Text: Matthew 8:1-13
Date: Epiphany III + Life Sunday + 1/21/07
For hundreds of years Christians all over the world have gathered on the third Sunday after the Epiphany and heard this Word from Matthew’s Gospel concerning the healing of the leper and of the centurion’s servant. Through this Word they have grown in their understanding of what true faith is. Only in our lifetime, however, and in this country, has this day gotten the additional significance marking the horribly muddled decision of the Supreme Court of our country, 34 years ago on January 22, 1973, declaring the barbaric practice of the abortion or murder of unborn human beings to be a legal if not morally acceptable practice. Think of that. Everyone 34 years old and younger are survivors, and have lived their entire lives so far having never known a time when abortion was illegal! For 34 years the church (at least in its Roman Catholic, some smaller, conservative Lutheran and protestant expressions) has continued to hold and proclaim faithfully God’s Word of life, rightfully protesting this flawed legal decision, working to bring the healing and wholeness of the Gospel especially to people who are either contemplating or have already committed this blatant sin against the Fifth Commandment. The ancient Word speaks to new situations as sin, death and the devil, the world and our sinful flesh continue to try to overwhelm us and steal us away from the Word of Life.
This text is about the restoration of life and the miracle of faith. Jesus commends the faith of a heathen centurion to be an example, greater than even anyone among God’s own people Israel. What was so great about his faith was that it demonstrated simple trust in Jesus from his heart. Though faith may appear to be a simple thing, the more we realize that true faith is not a product of our own will, decision or human wisdom but is the working and gift alone of God the Holy Spirit produced solely through the Word of God, the more will we rejoice and be drawn ever closer to our Savior.
The reason the centurion’s faith was so amazing and exemplary is seen when contrasted to God’s own covenant people, those who should have believed but were increasingly being drawn away from faith. The Jews were those who possessed God’s ancient promises with all the rights and status of children and heirs of God’s kingdom. Yet, when the promised Messiah finally came on the scene and they heard his preaching and saw his miracles, they did not believe in him. The centurion, on the other hand—a foreigner and a pagan— nevertheless believed in Jesus’ mercy and authority so as to receive the Lord’s blessing.
Our text shows two features of the true faith demonstrated by the centurion: deep humility and a right understanding of Jesus’ identity and power. The humility of faith is shown when it appeared that Jesus was going to come to the centurion’s house to heal his servant and he objected, saying, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” [Matthew 8:8a (ESV)]. It is the realization of our sin and the Lord’s holiness, our wickedness and the Lord’s righteousness. As such we have no claim on him, no “rights” to receive anything good from him. These words have been used by Christians as they approach the reception of the Lord’s body and blood in the Holy Communion, called the prayer of humble access. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
Secondly, such humble faith is given out of a right understanding of just Who Jesus is and what He came to do. The centurion believed what even God’s own people were slow to confess, even quick to deny, namely, that Jesus is true God with the power and authority to heal his servant, even from a distance. He had heard how Jesus had healed many and even raised the dead. Unlike the leper Naaman in our first reading who expected the prophet to do something spectacular, to “call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure” him (2 Kings 5:11), the centurion understood authority and requested that Jesus only give the order, say the word, and his servant would be healed. It was as if he was saying, “I am a man who is under authority. I am not a ruling magistrate with supreme power, but under authority. Yet I can with one word cause things to be done. If my word, then, is so powerful, your word is many more times so, because you are not mere man but the Lord God over all creatures, who demonstrates power and might everywhere by great signs and wondrous works” (Luther).
Faith believes and acts solely on the Word of God. The Word is faith’s origin and content. It is faith in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and his power to redeem and save us from sin and death and give us eternal life. True faith has discovered the Lord’s mercy, grace and love. The leper came to Jesus asking, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,” and Jesus answered, “I will.” To the centurion’s request Jesus answered, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And in both cases there was healing and there was saving faith.
That this exemplary faith was demonstrated by an otherwise rough, heathen military man suggests a further application for us. Martin Luther in preaching on this text spoke of the two kingdoms, as he called them, the kingdom of the left hand and the kingdom of the right hand. That is, Jesus did not require the centurion to give up his vocation as a soldier, to turn in his sword and “carry on in his bloody office, (He) does not forbid him from engaging in war and pursuing his bloody tasks. He, on the contrary, upholds the centurion in his post,” his vocation in the world while at the same time with his miraculous word healing his servant. So is the life of faith for us each in our own vocations. With the 34th anniversary of the bloody legalization of abortion, we are not to take the law into our own hands and storm the Supreme Court demanding it to reverse itself on the issue. We must, however, continue to protest this law, first, by not allowing ourselves to be deceived just because the clinical murder of the unborn has mistakenly been deemed “legal.” That abortion is legal does not make it right. Secondly, we must continue to speak and to work according to the laws of our nation to influence by our voting rights to work to change especially this law of the land. As Luther put it, “Christ wants only to destroy the devil’s kingdom, and beyond that he lets things be.”
Finally, that true faith was demonstrated by a pagan is to remind us that God’s original promise of salvation was to be accomplished through the agency of his covenant people, the descendants of Adam and of Abraham, through the Jews to all the nations of the world. With the coming to faith of a Gentile Jesus emphasized the universality of salvation for all when he said, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” [Matthew 8:11-12 (ESV)]. In other words, salvation is to be gotten solely by means of a God-given faith in God’s Word and promise all pointing to Jesus Christ and not on the basis of mere outward association with God’s Word. As St. Paul put it, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek " [Romans 1:16 (ESV)].
God grant you and strengthen in you this his gift of saving faith that you may live faithfully now in your vocation and station in life with the full assurance of living eternally in his kingdom.