A Compost Tea Party on Prayer
Today we begin the long season of Sundays after Pentecost. We're done with the festival half of the Church Year which focuses on who Jesus is and what He came to do. We're on to the non-festival half which focuses on Christian growth. The paraments are the light, bright green of spring as a symbol of that growth. One way to jump start growth in a plant is by compost tea. It's a concentrated mixture of all the nutrients that are good for the plant. In this sermon I've concentrated 3 things about prayer distilled from our text. I'd thought we'd begin this season of growth with compost tea party on prayer.
Let's talk about prayer and expectations. The centurion in our text has right expectations, but they don't go far enough. He expects enough from Jesus to send for Him to help his servant even though he was on death's door. But the centurion doesn't send for Jesus "to come and heal the servant" as the insert translates. Luke is a medical doctor. He doesn't use this Greek work by itself as the equivalent of "heal" as the other evangelist's do. He uses it as doctors of his time did to mean "to escape the dangers of disease" or "to get through an attack" though with impaired health (Hobart, 284).
What Jesus eventually does shows the centurion's expectations to be short. When the centurion's messengers return they find the servant not just "well" but "sound in health." Dr. Luke is the only New Testament writer to use this Greek word in its primary medical sense (Ibid. 10). The centurion in his prayers thought Jesus could help, could make his precious slave better, give him some relief. He wasn't expecting Jesus to make him totally healthy, but still the centurion's incomplete expectations in prayer are bigger, better than mine.
Though we say in our catechism we are to pray boldly and confidently, I pray timidly and uncertainly. I don't expect that Jesus will do more than I ask or think, but the best that He can. I pray according to my understanding of what Jesus can do, not according to His promises that He will answer; I will find; and He will open. O I call upon Him in the day of trouble as the Psalm says, but I don't expect Him to deliver me as the Psalm goes on to promise.
Did you notice how the centurions expectations got bigger the closer Jesus got? Probably not, because the insert translates two different Greek words with "heal." We saw at the outset the centurion expected that Jesus could bring his slave through the crisis. Now as Jesus gets ever nearer he sends friends to Him saying, "Say a word and my servant will be cured." This is still not to the level of "made sound," but it's getting there.
Take a big swallow of this composted tea. It should tell you something about your prayer life. The closer Jesus is to him the bolder the centurion is in prayer, but our text also shows that closer Jesus is the more unworthy the centurion feels. Let's talk about prayer and worthiness.
The centurion doesn't feel worthy from the get go. He sends Jewish elders to ask Jesus for help rather than going himself. Then Jesus comes to him personally. This action of Jesus also shows something about prayer. When a Syrophoenician woman begged him to come heal her daughter, Jesus refused to go, but when this Roman centurion doesn't ask Him to go Jesus goes. Both not going and going we're answers to prayers, and both were not the answers those praying wanted.
As Jesus gets closer the centurion's sense of unworthiness grows. He sends to Jesus saying literally he is neither fit to have Jesus come under his roof nor worthy to ask anything of Jesus. This sense of unworthiness overwhelmed Isaiah in a vision, Peter in boat, Adam in the Fall, and John in Revelation. But not me. Where's my sense of awe, of reverence, of unworthiness when I send my prayers to the Lord? Do you think Jesus looked anymore powerful, majestic, or holy to the centurion than He does here on our altar in Bread and Wine? Yet the centurion was overcome with unworthiness and I am not.
That's probably why prayer is not a privilege to me, but something I take for granted. But I am no more worthy to pray than this centurion. I should be undone before the Lord in Bread and Wine as Isaiah was before the Lord in the Temple. I should be saying with Peter, "Depart from Me O Lord for I am a sinful man," and with Adam, "I hid from you because I was naked." I would be falling down dead as John before Jesus in glory if I really believed in Baptism the holy Jesus covers me, in Absolution He speaks to Me, and in Communion He gives Me His true Body and Blood. I am not worthy to ask anything of the Lord let alone fit for Him to come to me.
At this point we don't want to choke on our compost tea. You can if you are misusing the centurion's prayer. You might have even learned this from me. I've referenced before the fact that the Roman mass has the prayer, "'Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof, but say the word and my soul shall be healed.'" Luther didn't condemn the prayer, but he thought it off track because it thought of worthiness as something that could be established in the sinner (Luther on Worship, 136). We are to seek neither worthiness nor unworthiness within ourselves but in God's Word (Ibid. 137).
God's Word points us to Jesus and His worthiness. He is worthy to receive all power, riches, honor, and glory. We are not. He is worthy to have all His prayers answered. We are not. He is worthy to come without shame before God's throne of grace as a dear son asking his dear father. We are not. But worthy Son though He was Jesus took our unworthiness upon Himself. He gave up all power, riches, honor, and glory to take our place under the law. His prayer on the cross went on unanswered because ours should. He bore the shame our sins deserve. We are to believe that Jesus' perfect life and innocent death are our worthiness.
This leads us to the third serving at our compost tea party. How do prayer and faith relate? Your insert sends you the wrong way by interpreting Jesus' words about the centurion's faith. It has Jesus calling it "great faith." This leads to quantifying faith. Have enough faith and you have "great" faith. Great faith must be able to do more than not so great faith. But the word "great" is not there in Greek. Jesus simply says, "I have not found such faith even in Israel." This is how the ESV translates it. "Such" faith points you in the direction of type not quantity.
The faith Jesus praises believes you are not worthy, never can be worthy in and of yourself to pray, to commune, to worship, to come into the Lord's presence but prays anyways. The centurion knew he wasn't worthy but he believed he could still pray for help. That's what you are to believe and such faith marvels and delights Jesus. Go ahead believe that though the Devil, others, and even your conscience can find a dozen reasons why you are unworthy to prayer, God for Jesus' sake wants you to pray anyways. And you are to believe that He answers happily. The Father hears your prayers as if they come from the lips of His own dear Son.
The centurion's faith was praised because he believed he could ask even though he knew he was unworthy and because he banked everything on Jesus' Word. He says literally, "You say a word and my servant must be healed." That's the faith to have. The faith that believes just a Word of Absolution from Jesus is enough to declare us holy before God. Just a Word added to a drop of baptismal water is enough for us to believe we are reborn, regenerated, renewed for everlasting life. Just a Word from Jesus is enough for us to believe we eat His Body and drink His Blood in Communion Bread and Wine for forgiveness, life, and salvation.
I don't know if you've seen compost tea but it's more like French Quarter coffee than it is English tea. It's thick, potent. Because it's all organic you're not suppose to be able to over do it, but I don't know. I do know we're to the part of the tea party where the potential for growth is the greatest but so also is the potential for choking.
Jesus praises the centurion for having faith that left the answer to prayer in Jesus' hands. It all depended on whether Jesus would say a Word of healing. The centurion knew that if Jesus said it his servant must be healed, but he didn't say that Jesus must say it. This is what he's getting at in his extended illustration on authority. He knew that the soldiers under him come, go, and do based on a word from him. Likewise, the centurion believed disease comes, goes, and does based on a Word from Jesus.
In our Collect which the Church has prayed for at least 13 centuries we pray, "Give us those things that are profitable for us." We believe this is always and only the way our Lord answers our prayers. Not taking away Paul's thorn was profitable for him. Job's prolonged suffering was profitable for him. David loosing his first son by Bathsheba was profitable for him. Either healing or not healing would have been profitable for both the centurion and his servant. The centurion confessed as much by saying it took an authoritative Word from Jesus to heal the servant. A word Jesus had complete authority to speak or not.
Our faith is that sickness and health, poverty and riches, happiness and sadness, life and death are profitable for us. Our faith is that all these are under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ who loved us more than He did His own glory, sonship, or life. Our faith is that unworthy though we are we can pray to Jesus for help. Our faith is that by a Word from Jesus sickness, health, poverty, wealth, sadness, hilarity, life and deadness come, go, and do in our life. Our faith is that the word that comes, goes, and does in our life is the same Word that speaks us forgiven of sins and eternally saved.
O Lord ever give us such a faith as this. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday after Pentecost (20130602); Luke 7: 1-10