Worthy to Receive

Text: Luke 7:1-10
Date: Pentecost II (Proper 4) + 6/2/13

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” But it is only faith that thinks so, that believes so, that the King’s coming is a blessing. Yet that blessed faith shows up in surprising places and persons. That’s because, as we confess in the Augsburg Confession:

So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake. (AC V)

Today’s Gospel is a great illustration of all those words of the Confession. Jesus marvels at the faith of a Gentile centurion. Faith shows up in sometimes surprising places and persons.

That is not to say, of course, that faith doesn’t show up in those places and people one would expect it to. In Christian churches the surprising thing is when one, though surrounded by the instruments, the Word and Sacraments, does not repent or truly believe! Nevertheless, it is fundamental that when a person, any person, hears the Gospel—whether it be straight from the Bible or merely from a Biblically faithful witness, testimony, sermon or teaching—by the blessing and action of the Holy Spirit many people find themselves drawn to Jesus and repenting and believing. It’s quite out of our control!

The centurion’s slave was sick to the point of death. All St. Luke says is, “when the centurion heard about Jesus….” How did he hear? What did he hear? We’re not told. But he must have heard and concluded that Jesus is some sort of Jewish holy man who could and would heal people. The centurion was possibly what was called a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who was attracted to the teaching and worship life of the Jews without formally converting to Judaism himself.

That he knew and respected his Jewish neighbors was shown, first, by his request of the elders of the Jews to go ask Jesus on his behalf to heal his servant. By the way, St. Luke gives us a hint at the faith of the centurion when he chooses not to use the Greek word “therapeuo” for the word “heal” but “diasozei” from the word “sozo” meaning “to save”! Jesus’ healing power was not only over the symptoms of death, sickness and disease, but over death itself as the Savior from sin and death, and everything short of that.

Back in the days when I was a lowly DCE and church musician, we had a vicar from the Springfield seminary who in midyear decided he was going to join the Episcopal Church and finish his theological training at their seminary in Evanston, Illinois. I played organ for both his ordination as a deacon and as a priest in our local Episcopal parish in Hickory, North Carolina. I remember at that last one being somewhat “taken aback” when, during the ceremony, the congregation responded to the ordaining bishop’s question about the candidate, saying twice, “He is worthy! He is worthy!” That seemed to offend something “Lutheran” in me; maybe that last line from AC V, “this happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.”

The elders of the people tried to influence Jesus’ willingness to come heal the centurion’s servant, “pleading with him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy, He is worthy.’” The reason they considered him especially worthy was because, as they said, “for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” In other words, “we” (meaning Jesus, too) were somehow obligated to do something in return for his generosity. (Just as another interesting aside, modern archaeologists “digging from 1969-1981 under one of two synagogues in Capernaum uncovered an earlier synagogue that they believe was the one built by this Roman centurion.”[1])

Well, worthy or not, Jesus went with them. Thanks be to God that he loves the world and loves you regardless of your ignorance or presumed worthiness. But as Jesus was coming and not far from the centurion’s house, more evidence of his faith was shown in two ways. First, as we said before, he was sensitive also to the Jewish laws that would prevent Jesus from entering the house of a Gentile. So, contradicting the words of the elders, he sent friends to say to Jesus, “Do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” Not worthy, not worthy! But by this admission and confession, this note of repentance, he proved that he really was worthy, spiritually qualified, ready by faith! Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the centurion’s message emphasized his “Word and Sacrament” faith, asking Jesus not to come, not to lay hands on or do anything else than to “say the word, and let my servant be healed.” It is just like at the simple word only of Jesus that He makes His body and blood present for us in the Sacrament. For “through the Word and Sacraments God gives the Holy Spirit” who creates faith when and where it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel. Wow! At the powerful word of Jesus faith shows up in surprising places and persons.

“Not even in Israel have I found such faith,” said Jesus to the crowd that followed Him. “Not even in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” have I found such faith as can be found in certain members of ELCA parishes, Roman Catholic parishes, (I suppose I ought to include Episcopalian or Anglican parishes!), or even in those otherwise erring non-sacramental Christian churches! For the Holy Spirit creates faith when and where it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel. This is not to say, of course, that your denominational membership doesn’t matter. It certainly does! For the devil is always at war, even in our own parishes, to contradict the Word by false doctrine or to distract the ears of the hearers and otherwise God-fearers. God save us from unbelief.

“Lord, I am not worthy…but just say the word.” This has been called “the prayer of humble access” in the liturgy of the Eucharist prayed just before receiving the communion of Christ’s body and blood. In this way we allow faith to shine, to direct, to draw and to save us. “Just say the word:” “my body, given for you, my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” As you believe so may it be done to you. Receive the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation today.

[1] Arthur Just, “Luke 1:1-9:50” © 1996 CPH, pa 304.