The 1998 movie “The Thin Red Line” depicts the U.S. Army’s 25th infantry division as it participated in the final push to drive the Japanese off of the island of Guadalcanal. The film portrays the assault at Mount Austen at the end of December 1942 and the beginning of January 1943. There the Americans took heavy losses as they attacked a group of hills where the Japanese had built a strong defensive position. Multiple camouflaged bunkers at the top of the hills protected machine guns with interlocking fields of fire. The Japanese had sited in their mortars on the approaches of the hills where the Americans would have to advance.
The movie portrays the beginning of the assault as the Americans advance up the first rise. They walk through tall grass in silence. After advancing some distance, the lieutenant leading the assault orders the men to halt as they as drop down into the grass. There is no sound except the wind blowing through the grass that now conceals them.
The lieutenant looks through his binoculars out toward the rise and the hills beyond it. There is no movement. There is no sound. There is nothing except the tall grass swaying in the wind on the hill that rises up ahead of them.
And then, the lieutenant motions to the two soldiers ahead of him and uses hand signals to indicate that he is ordering them to take point and advance ahead of the rest of the group. The men look back at the officer and then at each other in fear. The lieutenant again emphatically signals his order. The two soldiers look at each other in resignation and then with a glance they try to encourage each other. They rise up and after they have advanced about twenty feet two shots suddenly ring out and they drop dead.
The scene in the movie dramatically portrays the authority of the chain of command in the military. The lieutenant is in command at that place and the soldiers he is leading are under his authority. If he gives them an order, they must carry it out. They don’t get to ask for a discussion to see whether the officer can persuade them that this is a good idea. He has authority over them and so they must carry out his order – even if it means advancing into danger.
In the Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Jesus interacts with a man who knows all about how authority works. He is a soldier – a centurion. And he has come to Jesus because he has faith in Jesus’ authority to heal his servant.
We learn in our text that when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him as he said, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” At the time, Capernaum and Galilee were not under direct Roman rule. Instead, Herod Antipas – a son of Herod the Great – ruled there as a petty king. The Romans allowed him to rule this land, but there was no doubt about who was in charge – the Romans were.
As a petty king, Herod Antipas could be called upon to supply military units to assist the Romans. These auxiliary units were organized along the lines of the Roman army. The foundational unit of the Roman army was the century which usually had around eighty men. The unit was led by a centurion who usually had worked his way up through the ranks and had about twenty years of military service. The centurions were the backbone of the Roman army, providing experienced tactical leadership for the most fundamental part of the army.
There was no shortage of non-Jews – Gentiles – in that immediate area and it was not uncommon for them to be recruited into Herod’s forces. They would, after all, have no compunction about acting against the Jews who inhabited Herod’s lands if the king ordered this. This centurion was one such Gentile.
The centurion said to Jesus, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” What is truly striking here is that a Gentile centurion addresses a Jewish civilian as “Lord.” The centurion was the one who had the authority - he was the army, the force that maintained control. And he was a Gentile, a group that looked down on Jews – especially in those boundary areas where Jews and Gentiles had historically come into conflict.
Yet here this Gentile centurion comes to Jesus. He addresses Jesus as “Lord” and describes how his servant is ill and in need of help. The centurion had lived a rough life. He was no stranger to discomfort and pain. So when he says that the servant is “suffering terribly,” it was probably rather severe.
Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.” The centurion’s reply demonstrated that he understood who really had the authority. He said to Jesus, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my servant,'Do this,' and he does it."
The centurion again called Jesus “Lord” and said that he was not worthy for Jesus to come to his house. Instead, Jesus had the authority to speak and bring about healing. It was as certain as the fact that if the centurion told a soldier to do something, he had to do it. The centurion had faith in Jesus. He had faith in the authority of the Lord.
That trust in the Lord Jesus and his authority is something with which we often struggle. The circumstances of life bring difficulties and challenges, and it shakes our confidence in him. Instead, we tend to doubt whether the Lord Jesus is really in charge. And beyond this, we often don’t want Jesus to have authority. We don’t want the Lord to tell us what we are to do through his word. We want to be in charge so that we can do what seems best for me. We want to be free to serve ourselves and to look out for #1. We want to be free to do whatever we find enjoyable – whatever brings us pleasure.
Yet this is a delusion that brings us harm. It is sin that sets us in opposition to God – and that is always a losing proposition. It is a path that in the long term leads to eternal judgment. And it is a path that brings us harm because rejecting the way the Creator set up life to work does not turn out well.
The centurion recognized Jesus’ authority. He looked in faith to Jesus. He believed that Jesus only had to speak the word to heal his servant. When he saw this, Jesus 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.” Then he said to the centurion, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
During Epiphany we celebrate and remember that in Jesus Christ the saving glory of God was revealed in the world. Matthew tells us that in his ministry, Jesus’ authority was revealed. The verse just before our Gospel lesson concludes the Sermon on the Mount and we learn that, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” In the next chapter Jesus will heal a paralytic to show that he has authority on earth to forgive sins.
Jesus has authority because he is the incarnate Son of God in whom the reign of God entered into the world. He is Emmanuel - God with us - as God acts to defeat Satan, sin and death. Jesus’ death on the cross has redeemed you from your sins – he has freed you by winning forgiveness. And in his resurrection from the dead he has freed you from death because in his resurrection you see the beginning of your own resurrection.
Jesus’ ministry took place two thousand years ago in Palestine. But his authority is still here. Literally, in our text the centurion asks Jesus to heal the servant as he speaks “with a word.” That authoritative word of Jesus is still with us now in the word of Holy Scripture as it is read and proclaimed.
We heard the authoritative word of Jesus this morning as Drew was baptized, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It is the same word that was spoken in your baptism – the word that turned water into the means by which you have shared in the saving death of Jesus Christ.
And we hear the authoritative word of Jesus every Sunday as he says, “This is my body … This cup is the new testament in my blood.” This authoritative word continues to do what it says as our Lord uses bread and wine to give us his true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. In the celebration of the Sacrament we receive a foretaste of the meal the Lord describes in our text – the feast of salvation when many will come from the east and the west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God.
This truth from our text gives us comfort and strength. But there is also a caution here – a reminder that the Christian life is one of real faith. As Jesus praises the faith of a Gentile and describes how Gentiles too will share in salvation, he says, “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It was easy for the Jews of Jesus’ day to assume that salvation was theirs simply because they descended from Abraham. Jesus says it’s not so.
In the same way it is easy for Christians – Lutherans included – to assume that because their name is on a church roster; because their family has been Christian; because they go to Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday services, that salvation is in the bag. But Jesus says it’s not so.
Instead, those who have faith in Jesus have salvation. And what does that faith look like? Well, God’s Word tells us that it continues to draw near to the Means of Grace to receive Jesus’ authoritative word. It wants to hear that word proclaimed, to study that word and to receive the body and blood of Jesus that word provides. For in these ways forgiveness is received, and faith is sustained and strengthened.
And faith – if it really is faith – acts in love. It acts in ways that point to Jesus. It acts in ways that Jesus makes possible – ways that follow in Jesus’ footsteps of service toward others. As we see in our Gospel lesson, Jesus has authority. But he uses that authority to help others. He used it to help you as he died on the cross and rose from the dead. And now the life of faith in the Lord provides the comfort of forgiveness, and it moves us to love and serve those whom God places in our life.