Jesus presents us with two men of faith today. The one he praises and marvels at and the other he sends to the temple. He’s not condemning the one and praising the other. But it’s very obvious that He stresses the beauty of the one’s faith, “Amen, with no one in Israel have I seen such faith!” That includes the leper who was just healed. That man had faith in Jesus. He came to Him, He told Him, “If you want to, you can heal me.” That’s a beautiful faith. The leper is confessing the power of Jesus – you can heal me. Who else can you say that of, in all the world? Who else could he go to and say that? No doctor, no priest, no politician no matter his power, no rich man no matter his wealth. Only Jesus can, and the leper knows it. He says, “If you want to, if you are willing,” not because he thinks Jesus might not like him, might not want to help him, but because Jesus has just taught the people to pray, “Thy will be done,” and he’s listened to Jesus’ teaching, taken it to heart. There are times when you don’t have to say, “if you will,” to God. There are times when you know God does want it, so you simply say, “Lord, give me what you promised, I know you want to give it to me, because you told me so yourself.” So when you ask on a Sunday morning for your Father in heaven to forgive you your sins, you don’t have to say, “If it be your will, If you want to,” no, you know He wants to, the blood of His Son proves it beyond any doubt, and that’s why you appeal to that blood, “for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ,” and God answers every time by forgiving you through His man.
But there are other times when you say, “if you will,” because you don’t know what’s best. Three times St. Paul asked that God take the thorn from his flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him, and God said, No, my grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness. So you may pray and ask, “Lord, take this sickness away, Lord, save my mother from death, Lord, save the little ones from abortion,” and God may instead use the sickness and the death to accomplish greater goods than you could imagine at the time. Remember that it was Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of God, who prayed in the Garden, “If it be your will, if there is another way, then take this cup from me,” and the Father made him drink that cup, that was His will, and it was for a good that is beyond compare. So the leper is no faithless ingrate when he says, “If you will,” “if you want, Lord,” because it could be that living with leprosy was God’s will for him, would be best for him in the end. So this prayer, “Thy will be done,” “if it is your will,” is our faithful surrender to God, confessing that we know He knows best and that even the crosses and pains He gives us, if He wills to give them, must be for our good.
But it is not the faith of the leper that Jesus praises. He praises the faith of the centurion. Now here’s where Jesus is showing us a huge contrast that you might not have recognized when you heard the Gospel this morning. I don’t know, I didn’t recognize it on the first read anyway. He tells the leper to go to the Temple. That’s because the leper is an Israelite, he’s a member of the true church, a Jew to whom belong the Scriptures, the promises, the true worship of God. In stark contrast the centurion is a gentile, uncircumcised, not part of the visible church, no access to the temple, no access to the sacrifices and festivals like Passover, that all so clearly preached the coming sacrifice of Jesus. He didn’t have all that. Yet Jesus praises his faith.
And this teaches us a very important lesson and one that is pretty constant in the Bible – it often happens that those who are not in the best churches, who aren’t orthodox Lutherans with all the pure teaching and all the correct administration of the sacraments, it often happens that their faith and their life far outstrips our own.
Look at the centurion. Look at his humanity, his pity on his servant. In a time when slaves were often treated like animals, he treats his slave like a son, worries for him, cares for him, prays to God for him. Here’s a man who recognizes the worth of every human life and acts on it, holds a slave’s worth to be as high as his master’s, because one God made them both. And he is a humble man, says he’s not worthy to have Jesus under his roof. Can you imagine that, if some ridiculously important person came to you, if your favorite politician or actor or sportsball star came and wanted to come to your house, you’d let him in gladly – unless your house was a mess – but here the centurion has God in the flesh telling him he’s going to come to his house and he says, I’m not worthy. The centurion’s an important man. He’s the officer put over a hundred soldiers in a Roman army (centurion, century, centum, hundred), has the power of command. But he takes his seat with the lowly, doesn’t think too highly of himself, recognizes as the Bible so often tells us that we are but men and we have nothing to boast of except in our God. And he’s generous too. Matthew doesn’t tell us, but Luke does, that this man had built a synagogue for the Jews, that’s a school for teaching the faith. Here he’s not even a Jew himself, but he so values the teaching of God’s Word, wants it handed down to the next generation, that at his own expense he pays for a school to be built. So not only generous, but generous where it counts. He could hand that money down to his kids and that would be generous. But no, he gives it for the teaching of God’s Word because he knows what matters, what God gave money for.
And then his faith. He so beautifully expresses Christian faith. You have control over everything, Jesus, you can say the word and my servant will be healed. This is so obviously a confession of Jesus as Creator. He spoke the word in the beginning and it was, let there be light and there was light. And now he needs only to speak the word and all creation will obey, sickness will flee, death itself will cower and obey. Faith trusts in the power of the Creator – once He promises to do something, nothing will hold him back, nothing can stop him. He said He’d heal the servant, He need only speak the word. Christian faith, your faith, does this still. God promises this is my body, this is my blood, and tells you to eat it and drink it for the forgiveness of your sins, and faith says, I am unworthy that you should enter into me, but only say the word and my sins will be forgiven. And Jesus speaks the word – the body of Christ given for you, the blood of Christ shed for you, and it is done, healed of all sin, a participant of the divine nature, an heir of heaven, a body that will rise to glory on the Last Day, a soul cleansed of all sin, to spend eternity with God in joy forever.
Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith not simply because it is great, but because it comes from a man who simply doesn’t belong to the true visible church. He’s not an Israelite. This isn’t the only time Jesus marvels at this – he does it with the syro-phoenician woman whom he calls a dog, but who still begs for the scraps. She’s not part of the true visible church either, not a Jew, no access to the Temple. He does it with the Samaritans too – look at the ten lepers, that only one comes back to give thanks to Jesus and he is a Samaritan, not a member of the true visible church, believes all sorts of foolish and stupid things, yet Jesus praises his simple faith in Him.
You’ll see this today too. The Lutheran Church teaches the Bible correctly. We have it right. That’s not a boast, it’s a fact. And yet there are so many faithful Christians out there who belong to churches that get all sorts of teaching wrong, who deny that Baptism saves, who deny that Jesus actually gives his body and blood in the Supper, who hold to silly teachings on the end times, like that there’s going to be a rapture, and yet some among them, simple Christians, can be like the centurion, so merciful and kind, so generous, so humble, with faith in Christ that is so beautifully strong. I’ve seen it time and time again and I’ve been amazed at the zeal of some Roman Catholics for protecting the unborn, of the strength of some Baptist in facing suffering and cancer and death while never complaining but using the pain as a witness to Jesus, or a non-denom giving tons of money to Lutheran schools, or some other sectarian with a beautiful family life, raising children in the fear of the Lord, or Christians of all sorts of denominations who face persecution for their strong confession of God’s Word, it’s simply beautiful to see. I’m sure you’ve seen it too. And it reminds you that God’s Word works, that the sweetness of the Gospel, this message of Christ, the Creator who now shares our human nature and has borne our sins and carried our sorrows and faced our hell because He so loves us and wants us with Him forever, this sweet Gospel creates faith wherever it is preached, even when it’s surrounded by all sorts of bitter error and false teaching, it is so powerful it can overcome even that and create a faith that trusts in Jesus and lives the Christian life for him.
We have every reason to rejoice when we see Christians from other denominations confessing the faith and living it boldly. They have so many disadvantages, so many errors among them, most of them don’t even get the body and blood of Jesus because their pastors say it’s only bread and wine. But the Gospel triumphs in their lives. And this is both an encouragement to us and a warning. Let’s take the warning first.
Look at Israel. They had everything. They were the Lutherans. The oracles of God, the priesthood, the sacrifices, the promises, everything. And yet the sons of the Kingdom were cast out and the Gospel was given to the Gentiles. They said, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord,” they were so proud of their heritage, but they didn’t exercise it or really believe it or live it and they lost it. The prophet Micah describes them, “They will lean on the Lord and say is not the Lord among us, no harm can come to us,” while all the time living life for themselves and not for God. Their lips confess him but their hearts are far from Him. This is why Jesus points to Naaman the Syrian and says there were many lepers in the time of Elisha, but only one was healed, and he was a Syrian, a Gentile. God removed the kingdom from the Jews who took it for granted and gave it to a people worthy of it, that is a people who had faith.
So let’s not boast in our orthodoxy, on getting everything right, as if we can say all the right things and technically have the right confession and practice, but then not live it, not believe it. God saw enough of that with His people Israel. He won’t put up with it in His Church.
But realize what you have in the Lutheran Church and why we fight for it, why we insist on the truth. The sweet Gospel always sounds here. And if I fail you, if my preaching somehow falls short, the absolution won’t, and your Baptism won’t, and the body and blood of Jesus will always offer your full and free salvation. The sweetness of the Gospel is in every hymn we sing. You can’t come here and fail to hear of Christ’s love for you, His blood shed for you. And if this Gospel inspires such noble and beautiful faith in others who don’t get it so richly, what should it inspire in us? If a trickle of it brings sweet fruits of faith in the centurion, what about the flood of this Gospel into our hearts?
So when you see yourself complaining, or bitter, or unkind or unmerciful, or ungenerous, when you see the virtues of the centurion and of other Christians and you see these same virtues lacking in you, realize where it all comes from. From faith in the Gospel. And this Gospel, pure and free and full, that’s what you need. Believe it, trust it. You want generosity in your life, see God’s generosity, that He gives you His own Son; You want humility in your life, see the Son’s humility who even now is among you as a servant. You want kindness and patience, see the mercy and kindness of God toward you in the self-sacrifice of God on the cross. Any Christian virtue you see, any great generosity or humility or kindness or patience or beautiful family life or zeal for God’s Word, it stems always from this Gospel and you have it without compromise or error here.
So this sermon is obviously not an invitation to go visit other churches because after all they’re Christians too and sometimes their faith and their life put many of us to shame. You don’t go to a church because of the people there. You go to a church because of the Word of God taught there and it’s that Word of God that will create the Christians and the Christian virtue that you so admire. Jesus may praise the Samaritan but he tells the Samaritan woman that salvation is of the Jews. He may praise the centurion’s faith, but He sends the leper to the temple. You go to the church where you hear the Gospel in its fullness. In the end you will always be disappointed with people, even with great Christians, even people with the faith of the centurion. But the word in which the centurion trusted, that will never let you down. You don’t go chasing after bread and grape juice with the Protestants once you have tasted the Lord’s Supper and know that here Jesus gives you His own body and blood. You don’t go chasing after heaven by your own works with the Catholics, once you’ve come to know the free remission of sin completely yours now, so that God looks at you despite all your sin and says there is my child, there is an heir of heaven, in whom I cannot find a spot of sin, because my Son’s blood has washed it all away. No, Christian faith doesn’t give this up. It fights for it. It loves it. It comes back for it again and again. It draws strength from it in times of pain and rejoices in it in times of plenty. It prays that the precious seed of the Gospel take deep root in your soul and bear abundant fruit, so that your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.