Monday, February 19, 2007

Faith and worth: A sermon preached in Dromore Cathedral on 18th February 2007. Luke 7:1-10

When you hear the name, Neil Armstrong, you might think of the honour and respect he receives from people, and the fame he has, because of being the first man on the moon. You might even think that he deserves the attention. But recently in an interview, Armstrong said this: "I don't deserve [attention for being the first man on the moon because] I wasn't chosen to be first," says Armstrong, visibly uncomfortable. "I was just chosen to command that flight. Circumstance put me in that particular role. That wasn't planned by anyone," he says.

As we meet together for worship, and especially as we approach the Lord’s Table tonight, on what basis do we come? On what grounds do we come to the Table? Have we ideas of merit or worthiness? Or do we come by faith, trusting in God’s word?

In our Gospel reading, we heard of Jesus and a centurion. The two men didn’t meet. Yet Jesus commended the centurion for his faith. As we look again at the passage, we’ll see the two methods of approach, and which one Jesus commends.

Jesus has returned to Capernaum again. It’s the place where he healed the demon-possessed man in the synagogue in Luke 4, so he was probably well known. Further, verse one tells us that he entered the town when he had finished his teaching – that version of the Sermon on the Mount which is found in Luke’s Gospel. So it may well be he had been not too far from Capernaum when he was teaching.

Within the town there lives a centurion. A Roman soldier, in charge of 100 men. One of the commentators suggested that in rank he’s roughly equivalent to today’s captain. But there’s a problem. His servant, his favourite servant, who is highly valued by him, is sick. More than that, the servant is at the point of death. What could be done for the servant?

It seems, as we will soon see, that the centurion was in touch with the Jewish population and the synagogue. And so, he hears about Jesus, who has arrived in town. Jesus the teacher. Jesus the healer (Luke 6:17-19). Could it be that Jesus can help the servant? Could he make him better?

Already we get a hint of the centurion’s humility, as he first goes about approaching Jesus. Notice that he doesn’t go himself. Rather, he sends the Jewish elders – were these the select vestry of the synagogue; those who oversaw the community and the synagogue.

Why did he send them? Why didn’t he go himself? Could it be that he was afraid to go to see Jesus to ask him to do something, given that he was a foreigner, an outsider? Maybe he thought he would get a better hearing from Jesus if he sent the Jewish elders – Jesus’ own people, as it were.

Yet they didn’t do him any good. Look at verse 3: ‘When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant.’ A simple request: ‘to come and heal his servant.’ But what do the elders do with it? Rather than coming with that simple request, the plea for mercy, the elders come with bargaining chips – arguments as to why Jesus should come and help him.

It’s as if they try to force Jesus into being merciful. Look at what they do, verse 4: ‘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.’

Why should Jesus help him? Because the centurion has done so much. Do you hear them? ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him.’ He deserves you to help him. It’s as if the elders are trying to buy Jesus’ favour, by highlighting the list of things the centurion has done.

As I said earlier, the centurion would have been a foreigner, and probably a heathen or pagan. While he had been stationed in Capernaum, he had come to a change of mind. Firstly, they said, he loves our nation. Despite being a foreigner, an outsider, he loves the Jews, the people of God. But then he went further than that, because secondly, they said ‘he is the one who built us our synagogue.’ He loved the Jews so much and sees the importance of their God, that he provided the meeting place for them.

Can you see what the Jews are trying to do? It’s almost emotional blackmail of Jesus – because this man has done all this stuff for us (and by extension, for God), then you should do this for him. He is worthy. He deserves this favour. He deserves this grace.

Shift for a moment from the passage, to the church and world around you. Do we ever see this attitude in other people, or in ourselves? Have you ever come to church with this sort of attitude? Is this the basis of your hope – reckoning on the balance of all your merits to persuade or force God into accepting you?

What the Jews were saying, when you bring it into today’s culture was first off – we deserve grace if we love our nation – not in a nationalistic way, but that we are contributors to society. Sort of, he’s a good, loyal, upstanding citizen. He’s decent. He works hard and doesn’t do anybody any harm. Or she’s always well dressed, and always polite. She’s on the PTA.

The second appeal for grace was on the basis of what we do for the church. So just as the centurion built the synagogue – we deserve grace because we pay in to the church; or give a donation to the building fund every month (or once in a while). Or as we look at others - they’ve been on the select vestry and even had ago at being churchwarden. So obviously, they deserve grace – they’ve worked for it. They are worthy to be right with God, and to come to Holy Communion.

The elders were also trying to be gatekeepers on God’s mercy – trying to set boundaries for God’s love. Normally, a centurion – an occupying soldier, one of the enemy, would be hated. The only reason they thought he deserved God’s favour was because of what he had done. Had he just been a regular centurion doing his job, would they have cared about him, or helped him? Do we set limits on God’s love? Do we say (or think) that God only loves those inside the church? Do we view outsiders as less loveable, or less important?

Notice that Jesus goes with the elders. He doesn’t agree to do anything on the basis of their arguments or merits. He doesn’t immediately correct them either, but that rebuke will come in due time. In the mean time, he’s on his way towards the centurion’s house to heal the servant. Will he get there on time?

And so, on the way, they’re stopped by another delegation from the centurion’s house. Are these people going to tell Jesus that it’s too late, and not to bother? But no, it seems they have another message!

Let’s read 6-8 again. ‘When he 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. For I too am a man 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.”

What a contrast to the attitude of the Jewish elders! They were arguing on the basis of his deserving the favour; the centurion pleads on the basis of not deserving anything. The elders said ‘he is worthy’, but the centurion says himself ‘I am not worthy.’

How does he demonstrate that he is unworthy, and approaches Jesus on the basis of seeking mercy, rather than on the basis of what he deserves?

Firstly, from verse 7, ‘I did not presume to come to you.’ The centurion was so conscious of his unworthiness that he didn’t dare to come into Jesus’ presence. Do you remember the words of Peter, when Jesus directed the miraculous catch of fish? ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’ (Luke 5:8). Even though the centurion was an outsider, he recognised Jesus for who he is – calling Jesus ‘Lord’.

And as he recognises Jesus as Lord, he also recognises the authority Jesus has. The centurion well understands authority, both in terms of those under him, as well as those over him. As he says in verse 8, when I tell a soldier to go somewhere, he goes; and when I tell my servant what to do he does it. But the first part of verse 8 reminds us of those who were over him, who he had to obey – ‘for I too am a man set under authority’. That chain of command stretched up through the ranks to Caesar himself.

If Caesar commanded, he did it. Caesar had the power in the military realm. And he applies this to Jesus – seeing Jesus’ authority over sickness and life itself. Caesar was regarded as supreme commander – but here the centurion recognises the true supreme commander, and the true Lord.

How is it he recognises Jesus’ authority? How is it he shows himself to be unworthy? Those key words that connect the two things we’ve looked at so far – ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy you have you come under my roof… But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority…’

Say the word and my servant will be healed (as the NIV renders it). Do you see the faith the centurion is showing here? That faith shines out brightly – asking for mercy, because he is unworthy and doesn’t deserve it – yet he firmly believes that Jesus only has to say the word, and his servant will be healed, restored, given his health again.

What boldness, to approach Jesus, and to say to him, I don’t deserve anything from you, but I believe you can and will do it anyway! No wonder that Jesus marvels in verse 9, and says ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’

Jesus had come to Israel, to the people of God who had been expecting their Messiah King for so long, and he came across unbelief. But worse, the religious people, like the Jewish elders, were trying to buy God’s favour by doing things – trying to earn God’s grace. Yet this foreigner, this enemy soldier displays such a faith that it amazes Jesus!

But do you notice why the centurion has such faith? Yes, it’s firstly because it is in Jesus – but much more than that, it reveals something of who Jesus is. We’ve already thought about it briefly as we considered the centurion’s use of authority – he saw that Jesus’ word was enough for something to be done, in the same way that his word was enough for a soldier to obey him.

Yet this points us to just who Jesus is. For the miracle to happen, Jesus didn’t have to be there – Luke records this for us in verse 10. When the men who came to Jesus return to the house, the servant is already well! Jesus speaks, and it is done. Does this have echoes of anything for you? Does it remind you of another story?

Think of Genesis 1. God is creating the world and all in it. And it just takes him to speak, and it happens. God’s power is revealed in his word. God speaks, and it is done. Genesis 1:5 says this: ‘And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.’ Time and time again, God says ‘let there be…’ and it happens!

So here, in our passage, the centurion recognises Jesus for who he is – God among us – with the power and authority to speak and for it to be done. No presence or touch was needed – just the word to be spoken.

[Contrast this to even the apostles, the immediate followers of Jesus. In Acts 19, there’s a curious passage about the healing hankies – ‘And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them’ (Acts 19:11-12). There was some personal contact between Paul and the sick person. But here, by the time the people who are with Jesus get back to the house, the servant is already well!]

So how do we respond to this passage? How does it affect what we do later tonight, and in the days to come? As we approach the table, do we come trusting in our own merits, or looking at the merits of others? Or do we come recognising our faults and failings as we say ‘I am not worthy’ – yet trusting in God’s mercy and grace?

[As we finish off, this passage reminded me of a parable Jesus tells later in Luke’s Gospel which speaks about the attitude of approach. ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee standing by himself prayed thus: “God I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted’ (Luke 18: 10-14).]

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