Sunday, January 22, 2012

Homily for The Third Sunday after the Epiphany


Matthew 8:1-13; Romans 12:1621; 1 Kings 5:1-15a

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

We talk a lot about faith in the Church, that’s true. But, do you truly understand what faith is? Do you know what faith looks like? Do you recognize faith when you see it, or hear it? I suspect, probably not as much as you think. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t talk about faith all that much. Most of the faith-talk in the New Testament comes from St. Paul. In fact, Jesus only used the word faith twelve times in Matthew’s Gospel, five times in Mark’s, and twelve times in Luke’s. He didn’t use the word at all in John’s Gospel! And of the average 7.25 times Jesus used the word faith in the Gospels, over half of those times He was remarking about how little, how small, or how weak the faith of His disciples was. Sometimes the Gospels say that Jesus “saw their faith” and responded by granting what they had asked. Sometimes Jesus said that a believer’s “faith has made them well.” And, a few times Jesus even said to someone “Great is your faith.” But, what is faith? What does faith look like? It is clear from Jesus’ teaching alone that faith is something that you have, or that you do not have, that it can be weak or strong, and that it can encourage and strengthen you and even heal you if you have it. And yet, there is much confusion within the Church about the nature of faith. But still, we Christians talk a lot about faith. Therefore, you should pay special attention to Jesus’ words to you today, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Jesus spoke these words concerning the faith exhibited by a Roman centurion. The Gentile military commander of eighty to one hundred men sought out Jesus to ask him to heal his servant who was lying at home paralyzed and suffering terribly. Jesus at once replied that He would come to the centurion’s home and heal the servant immediately. But then, in great and unexpected humility, the centurion responded, “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” It was then that Jesus said, not to the centurion, but to His disciples and the crowds that had followed Him from the Mount of the Beatitudes, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

What prompted this response from Jesus? What was it about the centurion’s words that exhibited great faith to Jesus? I think that we are too quick to say that it was the centurion’s humility before Jesus. For, indeed, it was quite unexpected that a powerful and respected Roman military commander would request anything of a Jew, even a rabbi like Jesus, let alone declare his unworthiness that a Jew should enter his own home. And, if it were the centurion’s humility that impressed Jesus, then surely He would have said “with no one in Israel have I found such humility.” But, Jesus didn’t say humility, He said faith. The centurion was humble, to be sure, but humility is not faith, but it is a fruit of faith. So, what then was the faith of the centurion that Jesus so extolled? The centurion believed and trusted in Jesus’ goodness and the power of His Word so that it was not necessary that Jesus should even come to his home, but Jesus’ need only speak His Word and the centurion believed and trusted that his servant would be healed. The faith that caused the centurion to believe that Jesus could heal his servant by the power of His Word without actually being present was the same faith that caused the centurion to be humble enough to approach a Jewish rabbi with a request in the first place. Further, the centurion’s faith bore evident fruit in that he was selfless and self-unassuming, concerned not with his own honor and reputation, but only with Jesus’ honor and with his servant’s need. And, further still, the centurion confessed that, as he himself was a man under authority – namely, Caesar’s authority – who had command over other men under him, so his faith informed him that Jesus was a man under authority – God’s authority – and that He had command over all creation, and that whatever He commanded would most certainly be done.

What the centurion had faith in was the authority of God located in the person of Jesus and in His Word and in God’s good will toward men enfleshed in Jesus. And, when your faith is in the God who created the heavens and the earth and all things in them by the creative power of His Word, who has penetrated His creation to make all things new again, then all other things, all fleshly things and all worldly things in which you might place your fear, your love, and your trust must necessarily fall away. That is the kind of faith that the centurion represents for us, a faith that had become exceedingly rare amongst the chosen people of Israel. For, particularly in Jesus’ day, the teachers of Israel despised the Gentiles and considered them unclean, beneath them, and unworthy. So, likewise, did they consider Samaritans, lepers, and countless others to be outcasts and unclean. There was little humility and repentance to be found amongst the religious leaders of Israel, and so there was little mercy, charity, kindness, or pity to be found either.

It’s no coincidence that St. Matthew couples and precedes the account of the faithful centurion with the account of a faithful Jewish leper. For, the leper too exhibits great faith in Jesus and particularly in the good will of Jesus and in His power. Kneeling before Jesus, the leper pleaded, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. In many ways, the leper is the complete opposite of the faithful centurion. The leprous man was a Jew, while the centurion was a Gentile. The leprous man was an outcast, cut off from society, cut off from the temple and the synagogue, while the centurion was a respected and honored man who was the benefactor and builder of the synagogue and who likely attended synagogue and listened to the preaching and teaching of Rabbi Jesus. Like the centurion, however, the leper exhibited great faith in approaching Jesus, for a leper was expected to remain at a distance from other people and to cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever someone drew near, and yet, this leper came directly up to Jesus and knelt down before him. Though he was bold to come before Jesus, he was not filled with pride, but with great humility, for, he was all but dead, cut off from family, community, and temple – he literally had nothing to lose. The leper’s appeal to Jesus was based upon His faith in Jesus’ good will and in His power to heal in accordance with His good will. Thus, he pleaded, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus did the unexpected, He reached out and touched the leprous, unclean man, and He said to Him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Like the centurion, the leper exhibited great faith in the authority of God located in the person of Jesus and in His Word and in God’s good will toward men enfleshed in Jesus. Perhaps the reason that the centurion received Jesus’ acclamation was because, while the Jewish leper sought healing for himself from Jesus, the Gentile centurion sought the healing of his servant. Though both men had great faith, it was the centurion who, though he was great, made himself nothing for the sake of one who, in comparison, was nothing, his servant, – it was the centurion who best reflected the love, mercy, grace, and compassion of Jesus to others.

In contrast to both the Jewish leper and the Gentile centurion stands Naaman in our Old Testament Lesson today. Naaman was a Gentile military commander with great authority, honor, and prestige like the Roman centurion, but he was also a leper like the man who approached Jesus. However, Naaman was anything but humble, and he was neither a Jew nor a God-fearing Gentile. When Naaman heard that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure his leprosy, Naaman set off with a letter from the king of Syria in hand, a trunk load of gold and silver, and an escort of horses and chariots to find this prophet and to acquire his services by either money or force. When Elisha the prophet gave Naaman specific instruction in what he must do to be healed, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean,” Naaman was offended and angered that Elisha would not come to him himself and that he was expected to wash in the lowly waters of Israel which he believed to be beneath him.

How often does your reason and wisdom, your desires and expectations, interfere with your faith and keep you from receiving all that Jesus died for you to have? Do you come before Jesus with conditions for trusting Him or with demands about what He must do for you to believe? Are you offended and scandalized by the ways in which your heavenly Father chooses to heal you? Will you not believe God when He says to you that the water of Holy Baptism now saves you? Will you not believe Jesus when He says to you that those sins which His pastors forgive are indeed forgiven? Will you not believe Jesus when He says to you that this bread is His body and that this wine is His blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins? Will you not believe Jesus when He promises you that through these means He will be with you always, until the very end of the age?

Naaman refused to believe. He refused to humble himself and to trust in the Word of God spoken by His prophet. Only when his servants appealed to him that it was a “great Word” that the prophet had spoken to him did he finally, still in unbelief, submit to being washed in the Jordan River. Naaman didn’t believe. He refused to believe. But, nevertheless, when he submitted to being washed in the Jordan according to the Word of God, he was cleansed of his leprosy and was healed so that his flesh was like that of a newborn child, for the Word of God delivers what it says, always, because the LORD is good and He is willing to heal your sin-sickness unto death. Naaman didn’t believe, but still he received – forgiveness, healing, and faith in the LORD, the God of Israel. So too in Holy Baptism, by the power and the promise of God’s Word alone, were you cleansed of all sin, forgiven, reborn and restored in faith in God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, in His most Holy Spirit.

No, you are not worthy that the Lord should enter under your roof. But, He is willing. In Jesus, God has entered under your roof, for He has entered into your flesh and has made His dwelling amongst you. And still today, even now, He is present with you to enter into your mouth and to dwell and abide in and with you, to strengthen and preserve you in faith, and to forgive you anew in His holy, precious, and innocent shed blood. Come, let it be done for you as you have believed.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

No comments: