But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Epiphany 3 – 2023

Matthew 8:1-13

The ministry of Jesus was marked by many physical healings, which he performed for those who were sick, lame, blind, deaf, or even dead. Usually, when he healed someone, he spoke to and over that person, and also touched the person.

St. Luke informs us of an earlier time when Jesus was in Capernaum, writing that “When the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them.”

We see a very heart-warming example of this also in St. Mark’s Gospel, where we are told how Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter from physical death: “He took the child by the hand, and said to her, ‘Talitha, cumi,’ which is translated, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’ Immediately the girl arose and walked, for she was twelve years of age.”

But at other times, when Jesus miraculously healed someone, he simply spoke the healing into the person, without a physical touch.

John’s Gospel reports that when Jesus was at the pool of Bethesda, he told a man, apparently without touching him: “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” Immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

And when Jesus called Lazarus from the grave – also reported by John – he called out to him as he lay in his tomb: “Lazarus, come forth!” And he came forth. Even without a physical touch, the powerful and healing words of Jesus were able to bring someone who had been dead for four days, back to life.

Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew offers us accounts of both methods of healing – with a touch, and without a touch. The central story in today’s text involves Jesus interacting with a Roman centurion – basically the equivalent of an Army captain – with respect to the centurion’s sick servant.

According to St. Luke’s account of this incident, which gives us a little more detail than Matthew’s version, the Centurion approached Jesus through the mediation of the community elders, who told Jesus that “he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.”

All of this took place in Capernaum. I was in Capernaum just a little over a month ago. I was at the site of the synagogue that the centurion had generously built for the community there. This helps to bring this story to life for me. And maybe it will help me to bring it to life for you.

The story of the centurion is a story about faith. Let’s listen in.

“When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’”

“The centurion answered and said, ‘Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, “Go,” and he goes; and to another, “Come,” and he comes; and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’”

“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!’”

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of faith. The so-called “prosperity gospel” movement sees in faith a power to create things. If your faith is strong enough, you can – as it were – manipulate God into giving you what you want. If you don’t get what you ask for, then that means that your faith was not strong enough.

There is a lot of danger in this teaching. It tends to create in those who are influenced by it, either pride or despair.

Others see faith as little more than an intellectual knowledge and acceptance of the doctrines of the church. This is why the Council of Trent is able to teach that mortal sin can coexist with faith, and that someone who is destined for hell is nevertheless still able to have faith.

Now, faith does have an intellectual component. But that does not exhaust the definition of faith.

And faith does give us the confidence to call out to God in times of need, with the assurance that he hears our prayer. But our petitions and requests are always qualified by the recognition that God has the right to say No to them.

Faith, as Scripture defines it, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Faith in God in particular is a trusting in God, and a confidence that what God tells us is true.

Faith is not based on wishful thinking, but it arises from a recognition of the authority of God to make things happen according to his will; and from a recognition of the reliability of God to mean what he says and to say what he means.

We don’t try to churn up within ourselves a faith in the things that we want to be true, in order to make them come true. Instead, our faith clings to what God tells us is true.

To be sure, there is a lot that God does not tell us. Most aspects of his infinite will, and most components of his mysterious plans, remain hidden from us. But when God does speak, we believe him.

Scripture says in several places, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham did not simply believe in God’s existence – which is the kind of faith that even the devil has. He believed God.

When God spoke, Abraham knew that what God said was so. When God made a promise, Abraham knew that God would keep that promise.

And of course, God is to be believed not only when he makes promises, but also when he makes threats. God, also in his law, has the authority to be in charge of your life. And you have the obligation to recognize that authority.

When God tells you that you must honor father and mother, and others in authority, then you must do so. When God tells you that you must not murder or harm others, engage in sexual immorality, steal, or lie, then you must not do these things.

These commandments are not open for negotiation. And God is to be believed – with fear and trembling! – when he warns us of the temporal and eternal punishment that will come upon those who ignore him or defy him.

Jesus – who speaks for God, and who speaks as God – was to be believed when he warned his fellow Jews about the consequences of ignoring or defying God and his Word:

“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.”

And Jesus is to be believed when he warns you about the consequences of ignoring or defying God and his Word. It doesn’t matter how modern and enlightened you think yourself to be, in comparison to the old-fashioned morality of earlier generations.

Earlier generations are not speaking to you. The eternal Son of God in human flesh – before whose throne of judgment you will one day stand – is speaking to you.

A faith that believes what God says – and more precisely, that believes what God’s Son Jesus Christ says – is the kind of faith that the centurion had. And because of this faith – which recognized in Jesus a man with divine power and divine authority – the centurion knew that if Jesus spoke healing into his afflicted servant, even from a distance, his servant would be healed.

He didn’t need to see it in order to believe it. And Jesus did not visibly need to go to where the servant was, in order for this healing to work.

The Word of Jesus could and would make it work, even without a physical touch from Jesus to accompany that Word. And so Matthew rounds out the story:

“Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.’ And his servant was healed that same hour.”

Today’s text does, however, include an account of another healing – one where Jesus did touch the hurting person as he spoke to him. We read:

“Behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.’ Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”

It is noteworthy that Jesus physically touched this particular person, because he was not suffering from a “clean” ailment, like lameness or blindness. He was a leper.

He was “unclean,” both according to the ceremonial and social regulations of the Mosaic Law, and according to his actual, noxious physical condition. And, this leprosy was contagious.

But Jesus, with his authority and power to heal bodies, touched this. Jesus, with his authority and power to heal souls, touched him. And Jesus, with love and compassion, spoke healing and restoration into this man’s life, and removed this affliction from him.

Jesus speaks to you, and touches you, as well. Our Lord is not visibly walking the earth any more. So, people are not able to receive a natural touch from his natural hands any more.

But the authority and power of his words do still impact us. And he does touch us in supernatural ways – in tangible, sacramental ways – by means of the elements of the earth to which he unites his words, and to which he unites himself, in order to bring us his forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Jesus does still heal people physically. He usually does this through means. He works through the health care professionals whom he has called to serve us; and he works through the medicines that he has provided for us through the vocations of scientists and pharmaceutical researchers.

But sometimes Jesus heals us through outright miracles that the doctors cannot explain. Yet even then, he doesn’t come to us in a visible way and lay his hands on us. But, he didn’t do that for the centurion’s servant, either.

Yet that servant was healed, as his master believed that he would be. And sometime we are also healed in ways that no one expects. A difference, of course, is that Jesus spoke an audible word of healing with respect to the centurion’s servant, which the centurion could hear.

The centurion had asked for a healing for his servant before he knew what Jesus’ response would be. He was also sure that Jesus was capable of performing the healing, if it was his will to do so.

Yet the centurion did not believe in that healing until Jesus spoke it. And then he did believe it, even before he saw it.

When we ask for the healing of a bodily disease or injury, for ourselves or for someone we love, we don’t know if Jesus – from the right hand of the Father – is speaking that healing into existence for us, or not. And so, while we do have faith in his power to heal, we do not have faith in the healing itself until it happens.

But, when it comes to the healing of the soul, we can hear Jesus speak. In his parable of the pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus says:

“The tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified.”

And it could not be any other way, in light of God’s promise – expressed through the pen of the apostle John in his First Epistle – that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

And there are some specific words that you are able to hear from Jesus – spoken through the office of his called representatives – so that you can believe him when he speaks to you: not just believe in his existence, but believe that what he says to you is true.

As we read in St. Luke, Jesus tells those whom he sends forth in his name, “He who hears you, hears Me.” And according to John’s Gospel, he also tells his disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

You hear the words: “By the authority of God and of my holy office, I forgive you all your sins.” Who is actually speaking those words to you?

You hear the words: “I, by virtue of my office, …announce the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” Can you have faith that those words are true?

Can you be confident, as you hear these statements, that Jesus is speaking to you through his servant, and that Jesus is indeed healing your soul, cleansing your conscience, and restoring your relationship with your Father in heaven?

Yes, you can be. This is a healing – a real spiritual healing – that Jesus accomplishes, for you and in you, through the authority and power of his Word, even without a physical touch.

But sometimes there is a physical touch. When you come to the Lord’s table, marred by transgressions that you deeply regret – but that are still weighing on your conscience – you might wonder if Jesus is willing to help you, and to forgive you.

With a deep awareness of the “leprosy” of sin that has infected your mind and heart, and caused you to be “unclean” before God, your prayer to Jesus in this time of reflection may be the prayer of the leper in today’s text: “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.”

And what you then hear from Jesus, and receive from Jesus, is, in effect, what the leper heard and received: “Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’”

What Jesus says and does to you – which is the equivalent for you of what he said and did to the leper – is embodied in these words:

“Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you.” “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.”

He’s actually saying this. And he’s actually saying this to you. And, through the hand of his minister, the bread and wine that have been made to be his true body and blood, touch you. You can feel them on your lips and on your tongue.

According to the power of his Word and institution, Jesus’ body and blood are in your body and in your soul. Jesus is not afraid of your leprosy. By the divine authority of his Word, through his miraculous touch, he heals your leprosy. He lifts it from you, washes it off of you, and makes you clean.

And what he is telling you, as he touches you in body and soul, is true. He has the authority to say it, and he is saying it.

You can therefore believe the Savior who sacrificed his body on the cross for you, that your sins are forgiven. You can believe the Lord who shed his blood as your redemption price, that your sins have been removed from you as far as the east is from the west, and that your sins no longer separate you from God.

We close with this prayer to Jesus, our healer, from the hymnist Godfrey Thring:

Thou to whom the sick and dying Ever came, nor came in vain, Still with healing word replying To the wearied cry of pain;
Hear us, Jesus, as we meet Suppliants at Thy mercy-seat.

So may sickness, sin and sadness To Thy healing power yield, Till the sick and sad, in gladness, Rescued, ransomed, cleansed, and healed,
One in Thee together meet, Pardoned at Thy judgment-seat. Amen.