A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Reuben P. Bell
“And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 8:11)
Our story from the Word today is no doubt familiar to many of you, as are probably most of the Lord’s healing miracles. It’s no wonder. Out of the Lord’s 35 miracles described for us in the Gospels, 17 are of healing – just about half – devoted to making broken people whole again. These stories have universal appeal, and we never grow tired of them. Healing is important to the Lord, and in the New Church we know that it isn’t just this literal story we share, but the story behind the story – the illumination of the internal sense, telling us ever more – about our lives, our spiritual states, about healing, and about the Lord. The centurion’s servant was healed for just this purpose.
This particular miracle took place on the heels of a big event in the life of those who followed the Lord. Only just before had they sat on a hillside and listened to one of the Lord’s only real public addresses, later to be named “the Sermon on the Mount.” This “sermon” had delivered truth in loads, and curious glimpses of life in the kingdom of heaven. Now the Lord was through with talk of love, and ready for love-in-action, as he journeyed to the city of Capernaum.
As he entered there, with the ever-present crowd, he was met by a Roman centurion – the captain of a hundred Roman soldiers – by definition, a man of no small presence.
Having stopped the Lord, however, he did not order, or compel Him to do anything. Matthew says “he pleaded with Him.” Now that conjures up an image.. a centurion, a mighty warrior, pleading with an itinerant preacher. But that is what he did. He told him that a servant in his house was afflicted with paralysis, causing great distress. But before he could go on, the Lord simply said “I will come and heal him.”
The centurion, perhaps a little surprised at this quick response, explained why that would not be necessary. And in doing so, he laid out the “story behind this story,” for all of us to see. “Why come to my house,?” he explained, when it was obvious to him that this Jesus and he were a lot alike: he operated under the authority of the Emperor of Rome. When he told a soldier to do something – he did it. Jesus could do the same: speak the word and his servant would be whole. The centurion knew.
And Jesus looked at that centurion, a gentile – not one of the chosen – not educated in the Law – not circumcised into the posterity of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And he knew that he knew. “Assuredly I say to you,” he said (to the crowd crowding around), “I have not found such faith, not even in Israel!” Then he told them something they did not understand: People like this centurion, this gentile, would dine with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in “the feast of rich food for all peoples, the banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.” – in the Messianic Banquet promised by Isaiah the Prophet long before, and now, finally, soon to come. And the chosen? the circumcised? the people of the Law? Unless they learned to act like this centurion..”outer darkness.” (How could these people understand?) Jesus said to the centurion (as he so often did to those who claimed healing with their faith), “Go your way; as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” His faith had done the healing. “And his servant was healed that same hour.”
There is a lesson for us all, in the literal sense of this narrative, and we don’t want to miss it on our way to the illumination of the internal sense. First: There is a covenant, a contract, God to-man. It began with Adam, when the Lord put him and Eve in the Garden, and laid down the rules for living there. You know what happened next. But the Covenant was too important to lose, so the Lord renewed it, with Adam and Eve, then again with Noah, and then again with Moses, and later with David and Solomon, and finally He came Himself, to renew it again (Don’t forget that He didn’t have to. It was His Covenant. That’s grace, in the New Church – a story for another day. It’s the very life of our regeneration.) And that Covenant is right here, in our story this morning. What is it in this case? It is four principles: 1) Faith is required for healing. 2) The Lord is ready to heal us without a moment’s hesitation. 3) There are no “chosen people;” no special deals. 4) As we believe, so will it be done for us. And believing is faith..”knowing what is true.” The clear and essential message right here, in the letter of the Word, is that Healing is ours, to claim.
The internal sense of this narrative is simple and direct, and as always, it augments and illuminates what we have already learned from the letter. This “story behind the story” is the Lord’s Second Advent, in essence, His presence among us in a new and very real way – teaching and establishing His New Church. Let’s look at it.
First of all, when the Lord, in the Gospels says “I say,” we are told that this is the most direct form of revelation we can have. “Assuredly I say to you,” he said to the crowd, “I have not seen such great faith, not even in Israel.” This is the Lord, speaking directly to you, and to me. This story is worth reading carefully.
Now this healing is like a lot other healings we find in the Gospels. And we are told that in the spiritual, or internal sense, there is a deeper reason why these people were made whole. Jesus healed this man (and others) because “the first and primary thing of the church is to believe that the Lord is God Almighty, the Savior of the World.” That may be easy for us to grasp, as we sit here in this day and age, in this New Church Worship Service. But for this crowd, in this time, this was revelation. And revelations take a while to take. This one is still news to a majority of Christians today. This crowd needed miracles to drive that point home, and the Lord provided these for this greater purpose.
Unless the Lord is regarded in this way, no one can receive anything of good or truth from heaven, and this means no true faith is possible. The good part is that the Lord proved, by this example, that anyone (signified by the “many” who will “come from east and west, to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”) anyone may have this faith and go to heaven if they’ll start with this simple acknowledgment and live according to it. This means you.. me.. and them. Everybody. On a society steeped in the knowledge that they were the chosen ones, this message was essentially lost. They just couldn’t hear it.
Now Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob together in the Word signify the Lord, in His Celestial, Spiritual, and Natural fullness. This passage means that if we only acknowledge that the Lord is God Almighty, the Savior of the World,” we are on our way to dine with Him, to dwell with Him, “to sit down with Him,” in His heavenly kingdom. It’s the first and most important step, “the first and primary thing of the Church.” The internal sense tells us that we may appropriate this heavenly life to ourselves (that’s what eating means), and be conjoined with the Lord in His home. If we only believe. The centurion believed. He knew.
Now so far we have looked at the literal message in this healing miracle, and we have explored the interior message within it as well. Both tell us that faith is knowing what is true, and that saying this is not enough – we must act from this knowledge and do the things it moves us to do. Faith works. But there are a few other connections here, that can illuminate this story a little more.
The Lord used a gentile among the Jews to prove two points about faith. First, a gentile, someone ignorant of the Law and the Prophets, and the teachings of the Church, could plainly see the Divinity of the Lord. It is tempting to suggest that perhaps it was his ignorance which allowed such keen spiritual sight. Second, the Lord used this outsider to prove, graphically, that all are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven. Now this gentile state is interesting: it is a state of obscurity and ignorance, and innocence – not evil or sinister in any way. This is an important distinction. It says here that people like this centurion can be led into the church because of this innocent state. Where is this centurion? Is he out there, or is he not within us all, ready to appropriate the heavenly life?
We have learned that the “first and primary thing to be established” for the people in this story was the fact that the Lord is God Almighty, and He is also the Savior of the World. This man whom they were following around the hills of Galilee. Faith begins with the acknowledgment of these things. Who can enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Those who have the faith of a gentile. This means everybody – those from east and west, and north and south as well.. Every one of us.
The Lord is ready in an instant to heal us; to make us whole. At a moment’s notice, He will patch up our marriages, take away our grief, shame, or guilt, mend our messed-up lives, give us back our friends, children, and parents;
He will give us joy, and meaning, make us strong in our faith, and lead us in our regeneration. He will “make for us a feast of rich food, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. He’ll wipe away the tears from our faces..”
He will do this work, but the invitation is up to you and me. And there are some rules to this arrangement – a covenant (the Covenant) or a contract which must be fulfilled. The terms? We must only believe.. and then act like it. Sounds easy. We must know what is true as the centurion, without hesitation, knew that his servant would be healed, with just a word from this man who operated under God’s authority. This is the simple faith of a child.. or the gentile within us. Faith works.
The Lord is God, and He, not you or me, is the Savior of the world. Only He can save us. Try saving yourself, if you don’t believe it. The Writings tell us a lot of people have tried. They’re in hell, still trying.
Healing – making us whole – taking our pieces and putting them back together again so we can start all over and attain to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is our repentance, reformation and regeneration. It is a work in progress – the work of the Great Physician. No one on earth can do this job. And the price? Not much.. we must only believe, with the faith of a gentile.”And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”