Sermon 96



Have Such Faith

Luke 7:9


June 23, 2019


Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (+) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

       Jesus usually isn’t amazed at the grandeur of our faith – as he is with that famous centurion. Jesus says his faith is even greater than what is in Israel (Luke 7:9). And Israel’s faith should have been great because they were the chosen ones who also had the law and promises about the coming Messiah. So let us focus this day on such a great faith as the centurion’s, as we gather in God’s house to worship the Lord Almighty, bless his holy name, and keep the Sabbath holy.


Authority-Based Faith

So what’s so great about the centurion’s faith? What makes it what we all should highly prize and wish we had? Well, it has to do with its authority! “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22–23). The centurion’s faith is so wonderful, then, because it isn’t based on signs and evidence, nor is it based on wisdom and logic. No, it rather is based on the saving and healing authority of Jesus and his illuminating and cutting words.

     But we want more than this – and that’s because we’re all from Missouri, the “show me” state – regardless where we’re actually from. We don’t want to be tricked! We don’t want to be gullible! So we’re looking for non-controvertible evidence and crystal clear logical inferences before we’ll believe in anything. “Show me” – we loudly holler! We think we need to mount an air-tight case before we are going to believe and follow Jesus. We think we need that – instead of just bowing down before his authority (Ephesians 3:14).


Our Sinking Boat

To believe, we need to leave our safe homes of unbelief, walk down the backyard to the boat, jump in and start paddling up the stream of Christian righteousness. Martin Luther calls this our baptismal ship in his Large Catechism (1529) (The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert, p. 446). But, even so, it doesn’t take much to swamp our little boats. Just look at Exodus 12:12 about God killing the children of Egypt, or Matthew 22:12 about only a few being saved and damning all the rest to the fires of hell. Bam! two strikes and you’re out.

Over my forty years of ministry I can count on one hand people rushing up to me to share with me their favorite Bible verses. But I have bags full of stories about miraculous breaks and wonderful experiences that make people believers for a lifetime! So much for simply hearing God’s word and keeping it (Luke 11:28)! But that’s was just what the glorious faith of the centurion was all about. Just keep it! Don’t fiddle with it (2 Peter 1:20; Luther’s Works 23:229–30). Believe – because you have it on good authority that it’s true – just believe it. And that’s it. There’s nothing more than that to do. Now that’s some authority!


Luther’s Faith

But can anyone, except for that Biblical centurion, actually think this way? Well, Martin Luther, for one, could. So take heart – you can be like him and follow the lead of the centurion. “Keep quiet. Do not judge,” he writes, “but listen to the Word of God, and believe it” (LW 26:228)! “Simply believe [the Word] because Christ says it” (LW 67:353). That’s all there is to it.

But the scholars won’t let these words stand. They try to cover them over with their sophisticated analysis. “Luther never said, ‘The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,’ but just the opposite” (Timothy J. Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, 2013, p. 8). But Luther won’t be so easily pushed to the side – therefore he repeats himself to make it harder for the erudite to tell stories about him (LW 57:13, 14, 99–100). Again and again he promotes a simple faith.


The Divine Tractor

But can we really be like Luther? Not unless the father “draws” us to Christ (John 6:44) – which is traxerit in the Old Latin Bible. Do you hear the word tractor in traxerit from the Latin? That would be fitting! For to get us to believe in Christ it indeed takes a divine tractor to pull us out of darkness and bring us into light (Colossians 1:13). No wonder he chooses us – since we can’t choose him (John 15:16). Luther is emphatic about this – famously saying in the Small Catechism (1529) that we can’t believe in Christ by our own reason or strength (BC, p. 345). But he also adds that we “cannot accept the gift when it is offered” (LW 26:215). And that’s because it’s too hard to do so (LW 77:32). And that’s because it involves us dying to ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:14–15, LW 33:106) – as Luther argues in his big book, The Bondage of the Will (1525). Faith therefore has to be “granted to” us (Philippians 1:29). It’s a gift – never an achievement (Ephesians 2:8). It’s something to thank God for (Romans 1:8). But that doesn’t mean we’re perfect (Philippians 3:12) – saying to all around, “Look at me and what I have. My faith’s perfect!”



“Well, speak for yourself, Ron,” you might well say! “I believe in Jesus and follow him. So what’s so wrong with my faith?” Again, this charge of imperfection comes from Philippians 3:12. It’s not based on any research I’ve done. “Okay – but just how are we imperfect?” The popular Christian teacher from a couple generations ago, Paul Tillich, said it was because our faith is fragmentary and that it also oscillates (Systematic Theology, 3 vols. 1951–63, III.42, 140).

            First, it’s fragmentary – for at any given moment of faith there are deficiencies. Doubts plague us, and false elements assail us, distorting our faith. Out in the boat – paddling up that river of righteousness – we see leaks coming in. We know we don’t have the faith exactly right. “I believe, help my unbelief,” we cry (Mark 9:24). That’s faith’s first imperfection.

But faith also oscillates. It goes up and down. Some days we stop believing – pulling the boat ashore so we can get out and walk around freely. We don’t see being “firmly bound, forever free” (Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, hymn 257). That happened to me in college. I told my pastor I wasn’t coming to church anymore because I didn’t believe any more. He answered that now was the best time to be in church. He wanted me to quit my leadership roles and sit in the back of the church and take notes on the sermons. Don’t sing. Don’t pray. Just sit there and listen. I did – and even wrote him nasty comments on his sermons! But after a year, unbelief oscillated back into faith.

My minister, Pastor Karl Ufer (1913–1981), gave me good advice back then. He knew that perfection rested in Christ’s steadfastness and sacrifice (2 Thessalonians 3:5, John 19:30) and not in my faith.


Be Humble

In thanksgiving to God for our renewed faith, let us walk in righteousness (Galatians 5:25). This includes both taking care of the forgotten and also keeping our noses clean – unstained by the world (James 1:27). Humility helps bring about this purity – which keeps us unstained by the world. This isn’t a false modesty. Rather it’s what casts our fears on God – knowing that he cares for us (1 Peter 5:6–7).

            But the proud think they can take care of themselves and trust themselves – while the humble know better (Psalms 49:13, Luke 18:9). A couple verses help tone down this over-estimation. Job 42:3 says “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” And Psalm 131.1 says “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” So the humble give up on theories of life they’ve devised or adopted. They pray to God and obey his Word. I have a friend who always sends me the latest book on spirituality. I read them and tell him I’m sticking with Christ Jesus – struggling to continue to pray in his name and obey him. For I need Christ more than simply being “benevolent and socially interconnected” (Edith Hall, Aristotle’s Way, 2018, p.11).

            So pray to God to help you be humble. Thank God for drawing you to Christ. And finally thank him for the centurion and his remarkable faith – which makes it possible for us to have it too. Amen.


 (printed as preached but with some changes)