Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sermon: Epiphany 3

25 January 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 8:1-13

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There’s an old saying about atheists in foxholes – but even if soldiers are in fact atheists, they do know how authority works. Even atheist soldiers have a great deal of faith. For lives, and even nations, depend on orders being carried out. A commander gives an order and believes, that is, has faith that his subordinates will obey those orders.

A centurion is an army captain, a commander of a hundred men. As an officer of this rank, he knows about giving orders, and he knows about taking orders. He knows what it is to command a soldier, and he knows what it is to be commanded by an officer. A centurion operates by his word. And woe to any officer and to any army where orders are not followed, where no-one can believe in the power of authority moving men and arms with mere words.

The example of the centurion illustrates how God’s kingdom works – for the centurion understands quite well what most of our Lord’s Jewish countrymen do not. And Jesus marvels at the irony of it all. For centurions were Roman citizens, typically pagans, typically without any knowledge of the God of Israel or of the Hebrew Scriptures.

But while the Jews demanded signs and the Greeks desired wisdom, this very practical Roman imperial soldier is seeking the solution to a problem.

He is no quibbler in the law or philosopher looking for a debate. He is a man on a mission to find a healer for his servant. Somehow, it has been revealed to the centurion that Jesus could, and would, heal the centurion’s paralyzed slave. Jesus describes this revelation as “faith” – and Scripture is clear that faith is something we receive as a gift. Faith is something that comes from above. Faith is not something revealed to us by flesh and blood. Somehow – perhaps by the preaching of Christ Himself who was to become the One crucified by another later centurion – this veteran comes to faith.

He believes in Jesus’s power to heal, to restore, to make new. And he believes this firmly, to the point of simply asking Jesus to “only say the word” with the result of his servant being healed.

The centurion seeks no sign nor word of wisdom. He doesn’t even ask Jesus to come in person. He doesn’t try to use his own position of authority to arrest and compel Jesus. He simply shows up and asks Jesus for His help. And notice too that the revelation of Jesus’s power also seems to include a revelation that the centurion is “not worthy” to have the Lord “under his roof.”

Once again, this is a clear conviction of sin by the law. This is not the natural state of hubris of a Roman citizen, soldier, and officer. The centurion’s humility to come before the Lord with his humble petitions is likewise a gift of God, evidence of a converted heart.

The centurion explains matter-of-factly that he, as a soldier and commander, understands the top-down nature of power. He knows that Jesus is the general over men and creation – even over the forces that cause sickness. He puts his faith in the very words of Jesus, and places his trust blindly on the promise of Jesus.

It is no wonder that our Lord marvels. For he hasn’t seen such faith even among the Israelites, who not only have the ancient prophets, but the Scriptures, as well as the preaching and miracles of their Messiah to bolster their faith. But instead, it is this Gentile, this imperial soldier, whose faith exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees.

This passage not only illustrates the way the Lord works, passing His power in the form of His Word through a chain of command to affect healing and regeneration, this narrative also shows clearly that citizenship in this kingdom is not based on one’s race or social status.

And what a glorious picture of the Church!

Natural children of Abraham are bound in service with adopted children of Abraham. Men, women, and children of every race, tribe, and tongue are united in a vast army of soldiers fighting the forces of evil under the command of our Lord. And just as any army contains a diversity of gifts and talents to keep on marching against the enemy, the Church likewise has footsoldiers, centurions, and commanders of the highest rank – rallying around a blood-red banner of redemption and united in His Majesty’s service.

In this army, there is no cause for arrogance among men of rank. For in the army of God’s kingdom, those who command are to be servants of all. In this army, there is no reason to boast of one’s station, for we are what we are by grace, because it has been commanded us, because we have been created to do what we have been designed to do.

Our victories are His victories, even as our failures and shortcomings are our own. But like any army, we aren’t alone, dear brothers and sisters. We march as a unit, we support one another, we bind up one another’s wounds, we lay down our lives for our comrades in arms, and if we pay the ultimate sacrifice, we are only following the example of our Lord, who not only says “go” and His servants “go,” “come,” and His servants come, but also “Let there be light” and there was light.”

The Word of Jesus moves men and mountains, for the Word of Jesus is the Word of God. The Word of God creates anew and forgives sins. The Word of God heals and restores. The centurion not only knew how the chain of command works in God’s kingdom, he understood that he was addressing the One who had the authority to command even paralysis to obey.

The centurion understood that when our Lord said: “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed,” these were not simply words of encouragement, empowerment, self-esteem, or best wishes. For psychobabble, no matter how well-intended, is powerless to cure disease and forgive sin.

Indeed, the centurion understood completely, or more accurately, he believed, he had faith, he trusted the promise of Jesus and confessed Him to be God Almighty. The centurion believed that the Word of Jesus has authority, not just to express a sympathetic wish, but rather make it so.

You, dear brothers and sisters, have also been cured of something far worse than paralysis. You have been cleansed of your sins. You have been baptized and washed clean, like Naaman, the leprous general, who bathed away his rotting, dying flesh in the Jordan River. You have been cleansed of death and decay as well, in miraculous water containing the Word and the mighty power of Jesus – applied to you by a man under authority, bearing the Word of God and giving the promise of healing to you.

The Word of God is effective and powerful. It creates, it heals, and it sustains. And hear the mighty Word of the Lord again, dear friends, for I too am a man under authority: by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, and by His authority, I forgive you all your sins…

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

Phil said...

Amen, and an excellent message. I wish I had the faith of this Roman soldier. /sigh - I fail so many times, but will strive onward. :)