Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 8:1-13 + 2 Kings 5:1-15a + Romans 12:16-21
Those of you who have been attending our Sunday morning Bible class on the Book of Acts have been reading there about all the turmoil in the early Christian Church regarding the question of the Gentiles – the non-Jews and their relationship to God and to the Jewish people and to the Law of Moses. For fifteen hundred years, the Law of Moses had been telling God’s people what made a person “clean” or “unclean.” It wasn’t dirt or the lack thereof. Here’s what it meant to be ceremonially clean: to be able to approach God’s house and God’s family, able to stand in God’s presence without guilt or shame. To be unclean meant that you couldn’t approach God’s house or God’s family; you couldn’t stand in God’s presence.
In order for a person to be clean, he or she had to fulfill all sorts of conditions prescribed by the Law of Moses – dietary conditions, medical conditions, behavioral conditions. If you ate the wrong thing – like pork, if you touched the wrong thing – like a dead body, or even if you had certain medical conditions, like an infectious skin disease, you were unclean. And the only way to get clean again was to get rid of the unclean things in your life.
It was hard enough for a Jew to remain clean all the time, and impossible for a Gentile, because the non-Jews didn’t follow the Law of Moses in the first place. So the question for the early Church was, what makes a person clean now that Christ has come? Is it still living according to the Law of Moses, following the right regulations and observing the right ceremonies? Or does New Testament cleanness not have anything to do with that?
It took the early Christians a few years to fully understand the ramifications of the work of Christ, but eventually the Holy Spirit led them to an epiphany, of sorts. He showed them that the Law of Moses was nothing but a shadow, a symbol pointing ahead to that which really makes a person unclean – sin, and to that which really makes a person clean. As St. Matthew – the Gospel writer to the Jews – looked back at the life of Christ, he saw the answer there already, staring him in the face, plain as day, a real epiphany. We see it in the two stories before us today, staring us in the face, too. Faith in Christ makes clean the unclean.
THE FAITH OF THE LEPER
The leper was unclean, according to the Law of Moses, banned from approaching God’s house and God’s people. It wasn’t because of anything in particular he had done wrong. It’s just that his skin was infected with this contagious disease called leprosy. Most Jews who became unclean were only unclean for a little while. But a leprous Jew was unclean permanently.
In the Gospel, this leper breaks all the rules as he not only approaches Jesus, but throws himself at Jesus’ feet and prays this amazing prayer, “Lord, if you’re willing, you can make me clean.” Those are words of faith, faith that saw through the humble exterior of this man named Jesus and recognized God underneath, even before he was healed.
Where did that come from? “Faith comes from hearing the message” – the report about Christ. The leper had heard the report of how Jesus welcomed sinners into his presence. He’d heard about Jesus’ compassion and grace and willingness to help, and about his miracles of mercy and of healing. And in that simple report he had heard about Jesus was the power of God to bring him to faith – miraculous, unreasonable faith that was certain of Jesus’ ability to make him clean, even though he had never met this man before in his life, even though he came bringing nothing to the table – no goodness, no worthiness, only his pathetic condition, only his uncleanness.
He brought his sin with him – rotting, decaying sin on the inside that was matched on the outside with rotting, decaying flesh. But in spite of his recognition of his own uncleanness, the leper trusted so fully in Jesus’ mercy that he made no demands of Jesus; he simply left the decision up to Jesus whether to make him clean or not.
That’s how faith always acts, still today. It brings nothing to Jesus, demands nothing of Jesus. A believer recognizes only sin and uncleanness in himself or herself, because the Law of God says, “Do this!” and you haven’t done it. Or “Don’t do this!” and you have done it. And you carry around that uncleanness with you wherever you go. A believer knows full well that he or she has no business asking Jesus for anything, but faith makes a person bold to approach him anyway. Why? Because the report you’ve heard about Christ is powerful, filled with the Holy Spirit himself. The word on the street about Christ is that he wants to help the helpless. In fact, those are the only ones he wants to help. He can and he does make clean the unclean.
The leper, in his uncleanness didn’t dare approach God’s house – the Temple in Jerusalem. But he did approach God’s Dwelling Place – the Son of God, Jesus Christ, with the full assurance of faith, and he was not disappointed. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” “I am willing,” Jesus said. “Be clean!” And at once, Jesus cleaned the leper – inside and out. He made his condition on the outside match the clean condition on the inside – clean, not because the leper had no sins, but clean, because faith in Christ makes clean the unclean.
THE FAITH OF THE CENTURION
The centurion was also unclean, according to the Law of Moses, excluded from the fellowship of the people of Israel. It wasn’t because of anything in particular he had done wrong. It’s just that he was a Roman soldier, a Gentile, permanently unclean, according to God’s Law.
In the Gospel according to St. Matthew it speaks as if the centurion himself came to Jesus. But Luke tells us that it was a delegation of Jews who came to Jesus on behalf of the centurion, because he didn’t even consider himself worthy to stand in Jesus’ presence. Through these mediators, the centurion asked for Jesus’ help with his suffering servant. But when Jesus agreed to go and help, the centurion objected, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Just say the word, because I know what it is to have authority and to give orders and to have those orders obeyed without question, and just as I have authority over the soldiers under my command, so you, Lord, have authority over sickness and death, angels and demons, over all the powers of this universe. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.
Those are words of faith, faith that saw beneath the humble exterior of this man named Jesus and recognized God underneath, even before his servant was healed. That faith came, again, by hearing, hearing the report about Jesus’ kindness and goodness and almighty power.
And Jesus was amazed, because the unclean Gentile centurion had the kind of faith that Jesus couldn’t find anywhere among the clean people of Israel – faith that confessed his total unworthiness, faith that didn’t offer Jesus anything – not a single good work, not a single reason why Jesus should have mercy on him. The centurion’s faith didn’t need, didn’t even want to see or touch Jesus or be convinced by his reason that Jesus was the Son of God. He believed it already, based on the word he had heard, and was content with a word – a word from the mouth of the Son of God, a healing word for his suffering servant.
Jesus granted him that and so much more. Before saying the word that would heal the centurion’s servant, Jesus said the word that made clean the unclean Gentiles: I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Gentiles, too, Jesus says, from all over the earth will sit down with the Jewish patriarchs at the heavenly banquet, while many subjects of the kingdom – Jews who rely on the Law of Moses for their cleanness – will be thrown out of the banquet.
Why? They were clean! And why should the Gentiles be let it? They were unclean! Because the message of Christ is that all are unclean on the inside by nature – both Jews and Gentiles. All are together under sin, all are condemned. Therefore all people are called to repent. But Christ has come for all, both Jews and Gentiles, to be the righteousness of all people, to take the sins of all people on himself and pay for them with his holy, precious blood, shed on the cross. The way to be able to approach God’s house and God’s family, the way to be able to stand in God’s presence without guilt and without shame is through faith alone in Christ. Faith in Christ makes clean the unclean. Unfaith, unbelief leaves a person in his own uncleanness, no matter how healthy he may look on the outside.
Jesus granted the centurion’s request, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour. Jesus said the word, and healing came.
He does not work like this among us today. The direct, miraculous physical healings performed by Christ or in the name of Christ were special signs of grace that pointed people to Jesus’ compassion and divinity for a few short years. They were recorded in the Holy Scriptures for us as appetizers, as it were, pointing ahead to the main course – to the heavenly banquet at the last day when Jesus will raise the dead and heal every weakness among his people, his saints.
You will have to wait until then to be healed on the outside. But you don’t have to wait until then to be clean on the inside, to have your sins washed away, to be able to approach God’s house, to enter God’s family, to be able to stand in God’s presence without guilt or shame. Faith in Christ has already made you clean – faith in Christ’s baptismal promise that in those waters, you were made clean – faith in Christ’s word of Absolution that in your pastor’s word of forgiveness, you have Christ’s own word of forgiveness – faith in Christ’s sacramental promise that his body and blood will really be present with us today, given to those who participate in this Holy Communion to make you clean again and again and always.
For as much as the leper and the centurion teach us in today’s Gospel about faith, it’s not really a story about faith. God’s message to you today isn’t, “Be like the leper! Be like the centurion!” It’s not a story about faith. It’s a story about Christ, the object of faith. This word about Christ, all by itself, is what gives you the faith that makes clean the unclean. Amen.