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Sermon for Epiphany III

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ January 24th, 2011

Sermon on St. Matthew 8:5-13 [8:1-13]

Epiphany III

Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.

We pray in one Epiphany hymn, “Manifest in making whole / Palsied limbs and fainting soul” (TLH 134.3). Today’s Gospel Lesson actually records two miracles for palsied limbs and fainting souls. I’d like to focus on the second story today, the healing of the centurion’s servant. This miracle, along with the Prayers during Holy Communion on your bulletin insert, will teach us to pray after the centurion, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.”

It began with a desperate plea. Jesus had entered Capernaum, when a centurion came to him and said, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.” See how desperate this soldier of Herod Antipus was! The word translated as “servant” is the same word for son (pais), suggesting a father-son type relationship between the centurion and his servant. According to the custom of the day, servants and sons were very different positions. Servants were employees. Sons were flesh and blood. A servant had no inheritance. A son had the right to an inheritance. But this centurion’s servant was like a son to him. So the paralysis of the servant presented a double dilemma to this centurion. As a para- or quadriplegic, he was of little value as a servant, possibly forcing the master to employ another servant or two. But even worse, the servant was dreadfully tormented, perhaps questioning anything from his reason for existence to the value of his life. No wonder the centurion sent the word of his servant’s condition some distance (Luke 7:1-11) to Jesus and to pray, in effect, “O Help us, Lord, in anguish and need, look upon us with thy mercy!” (Choral Voluntary).

And then what happened? After Jesus agreed to return to the centurion’s home and heal his servant, a high-ranking military officer became an icon of repentance. “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But speak the word only and my servant will be healed.” Arguing from the lesser to the greater, he explained his impeccable logic. As a centurion, he understood the power of the spoken word. He literally gave and received marching orders. It’s called a chain of command, from the Commander and Chief to the brass at West Point, all the way down to the newly enlisted recruits. So this soldier understood the power of the word, of giving and receiving orders. Jesus, however, was even greater. He was the Word Incarnate–the same, all-powerful Word that created the universe with the simple command, “Let it be.” If the Centurion could give orders and his enlisted men obey, then Lord of all Creation could give orders to what He Himself has made! So this soldier was worthy to give orders to soldiers in one of the most powerful and elite armies of the day, but he was not worthy to have the Lord of Life enter his house.

And how did Jesus respond? “He marveled and said to those who followed, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!’” On the Law side, the centurion despaired of His own righteousness and left himself at the mercy of God. On the Gospel side, he believed that this Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, who alone had the power to heal His creation gone awry. Here was great faith! Here was faith that fed not on itself or on human capability, but on Christ and His righteousness. No wonder Jesus said, “Many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” It’s the first beatitude in motion, isn’t it? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:1). And all who believe and are baptized will join Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – yes, they will join the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – to sit at the table of salvation and receive the spiritual healing of forgiveness. But those who trust in themselves and the false gods of their own choosing will be cast into eternal darkness. And then the word the centurion was waiting to hear: “‘Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.’ And his servant was healed that same hour.”

And what of us? I would like to focus on the words of the centurion about his unworthiness and the power of the Word of God: “Lord, I am not worthy,” etc. Indeed, these words of repentance were later slightly revised to be used as a Communion prayer. In time, they were expanded to the form we are introducing today. Through these prayers, we follow the Centurion on our own journey from death and despair to healing and wholeness.

Prayers before Approaching the Altar

 

 

Lord Jesus Christ, who said to Your apostles, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you;’ regard not my sins but the Faith Your church; and grant to her that peace and unity which is according to Your will; who lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who by the will of the Father with the Holy Spirit has through Your death given life to the world; by this, Your most holy Body and Blood, deliver me from all my sins and from every evil, and enable me ever to abide in Your commandments, that I may never be separated from You; who lives and reigns with the same Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, I, Your unworthy servant, presume to take Your Body and drink Your Blood; but let not this act be to my judgment and condemnation; rather, of Your mercy, let it preserve me in body and soul and show forth within me Your healing; who lives and reigns with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

The three prayers before approaching the altar prepare us to receive the Lord’s Supper. The first prayer teaches us to join the centurion to despair of our own worthiness: “regard not my sins but the faith of Your Church.” If God were only to look at our sins, we would die eternally. If God were to keep a record of our sins of thought, word, and deed, then He would never be able to look at us, but would cast us into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And so we implore God the regard the faith of His Church, i.e., the faith of the centurion and all the faithful, who cleave not to themselves, but to Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The second prayer petitions the Lord God for our justification and sanctification. Through this, the Blessed Sacrament, He will deliver us from all evil, and enable us to keep His commandments. The third prayer echoes the situation of the centurion, for here we are the unworthy servants. Yet in Christ, through His blood and merit, we presume to take His body and blood, just as the centurion presumed to ask Jesus to heal his servant. And He will speak the word – “This is my body / This is my blood” – and we will be healed in the very hour that He speaks.

Prayers before Receiving the Body of Christ

 

 

I shall receive the bread of heaven and call upon the name of the Lord.

Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed (three times)

May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve my soul unto life everlasting! Amen.

The prayers before receiving the body and blood envelope our eating and drinking in sacramental piety. Echoing the Psalms and other pious prayers, we pray, “I shall receive the bread of heaven and call upon the name of the Lord.” We think of the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the needs of the body and the soul. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer before the Lord’s Supper, we are asking for the very bread of heaven itself. And then our special focus today, a threefold prayer, based on the words of the centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.” Under the rubric of the Law, you and I are not worthy to receive this meal. We poor sinners cannot claim this meal as our personal right, although this is often the case, even among the “I’ve been a Lutheran all my life” crowd. Rather, the word “worthy” in the Lord’s Supper is an adverb, a word that describes an action. So while we, as sinners, are unworthy to eat with Jesus, He and He alone can worthily give us His body and blood, as sure as He alone is worthy to die and rise for us, to baptize and absolve us. And He speaks the word: “Take, eat; this is my body. Drink ye all of it, this is my blood.” And those who have faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins,” are strengthened and preserved in body and soul unto life everlasting.

Prayers before Receiving the Blood of Christ

 

 

What shall I give to the Lord for all the benefits that He has given to me? I will receive the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord. I will call upon the name of the Lord who is worthy to be praised, so shall I be saved from my enemies.

May the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve my soul unto life everlasting! Amen.The prayers before receiving the blood of Christ describe the contents of the cup. “I will receive the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

Drawn from the Psalms, the cup in this context means the Cup of Life, viz. the Holy Chalice that contains the very blood of Christ. And then, as per the prayer for His body to strengthen us unto life everlasting, we pray, “May the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve my soul unto life everlasting! Amen.” It reminds us of Jesus’ final words to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.”

Prayers after Returning from the Altar

 

 

Grant, O Lord, that what I have taken into my mouth, I may receive with a pure heart; and that this holy gift may bring me life eternal.

Let Your Body which I have received and Your Blood which I have drunk, O Lord, cleave to my members; and grant that no stain of sin remain in me, whom You have refreshed with a pure and holy Sacrament; who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

Finally, the prayers after returning from the altar teach us to rejoice in this sacramental gift and the healing and life it brings. The first post-Communion prayer petitions the Lord for the faithful reception of His gifts. Those who take it without first being baptized, or in the context of unrepented sin, or without faith in Jesus’ words, “true body, true blood,” receive this gift to their damnation. But those who approach this altar with clean hands and a pure heart receive life eternal. The second post-Communion prayer asks the Lord for healing and renewal: “[May this Body and Blood] cleave to my members; and grant that no stain of sin remain in me, whom you have refreshed with a pure and holy sacrament.” His Body and Blood literally coarse through our own bodies. His holiness replaces our sinfulness. His righteousness counts for us. We are ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven. So when we sing the Song of Simeon, we join the centurion to return to our daily lives as God’s own people, with our souls in perfect spiritual health before God.

In short, the healing of the Centurion’s servant and our own sacramental piety stand together on this Third Sunday after Epiphany to remind unworthy sinners like you and me that Jesus is manifest among us to heal and to bless. God, according to His permissive will, sometimes allows us to suffer this side of heaven. But every prayer for healing, for ourselves or for our loved ones, is answered with a resounding ‘yes,’ if not now, then in the final resurrection of the body. And our prayer for the spiritual healing of forgiveness is answered ‘yes’ even now, as unworthy servants like us hear Christ speak these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” INJ. Amen.

Nota Bene: The Communion prayers quoted in this sermon are from a bulletin insert at Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Detroit, MI. Public domain.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church

Bayside, N

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