Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost based on Luke 7:1-10 (Gal. 1:1-12)
Dear people who cling to the merits and worthiness of Christ: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
“He is worthy to have you do this for him.” This is what the Jewish elders said to Jesus concerning the centurion when they requested His help. They said the centurion is worthy because he loved the Jewish nation. Unlike most Roman soldiers, this centurion didn’t despise the Jewish people. In fact, he loved them. He built a synagogue for the Jewish people to gather and hear God’s Word, most likely with his own money. And unlike many slave owners, the centurion didn’t regard his slave as replaceable property, but cared enough for him to ask Jesus to heal him. Surely he is worthy. Surely based on what he has done, this centurion deserves to have his request granted by Jesus. Or so the Jewish elders thought.
This is the same error into which the Galatians fell. The Galatians had been tricked by false teachers into thinking that man can do something to earn God’s favour. They believed that if they did good things, then God would give them good things. They believed that if they did what they could, then God would do the rest. They believed that they had to work to make themselves worthy to receive from God.
Saint Paul writes to them, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1) “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ (Gal. 3:10)
If you want to earn God’s favour, you have to keep the entire law – every single commandment. In your entire life, you can never have a sinful, impure, or selfish thought. In your entire life, you can never speak poorly of anyone or tell even a “little white lie.” In your entire life you can never act selfishly, but must always put others first. Since no one can do these things, anyone who relies on their ability to fulfil the Law is under a curse. They are under a curse because they cannot abide by all the things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.
This is why Saint Paul is so adamant, unyielding, and unbending when he writes, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” Even if it’s an angel from heaven, let him be accursed.
There is no gospel other than the Good News that we receive God’s favour only for Jesus’ sake without any merit or worthiness in us. There is no gospel other than the Good News that we are declared righteous, our sins are covered, and we are given the promise of eternal life as a free gift apart from our works; apart from what we have done; apart from what we have left undone. The Holy Spirit says through Saint Paul that anyone who says otherwise is accursed.
The Jewish elders had it all wrong. The centurion was not worthy. The Gentile centurion himself recognizes and acknowledges that this is true. He sent word to Jesus saying, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” He laid no claim on anything he had done. He knew he did not deserve his request for the healing of his servant, nor was he worthy even to have Jesus come into his house. He knew he is unworthy for what he asked, and was unworthy of even being in Jesus’ presence, yet he asked anyway, trusting in the mercy of Jesus.
We can sometimes get caught up in thoughts of worthiness as the Jewish elders did. We can fall into the trap of thinking that certain people are worthy of the church’s services and others are not. We may think that someone who has shown great love to others is worthy while others are not. Someone who has been a great supporter of the church and has been a regular attender deserves the support, the visits, and the services of the church, while those who haven’t given much or attended much are unworthy and don’t deserve such support, visits, or services. We may think that those who support the church and attend are those who are worthy to have their prayers answered by God, while others are unworthy. The truth is we are all unworthy sinners. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).
So is the answer to everything to recognize and acknowledge our unworthiness? Is that the whole answer? All we have to do is admit that we are unworthy for what we ask and then God will give it to us?
No, that’s not quite it. If all we do is recognize that we are unworthy, we will despair. If all we do is realize that we are unworthy, we will be miserable. Our unworthiness by itself, causes us to push God away. Recognizing our sin, as Peter did, we say, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8) Our unworthiness makes us exclaim with Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” (Is. 6:5) Despairing in our unworthiness we run away from God to hide like Adam and Eve did when they sinned (Gen. 3:8).
If all we recognize is our unworthiness, we flee from God. We are afraid to pray to Him because we are unworthy. We avoid the Divine Service because we are not worthy. We flee from the Lord’s Supper because we are afraid to receive it unworthily and eat and drink judgment on ourselves (I Cor. 11:27-29).
We cannot just recognize our unworthiness and stop there. Along with the centurion, we should recognize our unworthiness, but also recognize who Jesus is and trust in Him for salvation.
The centurion recognized that Jesus has divine authority. Just as the centurion had authority to command his soldier “‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to [his] servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it,” so Jesus has authority to command illnesses to go and they go, or for illnesses to come and they come. Just as the centurion doesn’t need to explain or justify himself to his soldiers, so Jesus doesn’t have to explain or justify himself to the centurion, to us, or to anyone else, whether the illness comes or goes.
Jesus says all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him (Matt. 28:18). He has authority to make sick, He has authority to heal. Like the centurion trusted Jesus, we can also trust that He knows what He is doing, that He loves us, wants what is best for us, and will answer our prayers as He knows best, and for our eternal good. We can pray for all things, not because of our worthiness or merits, but because of the worthiness and merits of Jesus.
The centurion trusted in the power of Jesus’ Word to the extent that he did not even need to see Jesus himself. So we also can trust Jesus’ Word even though we do not see Him. Because Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, we know that He has the authority to cover all of our sins in the waters of Baptism. Because Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, we know that He has authority to forgive sins through the mouth of the pastor He calls to speak in His name and in His stead. Because Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, we know that He has authority to give us His true body and blood for the forgiveness of all of our sins and that we receive it worthily, not trusting in our own worthiness, but in the worthiness of Jesus.
Jesus says to our fears, “Go,” and they are gone. Jesus says to faith, “Come” and it comes to us. Jesus says, “Do this,” and we eat and drink, doing this in remembrance of Him.
Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, and He commands and invites us to pray based on His merits and worthiness. His worthiness covers our unworthiness. His blood shed for us covers our sins so that we might be granted those things for which we pray according to God’s good and gracious will.
We are not worthy in and of ourselves that Jesus would come to us in His true body and blood for the forgiveness of all our sins, but Jesus’ worthiness covers our unworthiness. We worthily receive the Lord’s Supper when we recognize our own unworthiness and cling to the worthiness of Jesus who gives to us what He has promised in the Sacrament: the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. That is the Gospel.
There is only one Gospel. That Gospel is the Good News that we receive God’s favour only for Jesus’ sake without any merit or worthiness in us. That one true Gospel is the Good News that we are declared righteous, our sins are covered, and we are given the promise of eternal life as a free gift apart from our works; apart from what we have done; apart from what we have left undone. We receive it all clinging to Jesus’ worthiness. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.