22. January 2023
When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.”
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
Sometimes occasions of life cause the preacher to pause and reconsider what he intended to say. My experience last night with my daughter Naomi—her cluster of seizures, the desperation for relief, the host of emergency personnel in our living room, the trip to the ER and then to Children’s in Milwaukee—brought today’s text into sharp relief. There are at least four major themes: the gift of faith, the nature of authority, the Gospel for all nations, and Jesus’s gift of healing.
In yesterday’s Congregation at Prayer video, we considered the nature of authority, both God’s and man’s. Today we kick off National Lutheran Schools Week, which reflects this year’s theme verses from Matthew: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” So we heard of Gentile soldiers being given by God extraordinary gifts of healing and faith.
And, of course, Naomi’s condition has given me pause to consider Jesus’ promise of healing and the faith required to believe the promise to be true. As you might know, a few of my children have a disorder that manifests in seizures, among other conditions. Most of them are managed well with medicines, but Naomi was our first and most severe diagnosis. When I first communicated about it to family and friends, I called it a “devastating diagnosis.” For the last twelve years, we’ve been playing whack-a-mole with the seizures, trying various meds, diets, supplements, and the like. We’ve prayed and prayed for healing or at least treatment; however the good LORD wills to give it, either medicine, technology, surgery, or frankly, a miracle.
So I understand something about the leper with his devastating disease. I understand the Centurion’s compassion for his paralyzed servant. Both are incurable by any ancient or modern medicine or technique. Like Naomi’s seizures, they’re not going away. The best we can hope for by sense or reason is to reduce the frequency and severity. But by the disease’s very nature, it is incurable, and we’ve learned to live with this “thorn in the flesh.”
But today, I think Jesus wants me and you to have a bigger faith than that. Why do we stop short of actually asking God to do what seems impossible for us? Why can’t God the Father remove tumors from the brain miraculously and spontaneously? Our rational and skeptical minds think our God is too big or our needs too little to pray for such a thing. Only our ingenuity and innovation could do it. And yet, here is St. Matthew recording for us two of the many times God has done just that for two people, for whom medical science, even today would have little to offer. Can Jesus heal Naomi like that today? Can I have such “great faith?”
There are two people in the Gospels who Jesus said had a great faith. No doubt this is what people would want most to hear from the lips of the Savior. But so often their conceptions about a great faith, a strong, good, and true faith, are entirely false. What does Jesus mean by “a great faith”?
A great faith believes nothing great about itself. That is the first thing we can say with certainty. “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” The centurion believed that he was a most unworthy sinner. He was an officer. He had been out in the field and had had a rugged life. His job was full of hardships and exertion. He knew what was wrong with himself and what he lacked. But he had respect for the will and command of God. Others could speak for him: “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue.” But he does not think of himself in terms of greatness. Neither did the Canaanite woman. She thought it perfectly natural to be counted among the dogs, who had no right to eat the children’s bread. And yet she was to hear from Jesus that she had great faith.
A great faith is, therefore not a great faith in oneself, but it is a faith that believes great things about Christ. The woman continued to pray: “Lord, help me.” She knew to whom she should turn. This is what a great faith knows. It knows its own weakness but surmises something of the great power of the Savior. Therefore it says: “I am not worthy . . . but only say the word. I am receiving the just reward of my deeds, but Jesus, think of me. I have not deserved it, but I wait like the little dogs under the table, hoping that some crumbs might be mine. Lord, if you will, you can. Heal my daughter, and she will be healed.” Can I pray like the Canaanite woman for my daughter? Would you think it was too hokey or woo to do so?
There is still one more thing that marks great faith. “Say only one word.” We learn this from the Centurion. More than anything else, great faith believes in the Word of Christ. It needs this Word. It takes a firm grip on His Word, Jesus, and holds it fast to Him. By itself, we know nothing but mistakes and failures, inadequacies and hopelessness. We often doubt that there is any faith in us at all. But there is this sure saying that is “worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners.” Great faith, therefore, can reside in a person who feels nothing but weakness in himself. The great faith can say: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Great faith can ask without ceasing for healing that God can only give. And I live trusting that as God the Holy Trinity has given Naomi new life in Baptism, and forgiven her sin, then God has also promised to preserve her life both now and most certainly into the resurrection on the last day. When I think I have failed in being a Christian, I can’t seek feelings or wait for victories or look for successes to believe in and witness about. Nor can I dig about in my heart to discover a strong and victorious faith. No, I can only be steadfast in prayer, constantly go to Jesus, awaiting the word from His lips, and humble myself under the mighty hand of God “that in due time he may exalt [me and you].” And His Word is true—for me, you, Naomi, soldiers, servants—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin