Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.
Be not wise in your own conceits. (Romans xii. 16)
Thus far in the season of Epiphany, we have been invited to see and perceive the manifestation and revelation of Divine wisdom, love, and power in the life of Jesus Christ. We have followed the Star that draws and summons the soul’s eye to origin and source of all truth and meaning in human life. We have seen his star in the east, and art come to worship him…(St. Matthew ii. 2) We have learned that out of eternity’s consecration of time in the life of the young Jesus, divine wisdom informs and defines the new life that will save all men. Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business…(St. Luke ii. 49) We have gleaned also that this life is made to be redeemed as new and potent spiritual wine that is always being made out of the simple and elemental fragments of created existence. But thou hast kept the best wine until now. (St. John ii. 10) Love, wisdom, and power reveal themselves to us in Epiphany as marks of Jesus’ intention to do even greater things than these. (St. John xiv. 12) And the greater things than these will involve not only what God does in Jesus Christ then and there, but what Jesus will do in us here and now. Epiphany is not only about vision but is also, and more importantly, about the redemptive power of God’s Grace in your life and in mine.
The image of the transformation that Epiphany brings to us is pictured this morning in Jesus’ encounter with a Roman Centurion. A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman Legion who commanded roughly one hundred men. He, like the soldiers under his rule, would have been a celibate –Roman soldiers were not permitted to marry until active duty was completed. So, perhaps for the Roman Centurion in this morning’s Gospel, the military unit formed a kind of family for him –soldiers and servants who were the subjects of his paternal care. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. (St. Matthew viii. 5) Capernaum was the home of Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew the tax collector. It also housed a Roman garrison, and thus today’s Centurion. Oddly enough, the pagan Centurion approached Jesus and addressed him as Lord. Jesus responds and says, I will come and heal him. (St. Matthew viii. 7) But the Centurion protests, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) Perhaps he had heard of Jesus’ power from others; maybe he had witnessed the miracles.
In any case, prior to his appeal the Centurion would, no doubt, have known of Jesus’ reputation. We surmise that he must have had some knowledge and experience of Jesus. He must have had a deep sense also of the holiness attached to Jesus’ person. At any rate, he ranked himself as unworthy to have the Lord come down to his house to heal his servant. Jesus was all-holy; the Centurion counted himself as not near such a state of spiritual life. Thus, in humility, he begs Jesus to speak or send His Word only, that his servant might be healed. Only humility can gain from Christ the transformative power of God’s Grace. Clear-headed about his own moral and spiritual weakness, emptied of any pretense to self-importance, disappointed by his own prudence and cleverness, the Centurion’s heart becomes the space that feeds on Faith, looks forward with Hope, and rests in the Love he does not yet possess. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. (St. Matthew viii. 9) This Centurion knows that though he possesses earthly authority, beyond that, he has no access to heaven’s power. In the earthly domain of Caesar, he has the power and authority to command, and he is obeyed. He speaks and it is done. Yet, notice how he says: I am a man under authority. He implies that he too must obey and submit himself to a higher authority. He is Caesar’s soldier.
But he has seen one whom he believes is greater than Caesar and whom he must come to followin a greater way. His sense of the all-holiness emanating from the Person of Jesus commands him to seek out and find Jesus in faith and belief. Jesus has more power and authority than any earthly king. He believes that Jesus is in possession of that Divine power that alone is sufficient to heal his servant. So, with his own feeble desire, he reaches out to One with the power to love and to heal. He believes too that Jesus is in possession of the Divine wisdom, with the truth which will set men free. The overwhelming otherness then that the Centurion finds in the person of Jesus will begin to transform him. He believes and knows; he knows and he seeks; he seeks and he finds. The manifestation and revelation of his own condition and of God’s nature in Jesus carry this pagan Centurion from self-knowledge to faith, and through faith to hope, and in hope to the healing of love. He is moved out of weakness and powerlessness into the redemption that Christ brings. The Epiphany revelation that we find today is twofold. First, we learn of the powerless state of sinful man. Second, if we claim it ourselves, in all humility, we discover God’s response to it in Jesus Christ.
The faith that Jesus finds in this Centurion’s soul is what He came down from heaven to grow. St. Augustine reminds us, this faith is of such a nature that it says, if then I a man under authority have the power of commanding, what power must Thou have, whom all powers serve? The Centurion’s power is earthly and thus limited. The power he perceives in Jesus is the source and origin of all power, can transcend all time and space, overcome all barriers and hurdles, and touch and move the world as it did in the beginning. Speak (or send) the Word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) God spake the word and they were made; He commanded, and it stood fast. (Psalm xxxiii. 9) The Centurion Roman believes that he must supplicate and obtain this power through faith. He will secure and experience the loving power of God by opening to it in hope. When Jesus heard this Centurion’s confession of faith, He marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew viii. 10, 11) What Jesus finds is a faith that does not hold back in contemplation with wonder, but one which earnestly desires and seeks out the loving power that He carries into the world. What Jesus finds is the prayer that every man must make if he will secure the sanctification and salvation that God longs to bring into human life.
This is the message of our Epiphany-tide. But it comes also with a real warning. Jesus says that the Centurion’s gentile faith is sound and on the way to the Kingdom. He tells us too that the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (St. Matthew viii. 12) What He means is that there are too many Christians who never seek out the healing power of God with all humility. What he means is that those who think that they are the children of the kingdom, are not. Why? Because they are good and, evidently, have no need for the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. These are they who keep God at a safe distance. These are they who have never admitted and confessed their own limitations. These are they who have never admitted their own need for God’s Grace in all of their lives. These are they who have never discovered that spiritual state that we find in today’s Centurion.
Jesus says, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (St. Matthew vii. 7) Salvation is for the humble. Salvation is for the needy. Salvation is for those who know that they are weak and who know that God alone in Jesus Christ can make them strong! Our Centurion had a vision of God at work in Jesus Christ, and with humility, longed to benefit from its power for his suffering servant. From the ground of humble self-emptying, he reached out with every fiber of his being to procure the power that moved the heart of Jesus. Touched by that power in the poverty of his soul, his faith found healing, not only in the life of his servant but within himself. His servant was healed. But he too was healed because his faith was enlarged as he made room for Jesus in the inn of his soul and had a place where Jesus could lay his head. He was healed because his hope was strengthened, and his love was not disappointed. In the Centurion we find a miracle even more significant than that of his servant.
Be not wise in your own conceits, but… condescend to men of low estate. (Romans xii. 16), St. Paul says this morning. He means that we should, with the Centurion, bow down, and realistically discover in the suffering of our loved ones our powerlessness to heal and save them. He means that from this low and humble seat we ought to seek out God’s mercy with all faith, hope, and love. Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the Word only and my servant shall be healed. (Idem)
Today we must ask ourselves, Do we find and discover ourselves truly in the Epiphany illumination that reveals our own deepest need for Christ the light? Are we pouring out our complaint to Christ? If so, with the Centurion, we shall experience the effective power of our loving Saviour, who says, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant, [and his own soul], were healed in the selfsame hour. (St. Matthew viii. 13) May it be so with our souls in His healing mercy. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: