The Second Sunday after Pentecost – Series C – Luke 7:1-10
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Today, our Gospel Lesson tells us the story of two kingdoms, two powers, two authorities.
Two things that are drastically and profoundly different from one another. Not only in what they look like and how they appear, but in what they accomplish, what they do.
And perhaps most importantly here in Luke chapter 7, they are drastically and profoundly different from each other in what motivates them, what moves them to act.
This morning, one of those kingdoms and powers comes to us by way of the centurion, who stands in the place of and represents that powerful word that when it spoke it literally moved the world.
Nations, kings and princes were toppled. People’s lives, from the greatest to the least were transformed in a day. Wars were started, and wars were ended. Indeed the whole face of the earth was changed.
And at the time of Jesus’ meeting with the centurion that kingdom and authority took the face of the Roman Empire.
But that authority did not belong to Rome.
It existed long before Rome came to power, and it remained, and so remains still, long after Rome collapsed.
Which is to say, that this power, this kingdom, whether it took the face of Rome then, or the face of our misplaced fear, love and trust in the things of the world now, it always looks the same.
It always plays by the same rules, it always acts in the same manner, it rewards the same version of righteousness, and punishes the same version of wickedness.
Though it has taken many forms and many faces, it is always the same, the same kingdom, the same power, the same authority.
The same system that values and praises the strong, the powerful, the rich, the intelligent, the influential, the movers and shakers of this world, the wielders of the sword, the Wall Street portfolios, the go-getters, the ambitious workers, the power-hungry elites.
For when these people ‘come’ and ‘go’ things really DO happen.
Which is why this kingdom and authority is attractive not just to the rich and powerful, but to all men, from the greatest to the least of all mankind.
After all, who among us doesn’t desire what this authority promises? A bigger paycheck, a better job, more influence over our neighbors, a greater reputation among both our friends and our enemies?
And who among us doesn’t play by this kingdom’s rules? That if you work hard, you can also play hard, that if you do the right things, in the right order, you’ll be rewarded, that if you put in your time you’ll be remembered.
That if you’re a good person, then good things will happen to you.
Truly, this kingdom, that the centurion represents, promises great and wondrous things.
And truly, it attracts not just the great and the powerful, but all men.
Perhaps we may not climb the corporate ladder, but we do neglect our families in pursuit of our own passions.
Perhaps we don’t rule over nations and countries, but we do judge what parts of our lives are worth doing, we do place our sports, our hobbies, our tiredness, our weekend plans, our sleep-deprived schedules and activities constantly over Christ and His gifts.
Perhaps we don’t exercise our influence over politicians, but we do apathetically teach our own children that nothing in the church is actually worth their time.
For truly, in our own hearts and by our nature, we simply want to live and play by this kingdom’s rules alone.
And yet this kingdom, for as great, relevant, interesting and promising as it makes itself out to be, nonetheless, has very distinct limits.
For it is limited by the same world that it so desperately tries to control and influence.
And no matter what form it takes, whether it was Rome then, or our world now, it can never overcome the things that man is not able to do.
For in the things that matter, the things that truly matter, it is very limited, indeed.
These limitations are what the centurion, it’s what he recognized in true faith.
He had a servant who was sick to the point of death, and there was nothing within his own authority, his own kingdom, his power that could do a thing about it.
Although he highly valued this servant. If he gave more money, a better job, or more power, none of these could stop him from dying. Caesar, in all of his power, could not keep him from death.
Though this kingdom could take life, though it can claim to preserve life and even make it better, it cannot and does not give life.
And it cannot give the life that really matters.
And so the centurion seeks out another authority, that of Jesus the Christ.
For this man, Jesus, also represents an empire and a kingdom, a power and an authority.
And namely, a kingdom that doesn’t play by the same rules, that doesn’t speak the same words, that doesn’t act and move in the same way.
For this kingdom does not seek the strong and the powerful, the ambitious and the arrogant, but instead it calls the weak and the sick, the humble and the despairing, the ones who are a long way off, the despised and the rejected, precisely the ones who cannot ‘come’ and ‘go’ on their own.
This kingdom is different, it follows different rules, it seeks out a different kind of people, it speaks different words.
And it is by faith that the centurion knows this.
He does not seek Jesus as the one who will answer him on account of his own goodness, on account of his worth.
He knows that Jesus’ kingdom and authority has nothing to do with the idea and the motto that good things come to good people. That great things come to those who work for it.
He knows that this kingdom is not moved, and is not obligated by strength and power, by intimidation, greed and war.
That this kingdom is obligated, moves and acts by something entirely different.
In our Gospel Lesson, this difference is what the Jewish ambassadors, sent by the centurion, DO NOT know, and even refuse to believe.
For they come to Jesus bearing the centurion’s prayer, but they also add to it, saying, “This man loves our nation, and has even built us a synagogue, and so he is worthy to have you do this.”
Yet the kingdom of God does not come to the worthy. The kingdom of God does not play by the rules of men.
Indeed, in the kingdom of God, good things do not simply come to good people.
Yet each day, you and I play the same game that the Jewish ambassadors attempt to peddle to Jesus.
And that is, that we begin to believe that God and His mercy is no greater than the world, and no greater than our own sinful, selfish and prideful hearts in what we are willing to give and what we expect to receive.
The kingdom of God is not bought and sold, and it is under no obligation on our part, on our worthiness, to act.
Indeed, you and I are not Christians, not part of Christ’s kingdom by right.
It is not because we have put in enough time or done the right things, it is not because our parents were Christian and so we inherited their goodness.
Our prayers are not heard and answered because we have anything to offer, or because we’ve been good Christian people and worthy for God to do this for us.
No, the kingdom of God is motivated not by anything in man, but indeed, by everything in God.
He acts, speaks and moves on account of mercy, and mercy alone.
His own mercy, not the world’s mercy, not our selfish mercy, but indeed His own perfect and faithful love.
And that mercy brings the kingdom precisely to the unworthy, to the sinner, to the weak, the lame, the marginalized, the ones who confess in true faith, as centurion does, “Lord I am not worthy for you to come under my roof, but simply say the word and my servant will be healed.”
It is this confession of unworthiness, this confession of Christ’s kingdom, of his authority, that Jesus praises as the greatest faith in all of Israel.
And as Lutherans, those words of Jesus should and might cause us to jerk our knees a bit, for we believe, teach, and confess that faith is not a work that we do, and it is not a gift that we give ourselves.
But that faith is indeed a gift from God above and God alone, it is His own work to create, to plant and to sustain our confession unto life everlasting.
And so perhaps there is a reaction to this, even if these words are from Christ Himself.
That Jesus would not only praise the centurion’s faith, but actually call it his own possession.
That certainly seems strange.
And yet, that mystery, that strangeness is the very definition of faith itself.
Namely, that God credits us with something we didn’t do, and that he calls something we didn’t make, that we did not create, that very thing, that he explicit calls and declares to be our own possession, our righteousness, our faith.
In the waters of Holy Baptism, you and I came and offered nothing. Nothing except that of the infinite weight of our own sin.
And yet there Christ gave you His own faith, His own name, His true and complete kingdom, the life that never dies, the forgiveness of sins.
There in that Gospel mystery, in that glory of His kingdom, He declared that this faith that you did not make, that you did not create, that was not yours, is now, in Christ, your own possession.
In Holy Baptism, you have been given the credit of work that is not your own, for Christ has taken the blame that you deserve, and signed his own name to it. He is credited with your sin, so that you might be credited truly with his righteousness and faith.
For His kingdom is that of His own cross, it is where you received His faith, where you live in the forgiving waters of baptism, where you suffer joined to his mercy and compassion, where you receive the food of his sacrifice, and where you rest in his eternal peace.
Indeed His kingdom comes, and it comes to you, in your apathetic faith He gives you the remembrance and the light of His word, in your suffering and guilt He gives you the body and blood of His table, in your pride and your arrogance He gives you the humility of His own cross, the forgiveness of sins.
You, dear Christian, do live in two kingdoms, but you have one Lord, one kingdom that truly does matter, one savior that comes in mercy, not because you are worthy, but because you are His own.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.