth, his hometown.

Bloom calls this centurion a “firstfruit and a foreshadow of what Jesus had come to bring about.” It may be that Jesus Himself was the first in the New Testament to minister to people in the military, and the “firstfruit and foreshadow” refers to thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who will come to faith in Christ through the message of the Gospel.

Peter also had an encounter with a centurion. Acts chapter ten tells of Peter’s vision about eating unclean food. In the dream, the Lord told him to stop calling something unclean if the Lord Himself declared it clean. Peter woke up and was thinking about the experience when Cornelius’s representatives arrived. The Lord told Peter to go with the men, so he went to the home of the centurion and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ. Acts 10:44 says everyone who heard Peter’s message received the Holy Spirit and became believers in Jesus.

In this account, the representative of Christ went to where the soldier was in order to minister to him. This is exactly what a chaplain does: after praying, going to where the people are, spending time with them, and paying attention to the leading of the Holy Spirit, who opens a door for sharing the message of the Savior.

The significance that Peter attributes to his experience is that the Lord has opened the door for Gentiles to come into the Kingdom of God. But there’s another, more subtle significance that we can’t afford to miss. In the same way that the Church must no longer think of the gentiles as bad people who are outsiders, the Church must not think about people in the military as being unclean or bad. It’s not an accident that the gentile who Peter visited was a military man.

Peter understood that Christians should accept, love, and serve all people, all demographics, and all ethnicities. Nobody is to be considered inferior, less valuable, or unworthy. The same is true for those serving in the military. They are people who need God, need to be loved and accepted, need someone to tell them about Jesus, need someone who’ll be an example of Christian faith and lifestyle.

Military chaplains have an opportunity almost every day to speak about faith, hope, love, and the grace of God. They develop relationships and friendships with the people in the command, and let their light shine. And the fact that chaplains come from all backgrounds and all walks of life allows for a wide variety of methods and opportunities to teach, disciple, and represent the Lord.

This is an excerpt from Military Ministry: Chaplains in the Twenty-First Century by Paul Linzey and Keith Travis.

Freedom of Religion in the Military

Throughout most of the twentieth century, understanding the Constitution and how it affected the work of chaplains didn’t seem all that important. Today, however, it is imperative for every chaplain in the Armed Services to fully understand the Constitution, the Establishment Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause because there is so much at stake.

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from creating an official state religion. Although the precise definition of “establishment” is unclear, historically it referred to government-sponsored churches or religions, such as the Church of England, or any of the other officially recognized national religions throughout the world.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The Free Exercise Clause, on the other hand, extended religious protection to individuals, giving them the right to practice the religion of their choice without fear of punishment or negative consequences.

Although the Constitution deals with religious freedoms for all citizens, it doesn’t specify or authorize a military chaplaincy. Our government and military leaders have decided that having military chaplains is the best way for the constitutional rights and privileges of military personnel to be guaranteed, implemented, and supervised.

In essence, citizens of the United States don’t lose their constitutional rights when they enlist or become an officer in the military.

There have been many challenges to having chaplains in the military and there will be more, but each case inevitably comes back to the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. In a nation where people of many faiths live side-by-side, the First Amendment’s free exercise clause protects individuals from government interference in the practice and expression of their faith. The government cannot target laws at specific religious practices or place undue burdens on its citizens who want to worship.

Constitutional authority travels in a direct chain of command: from the Constitution, to the President, to the Secretary of Defense, to the Pentagon, to the Branches of Service, on down to the unit Commanders. The chaplain is the commander’s personal staff officer who is delegated the task of implementing and supervising the constitutional religious freedoms, restrictions, and opportunities. In essence, the religious program in the military belongs to the commander, and the chaplain works for the commander to make sure it is done properly and legally. That’s why every chaplain must understand the constitutional issues.

An important consideration to keep in mind here is that it’s the government that is specifically limited by the constitutional amendment. Because religious freedom is an important part of our national values, the government isn’t allowed to restrict those rights or to infringe on the individual’s free exercise of religion. Nor can the government impose religion onto the individual. This is particularly relevant to commanders and chaplains in the military.

The commander has legal and constitutional authority; the chaplain is the subject matter expert who provides ministry for those of his or her faith group, facilitates meeting the religious needs for those of other faith groups, and ensures that all personnel have the opportunity to practice their constitutional freedoms. And because of the Establishment Clause, the chaplain also makes sure nobody is coerced or forced to worship, and that nobody is subjected to presentations of religion against his or her will.

It’s important to note that the Constitution is the authority that gives chaplains the right to express their faith in a secular and pluralistic environment. But it also provides limitations that chaplains must respect. Otherwise, it is possible for chaplains to find themselves caught between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

These clauses were written into the constitution to protect churches from government, and also to protect individuals from religion, because freedom to worship also includes freedom not to worship.

Christians have freedoms, yet so does everyone else in the Armed Forces, and those freedoms are guaranteed. Chaplains have a crucial role in how religious rights play out in the military, and we need to know our role.

When the Ship Sinks

Dorchester 1Fifty-five minutes past midnight on February 3, 1943 the USS Dorchester was on its way to Greenland with more than nine hundred men on board. Captain Hans Danielsen, aware that German U-boats were in the area, had ordered the men to stay ready and keep their life jackets on, but many of them disobeyed the order because the life jackets were uncomfortable and impossible to sleep in.

Four Army chaplains were on the ship: a Methodist minister, a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a Reformed Church pastor. All four had been Boy Scouts. All four were brand new lieutenants in the Army. All four were ready to serve their Soldiers, their country, and their God. All four were prepared to give their lives if necessary.

When the torpedo hit the ship, the lights went out. A lot of people died instantly; more died in the water. Others were injured. Men who were trapped below began to panic, looking for their life jacket, trying to find a way to the top deck so they could abandon ship.

As soon as the chaos began, the four chaplains sprang into action. They encouraged panic-stricken young men, guided Soldiers towards the upper deck and to the lifeboats, and helped them find life jackets. When there were no more life preservers to be found, they took off their own and gave them away in order to save the lives of a few more men, knowing that it certainly meant they themselves would die.

Dorchester 3Two hundred thirty men made it into the rescue boats that night. As they looked back at the sinking ship, they saw the four chaplains standing on deck, arms linked, praying and singing in Hebrew, Latin, and English.

What do you do when your ship sinks? How do you respond when your world is at its darkest and there seems to be no way of escape? Or when the future holds no promise and there seems to be no hope?

If Ecclesiastes 3:1 is true and there is an appropriate time and season for every purpose under heaven, and if different times and seasons call for different actions, then how we live, how we behave, what is appropriate, or what is best, may be more a matter of discernment than following rules. There is a time to shout and a time to whisper, a time to drop the bomb and a time to lay down the weapon, a time to wear the life jacket, and a time to give it away so another may live.

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An immoral man behaves inappropriately for selfish reasons. A moral man does what is right because of legal, humanitarian, or religious obligations. A hero rejects selfishness, takes his moral obligations into account, then discerns with artistic altruism a course of action that will benefit another human being, even when that act may bring harm to himself. That’s what love does. That’s what genuine spirituality aims for. That’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

Most societies pay tribute to their heroes, and the four chaplains of the Dorchester are heroes who deserve that honor. They could have lived longer, ministering for many more years, making a difference, perhaps for thousands of people. Yet, discerning the time and the season, they chose to whisper, “I love you.” They decided to take off their life jackets. “Here, take mine.” They loved the men they ministered to, knowing it certainly meant they would die, and in making that decision, they painted a magnificent work of art.

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