For Such a Faith as This
Whether you bait fish, animals, or songbirds, if you bait them with the right stuff, they make a beeline to you. "Faith" is like that for us Lutherans. We're the church that champions sola fide, salvation by faith alone, so when we hear the word faith', particularly when Jesus apparently praises "such great faith," say no more we're there. We gotta have it. But unless you follow the path of the text you won't end with the faith of the centurion; you'll end up baited into a trap.
Don't run directly to the faith at the end of the text; stop first where the text does. Stop at worthiness. The Jews who come to Jesus on the centurion's behalf plead his worthiness. As a group centurions did standout as a critical component of Rome's armies. Each Roman legion had about 60 of them. A centurion was a man among men. The New Testament shows centurions in a good light. There's the centurion at the cross; Cornelius who sends for Peter in Acts 10. Julius who escorts Paul to Rome and saves his life. Our centurion stands out even before the Jews start talking by his care for his slave. Roman law defined slaves as tools. One Roman writer on estate management recommended that tools be examined each year and that broken ones be thrown out. He said the same should be done with slaves (Barclay, 84).
But the Jews don't cite the centurions care for his slave, but for them. He is worthy of Jesus' help because he loves the Jewish nation and has built them a synagogue. Contrast this with what the centurion himself says. He is not fit to have Jesus come under his roof or worthy to come to Jesus in person. Two Greek words for worthiness are being used in this text. The Jews say the centurion is worthy of help; he himself says he's not worthy even to ask, and he is literally unfit, a stronger term, to have Jesus come under his roof.
How does Jesus respond to the Jews' testimonial of the centurion's worthiness? He goes with them! What? No explaining how they have the wrong idea of worthiness? No statement of how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Who is the only worthy person in this text? Not the Jews, not the centurion, not the slave, but Jesus. Here is the Gospel in action. The only one fit to have anything done for Him; the only one worthy before God and man is Jesus. You know that's true in our case. We aren't worthy to have Jesus come to our aid. We're not fit to have Jesus come into our lives at all. Yet we send to Jesus for help in our prayers and He comes. We wretched sinners guilty of so much and worthy of nothing but judgment pray and are heard.
You do agree, don't you? You're not just mouthing the words when you confess that you "justly deserved" God's temporal and eternal punishment? You really do mean that you are worthy of God's punishment today and forever? But that's not happening, is it? Why not?
Once when travelling with the military, a member gave me his American Airlines' Admiral's Club card. On my own, I wasn't worthy to get in. I didn't travel enough to earn my way in. But I just showed his card, and I was in. I who had spent my traveling life in steerage, in coach, in third class, was suddenly worthy of all the amenities that air travel could offer. My member only had the one card, so when I had it he didn't. He who really was worthy of the Club couldn't get in. That's how it works with Jesus and us. Jesus gave us His worthiness and took upon Himself our unworthiness. God the Father treated Him as we sinful people deserved and treats us as He did.
Don't run for the faith "bait," yet. You'll be trapped. Having stopped first at worthiness, now stop at authority. The centurion knows what authority is. He knows what it means to be under authority and what it means to have authority over others, but what he knows about himself is not as important as what he knows about Jesus. He knows that the kind of authority he has over subordinates Jesus has over deadly disease. He says literally, "Say the word and my servant must be healed." Think about anyone or thing you have real authority over. Jesus has that over sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus just whispers "jump," and sin, Death, and the Devil ask how high on the way up!
But in order for this authority to be of benefit to us, Jesus had to first give it up. Philippians 2 says Jesus "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant." Jesus made Himself as one without authority to redeem us. Sin couldn't have covered His holiness unless He gave up His authority to send it away. Death couldn't have swallowed Him who is life unless He gave up His authority over it. And how could the Devil have led God around in the wilderness or taunted Him at the cross if Jesus had not given up His authority over him? To take our place under our sins, to die our death, and to give the Devil his due under the Law, Jesus gave up His authority. But once He did that Jesus took it up again and made full use of it as a Man for us. After Easter Jesus proclaims, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me."
Now let's talk about faith. First Jesus doesn't say, "I have not found such great faith even in Israel." The adjective "great" is not there, and no it's not a case that some or even one Greek manuscript has the word "great" there. No Jesus says how the ESV translates, "Not even in Israel have I found such faith." The adjective "great" introduces the concept of amount or size which is deadly to true faith. When the disciples ask in Luke 17, "Increase our faith," give us more, larger, bigger faith how does Jesus answer? He points to faith the size of a tiny mustard seed. Jesus points them away from focusing on the size or amount of faith. Once you bring in the idea of size or amount to faith you focus on your believing instead of on what you believe, and "Nothing is more destructive to true faith than the attempt to create a mental attitude of believing.'" (Beyond Seduction, 101).
Surely, you've tried to do that before. Faced with a challenge, a problem that troubled you, and knowing God's promises to never leave you or forsake you and to be your Good Shepherd, you were determined to believe them. You'd believe harder and more. But every time a doubt came into your mind, the harder you tried to make yourself believe the more doubts came. The more you focus on the believing going on in your heart the more faith becomes a matter of feeling, and you lose track of what you believe.
Jesus doesn't use the adjective "great" but "such." Jesus' focuses on what the centurion believes not how much. Well, what does he believe? He believes that He is not worthy to ask anything of Jesus or to have Him come under His roof, yet he still asks. He believes that Jesus has authority that no man has, authority to command at will deadly disease. The centurion's faith is in Jesus' worthiness and authority not his own, and Jesus is amazed by such faith.
The next time you are faced with a struggle, a challenge, a doubt instead of trying to stir up the mental attitude of believing go back to worthiness and authority. Like the centurion, confess your own unworthiness but ask anyways based on Jesus' worthiness. Be like Catholics in this regard. Prior to taking Communion they paraphrase what the centurion said. They say, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." They say I'm not worthy and then commune. This is what we confess in our own Formula of Concord.
We say, "The true and worthy guests, for whom this precious sacrament above all was instituted and established are the Christians who are weak in faith, fragile, and troubled, who are terrified in their hearts by the immensity and number of their sins and think they are not worthy of this precious treasure and of the benefits of Christ because of their great impurity, who feel the weakness of their faith and deplore it" (SD, VII, 69).
Also when faced with an unbelievable situation, like the centurion, focus on the authority Jesus has over all things. It's not a matter of what you think Jesus can do or believe Jesus can do; it's a matter of what Jesus has authority to do, and He has the authority, the power, to do anything He wants. Jesus has the authority to make Water rebirth a person into everlasting life. Jesus has the authority to send sins away from you forever through the mouth of a man. Jesus has the authority to give His Body for Bread and His Blood for Wine. Jesus has the authority to declare sickness health, pain pleasure, death life, and suffering glorious. Just like the cop has the authority to write you a ticket whether or not you believe it, none of Jesus' authority hinges on your believing He has it.
Luther said in a sermon. "Preaching about faith is a preaching about grace.But if one were to preach faith and not grace then people resort to their own works, and eventually despair" (Sermons of Martin Luther, Klug, II, 113). I could whip you into a frenzy urging you, pleading with you to have the faith of the centurion. I could make you want to have that faith, to long for it, to hunger and thirst for it. But telling you to believe, begging you to believe, urging you to believe can't give you such a faith as his. And so, as Luther says, you would turn to doing something to stir up a feeling of belief. But such a stirred up feeling is like too much sugar stirred up in tea. It only lasts as long as you keep stirring and then it settles. And when it does despair sets in.
But if I preach grace. If I preach that God graciously sees you as having Jesus' worthiness and authority, I am preaching such as faith as the centurion's into your ears. How will you know when you've got it? Easy. You'll pray for things you know you aren't worthy of and have no authority to ask for. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost II (20100606); Luke 7: 1-10