“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 only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
In our gospel reading this morning we are taken along with Jesus and the crowd that is following him about and we arrive at Capernaum. And in Capernaum there lived a Roman soldier with many other men under his authority and when he heard about Jesus he knew he had to do something. His beloved slave was sick and about to die but perhaps Jesus could change that. So he sent two groups to Jesus, the second time saying, “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 only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” And it was credited to him as faith.
What I want us to focus on for a few moments is the faith of the centurion because it is a faith that, according to Luke, amazes Jesus! It is a faith that recognizes in Jesus a certain power and authority of which the power and authority of the centurion himself is but a shadow. As a centurion, he is set under authority himself but also has soldiers under his command. When an order comes from the top it works its way down the chain of command with each soldier hearing and obeying what his superior says. For each man is “set under” the authority of another.
By faith, the centurion recognizes in Jesus an even greater authority and power, one that is able to heal his dying slave, and to bring order to the disorder of his life if only he is willing to be “set under” this authority.
What maladies of sin are we suffering from in our own lives into which Jesus Christ is waiting to speak his healing and life-giving word? How might we posture ourselves as the centurion did, willing and able to be set under the authority and grace of Jesus, bringing order to our disorder?
That the centurion not only recognizes that Jesus is one with authority but yields to his authority is remarkable if we pause to consider the fact that Jesus, as a Jew, belongs to the very nation that Rome has conquered and enslaved and thus over which this centurion has been placed. And yet here in a poor man from a conquered people the centurion recognizes his Lord and master. He recognizes the one whose authority he, and all the world, is truly set under.
Do we recognize the power and authority of God in the ways that Jesus comes to us today, no less hidden in weakness? The healing word of Jesus still comes to us in simple, ordinary, and surprising ways. In the waters of baptism; in the bread and wine of the Eucharist; the pages of Holy Scripture; in the presence of the poor. Do we have the faith to see and receive Jesus on his own terms, rather than according to our presumptions?
And so on the one hand the centurion sees in Jesus a power that is sufficient to heal and restore. On the other hand and at the same time, he sees in himself not sufficiency but insufficiency. Notice that in contrast to the Jewish elders he does not make an appeal on the basis of his worthiness but instead, surprisingly, proclaims just the opposite! “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you.” He recognizes in Jesus the power and authority of God at work, and at the very same time he realizes his own inadequacy, even in approaching Jesus. In light of the overwhelming beauty and power of God in Christ all of the things that might have made him worthy to stand before Jesus on his own seemingly fall away.
Of course, this is disturbing to folks like me who like to keep score: I’ve been a Christian most of my life, I’ve gone to seminary, I study the scriptures, I pray daily, I serve Jesus as a priest in his church, I serve my family and seek to raise my children to love and serve the Lord, I try to be generous with my money and time, surely someone like I can presume to come to the Lord!
But whatever good things we might want to add up on our scorecard to make us appear worthy of God’s affection simply drown in the ocean of the goodness and love of God in Jesus Christ and his disposition towards us.
Think of the beautiful words of the Prayer of Humble Access which we find in the BCP: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy…”
Woe to those who would presume that they are qualified to stand before Christ! What enables us to come to Christ, and what enables us to receive Christ is not our own righteousness, but God’s great and manifold mercy. It is the power of God that transforms us and makes us what we are. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians his apostleship and ministry are not of human origin but come through the gift of Jesus Christ himself (Gal 1:1, 11-12). The very life and ministry of the Church, our very life and ministry here, depends on the great mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
As Paul says elsewhere: “Our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant,” (2 Cor 3:4-6). Our ability to be God’s people and to live as God’s people in the world is a gift, a gift that comes to us in Jesus Christ as he gives his very life to us and for us so that we might live in him and for him.
No sooner has the centurion exhibited such faith and set himself under the authority of Jesus than he receives the healing word of Christ and his beloved slave is healed. This is a really important point to grasp, and indeed we spend a whole lifetime just trying to grasp it:
The primary task of the Church is to live under and out of the authority of the risen and living Jesus Christ.
Friends, we are in the presence of Jesus Christ right now. Really and truly, in a unique way. When we hear the scriptures proclaimed, we are hearing the voice of Jesus Christ. When we receive the bread and the wine of the Eucharist we are receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ. When we receive the poor in our midst, we are receiving Christ himself. Let us not presume to come to Christ trusting in ourselves but let us be attentive to the ways in which he gives himself to us by his great mercy and be open always to receiving him on his own terms.
And as we receive him in this way and place our lives under his loving authority and power, he will transform us by his Spirit into his own image, bringing order where there is disorder, and empowering us for life with him in the Church for the world. Amen.