Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Our text invites us to reflect on the theme of authority. In the 3 chapters of Matthew’s Gospel preceding our text, Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount can be found. In this sermon, Jesus speaks definitively and authoritatively about the upside-down nature of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ kingdom is a place where the poor in spirit are blessed, as we know from the beatitudes. Jesus’ kingdom is a place where the law is more than a moral obligation, it’s a matter of the heart, as Jesus repeatedly says, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” There is much more that is worth reading and pondering in Matthew chapters 5-7, but for our purposes, what is of particular importance is how Matthew notes the sermon ending. We’re told in the final two verses of Matthew 7: And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:28-29). Notice that it is the authority of Jesus which astonishes the crowds. This authority has been on display through his teaching. In our text for today, we see that Jesus’ authority includes not only his words, but also his actions.
2. As our text begins, we read: When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “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. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them” (Matthew 8:1-4). So now, as Jesus is only just coming off of the mount, we see his authority demonstrated as he heals a man with leprosy. Notice the faith with which this leper approaches Jesus. First of all, he addresses him as, “Lord.” The Greek word is Kyrie. This is the way in which Jesus’ disciples address him because “Lord” is Greek equivalent to the sacred Hebrew tetragrammaton—the divine name of God—YHWH, or Yahweh, as it’s often pronounced. To call Jesus “Lord” is to call him God. Jesus is God, and as such he has both the authority and the ability to heal this leper. That is never a question in this man’s mind. The only question is, does Jesus desire to heal him. This unnamed leper believes that Jesus exercises his authority for the benefit of those in need. And so, the leper approaches Jesus in humble hope that he might exercise his authority and meet his need. And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And we’re told that immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
3. As our text continues, we see Jesus demonstrate his authority yet again by healing someone else, although this time is a bit different. When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldier 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.” When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment (Matthew 8:5-13). It’s interesting that we’re given the story of this healing immediately following the previous story of healing. There’s a lot that can be learned from comparing and contrasting these two stories. There’s much that also can be learned from comparing and contrasting this story with the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5, which was our Old Testament Reading for today. But we will have to save that for another time because I would like to focus on the content of verse 10: When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” Given the fact that the leper who Jesus just healed was Jewish, it might be tempting to view this as a slight against him and his faith. But it’s probably better to take this statement at face value. Jesus is genuinely amazed at the great faith of this centurion. In other words, the leper who Jesus just healed had a commendable faith in Jesus. But if the leper’s faith was commendable, this centurion’s faith is exceptional. That leads to the question, what makes the centurion’s faith so exceptional? There are three things to note about the centurion’s interaction with Jesus which illustrate his exceptional faith. First, like the leper in the previous section, he addresses Jesus as “Lord”, that is, Kyrie. We can debate the extent to which he knows what he is saying, but it’s clear that in some sense the centurion recognizes that Jesus is Lord and God. Second, the centurion recognizes that he is unworthy of Jesus’ grace. He expresses this by saying, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Third, the centurion recognizes the authority of Jesus. In saying, “I too am a man under authority”, the centurion is explaining that his own vocation has taught him about the nature and character of authority. And so, we’re told that Jesus marveled at the faith of this centurion. His faith consists in knowing both who he is (that is, unworthy) and knowing who Jesus is (that is, the one in authority). And so, in response to this man’s great faith, Jesus exercised his authority to grant him what he asked for.
4. I wonder if Jesus would be as impressed with our faith as he was with the centurion’s faith. Actually, I take that back. I don’t wonder. I’m quite sure that he would not be impressed with our faith. The centurion was a man with great power and even control in his role as a military commander. Yet despite that great power and control, the centurion had enough humility to submit to the greater authority of Jesus. Far too often we don’t do the same. We want control and not submission. We want power, but we don’t want to submit to Jesus. Or maybe we are willing to submit to Jesus, but only within certain limits. During this time of COVID-19, I see this struggle within so many Christians. They say that they submit to Jesus as their Lord and Savior, but when it comes to their physical well-being and health, they refuse to submit. “I’ll submit to you, Jesus, but my condition is that my health has to stay in tact. I’ll worship you, but only when my physical health isn’t at risk.” This COVID-19 pandemic is very quickly revealing that more than anything, we want power and control over our health. We’re even willing to re-define the essence of Christian worship and what aspects of the Christian life we will and will not participate in all because we’re unwilling to submit to Jesus in everything. I’m afraid that we have made a god out of our health. Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that your physical health is not important. I’m not saying that people who are vulnerable and have preexisting conditions shouldn’t take precautions. I’m not a doctor (thank the Lord for the sake of us all!). But we should also thank the Lord that he has given us doctors who can guide us to make wise, healthy, and godly decisions to take care of our bodies, which are a temple of the Holy Spirit. Your physical body is a gift of God. You should take care of it. The problem is when we take care of our physical needs while ignoring our spiritual needs. This is the problem that I’m addressing. It’s when this happens that we have made a god out of our health.
5. But thanks be to God that Jesus’ healing grace isn’t restricted to those of great faith like the centurion. Jesus comes to us today to offer us his healing forgiveness from our sins of failing to submit to him and of making a god out of our health. We will experience this healing forgiveness at the communion rail when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. You may not know this, but there is an ancient prayer of preparation to receive the Lord’s Supper which is based on the words of the centurion in verse 8 of our text. The prayer is this: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed.” This prayer puts you and I who might pray it in the position of the centurion. We recognize that we are not worthy to have the Lord come to us. His word alone is enough to heal our poor, miserable soul. And so, in preparation to receive the Lord’s Supper, generations of Christians have prayed this prayer: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed.” But the amazing thing is this, unlike for the centurion, Jesus doesn’t exactly answer this prayer in the way that we ask. When the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed”, Jesus answered his prayer in the way that he asked. Jesus never went under his roof. He simply spoke the word, and his servant was healed. But when we pray, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed”, Jesus doesn’t answer the prayer in the way that we ask. He uses his authority to say, “Actually, I will come under your metaphorical roof.” He doesn’t only speak a word to heal our soul, he comes to us in his body and in his blood to heal our soul. These simple elements which we receive at the altar are not ordinary bread and wine. They are the very presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who comes under the roof of our body to heal our soul and grant us forgiveness. Thanks be to God that we have a Savior who sees us in our controlling, power-hungry sin, yet has mercy on us and uses his authority to heal us of our sin. And so, we pray: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed.” And with these words we trust that he will grant us more than we ask. In the name of Jesus. Amen.