June 2, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“When Jesus was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him: ‘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.’”
“We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” That’s more than just a phrase spoken by Wayne and Garth to rock stars who show up for their fictitious public access TV show broadcast from their basement. It’s humorous when they say it and bow down at their guests. But while that is just a comedy sketch, there is a great truth is behind their statement. In real life we compare ourselves to those who come into our presence. There is recognition of rank. When someone much greater appears, we are quick to say statements that reflect a lack of worthiness: “It’s been a great honor to have you with us. I never imagined that I would have someone like you in my home. It’s been an absolute privilege to have your business.”
The question of worthiness is a key issue in the event recorded in the Gospel Reading for this morning. You heard of a centurion who happened to be in Galilee: “Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him.” The centurion commanded respect based on his status. He was an officer in the Roman Army. With that rank came privilege, including much higher pay. The centurion’s prowess as a soldier would be recognized by those under his command and commended by his superiors.
But what type of worthiness does the centurion have before God? What worthiness does he possess that Jesus should come to his house and heal his slave? The emissaries whom the centurion sends points out his worthiness: “When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to Him elders of the Jews, asking Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with Him earnestly, saying, ‘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.’” The elders point out the centurion’s qualities. But these aren’t statements about his military rank or his great valor. Instead, the elders point out the acts that have flowed out of the centurion’s heart and mind: he loves Israel and has provided a place where the Lord’s people can gather and hear the divine words of the Law and the Prophets. This is why Jesus should come and heal his slave.
But when Jesus comes near to the centurion’s home, there is a much different statement about his worthiness. The centurion speaks about himself through another set of messengers: “When Jesus was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him: ‘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.’” How different this sounds compared to the elders’ testimony concerning the centurion! They spoke of all the acts that should show his worthiness. But the centurion admits that he really is not worthy to have Jesus in his presence. Even his love of the nation and his building a synagogue—actions that flowed from his belief in the Lord—did not bring him to a level that deserved to have Jesus do anything for him.
And yet, there is a worthiness that the centurion possesses. It is not found in his acts. Rather, the worthiness comes from what he has received and what he clings onto. He is made worthy through what he has heard about Jesus and come to believe about Him. What the centurion has heard about Jesus has been revealed in his statement given through his friends: “But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 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.” The centurion shows what he believes concerning Jesus: that He has been sent with authority, so that what He says will come to pass, even the healing of a slave who is deathly ill. And how does Jesus respond? “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.’ And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.”
The centurion is correct: he is not worthy to have Jesus heal his slave because of all the things that he has done for the believers in his Galilean town. But he is made worthy because he has heard about Jesus. Worthiness is bestowed to the centurion through belief in what he has heard about Jesus. He is worthy because he knows Jesus’ authority. The centurion is worthy because he believes all that Jesus has been saying about Himself in the synagogues of Nazareth, Capernaum, and the other villages. He believes that Jesus has the Spirit of the Lord upon Him, that Jesus has been anointed and sent to speak good news and perform miracles that bring restoration. This is what the centurion has received from Jesus’ word and what he clings onto. The centurion’s belief is why he sends for Jesus to bring healing to his slave.
What is seen in this event is the way the gospel works. The centurion hears about Jesus and believes. That belief is expressed in his confession about Jesus. His faith is in who Jesus is and what Jesus does, just as St. Paul will speak of in his letter to the Galatians: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever.” His belief in Jesus’ identity and work then drives him to call for Jesus to help him and his slave, despite the fact that they are Gentiles. He does what Solomon foretold when he dedicated the Temple: “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, comes from a far country for Your name’s sake (for they shall hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven Your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You….” And so Jesus heals the centurion’s slave; He grants the request that is rooted in true belief about Him.
So how does this event speak about you? It shows you how the gospel works for you. The question of worthiness is not inapplicable to your lives. Are you worthy to stand before the presence of God? Are you of a rank that can demand anything of Him? The answer to that question should be a resounding “No.” The matter is put starkly in the Christian Questions and Answers in the catechism: “4. What have you deserved from God because of your sins? His wrath and displeasure, temporal death, and eternal damnation.” There’s the description about your natural worthiness: worthy to have the Lord’s anger directed at you, worthy to die, worthy of condemnation. Those are the privileges of your rank as chief sinner.
But why is all this not poured out on you? Why do you have the exact opposite given to you? Because you have been made worthy. What makes you worthy? Not what you have done, but what has been done for you. Not what you have acquired for yourself, but what has been bestowed to you. Again to the Christian Questions and Answers: “9. What has Christ done for you that you trust in Him? He died for me and shed His blood for me on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.” That is what you have heard about Jesus: “11. How do you know this? From the Holy Gospel, from the words instituting the Sacrament, and by His body and blood given me as a pledge in the Sacrament.”
So what makes you worthy? The gospel you have heard—the testimony about who Jesus is and what He has done—is what makes you worthy. You are made worthy through what you have heard about Jesus, as the apostles handed it down, and then making that your confession of Him. You believe that Jesus has been sent from the Father with His authority to perform a great act of salvation for you. You believe that He has died and has risen from death and that this was done for your benefit. You believe that Jesus speaks with authority, that His words are true and they deliver what they promise. You are worthy and well prepared as you believe what Jesus has promised to you in Baptism, Absolution, and Eucharist.
As you have heard, so you have believed. You make the same confession as the centurion did: “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof.” Your admission goes even further: “Lord, I am most definitely not worthy to come to Your house.” But your statement of belief is in Jesus’ words, just as the centurion believed: “But say the word, and let my servant be healed.” Your belief in Jesus’ word that summons you to His gracious throne leads you to dare to enter His presence, not just asking for a slave to be healed, but for yourselves to be saved from the point of everlasting death. Your faith is in the Lord’s mighty hand and outstretched arm that have brought about salvation and in the promises that this same Lord makes to you. That belief drives you to this place where the Lord has said: “My name shall be there.” As foreigners who have been brought into the Lord’s household, you ask for His promises to be fulfilled, and the Lord does so.
We’re not worthy of any of this. But worthiness is given to us, so that we can do so. The status of worthiness is now ours because of what Jesus has done for us. The privilege to call on Him to save and to enter His presence is ours, as we have heard about Him and have believed. That same status will be given to other foreigners who hear the same about Jesus’ identity and work and are then brought to the same faith about Him: “who gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” They are added to the company of believers who receive benefit from the Lord. This is what the healing of the centurion’s servant shows us. Let it be that Jesus will marvel at our trust and belief in His words and works, so that He says about us what He said concerning the centurion: “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.