Sunday, June 2, 2013

Pentecost 2 (Proper 4), Series C

Sermon on Luke 7:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 2, 2013 (Second Sunday after Pentecost)

I’m sure many of us have heard stories about men of great faith.  Frequently great heroes in the history of our Church or our nation are held up as heroes of the faith.  A list of people who are held up as examples for us in this matter would include just about every famous person in the Bible, Church history, and even our national history, from Noah to Moses to King David to Paul, down to St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and, in our own country, men like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and many others.  But when you think about it, what marks all the men we think of as having “great faith” is not the fact that they actually had a particularly strong faith in our Lord, because after all we can’t see into their hearts to see their faith.  In most of these cases, we think of them as great heroes of the faith because what they did during their lives was spectacular or heroic in some way.  But in contrast to these heroes of the faith stands the centurion in our text.  Jesus commends him as having a greater faith than any he had found in the nation of Israel.  But why did Jesus say this?  What made this man’s faith so great?

If you were to ask the Jews whom the Centurion sent to Jesus at first what made this man’s faith great, they would not have told you about his faith at all.  They would have gone on and on about his works; in fact they did so when they first encountered Jesus.  “This man deserves to have you [heal his servant],” they said, “because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  The Jews who first asked Jesus to come to the Centurion’s house were not thinking of the man’s faith at all.  They were impressed by what he had done for the Jewish people.  They were impressed by his works.

How interesting, then, that the Centurion himself contradicts what the Jews said about him.  While the Jews went on and on about how much the man deserved to have Jesus do this, the Centurion tells his friends to tell Jesus that he doesn’t deserve to have Jesus come under his roof.  Indeed, he explains through his friends why he did not come to meet Jesus himself.  He sent messengers to Jesus because he is unworthy to stand in Jesus’ presence himself.  While others looking at the man saw his great works and assumed he was a great friend of Judaism and worthy of everything Jesus could do for him, the Centurion knew himself better than that.  The centurion knew that he was a sinner.  He knew that he was unworthy to stand in the presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  He knew better than to brag about his own works to Jesus.  Nothing he had ever done, or ever would do, to help the Jewish people and to further the Jewish religion would ever get him closer to being worthy of Jesus’ help.  He was still a sinner, and a Gentile sinner on top of it all.

This seems to us like an odd thing for a man of “great faith” to say.  Like the Jewish leaders who came to Jesus at first, we naturally think that a great hero of the faith would have some pull with God, some leverage that he could use to get God to do him a favor in return for all his good works.  But our way of thinking is wrong on this.  God is not impressed by all our good works.  Before God we are all poor, miserable, wretched sinners.  Every one of us is just as unworthy to stand in God’s presence as this Centurion was.  The trouble is that unlike him we all too often don’t recognize it.  We fail to recognize in ourselves what the Centurion knew about himself.  We fail to see that we are poor, miserable sinners who are unworthy to have God come to us at all, let alone that He give special attention to those of us who think ourselves better than the other sinners around us.  When we ignore our true status as sinners, we only end up demonstrating that we are sinful and worthy of nothing but eternal death.  Just as the Centurion realized that he was not worthy to have Christ heal his servant, so also we need to realize that we are unworthy for Christ to heal us eternally.

So what did make the Centurion a man of “great faith”?  We have already seen that it was not anything he had done that caused Jesus to praise him.  What was so great about his faith that got it such high praise from our Lord?  What was it that caused Jesus to mark this man out as a “man of great faith”?  In the first place, the man believed that Jesus would do something for Him despite the fact that he was a poor, miserable sinner.  Secondly, by his actions he showed His belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jesus’ Word had the power of the Word of God, so that Jesus could even heal the servant at a distance.

What about you?  Are you a man or a woman of “great faith”?  You may be thinking, “Of course not, Pastor; you just told us we were poor miserable sinners!  How could we ever measure up to the example set by this Centurion?”  Yes, it’s true that we are all sinners.  But that doesn’t answer the question.  Are you a man or a woman of great faith?  Yes!  You are!  Remember, what made the Centurion’s faith great was not how strongly he held it or how noble his actions were.  The Centurion’s faith was a “great faith” because it was a faith which had been given to him by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word read and preached in the Synagogue Sabbath after Sabbath.  It was a faith which relied on the forgiveness of sins available because of Christ’s upcoming death on the cross.  It was a faith which relied on the power of the Word of God itself.

Every one of these descriptions of the Centurion’s faith is true of your faith as well.  The Holy Spirit has given you your faith through the Word and Sacraments preached and administered faithfully Sunday after Sunday.  This faith was originally given you in Holy Baptism, when your sinfulness was washed away and the Holy Spirit took up residence in your heart, making you a believing member of the Kingdom of God.  In Baptism you were put to death, being joined to His death for us, and you were risen with Christ, receiving the promise of your own resurrection at the last day.  Day after day you return to the faith that was given in Baptism.  Even when a person has fallen from the faith and returned many years later, he isn’t given a brand new faith, as if the faith God had given him in Baptism isn’t good enough; rather, he is returned to the “great faith” God gave him in the first place.

Like the Centurion’s, your faith is based on the Word of God.  The same Word which the Centurion heard in the Synagogue and which brought forth faith in his heart is preached and read to you as well.  The Word tells you of the eternal healing which Christ won for you by His death and resurrection.  The Word grants you the confidence to boldly hold on to Christ’s victory even when your heart accuses you of your unworthiness to stand in God’s presence.  The Word is the means which the Holy Spirit uses to come to you, to teach you of Christ’s love for you, to present you with the glorious doctrine of salvation in all its rich depth.

The Centurion confessed that he was unworthy to stand in Jesus’ presence.  However, despite the man’s protests, Jesus entered into the house to heal the servant.  Now, of course, He didn’t go into the house physically in a way that anyone could see him; our text says that after speaking the Word to heal the servant He turned and walked away.  But in, with, and under that Word, Christ entered into that house.  He enters into this building to heal us in Word and Sacrament.  Despite the fact that we cannot see or feel Him here, He is present in the Word and Sacraments, and especially with His body and blood in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  He comes to us despite our admitted unworthiness to give us healing infinitely more wonderful than the cure He gave the dying servant.  His body and blood are the “medicine of immortality,” a food and drink which heals us so completely that, once Christ comes again in glory, we will never be troubled by sickness or death ever again.

The Word you hear is the same Word of promise the Centurion heard in the Synagogue.  Like his, your faith trusts in the forgiveness of sins won for us by Christ on the cross and in the new life which is yours through the Resurrection.  It is a faith which trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word to bring His glorious promises to fulfillment.  In every respect that really counts your faith is identical to the faith of the Centurion.  Like him, you have a faith which has been given to you by God.  And since it is our merciful and loving God whose promises we trust, how could your faith be anything besides a “great faith”?  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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