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Third Sunday after Epiphany
“A Place at the Table”
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
St. Matthew 8.1-13
26 January 2020
+ In the Name of Jesus +
When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (St. Matthew 8.10-12; ESV)
The Lord Jesus came down from the Mount of Beatitudes with great crowds following Him as today’s Gospel commences. Two men immediately confront Jesus – two men who by outward connection do not recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
First the leper. Cursed is the leper. Lepers are kept outside the city, outside the camp, outside the community of Israel. Even if they have the right Jewish bloodline. They are considered to be unclean, unrighteous, cut off.
But this leper has great faith. He kneels before Jesus. He acknowledges with his worship and devotion who Jesus is: the true God worthy of worship and prayer. And the leper prays to Jesus: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
Jesus is not haughty. He repays no one evil for the evil besetting him. He associates with the lowly. This leper is no enemy. Instead, he is the object of God’s love. Evil is overcome with good from the mouth and hand of Jesus. “I will, be clean.” And the man is clean, pure outwardly for the priests, pure inwardly by the great High Priest who healed him.
Then entering Capernaum, Jesus encounters the good centurion. By bloodline, the centurion feasts with Alexander, Caesar, and the pagan pantheon of Roman heroes. But this man had learned to love Israel and her God and had built them a synagogue, according to Luke’s Gospel.
This centurion, a hated gentile and enemy of Israel, lives in harmony with Israel. He associates with the lowly. He advocates for his sick servant. He does what is honorable in the sight of all, lives peaceably with all. For his enemies all around him, he has worked to nourish them and quench their spiritual thirst, by building a synagogue, a house of God’s Word and prayer, overcoming evil with good.
By grace, through faith, the centurion follows the pattern and form of Israel’s God, who is standing before him in the person of Jesus Christ.
This good centurion knows and believes there is more to Jesus than a mortal man standing before him. He knows and believes this as surely as the leper does. Listen to how he addresses Jesus:
“Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly… Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” For he is a man under authority, and he will gladly trust the word of Jesus and follow what He commands – even as his own company of soldiers obey his word given under authority as a centurion. He confesses that Jesus is the true God in the flesh, who at His Word created the heavens and the earth, and who at His Word could heal his suffering servant.
The leper and the good centurion represent the end of Judaism, and that is a theme of Epiphany: the revealing of our Savior as Lord and Redeemer of all men. Jesus is the light of the world, Jesus is the light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Israel, but now when we talk of Israel, we talk of people not born of the will of man, not of the right bloodline, but who are born from above by water and the Holy Spirit, a new Israel that is all who have faith in Christ as Lord and Savior.
The center of God’s people is shifting from Jerusalem – from that temple built with hands, from Palestine – to Him who lays down His life and takes it up again, who is a house of prayer for all people in the fullest sense of the term, to Him as we learned in our Hebrews bible class who was crucified outside the city wall of Jerusalem, sanctifying all the world, not just the Temple and the city it resided in. The boundaries of the Law – the old Temple – the boundaries between Jew and Gentile, men and women, priests and laity, leper and clean – are being dissolved in the person of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, the good centurion and the leper go to feast with the heroes and fathers of the Christian faith, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are now kin with them. They now call Abraham father. They are children raised up from stones, and they cry out to Jesus with the prayer of faith born from hearing the word about Christ.
In contrast, those who only have an outward connection with Abraham will discover that it is not enough. Abraham was accounted righteous not by his own bloodline, nor by his great learning or wisdom, nor by his wealth and earthly power, nor by his outward circumcision. Abraham was accounted righteous by faith. He hoped and waited for the grace of God in the promised Messiah, for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to the Father. To be a son of Abraham and to have a place at table with him is to be circumcised in the heart and washed in the blood of the Lamb.
This welcoming of the Gentiles and the outcasts into God’s kingdom is appropriate for this January 26, for in addition to this day being the third Sunday after Epiphany, today is also the feast day of Saint Titus, pastor and confessor. Titus has a story that is woven through several books of the New Testament, including the one which bears his name. Titus collected offerings and brought assistance to the Christians in Judea during a famine. (Acts 11) He attended the Council of Jerusalem. He delivered some of Paul’s letters, bringing comfort and encouragement to the Corinthian church (2 Cor. 7). Later, Titus was a pastor who supervised the pastors throughout the island of Crete. And, on top of all of that, Titus was a Gentile, probably a native of Antioch in Syria.
Seventeen years after Paul’s conversion, Titus accompanied him to a meeting in Jerusalem at which Paul was pressured to have him circumcised. (Gal. 2) Some early Christians were teaching that one had to be a part of the old Jewish covenant by circumcision before one could be a Christian. It was human wisdom trying to have its way over God’s grace in Christ. Paul refused because Christ had fulfilled the ceremonial law of the Old Testament on the cross. In Galatians 2:4, Paul says that the reason certain Jewish influenced Christians wanted to circumcise Titus was “their goal was to make us slaves.” But Paul adds that he “refused to give in to them for even a moment, so that the truth of the gospel would continue.”
Like the good centurion, Titus was a blessing to both Jews and Gentiles, through his work for the sake of the Gospel. Not always was that good repaid with good – Paul had to defend Titus and the merit of Christ delivered in the Gospel and Holy Baptism.
Titus, the good centurion, and the leper are in Christ strong in faith, hope, and love, along with patience, humility, and wisdom. The Lord worked physical healing for the leper and the good centurion’s servant by His Word. The Lord worked faith and charity through the Word preached by Titus. They may have been unfit in the Jewish old covenant sense – and unworthy in a moral sense – all of us sin and fall short of God’s holy demands – but nevertheless, the Lord healed their soul with His Word. Jesus bestowed to them the place that is bestowed by grace, through faith: a place with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a place in the kingdom. They are reconciled to and loved by God.
Are you an outcast, feel like you don’t have a place at God’s table? Feel cutoff from society, like a leper – have people avoided you, shunned you, left you out? How about doing good like Titus or the centurion, but you still don’t fit in with everyone? Maybe all too often your good is repaid with evil? That’s going to happen to Christians, guaranteed, especially as our culture becomes ever more antagonistic to God’s Word. Or maybe you have yourself been less than virtuous with others – haughty, aloof, lacking patience, given to anger, looking for vengeance, prone to jealousy, bearing grudges, giving in to pet sins big and small?
Join the repentant confession of the centurion: it’s printed on the yellow card in your pew rack. I am not worthy, Lord, that you should come under my roof – the roof of my mouth, but only say the word, and Your servant will be healed. That is the traditional prayer the Church prays before receiving the body of Christ. We are not worthy or fit that Christ enter us. We are morally impure because we have sinned against God and neighbor and have been sinned against. We are unclean because we are distracted, we lack discipline, and we are unprepared.
But Jesus says each Lord’s Day, “I will – be healed” with these words: “Take, eat, this is My body.” And so you do, at His command, as men under authority. Your soul is healed, by His Word joined to bread to be His body for you. He reaches out to you and makes you clean again, makes you righteous again. He gives you for free what you do not deserve, but what He earned for you through suffering the cross and rising to new life. He made you an heir of in Baptism, and has given you a place at the table with righteous Abraham, by faith.
Jesus is the king of kings, lord of lords, hope of Israel, Savior of the Gentiles, giver of faith, and creator of Christians, healer of sinners and reconciler to the Father. He has raised you lepers and Gentiles up out of the stones of this earth as His children to sing His praises and be His brothers and joint heirs in His kingdom. He bids you to be seated at the great eternal feast with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, with the many from east and west, with the leper, the good centurion, St. Titus, and all the blessed elect. Join them now at this table, and pray for the day of the unending heavenly banquet to be revealed soon.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +