Home      Back to Epiphany 3





The Faith that Overcometh the World.

by Isaac Williams

from Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels for the Sundays and Holy Days

throughout the Year, Vol. I. Advent to Whitsuntide 

Rivingtons, London, 1875 [New Edition.]


First part of Sermon XIV. for the Third Sunday after Epiphany.

 Rom. xii. 16-21.    St. Matt. viii. 1-13.

And behold, there came a leper and worshipped Him, saying, LORD, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.  And JESUS put forth His hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean.--ST.  MATT.  viii.  2,3.
(for the first part, on the Epistle.

...And now we have, in the Gospel for the day, the constraining motives and reasons for all forgiveness.  The first incident therein mentioned is the healing of the leper, a circumstance throughout so striking, that surely it must be familiar to the thoughts of every Christian, and to which his own heart will supply him with the best explanation and commentary.  For I suppose there can be no one who, feeling himself polluted with sin, and unclean in God's sight, does not often in his prayers bring to remembrance this account, and the prayer of the leper, "Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean:" and who does not feel strengthened and comforted by the gracious answer which it received.  And, indeed, this seems to be brought out by the Collect for this week as the one great lesson of encouragement which we are to derive from the appointed Services of the day; for there is an evident allusion, not only to both the miracles recorded in the Gospel, but especially to the words of the Text, in the prayer, "Mercifully look upon our infirmities; and in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth Thy right hand to help and defend us."


When He was come down from the mountain, that is, after delivering His Sermon on the Mount, great multitudes followed Him.  And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped Him.  The expressions in St. Luke are still, stronger, "Behold, a man full of leprosy, when he saw Jesus, fell on his face and besought Him."  But in the very words of his prayer all the Evangelists agree, Saying, Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.   Here he acknowledges Christ as God, full of all power, as if he had said, "I am unworthy, I dare not ask, but if Thou art willing Thou art able."  And Jesus put forth His hand, and touched him, saying, I Will; be thou clean.  He not only granted the very words of his request, but also, in so doing, "touched him...'  According to the Law, whoever touched a leper became himself unclean; but Christ, in this proof of His power as God, showed that He was above the Law, and could not be rendered unclean; but, at the same time, in thus doing He seemed to say that He took upon Himself the curse of the Law, the penalty of his sins: "Himself made sin for," as the Prophet had said, "the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all."  "Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses."  For leprosy was made the outward sign which represented sin.  And by touching, on this and other occasions, our Lord showed that it is by Himself as God and Man united, the Word made Flesh and dwelling among us and within us, and by uniting us to Himself, and the communication of His own sacred Body, that all restoration and healing must be.  By His own life-giving touch He healed him.  He granted the very words of his prayer, but over and above his prayer added also, in tender pity, His own most sacred Body.  And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.  And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man,  but go thy way, show thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.  He sent him thus to bear evidence of His Godhead to the Priests, and also of His obedience to the Law, that, however unbelieving the Priests and Pharisees might be, it might be "a testimony unto them," even as He has now sent forth His Gospel "as a witness to all nations."  He was to tell no man, but to go to the Priest, for our Lord first of all appealed to "the House of Israel."


How full of instruction is all this incident to us, when by prayer and meditation we bring it home, as it is intended we should do, each one to himself.  The same power is present to heal when we feel and know ourselves to be "full of leprosy."  And the like humiliation of ourselves, and the like faith, will be heard as it then was.  But, alas! leprosy of soul and uncleanness in the sight of God is not so known and felt as bodily disease would be.  Otherwise there is the same remedy, the same nearness to that all-healing Presence, the same will to restore us.  Nay, far more; there is the same life-giving Body in the Holy Eucharist, ready to communicate Himself to us, as He touched the leper and made him clean.  And then there is the same lesson of obedience that we may continue in that holy fellowship.  "Show thyself to the Priest," as Moses in the Law commanded, and "offer the gift;" but to us it is not the command of the Law only, but also of the Gospel; and the gift is not that of dead animals, but, as the Church says to us at this season, in the words of St. Paul, "I beseech you by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice."


Another incident is mentioned in the Gospel of to-day, which is put by St. Matthew together with the former miracle, that of healing the centurion's servant, which intimates the calling of the Gentiles, as the former circumstance implies the witness of Christ to the Jewish nation, and the true fulfilment of the Law.  And perhaps we shall better understand this by taking the account of St. Luke together with that of St. Matthew; for that of St. Luke, according to his manner, enters more into detail or particulars.  And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto Him a centurion, that is, a Roman captain, who probably had command of the soldiers who were stationed at or near Capernaum, as the chief city in that part of Galilee, and who had no doubt heard much of our Lord's teaching and miracles, for Capernaum had been lately the usual place of our Lord's resort.  He came unto Jesus beseeching Him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.  But we learn from St. Luke that the centurion did not at first come himself, but sent unto Him the elders of the Jews to entreat for him.  For, being a Heathen, he knew that he was considered legally unclean by all of the Jewish nation; and much more, he might think, must he be esteemed to be so by so holy a Teacher; and, indeed, his own lowly heart within bore witness to the Jewish Law, that he was by nature spiritually unclean in the sight of the Most Holy God.  And these elders of the Jews, when they came, earnestly besought Him, says St. Luke, inasmuch as this captain, although a Gentile, was well worthy, they said, for he loved the Jewish nation, and had built their synagogue for them.  We think it much for a Christian to build a church for Christians, but he had done so for those who looked on him as abominable and their enemy.  This circumstance of his great apparent piety may seem to us remarkable in a Heathen soldier, but we have another Roman centurion mentioned in the Acts, Cornelius; of whom it is said that he was "a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway." [Acts x. 2.]  It is an awful reflection how much in that time of great manifestation, when the Gospel was first preached, those who, had the least religious advantages appeared so much better than those who had the highest.  Heathens and Publicans were far more prepared for the Kingdom of Heaven than those Priests and Pharisees who had, in their hands and in their heads, the oracles of God, and lived amidst the privileges of divinely-appointed worship.


And Jesus saith unto him--perhaps sends word to him by these elders, saying--I will come and heal him.  It appears from St. Luke, that it was by means of friends that the centurion now sent again a second time, on learning that Christ was coming to his house, as if he were quite overcome with something of awe and alarm, so as to have forgotten his own distress in a sense of the Majesty of God.  "When He was now not far from the house," says St. Luke, "the centurion sent friends unto Him, saying, Lord, trouble not Thyself.  For I am not worthy that Thou shouldest enter under my roof.  Wherefore I did not think myself worthy to come unto Thee." And then St. Luke's account of his words falls in exactly with that of St. Matthew, as here given.  The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof; but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.  For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me; and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this; and he doeth it.  That is, if even I who am myself but a servant of others, yet without moving or going from place to place have those, under me that execute my commands when I only speak the word, how much more must it be the case that Thou, Who art the Lord of all, can perform all things at a distance by Thy word?  It is evident from this remarkable confession of faith, that God Himself, Who alone makes known the mystery of Christ, the "Father which is in Heaven, had revealed" to this Gentile what "flesh and blood had not" told him, and, what Christ Himself had not yet openly declared, that He was the Son of God,--that great saving truth which St. Peter afterwards confessed, which is the very Rock on which His Church is built.  The High and Lofty One Who inhabiteth eternity had come to dwell with this Gentile, because he was of a meek and lowly spirit; for none but the Holy One could have made known to his heart this saving faith.  He was "pure in heart," and therefore he had the blessing and power vouchsafed to him to "see God."  He must, in faith, have seen "angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man," like "an Israelite indeed without guile," or else he would not have compared the power of Christ to his own ordering of attendants, and saying, Come, and go, and do this.  He must have seen that ministering spirits, the unseen powers of Heaven, were in humble service waiting on Him to Whom he sent.  His words imply this; they have no other meaning.  But that, as his servants attended on him and obeyed him, so diseases and death and all things else served Christ, and hearkened unto the voice of His words.


When Jesus heard it, He marvelled; He was as one struck with admiration and wonder.  His manner of turning to the crowd, as St. Luke describes His doing, was expressive of this feeling.   Such faith, and, that in a Gentile, was so unlike what our Lord had yet met with, He called attention to it as very remarkable by His whole demeanour, and said to them that followed, Verily, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.  This Gentile had surpassed them all, those who had the Law and the Prophets, the whole substance and sum of which was Christ; there had been no instance among them of such faith.  A Jewish nobleman, at this same Capernaum, a little before had sent, saying, "Sir, come down ere my child die;" he did not say, Speak the word, but, Come Thyself.  He believed that Christ was able to perform miracles of healing, but not that He could heal by a word at a distance; he believed not that He was God, and he was reproved; for Christ said unto him, "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe."  So was it with the hard-hearted Jews.  And Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, and one of the wisest and best among them, had before this come by night, saying, "We know that Thou art a Teacher come from God, for no man can do the miracles which Thou doest, except God be with him."  But he was very slow to believe the things of Heaven, because he saw not that Christ was God.  But how different was this centurion, the great marvel of God's grace!


And here it may be observed what the effect is upon the whole conduct, when God is acknowledged by man; his faith in Christ as God was spoken, not by these words only, but by the whole of his character, in that remarkable humility which distinguishes him from others.  The Jewish elders said, he is worthy, for he hath built us a synagogue; but how different was his own sense of worthiness!  He was overwhelmed with a sense of his own nothingness, because he believed Christ to be God.  Our Lord, therefore, at once marked him out as the great token of the calling of the Gentiles.  He was poor in spirit, and, as such, the first to enter the Kingdom.  He that humbleth himself shall be exalted, shall be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven; for his humbling himself is an acknowledgment of God.  He had built for the Jews a synagogue with poor earthly wealth; but out of that synagogue, and from the temple of the Jews, there grew for him "a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens," even the Church of God which the Jews should not enter.  He was not an Israelite, not a disciple, not a follower of Christ, but a Heathen soldier in his place, belonging to a tyrannical, wicked empire, brought up himself among false gods, and in the stronghold of Satan's kingdom.  But now in Galilee he had caught some glimpse of that Light which had "sprung up in the region and shadow of death."  He might, on some occasion perhaps, have been as a stranger among the crowd, and heard the blessed words that fell from our Lord's gracious lips, and seen some of His works of mercy.  He may have seen His eye upon himself amidst the crowd, and found it ever after in his own heart; --he may have learnt this His love and mercy for this poor dying slave (or rather not dying, perhaps, but pitiably suffering) from the same fountain of mercy;--he may have learnt this love even from what he had seen and heard in our Lord Himself.  He might, perhaps, have heard His Sermon on the Mount; he may have pondered day and night on the words, have recalled them again and again with the countenance and the accents of Him that spake.  He may have compared them with the wisdom of the Gentiles, and may have found that all the learning and boasted virtues of the world were light as vanity itself, but as dust in the balance, when weighed with one sentence which he may have treasured of Christ's words.  When Scribes in the crowd mocked, he may have trembled, unseen, and alone; when the rulers of the synagogue were filled with envy, he may have been deeply moved with Divine love; when they looked proudly on, he may have been humbled to the ground.  Something of this, and far more of the same kind, and many such little incidents, may have occurred.  It is not at all improbable.  Or it may have been otherwise.  It may have been that he had never seen Christ at all, nor heard His words himself, but had known only of Him from others.  But very much he must have understood concerning Him, in whatever little had come before his notice; that he should have thus perceived that it was, indeed, the Almighty God come down from Heaven, in wonderful condescension, to attend to the wants of His afflicted creatures.  He knew that He, to Whom he thus sent at a distance, could work whatever He willed in his own house; and, therefore, he must from this have known that Christ was in his own house, that He was a God that was near "and not afar off," wherever He was; [Jer. xxiii. 23, 24]  that His all-seeing eye, and His love, and His power were with him and all about Him; or else he never could have made such a request as that, saying, Speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.  And therefore it must needs have been that the all-subduing, all-hallowing, all-endearing Presence of Christ was ruling his own heart and life.  For otherwise how could he have known that Christ by His mere will and word, had power of life and death, and over all the distresses of that servant over whom he was watching?  "No man," said our Lord Himself, "can come to Me, except the Father Which hath sent Me draw him." [St. John vi. 44]  Surely, therefore, it was a constraining power in his own heart, and nothing else, that led him to acknowledge, that gave him eyes to see, and ears to hear God in Christ.  And of this we may be certain; that however religious persons may appear to be, however learned in the Scriptures, and zealous for the Church, yet, if they have not a temper of mercy and humility, they do not know God.  Lowliness and compassion and the fear of God are so marked in that man, that they must have deeply worked within him.  However, whatever the circumstances of this soldier may have been, and his dealings with his own heart, that he should have become thus enlightened, they will be all known on the great Day of Judgment.  But among men, had it not been for this sickness of his servant; he would have been never known or heard of, although he was, as it were, the first from among us Gentiles to lead the way and enter into the Kingdom.  From this we may see what a secret it all is with God--only to be known on that day when "many that are first shall be last, and the last first."


When the soldiers and the Publicans came before John the Baptist, asking what they should do in order that they might be meet to enter the Kingdom, they were told by him to avoid the particular sin which beset them in their station in life.  This was their preparation of heart, that they, might be able to discern the Lamb of God, that taketh away sin.  This centurion might have been one of them.  At all events, it is remarkable how in him was found the opposite to the sins of his station: so does the Grace of God make strong in weakness.  As a Roman captain he might have despised, that conquered nation; he might have thought that our Lord, as a humble Galilean, might have waited on him.  But oh, how different was the case!  Again, though he might have known he was considered unclean by the law of Israel, yet he might have presumed on having built a synagogue; but it was far otherwise.  And further, what might one have expected in a Roman soldier but cruel and tyrannical selfishness? but he is all full of compassion; his distress is not for himself, but for another; one might have thought that such interest was for a dying child; but no, it is for an afflicted slave.  Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, says, "My daughter is dying, but come and lay Thine hand upon her, and she shall live."  But this man, though used to command, having soldiers and servants waiting for his orders, says, "I am not worthy to come to Thee, or I would come.  I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word."  From all this we may see how it is that believing in Christ as God is all in all, because it affects every thought of a man's heart, every action of his life, his whole character and disposition.


Such, then, was the faith of which our Lord spake, that He had not found such in Israel, and to this He added those memorable words which are like the first dawn of, the Epiphany.  And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west,--even we, may we add, of the far West, give thanks unto Thy name, Who makest the outgoings of the morning and evening to praise Thee--they shall come, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.  But the children of the kingdom, i.e. those Jews who consider themselves as such, and with them all those who abuse those privileges which God has given them, shall be cast out into outer darkness: into spiritual darkness, the forerunner of death.  "For the whole world" shall "shine with clear light," but "over them only spread a heavy night, an image of that darkness which should afterwards receive them;" [Wisd. xvii. 20, 21] of which it is said, There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.


And Jesus said unto the centurion--who had now, perhaps, come himself, having before sent first the Jewish elders, and then his own friends--Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee.  And his servant was healed in the self-same hour.