1/22/23 – Epiphany 3 – “A Place at the Table” – Matthew 8:1-13

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1. From the Mount of his famous sermon, our Lord came again to Capernaum. There He encountered the good centurion. This centurion was a commander in the Roman army. But this Gentile military leader had learned to love Israel and her God. We learn from Saint Luke’s gospel that he had even demonstrated his love for Israel by building them a synagogue. The good centurion, then, represents the end of Judaism as the Jews of that time had known it. God’s people would no longer be almost exclusively limited to a single ethnicity. Times were changing. It is not merely that Israel was occupied by a foreign army but also that the center of God’s people was shifting from Jerusalem—away from that temple built with hands, away from Palestine—to Him who lays down His life and takes it up again, to Him who is a house of prayer for all people in the fullest sense of the term. The old boundaries of the Law—that is, the boundaries of the old temple, the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, priests and laity—all the old boundaries of the Law are being dissolved in the person of Jesus Christ.

2. Therefore our Lord says that the good centurion will receive due reward at the proper time. When his pilgrimage on this earth is ended, the good centurion will receive his eternal reward and rest at the table of eternal feasting. But he goes not to feast with war heroes and powerful pagans like Alexander the Great, Scipio Africanus, and Julius Caesar. Rather, his reward is to feast with the heroes of the Christian faith. He goes to feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are now his kin. He calls Abraham father because he is a child raised up from a stone.

3. In contrast are those who will not receive eternal reward and rest at the table of eternal feasting. Such people are those who had only an outward connection with Abraham and would soon discover that it was not enough. The distinctive thing about Abraham was not his curly hair or great learning, nor was it the outward circumcision. The distinctive thing about Abraham was his faith. He hoped and waited for the grace of God in the Messiah, for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to the Father. To be a son of Abraham, then, is to be circumcised in the heart and washed in the blood of the Lamb.

4. Those who thought they were sons of the kingdom by right were wrong. No one, including the good centurion, is fit or worthy of this kingdom. The kingdom is bestowed by grace upon the undeserving, or else it is not bestowed at all. Those who think they come by right—whether that is because they were baptized in the Missouri Synod, because they served the church with all their heart, or because their mother was Jewish—those who think they come to the kingdom by right will all be cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

5. Weeping comes from sorrow. Gnashing of teeth is not due to anguish or physical torture, but rather anger or rage. And so, those who find themselves in the place of gnashing of teeth are those who wanted to go their own way on this earth, to be their own lords. They insisted they be judged and handled according to their own history and righteousness, and so they will be. They will be given over precisely to what they desired and shall spend eternity in their own sin and in darkness. Those who cling to their own pride and anger will spend eternity in sorrow and in frustrated, debilitating anger, in weeping and gnashing of teeth. This shows us how terrible anger is. In hell men are given over to their anger. There is nothing, no one, to mediate them from themselves. There is no Law, only wrath, and they are alone.

6. Anger is probably the most acceptable sin in our culture. We give in to it all too easily. It has a vain air of strength. We take pride in our angry responses of vengeance toward others who we deem “deserved it”, such as when we respond to a hateful comment in kind or when we secretly “get someone back” for something they did to us. However, these angry actions are in direct contradiction to our Lord’s command that we love our enemies. But it makes us feel good for a brief moment to pound our chests and strut around and talk about vengeance, only we probably don’t use that word. But vengeance, even if we call it justice, is what we want. But vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. That means it is not yours. And if you take by force what is the Lord’s, you will be damned.

7. We mostly recognize the man who is overcome by drunkenness or lust as a slave. But we mistakenly think that the wrathful or angry man is strong. He is not. He is just as much a slave as the others, maybe worse, because his sin is more directly tied to pride. All sinful anger is tinged with more than a little self-righteousness, as though the injustices and slights you’ve suffered were cosmically significant and the whole universe ought to stop on your behalf. How dare someone cut in front of you in traffic! Don’t they know how important you are? How dare someone be rude to you, of all people, at the grocery store! And so, we continually demonstrate our slavery to anger.

8. The Holy Spirit, however, does not move us to anger, but to pity. The Lord describes hell as being full of people whose pride led them to think that God owed them something because they belonged to the right club or knew the secret word. He describes hell as a place where people will gnash their teeth and make themselves angry without relief. Here is the point: Giving in to anger and being angry is to bring upon yourself a little hell on earth now. Stop it. Repent. Let it go. Turn. To give in to anger is to gnash your teeth against God, to insist on your own way, to demand your own vengeance. You only hurt yourself and those you love. Your anger is weak and unhealthy. Most importantly, it is dangerous to the health of your soul. Repent.

9. Consider the good centurion. He is strong, but his strength is in virtue. He is strong in faith, hope, and love along with patience, humility, and wisdom. What happens to the good centurion’s servant physically is an illustration of what had happened already to the good centurion spiritually. The Lord worked physical healing and life in the servant, from afar, by His Word. He had done the same spiritually for the good centurion. The centurion was unfit in a Levitical sense, and unworthy in a moral sense, but the Lord healed his soul with His Word. He gave him not a new place and not a new thing. The Lord gave him the place that is bestowed by grace through faith upon those who trust in Christ: a place at the table of eternal feasting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a place in the kingdom. The centurion is healed, is reconciled, and is loved by God.

10. No wonder, then, that his prayer has been taken up by the Church as the traditional prayer before receiving the body of Christ. We are not worthy or fit that Christ enter into us. We are morally impure because we are slaves to sin. We are ceremonially unclean because we are distracted, lacking in proper fasts and discipline, unprepared. But the Lord says, “Take, eat, this is My body.” And so, we do, at His command, as men under authority. And our souls are healed, not from afar but from near, by His Word joined to bread to be His body for us. Thus we are joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He enters into us and gives a place at the table of eternal feasting with Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob, by faith, and makes us partakers, temples even, of the kingdom and the Spirit and the Christ.

11. This is the real miracle in Capernaum. Yes, the centurion and his servant are healed. But that is not the chief miracle. The chief miracle is not even the centurion’s faith. The chief miracle is Christ. Christ Himself—His grace, His undeserved love, His mercy—Christ Himself is the miracle. He is the kingdom. He is the hope of Israel. He is the Savior of Gentiles. He is giver of faith and creator of Christians. He makes us brothers, daughters, and brides. He grants us all a place at that table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. Thanks be to God!

In Jesus’ name. Amen

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