The two men in our Gospel lesson teach us a great deal about faith. And since we know that it is by faith and faith alone that we are saved, it would be of great benefit for us to pay attention to these two saints, who will dine with us at the Feast of Salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The first man is a leper. He falls down on his knees before Jesus and says, "Lord, if you will, you are able to make me clean."
"If you are willing and able." Those two need to come together, don't they? A mother may hold her sick child to her chest willing as ever to heal her baby's illness. But she remains unable to cure the disease. Likewise, there are many millionaires, who could easily pay the debts of many poor. But if they are unwilling to do so their ability doesn't help the poor.
The man calls Jesus, "Lord" and confesses that he is able to cure him of his disease. Yet, he says, "if you will." True saving faith requires that one believe that God is both able and willing to save. The man, however, does not express a lack of faith here. He is not praying for the forgiveness of sins or eternal salvation. Rather, he pleads for his daily bread, the cleansing of his leprosy. Here the man prays the third petition of the Lord's Prayer, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The man acknowledges God's ability to save him. He trusts that his Lord desires to do him good. But he submits to the will of God, even if Jesus chooses to let him bear the cross of leprosy.
And so this teaches you to pray, "Thy will be done." You know your Lord desires good for you. He tells you so. But whether he will cure your cancer or heal your disease in the time you want is up to his will. So each of us must in humility and trust say, "Thy will be done" and believe that God's good and gracious will is better than our own.
However, when you pray that God will forgive your sins, or strengthen your faith, or bring you to heaven for Christ's sake, you should not doubt that God will do it. In some cases, God's will is hidden from us. You don't know if you will get the job or recover from the illness. Yet, when it comes to the Gospel, whether God will forgive or damn you, you know God's will. When you pray "Thy will be done" concerning your eternal salvation, you know what God's will is, because he tells you. God's Word says that Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins (Rom. 4:25). When Jesus said, "I will; be clean," the man no longer doubted Jesus' will. And so, God's will concerning your eternal salvation is not secret. So when you pray to God concerning earthly matters, pray, "If you will, O Lord" and know that your Lord is able to help you and his will is good. But when you pray concerning the forgiveness of your sins and your eternal salvation, do not doubt God's will. He has revealed his will to you in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and in his resurrection. God wills to forgive you and to give you eternal life.
"And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him." Here Jesus demonstrates the blessing of the incarnation (the fact that God became a human being). Jesus comes to be with us sinners in our misery. When Jesus' skin touched the rotting flesh of the leper, he cleansed him of his disease. And so when Jesus went to the cross, the Father laid on his body the sin and guilt of every human and Christ's body became the vessel into which God poured his wrath and punishment for all sins. And so Christ reaches out his hand and touches your uncleanness and he snatches away your sin and makes it his own. It is no longer yours, but Christ's. Even in church today we see Christ's willingness to be with us sinners, to touch us, to clean us. He feeds us his body and blood in bread and wine, he joins to his word a physical touch to assure us of his willingness to forgive and heal.
Of the second man Jesus says, "Truly, I say to you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith." This man too calls Jesus, "Lord" and says his servant is paralyzed and suffering terribly. When Jesus says he will come and heal him the centurion replies, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof." Here the man dispels perhaps the greatest myth about faith. Faith has nothing to do with your worthiness. The man claims no merit of his own or that he deserves anything from Jesus. And so he teaches you that you are not more worthy than all those unbelievers. You church goers aren't better than those absent. God didn't choose you, because of your good works, your love, or your piety. You are as unworthy of God's love as any other sinner. But faith doesn't claim to be better than others. Faith claims unworthiness, yet clings to the promise of God.
"But only say the word." The Word! That's what faith clings to. The Word, which reveals God's good and gracious will to you in great detail. The Word that tells you that God loves you so much he sent Jesus to die for you and forgives you, not based on your worthiness, but because of his great undeserved love for you. This word is the Gospel, of which St. Paul writes, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation to all who believe." And so, while by faith you claim no worthiness of your own, you tap into the power of God's saving word.
"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." Here the centurion displays another important attribute of faith: knowledge. He understands remarkably well how God works. Just as the man gives a command, so his servants obey his word. And so God the Father spoke to God the Son, and although they were equal in majestic divinity, the Son submitted to the Father's word. The Father said, "Go," and the Son went to earth, born of the Virgin Mary. He said, "Do," and the Son willingly went to the cross and died for all sinners, whom the Father loved. The Father said, "Come," and our Lord rose from his mortal sleep and returned in glory to the Father, having subjected Satan, sin, and death to himself.
The centurion's military experience helped him understand what authority is. Authority is not the same as power. Power is the ability to do something. The leper confessed Jesus' power to cleanse him. Authority is the right to exercise power. A gun if power. A police badge is authority.
Authority can be passed on. When a king gives a command to a messenger, that command has just as much authority when repeated by the messenger, as it has when spoken by the king. An angel from God speaks with God's authority. So Jesus gives the word that the servant will be healed, and the command is carried out even though Jesus doesn't stand above the boy himself.
It is important for us to understand how authority works, because when Jesus ascended into heaven he left us with authority. He said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20) So although Christ does not walk before us as he did two thousand years ago, he has given his authority to his Church.
When Christ told his disciples to baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity, he gave authority to Baptism. When a pastor even in the 21st century baptizes it is as powerful as when the Apostles baptized those centuries ago, because the authority comes from God himself. The Gospel remains the power to salvation to everyone who believes, because its authority comes from Christ. We partake of the same meal this morning as the disciples did in the upper room on the night our Lord was betrayed, because the words, "Do this" carry this authority through the millenia. This authority gives us comfort, because the paralyzed servant received the same Jesus by the authority of his word as did the leper whom Jesus touched.
Many of the faithful wonder why people don't go to church. You could ask them, but that wouldn't give you the answer. Because the reason people don't come to church is not because of work or sports or leisure, or a busy schedule. People don't come to church, because they lack faith. The centurion of great faith trusted not only that Jesus could heal his servant, but that he had the authority to command even an angel to accomplish his word. And so if you have faith like the centurion, you will not simply believe in Christ, but you will believe his word and that his authority is carried through his word. This means when the pastor forgives sins, Christ Jesus your Lord speaks to you! The sermon should never be thought of as meanderings of some guy. They carry the power to save those who hear and believe it!
And so it is, even for those who do come to church the lazy flesh and the nagging devil try to distract the faithful from the fact that Christ's authority is being exercised before their eyes and the power to salvation is being worked for them. For this reason, we must constantly pray that God strengthen our faith, so that we may receive his holy word with thanksgiving.
"Many will come from east and west and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness." It is those of faith, who will sit at the table of salvation. No one will earn a seat by his good works or pedigree. Jesus even says that the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. That means that even those of the nation of Israel, the promised people, who do not have faith will not be saved by their Jewish blood. And so neither will anyone be saved, because he was a member of the Lutheran church or because he got confirmed, or because he volunteers a lot.
Each of us is saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone. This means we call Jesus Lord. It means like the leper, we believe Jesus is willing and able to do for us what he says he will do. Like the centurion, we do not claim to be worthy by our own works, but cling to the promise of God's Word. Faith believes that Jesus has the power and authority to forgive sins and that he has given that authority to his church.
Jesus said to the centurion, "Let it be done for you as you have believed." The centurion believed Jesus' word. So Jesus was really saying, "Let it be according to my word." You see, faith grasps Jesus' word. It takes possession of God's power. St. John wrote, "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the authority to become children of God." Faith is the authority to apply the Gospel to yourself. Faith is the authority to look at Jesus on the cross and say, "He did that for me." Faith is the authority to remember your Baptism and trust, "I am a child of God. The Holy Spirit dwells in me." Faith is the authority to sit at the feast of salvation with all believers from every land and century, who believe in the forgiveness of sins won by Christ on the cross.
Dear friends, do you believe in the Gospel? Let it be done for you as you have believed. Amen.