The Third Sunday after Epiphany| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 29, 2006
Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.” And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. “For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this 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 it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. “But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour. (Matthew 8:5-13)
Authority is a controversial topic. We argue about it all the time. My mother tells the story about one of my nephews who was misbehaving. She told him to stop what he was doing. He informed her that she wasn’t his boss. She said that she was and he could go ask his mother. So he did. My sister informed her little boy that yes, Grandma was his boss. Mom loves to tell us about the expression on his face when he heard the news. What a bummer! Even Grandma is my boss.
When we think of authority we usually think of it in terms of the law. The law says you must do this so you do it. The law says you must not do that so you don’t do it. You can’t get away from the law. Wherever you go, you are confronted with the authority of the law: at home, at school, at work, and, of course, driving around town in a car with flashers on the top. There are many different kinds of authority and levels of authority and penalties imposed if you defy the authority.
We apply authority and we submit to authority. The centurion understood that. You give orders and you follow orders or the job doesn’t get done. The centurion was no theologian. He wasn’t even a Jew. In fact, he wouldn’t have been accepted by the Jews because his occupation was quite offensive to them. No synagogue of his day would have received him. No community of devout Bible-believing children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would have recognized him. He was a Gentile, an outsider, a man without God. He had nothing to claim by which he could make himself a part of God’s people. He was uncircumcised, unlearned, and unclean. By what right could he appeal to Jesus for help?
His servant was wracked with painful paralysis. Nobody but Jesus could help. Why did the centurion appeal to Jesus to help? He went to Jesus because Jesus had authority. He had all authority in heaven and on earth. He had the authority of His word.
To what does the centurion appeal in his plea for Jesus’ help? He certainly doesn’t appeal to his own worthiness. He says, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.” He appeals to Jesus as Lord and he appeals to his servant’s need. Jesus is merciful. He appeals to His mercy.
And so do we. Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us. The Kyrie is at the beginning of the church service because it is only on account of the mercy we have in Christ that we can ask God for anything at all. It is only on account of Christ’s mercy that we can bear to listen to God speak to us. What kind of authority would we be under were it not for the mercy God has revealed to us in Christ?
Jesus healed a painful paralysis because He could do it and because He wanted to do it. How did He do so? He did so by means of His word. What is truly remarkable about this particular episode is the faith of this Gentile. Not only does he confess Jesus as Lord, but he confesses that Jesus exercises His authority through His word. This is the only authority the church has.
But the sons of the kingdom didn’t see this. They belonged to the church outwardly. But they didn’t submit to the authority of Jesus’ word. They would be excluded from the kingdom and cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Only those who submit to the authority of God’s word will receive eternal life.
Ah, but what does that mean? That’s a good Lutheran question, isn’t it? What does it mean to submit to the authority of God’s word? When the centurion said to Jesus, “But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed,” to what kind of authority was he appealing? Did Jesus compel the paralytic to heal himself? Or perhaps He did a bit of surgery and then sent him to rehab for a week or two? No, Jesus spoke and it was. He said it and it became so. It became so because He said it. From the moment He said it, it was so.
What kind of authority is this? Consider what Jesus said to the paralytic he met as recorded in the following chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. He went up to him and said, “Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven.” That made it so. Jesus had the authority to say it and make it so. He proved this by saying, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” What happened then? The man rose, took up his bed, and went to his house. Jesus had authority to forgive sins.
That’s at the very heart of divine authority. Three things go together and cannot be separated: divine authority, the divine word, and the forgiveness of sins. What did Jesus say to the apostles right before sending them out to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost? He laid claim to all authority in heaven and on earth.
The divine authority to which we Christians submit is the authority of the One who bore our sins. After submitting Himself to the authority of God’s law and after bearing in His divine body the punishment for sins that the law demanded, He gave to His church the authority to forgive sins in His name. Oh yes, the word of God’s law has authority. But the law never brought life or health or forgiveness. When God says do, His children balk, object, argue, and when they set out to do they stumble and they fall. Who’s going to question the authority of God’s law? Right is right and wrong is wrong. But when God says it we don’t do it. The law stands and its authority to condemn stands but we cannot be freed from the paralysis of our sins by means of commands to do what we cannot do.
As disobedient children who have refused to submit to the authority of God’s law we are afraid. We are afraid of God, the judgment of others, our pride, our future, and just about anything else that reminds us of our mortality. The authority to condemn is the authority with which our consciences are familiar.
But there is another authority in our life. There is another authority to which we willingly submit. It is the authority of the gospel. It tells us that as deeply as we have violated the authority of God’s law, so deeply are we forgiven of all our sins. The One who bore our sins is doing the talking. Don’t forget that. Jesus says to us, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And it is so.
To be under the authority of Jesus’ word means that we live every day of our lives with the confidence that no power in heaven or on earth can condemn us. To be under the authority of Jesus’ word means that we reject any other authority that lays claim to any spiritual, religious, or churchly pedigree. When it comes to matters of life, we Christians submit to all sorts of authority, some of it quite unpleasant. That’s what love does. Follow the rules. Get along. Don’t make waves. To live at peace with others requires that we subordinate our will to the will of the law, because the law is there to ensure an ordered liberty in matters pertaining to this life.
But then there is the authority over our doctrine and our faith. To whose authority must we submit? To Christ’s and to His alone. When it comes to what we teach and what we confess and what we believe, we submit to the authority of God’s word because the very heart of that word is the gospel that makes us free. We can permit no church, no pastor, no synod, no group of Christians, no pope, no bishop, nobody in all this world to require us to submit to any doctrine that is not clearly taught in God’s written word, the Holy Scriptures. And when we look to the Word of God to read it, when we listen to the Word of God to hear it, we look for Jesus, we listen for Jesus, the Jesus who demonstrated the authority of His word to set sinners free from their sins.
We eat and we drink at the altar where Christ’s body and blood are put into our mouths as a divine pledge of the forgiveness of all our sins. There is authority. There is the word. There is divine healing of body and soul.
Grandma’s authority can be annoying. The authority of the trooper or the tax man can be expensive. We might tend to run away from authority or at least to embrace it only reluctantly. But Christ’s authority is sweet and soothing. It is the authority won by His blood. It is the authority to forgive sins.