“Authoritative Word, Marvelous Faith” (Luke 7:1-10)
It is hard to surprise or shock Jesus. It is hard to amaze him or cause him to marvel. It rarely happens. But today it does. It’s the story of the centurion asking for a healing for his servant, and how he asks it. This centurion causes Jesus to marvel. But it’s not just the story of the man’s faith. More so, it’s the story of what prompts this faith, what it is about Jesus that calls forth this faith. And so our theme this morning, “Authoritative Word, Marvelous Faith.”
Let’s start with the story itself and see what we can glean from that. We’re in Capernaum, up in Galilee, where Jesus did most of his ministry. Now of course the Roman Empire is the world power at the time, and they control and occupy the land. Roman officers are stationed throughout the country, and there is one here, a centurion, that is, a commander of one hundred men. This is an important and responsible position in the army, and a man does not attain to this rank without some qualifications and leadership abilities and experience.
This centurion has a servant who is sick, very sick, at the point of death. The centurion had heard about this man Jesus, who was going around doing healings and being a blessing to people and speaking words of divine wisdom as a man sent from God. And Jesus was right there in Capernaum. So the centurion sends some messengers to Jesus, to bring him his request to come and heal his servant.
But why doesn’t the centurion go himself? Why does he relay the request through messengers? The messengers he sends are elders of the Jews, leaders of the local synagogue. But the man making the request is a centurion, a Roman centurion, and thus a Gentile, a non-Jew. It seems the centurion was respecting Jesus’ Jewishness, to not have to deal directly and publicly with a Gentile. So he sends these Jewish elders in his place.
And they plead his case: “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” Now maybe these Jewish elders do not exactly have their theology straight. We do not come to God with our requests for help and mercy based on how “worthy” we are. If we did, we’d be in a lot of trouble. For we are not worthy, truly. Remember what you learned in the Catechism under the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our trespasses”: “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.” That is so. God does not answer our prayers because we are “worthy,” but rather because he is gracious.
A better way to understand the fact that this centurion loved the Jewish nation and built a synagogue for them is that these acts were the fruit of faith. This Roman centurion, a Gentile, had come in contact with the Jewish religion, and thus with the word of God, and that word was producing faith in his heart. These good works, then–love for the Jewish people, building them a synagogue–these were the fruit of the centurion’s budding faith.
The phenomenon of Gentiles respecting and honoring the Jewish religion was not unknown. We encounter several of these Gentiles, known as “God-fearers,’ in the New Testament. They were drawn to the religion of Israel because of its superiority to the pagan religions around them: The moral superiority of Israel’s laws and culture to the pagan depravity and decadence. The superiority of Israel’s God to the gods of the pagans, with all their fickleness and bad human qualities imposed on the false gods of man’s own making. These are what drew Gentiles to the religion of the Jews. And this centurion was such a God-fearing Gentile. The word of God was making an impact in his life.
Regardless of what the Jewish elders say about the centurion’s worthiness, Jesus decides to go with them to the centurion’s house. Before they get to the house, though, the centurion sends some friends out to meet them. These friends, too, have a message to deliver to Jesus, again from the centurion. It begins, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” In contrast to what the Jewish elders said when they were pleading his case and said, “He is worthy”–in contrast to that, the centurion says about himself, “I am not worthy.” And this is real humility. This is good. “God gives grace to the humble but resists the proud.” This Roman centurion, as powerful a man as he was in the worldly realm–he recognizes his own unworthiness before God.
“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.” Would that we all would have the humble approach of the centurion! To recognize our own unworthiness. And yet at the same time to recognize the authority of Jesus, and the compassion of Jesus, to accomplish the mercy we seek from him. The authority and compassion of Jesus to forgive sins and to heal in body and soul. And that Jesus can do this with a word. This is true humility and true faith.
You know there is a Communion prayer that is based on the words of the centurion. It goes like this: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” This is a good way to approach the altar and to kneel at the rail in humility and in faith. You and I are not worthy to have Christ enter under the roof of our mouth with his holy body and blood, but out of his great mercy and with his authoritative word, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” Christ does heal us in body and soul.
It is the authority of Christ’s word to do what it says, that is what the centurion understands about Jesus. He compares it to his military experience and the authority of his own word as an officer: “For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
This is the marvelous thing that the centurion catches about Jesus. He recognizes that Jesus is sent from God with authority to make things happen. Jesus’ word, as the Son of God, carries this life-giving power. And that is the basis for the centurion’s appeal and the centurion’s confidence that Jesus can heal his servant with just a word.
This insight into Jesus’ mission–that Jesus was sent from his Father in heaven and authorized to do these great and mighty works–this is what so impresses Jesus and causes him to marvel: “When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’”
There are very few instances in the gospels where Jesus is said to marvel or to be astonished or amazed. One is a negative instance, when Jesus is astonished at the lack of faith in his own hometown of Nazareth. It says, “And he marveled at their unbelief.” Another example of Jesus commending someone’s great faith, like he does with the centurion, is the faith of the Canaanite woman–again, a Gentile–who persists and takes the humble place of a dog waiting for scraps from the master’s table. Jesus commended her faith also.
And so this marvelous faith of the centurion is exemplary for us. We too approach the Lord in humility, as unworthy, empty-handed beggars. No merit of our own we claim. But we do approach in faith, knowing the Lord to be a gracious and merciful Lord, throwing ourselves on his mercy. And we come confident in faith, the faith that Jesus’ authoritative word is powerful to do what it says.
And this word of Jesus is powerful even when delivered by his messengers. Jesus tells his pastors, “He who hears you, hears me.” So when your pastor stands at the font and pronounces absolution, saying, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins,” you can know, as the Catechism says, “this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself.” When your pastor stands in this pulpit and proclaims to you life and salvation in Jesus’ name, you can take it to the bank in full confidence, knowing this is Christ’s own sermon to you. When your pastor stands at the altar and consecrates Communion with Christ’s own words, “This is my body, this is my blood,” it is Jesus doing this, really, and you can rest assured his words do what they say.
Friends, Jesus loves you no less than he loved that centurion or the centurion’s servant. Take a moment to ponder that and to take in what Jesus is doing here today. Jesus is speaking his life-giving word to you here today.
Authoritative word, marvelous faith. It is Christ’s own authoritative word that calls forth this marvelous faith. Marvel at what Jesus is doing here today, by means of his mighty word: He is giving you forgiveness, life, and salvation, and healing you in body and soul for eternity. And that is simply marvelous!