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Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

“But speak the word only”

What wonderful words! They challenge and convict all the atheisms of our world and day. They challenge and convict the unbelieving church which has forgotten or denied the meaning of the Epiphany season captured so wonderfully in this Gospel story. Epiphany is simply and entirely about the making known of the essential divinity of Jesus Christ through his humanity. I can’t put it more simply than that. The miracles teach us about the essential divinity of Christ and the meaning of Christ for the understanding of our humanity. They reveal God to us and show us, too, something about what God wants for us. “Speak the word only” is a powerful counter to all our confusions and denials about God. It counters the prevailing spirit of religiosity in our churches, what one might call, ‘Western Buddhism’, which is neither western nor Buddhist, I hasten to add.

This is the anti-intellectualism which thinks that there are simply many different names for God and that religion really comes down to clichés like “don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff,” the idea that ideas don’t matter, and that God is not essentially the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in the Christian understanding but whatever terms you feel comfortable using. Our prayers and praises are merely addressed “to whom it may concern” or to the God of x and y of whatever our choosing. It is really all about us, all about ‘the you,’ the self. This is contrary to Buddhism’s fundamental insight that there is no you. You are an illusion; the self does not exist. It is also contrary to the Western world’s insight into the reality of the world, a world which is in principle intelligible because God is intelligible. In the orthodox Christian understanding, God reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ and that idea makes all the difference in the world about our thinking and our doing, our being and our actions.

We see this in today’s gospel. It is about the power of God’s Word which goes forth not only to create but to restore and heal. Here we have a double healing, a healing within Israel and a healing outside of Israel, a healing touch and a healing word, the word tangible and visible, we might say, the word audible and intelligible. Jesus heals the leper by “put[ting] forth his hand and touching him,” touching the untouchable, the leper, and then says, “I will, be thou clean.” Here is the Word and touch of Christ near and at hand. Then, there is the healing of the Centurion’s servant, a healing from afar, by the simple power of the Word spoken and passed on, as it were, down through the ranks of the Roman legion!

It is not that Jesus is unwilling to make house calls. “I will come and heal him,” Jesus said. The Centurion’s response to this captures our attention and, more importantly, Jesus’ attention. The healing power of God in Christ reaches down through the centuries; it is not confined to the time and place. Such is the meaning of God and here we see something of the marvel and the wonder of what God ultimately seeks for us. We are healed and restored, defined and dignified by his Word.

The Centurion is an Officer in the Roman Legion in charge of a cohort of one hundred men. It is from this term that we get the word ‘century’, applying the concept of one hundred to years, one hundred years. This Centurion has an essential insight into the meaning of Christ’s divinity and what that means for the healing of his servant. His words capture the essential teaching about who Christ is and who he is for us.

Jesus says he will come down and heal the Centurion’s servant. It is the Centurion who responds with wondrous simplicity, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof; but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” It is an insight and an acknowledgement of what belongs to true divinity. It is not constrained and limited by the realities of the finite but effects what God wills for us from afar as well as near at hand. Word spoken and Word tangible. This is what this Gospel shows us.

And Jesus marvels at the faith of the Centurion, meaning his insight into the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus says “I have not found so great faith, no not in Israel” and goes on to convict us of all our unbelief pointing out that “many shall come from the east and the west and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob,” deliberate references to the revelation of God to Israel, and says that “the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness” and “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Why? What is the problem? Our blindness to the Light of God; our deafness to the Word of God. We presume that God is only what we want him to be for us. This denies who God is in himself and who he truly is for us; the very thing that the leper and the Centurion see in Christ is what we deny, I am afraid.

We are challenged and convicted of our unbelief by this Gospel story, I hope. It remains to be seen how it shapes and informs our liturgy. The words of the Centurion apply to our approach to the sacrament. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.” This acknowledges the divine Word in Christ which effects the healing and the salvation of our infirmities; it acknowledges that Word as near and at hand. God gives himself into our hands in the Sacrament of the Altar. He comes from afar and enters under the roof of our being. His life is given to us so that his life may live in us.

“Speak the word only” recalls us to what we heard last week. “Whatsoever he tells you, do it,” Mary said to the servants and to us, she who said, “be it unto me according to thy word” to the Angel. And next week at Candlemas, shall we not hear the words of ancient Simeon, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word”? All because “mine eyes have seen thy salvation,” he says, seeing in the temple in Jerusalem what the leper and the Centurion have seen, seeing something of the essential divinity of Jesus Christ manifest in his humanity. Epiphany awakens us to the wonder of God in Jesus Christ.

“But speak the word only”

Fr. David Curry
Epiphany 3, 2014