Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 10:30am serviceadmin | 23 January 2011
“Speak the word only”
The Collect, Epistle and Gospel for each Sunday provide the interpretative framework for our understanding of the lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer. Indeed, they are at the heart of the Common Prayer tradition as embodying a creedal or doctrinal reading of Scripture. It is a good devotional practice before each service to pray and study the Collect, Epistle and Gospel for the day, regardless of whether the service is Morning Prayer or Holy Communion. They are at the heart of The Book of Common Prayer, itself the heart of Anglican Spirituality.
I want to make some remarks about the Gospel and to consider briefly this morning’s lessons in its light. The Gospel which orders our thoughts on the Third Sunday after Epiphany is the double healing of the leper and the Centurion’s servant by Jesus Christ. Epiphany season abounds in miracles. They belong to the making visible of the glory of God. A miracle, after all, is a sign of wonder. The healing miracles are a wonder. But what exactly do we see? Only the signs of the glory in the effects of what is said and done. The wonder, really, is the wonder of Christ.
Christ heals a leper and he heals the paralysed servant of the Centurion. He speaks and he acts. There is healing. The healings are within Israel and beyond Israel. “He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near”, as Paul reminds us. Through the history and meaning of Israel, the glory of God is not only made known to the world but for the whole world, which is Paul’s point later in The Epistle to the Ephesians, namely, that “all might see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Eph. 3.9). The leper is healed within the context of Israel and is held to the requirements of the Law in Israel. With the Centurion’s request, Jesus acknowledges something more: there is the wonder of faith which coming out of Israel transcends Israel. “I have not found so great faith, no not in Israel”. For both the leper and the Centurion, Christ is the wonder. There is an epiphany. In a way, too, it complements the extraordinary chapter from Isaiah which actually speaks about Cyrus, the Persian king, who though he did not “know God”, was, nonetheless, the agent and instrument of God’s restoration of Israel from captivity in Babylon to Jerusalem.
In the Gospel, Christ is the wonder before he puts forth his hand, even before he speaks. The healing miracles are surprisingly not the glory. They are only the making visible of the glory which is already present in Christ Jesus. He is the glory. And he is the glory which is somehow known and known not just in his effects but in his person.
The leper came and worshipped him saying, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean”. It is a petition which finds its heart of meaning in things like “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, and, more profoundly, “if it be possible let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not my will but thine be done”. It belongs to the one who says he “has come to do the will of him who sent me”. And so it enters into the glory of the Son with the Father in the bond of the Holy Spirit. “Through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father” as Paul notes (Eph. 2.18). The leper somehow senses and knows the presence of the glory of God in Christ Jesus. His petition is a response to what he knows. The healing act which follows both confirms and illumines the glory. “Jesus put forth his hand and touched him saying, I will, be thou clean”. A window is opened upon the glory of heaven now on earth. The glory is made visible in that will declared. That will is the love that made the heaven and the earth and all that therein is, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”, as Dante puts it.
The Centurion came and besought him with the simple description of his servant’s condition. It, too, is a petition. He, too, knows something of the glory of Christ before he speaks and acts. The brief dialogue makes that glory known. And it is glorious. Jesus says, “I will come and heal him”, to which the Centurion says, “Lord, I am not worthy” but “speak the word only”. He engages with the glory he senses and knows. The engagement shows us the directness and the insight of faith. It enters into the glory. The glory is made visible not just in the healing but in the proclamation which precedes it.
“If thou wilt”. “Speak the word only”. “I will; be thou clean”. “I will come and heal him”. The vistas of heaven’s glory are seen in such earthly scenes, simply in what is said.
The Gospels do not show us the process by which the leper and the Centurion come to such an insight. They show us, perhaps, how the Evangelists have come to such knowledge through these events. So, too, we may come to know and grow into the greater knowledge of the glory of the Lord. But something first has had to be communicated. It is communicated in Christ. The light which irradiates the world illumines the souls of those seeking grace. It is there in the idea of the reality of Jesus Christ, God’s Word and Son, made known and proclaimed.
The light of Epiphany would open us out to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. The hand which is put forth is the hand of glory. It is the hand of the potter who would refashion the clay, as Isaiah envisions. Who are we to question God about the “work of his hands”, as Isaiah puts is, even the work that we are ourselves? To question, that is to say, as if God were at our beck and call to do our bidding. Christ is the hand of the one who has broken down “the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2.14) between man and God and between one another so that we may be built up into glory in him, “a holy temple in the Lord…a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2.21,22). The hand of glory goes forth to effect our healing – our salvation. But our healing, our salvation, is but the effect of God’s glory. Epiphany makes the glory known. Christ is the glory in himself. He puts forth his hand; he speaks his word, and we are healed. We enter into the glory of his presence. “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed”.
They are words of real faith, words that are grace-given but articulated by human lips. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2.8). Our task is to acknowledge the Heavenly Potter in Isaiah’s image (Is. 45.9), our Maker and our Redeemer. It is our freedom and it is God’s grace. It has its application for us in prayer: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed”. It is how the clay should speak to the Potter and how we are by grace made “members of the household of God”. Jesus puts forth his hand to draw us into his glory.“Speak the word only” and only so shall we be saved.
Fr. David Curry, Epiphany III, 2011