Wednesday, June 5, 2013

God has come to His people. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 2, Proper 4C, preached on Sunday, June 2, 2013.

    Sadly, too many sermons based on the Gospel for today will end up being calls to be more inclusive, to be more welcoming to the stranger, and in favor of diversity...  If you look at the scene in the Gospel lesson for today you get a much bigger picture.  The focus here is not on the centurion alone but on the God who comes for him.  There is sickness that becomes death, concern that becomes grief, and despair that becomes surprise.  It is a very common scenario marked only by the contrast of the Roman and the Jews who come to Jesus on his behalf.  Who would have thought that a Roman soldier accustomed to wielding power would come as a  powerless one to plead the case of a beloved servant before Jesus?  When God visits His people, it is the surprise of grace – the God who comes where we least expect Him and who comes not to receive our accolades and honor but to serve us with His gifts in love.
    Jesus has come precisely for moments like this.  When everything around us says "NO", in comes Jesus with the surprising YES of God's grace.  When every barrier shouts “NO”, God comes to break them down on the equal plane of repentance, faith, and redemption.  How many of us have found ourselves praying exactly as did these folks?  In the midst of despair, powerless to change things, we turn to God to intervene.  Though we should not weep or despair, we cannot help it.  Our losses stand before us as barriers unless and until God traverses those walls.  But God has visited His people for precisely these moments.  It is the surprise of grace that we find, just as a Roman centurion found long ago.
    A great prophet had arisen in Israel.  After hundreds of years of silence without anyone to speak "thus saith the Lord," Jesus has come to speak to His people.  Even a Roman soldier is not immune to the whispered hopes and dreams of a people longing for redemption.  From just such people have come the sounds of countless voices raised in petition and prayer in the midst of sickness and death.  Where is God when we need Him?  Can we trust Him to hear us?  Will He show mercy to us?  Like the friends of the Roman soldier, we have pleaded our case before the Lord, trying to convince God that this one is worthy or that, or that we are.  Yet behind all our claims to be worth God’s investment, sin, guilt, and death are hidden.
    Before God, what separates the faithful from the speculator are two things.  This Roman centurion demonstrates them both.  First of all he pushes aside all talk of worthiness.  He says in true humility and confession: "Lord, do not trouble Yourself.  I am not worthy to have you come under my roof."  While the friends were trying to impress Jesus about the soldier's good character and how he merited special treatment, the centurion was casting all of this aside.  He knows he is a sinner, plain and simple.  He knows He is unworthy of God’s gracious intervention.
    But as important as this first thing is, the second is just as important.  He knows he is a sinner who deserves nothing from God and yet He also knows that God can and has promised to act.  "Just say the word, and it will be so."  In contrast to the Jews who were after Jesus to prove Himself to them, Jesus marvels at this faith which trusts implicitly in the power and authority of God's Word to do what He has promised.  He demonstrates faith in God’s promise to act through His Word and the authority of that Word by reflecting upon his own soldierly experience.  He commands and someone comes or goes or does this or that.  This is surprising faith.
    If there are two things missing from the Church and our own individual Christian faith today it is first of all the humility of repentance and confession.  God has to do nothing at all.  We cannot win or merit anything special from God.  We come before God not by right but by the privilege of grace.  Second, what is missing is the kind of implicit faith that believes God keeps His Word.  In our worship and in our prayers, what would be different if we came to the Lord as did this Roman soldier did, "Lord, I am not worthy but only say the word and I shall be made whole."   And yet, those are exactly the words we pray today in the liturgy, prompted by the ancient form and ancient words of the Divine Service.
    God has visited His people – not because we have earned or proven our cause before Him.  No, God has visited His people as the merciful God who acts in grace just as He has promised.  He comes to us in the very midst of our weakness and need.  He comes not as enemy but as friend to the sinner seeking forgiveness, the wounded seeking healing, the broken seeking to be made whole, the dying seeking eternal life.  He comes as One who grieves with us our mortal weakness, our sin, our pain, and our loss.  He has come to claim this burden as His own and to act for us as Savior and Redeemer.
    He has come to the dying to answer death's power the power of life, life today lived as the new people God has made us to be in baptism... and life everlasting which bestows upon us the unlimited future Christ rose from the dead to impart.  He has come as the God who rejoices at our repentance, who forgives our sins, who leads the lost, and who carries those who cannot walk.  He has come to save His people.
    What is the Kingdom of God about?  The Jews who plead the case of the soldier and many of us today think it is about manipulating God to do what we want or get what we want.  About proving our worthiness or merits to justify God acceding to our request.  In other words, get your life together so that God will have to give you what you ask.  Instead, it is about loneliness that finds fellowship in Christ... about weeping that gives way to tears of joy in Christ... divisions that find healing in Christ...  death which gives way to life in Christ.  God has not come to crown the holy or reward the righteous.  No, He has come to befriend the lonely, to restore the lost, to suffer for the suffering, to bear the pain of the wounded, to weep with the grieving, and to lead us all to our heavenly home.
    What He seeks from us is not that we fix ourselves, prove ourselves, or justify ourselves...  but that we come as did that Roman soldier, acknowledging and repenting of our sin and unworthiness... yet confident of His grace and trusting His Word.  And for all who come, Jesus stands with open arms to welcome us all to the kingdom of His Father, for now, for tomorrow, and for all eternity. God has come... not an agent or emissary but God to save His people.  Not for the few or the special or the worthy but for the sinner in need of forgiveness and the dying in hope of eternal life...  Pray brothers and sisters that Jesus finds such faith in us.  Amen!

7 comments:

Unknown said...

Dear Rev. Peters: You write, in part, “In our worship and in our prayers, what would be different if we came to the Lord as did this Roman soldier, "Lord, I am not worthy but only say the word and I shall be made whole." And yet, those are exactly the words we pray today in the liturgy, prompted by the ancient form and ancient words of the Divine Service.”

You are asking, “what would be different if we did, but we do?” So the answer has to be, “Nothing”.

But there is also a tiny difference between what we pray and what the centurion prayed. He prayed for his servant; we pray, “et sanabitur anima mea,” or “and my soul shall be healed.” It is indeed an ancient form and ancient words, but does their ancientness guarantee their truth? Certainly they are not scriptural. They are a pious expression of humility by people who, a long time ago, thought it was arrogant to believe that they were saved. Their heirs continue to flourish. Does God heal our souls whenever we pray this prayer? When we pray it again a week later, does it mean that the healing was temporary, or that it did not take place at all? What does it mean to have our souls healed?

This is what I wrote, in part, on your blog on 8 November 2010: “If indeed we claim worthiness according to our works, we will earn damnation. But if we, having been made worthy by the blood of Christ, made his children in the waters of Baptism, and brought into His wonderful Kingdom of light – if we deny the worthiness that He has given us by faith, we deny the essence of the Gospel. Does He not tell us, ‘If the Son sets you free, your are free indeed,’ and does He not invite us to His table for the strengthening of our faith and the forgiveness of sin? To clothe ourselves in the garments of false humility is exactly the same as to despise the garments He provides, made pure in His blood.”

So is our soul healed, or is it not? We continue to sin. Does that mean our souls are not healed? That would be to confuse justification and sanctification. Is not the very essence of the Gospel that we are saved in spite of our sins?

He did say the word. It is “τετελέσται”, “it is finished.” Then He came under our roof to dwell with us, 1 Corinthians 6:19, “19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

A better question would be, “what would happen if we did not pray this prayer” for all the right reasons?

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Grace member said...

Does the good pastor mean simply what if we took seriously the words that are there? Honestly, Mr. Marquart, you seem to parse the good pastor's words more narrowly than the people (like me) who hear him preach every Sunday (though never word for word exactly off the paper).

You write about being made whole and then continuing to be healed as if these were opposing things. We are made whole but not fully, or at least, not completely until heaven and God's work in us is finished. Until then we are whole and yet afflicted all the time. So the Lord continues his healing work in us through the means of grace (as Pastor Peters continues to say over and over again). Honestly sometimes when I read your comments I wonder if we are responding to the same man and the same sermon.

Unknown said...

Dear Grace Member: I am genuinely delighted at your comment. It is better to receive an angry comment than to receive no comment at all, since the latter simply shows that nobody cares. You obviously care.

You ask, “Does the good pastor mean simply what if we took seriously the words that are there?” If he does, that is precisely what I object to.

I think we all agree that the centurion said, according to Matthew’s account, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” We also know that our Lord healed the servant and marveled at the faith of the centurion.

Now we come to the liturgical use of this sentence. As you know, it now substitutes the word “soul” for “servant”. Please note that it changes from a prayer for another to a prayer for our selves. I have tried to find out when this practice originated but I was unable to get this information. The most ancient liturgies, the Didache, Liturgy of St. Chrysostom, of St. James, of St. Cyril do not have it, although the word “worthy” is mentioned in the prayer prior to the reception of the Sacrament. That’s what took me so long to respond to you; I had to find and read through all of these.

In the liturgical use of the Roman Catholic church, from which we took over this practice, the prayer is not for healing, or for a continuous process of healing, but to make us worthy to receive the Sacrament at that particular moment.

To this I take exception. Our Lord did not raise the question of the worthiness of the Disciples when He instituted the Eucharist. He even let Judas participate. Nowhere does Scripture say that our sinfulness is a barrier to taking part in this sacrament. We need the Sacrament precisely because we are sinful. If we were “healed” of sin, we would not need it. Our Lord knew then and knows now that we could not heal ourselves. That is why He became man, suffered, died, rose again, ascended to heaven and sent us the Holy Spirit.

But my objection goes further than that. As far as our faith is concerned, there are only two kinds of people: those in the Kingdom and those out of it. Scripture is clear on this. We, baptized Christians, are members of God’s Kingdom. God has brought us into it through Baptism. In Baptism we receive a new nature as the gracious, free gift from God, and the Holy Spirit makes His home with us. Are we telling God that He should not dwell in us, because we are unworthy? He no longer regards us as enemies but as His beloved children. He treats us as He did the Prodigal Son in the parable. There are no accusations only mercy and kindness.

We are fully healed, because, in spite of our sins, God looks at us as being perfectly righteous. As we read in 2 Peter 2:9 “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy,” and further, 2:24, “24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

The essence of the Gospel is that God has done and continues to do everything for us that wee need, and He makes no demands of us. Therefore, we are able to turn from concern about ourselves to that which truly pleases Him: concern for others – the least of His brethren.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

2 seconds to find the history of this prayer...

The version of 1548 and 1549 appear below with modernised spelling:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table (O merciful Lord) trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We be not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, in these holy Mysteries, that we may continually dwell in him, and he in us, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood. Amen.

The 1662 revision reads as follows:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

The 1928 prayer book of the American church retains the 1662 wording. Many contemporary Anglican liturgies, however, have revised it to varying degrees. The American 1979 prayer book and English ASB 1980 versions omit the phrase "that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood", due to the cultural and theological emphases in the 1970s. The phrase has been restored in the Common Worship version. Some Anglican eucharistic liturgies omit the prayer entirely. In the 1979 Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America the Prayer of Humble Access is an option after the fraction anthem in the Rite I (traditional language) eucharistic rite but not in the (contemporary-language) Rite II service. There is some similarity with the prayer immediately prior to communion in the Roman Rite Mass: Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea (translated: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed" or "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed".

Grace member said...

Nearly every Lutheran I know knows that worthy does not mean not sinful but worthy in the sense of 1st Corinthians. Repentant, believing, discerning the Body of Christ, confessing faithfully and orthodox the faith, and desiring with the aid of the Spirit to amend the sinful life... He is who is worthy is he who has faith in these words... Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

I think it is perfectly obvious that Pastor Peters is asking us for humility (repentance), for orthodox faith (creedal), for faith in the Words, and for discernment or recognition of Christ's Body as what it is that we receive in this sacrament... along with the desire to amend our sinful lives with the aid of the Holy Spirit...

George, you seem in so many ways to be a literalist insisting that the only words that can be used in preaching or worship be the words of Scripture, used only exactly in the way Scripture uses them. That is a narrowness for which Luther and the Confessions would not agree.

Whoever put up the history of the prayer (above) has shown its history and its use in a wide variety of churches without the scrutiny you have put it under. I do not find it so hard to understand. It does not take long to figure it out, the order of worship helps frame its meaning and it does not exist in a vacuum.

Unknown said...

Anonymous, what you found is something much more recent than the origin of the prayer, “"Lord, I am not worthy but only say the word and I shall be made whole." What you have are some Anglican prayers which incorporate the prayer we are discussing. The prayer was used by itself in the Roman Mass, repeated three times, just prior to the reception of the host. I am sure it goes back several hundred years before the ones you found.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Unknown said...

Dear Grace Member: about worthy. You are right, but I don’t think the word is used in that sense about the centurion.

Being a literalist is to interpret Scripture by its most simple meaning. That was precisely Luther’s position in an exegetical environment that flourished on tradition and the allegorical method. Only when the literal meaning does not make sense, then the text has to be looked at differently. With regard to tradition, the Lutheran position has always been that we accept any tradition, provided it does not contradict Scripture. But taking out “servant” from that sentence and substituting “soul” changes the entire meaning, making it contrary to the Gospel. I certainly do not believe that only words or sentences used in Scripture can be used in worship or preaching. The Lutheran Confessions make that clear.

What whoever posted thinking it was the history of the prayer is nothing of the sort. The fact that other churches use it still use that sentence in their prayer is not reason for us to accept it. After all, we do have other points of disagreement with these churches. If, as I assert, it is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, that is enough reason to reject it.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart