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“Only Speak a Word”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
For many religious people, the most important thing about God is that He’s almighty; the key thing for them is that He’s got the power. And we fall into that line of thinking when we begin to think that God should show that He’s top dog a little more often. We have our expectations about how God should behave, and so we want Him to flex His muscle and do more mighty things in our lives that make it clear He is who He says He is.
But that’s not generally how God operates. Sure, He does from time to time reveal His power, as He did at the Red Sea or on Mt. Sinai. But most of the time He is, as Isaiah says, a God who hides Himself (Isaiah 45:15). For God does not want to be known primarily for His power but for His love. More important than God being almighty is the fact that He is good and merciful. Flashes of power may dazzle, but they do not produce in us love and trust toward Him. In fact God’s power revealed on Mt. Sinai produced fear and trembling for the people of Israel, as it would for all of us sinners who deserve His eternal judgment. So instead, God comes to us in hidden ways, that He might draw us to Himself as children to a loving Father. He comes cloaked in that which is humble and ordinary in order so that we might approach Him without fear and be drawn into His life.
In today’s Old Testament reading, Naaman certainly had his ideas about how God and His prophets should behave. Naaman was an army man, and he wanted God to act according to his power thinking. He traveled all the way from Syria to Israel because he heard that there was a man there who might be able to cure him of his leprosy. But after making this lengthy trip, things did not go according to his plan. Elisha, the man of God, didn’t even come out to greet Naaman. Instead he sent out his servant. Naaman wouldn’t even be able to see the prophet whom he had been seeking. He had all this silver and gold and clothing which he thought he could use to secure Elisha’s blessing, but the prophet would have none of it.
All Naaman got from Elisha was words, words through his servant telling him to go and take seven baths in the Jordan river. At this Naaman went off. “You mean I came all this way and that’s it?! I thought the prophet would come out and wave his hands around and call on his God and do something spiritual and heal my leprosy. All I get is a command to bathe? I could’ve done that at home, and in much clearer water than this excuse for a river. That’s it, I’m leaving.”
We too can be tempted to be like Naaman, especially in those times when God isn’t meeting our expectations, when He doesn’t seem to be coming through for us. “I’ve come all this way, Lord, seeking health and happiness and a successful life in this world. I’ve tried to jump through all the right hoops, but I am still weighed down with all sorts of problems and troubles. And all you’re giving me is words and Scriptures from your servant? Give me some spiritual advice and techniques and power that will work for me right now. If not, I’ve had enough. I’m going home.”
Fortunately for Naaman, he had wise servants. They told him, “If the prophet had told you to do some great and difficult thing, you would have done it. Why not, then, trust in this little thing and do it?” We’re always more inclined to think that great religious deeds are what really make us holy and bring us closer to God and obtain His blessing. But the key factor is whether or not God’s creative and healing Word is present, even connected to simple water.
Naaman did according to the word of God spoken by Elijah, and when he came up out of the water the 7th time, his leprous skin had been healed and cleansed completely, like that of a little child. You might say that Naaman was born again, freed from his disease to live a new life. Having washed once for each of the 7 days of creation, Naaman came out of the water a new creation, a new person, through the hidden power of the words connected with the Jordan water.
So it is also for us. God heals and saves and recreates us not through impressive visible power, but through simple words and promises connected to the baptismal water, as it is written, “Unless one is born (again) of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Remember that Jesus Himself later entered into these same Jordan waters. There He was baptized into our sin and death so that through our baptism into Him we might receive His mercy and His life.
The Roman centurion in today’s Gospel understood that. He got it. He was a Gentile, too, like Naaman. But through hearing Christ’s teaching, the centurion had come to see Him for who He truly was. And so when his beloved servant falls critically ill, he comes to Jesus and pleads with Him to help. And Jesus agrees to come to the centurion’s house and heal his servant. But the centurion then gives a reply that draws the special attention of Jesus. He says,“Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.” Here he is, a military man, an officer, one who is in a position of honor and power and respect, and yet he humbly confesses that He is nothing in the presence of Christ, that He is not even worthy to have Jesus step foot in His home.
This is also how we come before Christ. Though we may have honor in the eyes of the world for our good conduct or good looks or our intelligence or skills or wealth, yet we lay all that aside in the presence of Christ and acknowledge that we don’t deserve anything good from Him on our own merits. Whatever good we receive is entirely because of His grace and love toward us.
Which brings us to the second statement of the centurion. Not only does he acknowledge his own unworthiness, but he also confesses Christ’s worthiness and the authority that Christ has been given by His heavenly Father. The centurion says, “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.”
The point here for us is this: You can count on Jesus’ Word. It’s 100% reliable. What Jesus says comes to pass. For it is written, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change His mind.” When Jesus speaks it is so; it is real. He keeps His promises. Faith relies on that Word, even though He’s not visibly present. And so now, by His Word, you are given absolute confidence that the bread really is His Body and the wine really is His blood, that He is truly present in the Sacrament to release you from your sins, even as He will release you from every bodily ailment on the Day of resurrection.
Therefore we come to the altar saying, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak the word, and my soul shall be healed.” Those who are waiting to come to the Lord’s table until they are worthy are going to be waiting forever. To be truly “worthy and well-prepared” to come to communion is simply to have penitent faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” “As you have believed, so let it be done for you,” Jesus says. And here at the table, He heals and restores your soul.
There is one last thing that must be mentioned here. Jesus marvels at the faith of the centurion. For remember, this Roman officer was a Gentile, one who did not have all the blessings and privileges of being a Jew. And yet Jesus says, “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” Those who were the insiders, with the good genealogy and family tree and all the advantages, were put to shame by this outsider who had nothing to put his trust in but Jesus. Apart from faith in Christ there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth, suffering and despair.
Let us, then, to whom the Gospel has come, not be like insiders, trusting in our own status and connections, or our own impressive spirituality and experiences. Let us rather ever be outsiders like the centurion, ones who have nothing to cling to but Christ and His Word. For that is the essence of true Christian faith. In a world which looks down upon such faith, let us boldly and gladly confess with St. Paul, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Gentile.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
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