Why Church? A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany on St. Matthew 8:1—13

Centurion Icon

If you ask people why they come to church, they might say, “It makes me feel good.” There’s nothing quite like gathering together around Word & Sacrament with God’s people. Church often makes us feel good, and when it does, thanks be to God!

But there’s any number of reasons why you might not feel good when you come to church.

Maybe the kids were acting up the whole service.

Maybe you recently got some bad news.

Maybe you’re mourning the loss of a loved one.

Maybe you’re depressed or in poor health.

Maybe money’s tight or life at home isn’t what it should be.

Or maybe it’s just because the sinful flesh cares nothing for God’s Word. The last thing the sinful flesh wants to hear about is sin, and it does everything it can to avoid being put to death through daily contrition and repentance.

Church may often make us feel good, but this isn’t why we come. We come to church, above all, to have our sins forgiven. This happens—thanks be to God— whether you feel it or not. Jesus speaks, and it happens. Even if you don’t leave here feeling great, your sin is forgiven you just the same. And you need that.

The Absolution won’t cure your illnesses, add money to your bank account, or magically take all of your problems away. It won’t cause your kids to sit still through the whole service. It won’t make contrition fun or repentance easy, or even prevent you from neglecting God’s Word in the future. But it meets your deepest need, and when you feel least like hearing it, that’s probably when you need it the most. If you only came to church when you felt like it, you probably wouldn’t come very much at all.

The Gospel does its work even when we don’t feel it, and even though we don’t see it. The centurion in today’s Holy Gospel understood this. When Jesus offered to come into his home to cure his servant, the centurion said, Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. The centurion knew the power of God’s Word to do its work. All Jesus had to do was say the Word. He didn’t even have to show up.

Now contrast this with Naaman the Syrian. When Elisha didn’t show up to cure him of his leprosy, but instead sent word by a messenger, Naaman got angry. He said, Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper (2 Kings 5:11).

The centurion understood how authority works.  He knew he didn’t need Jesus to come under his roof for His Word to do its work. All the master has to do is speak and things happen. He says to his servant, go, and he goes, come, and he comes, do this, and he does it. When Naaman finally came to realize this, he was cleansed, too.

Your Lord says the Word, and you are healed. He continues to speak this same healing Word through the lips of His called and ordained servants. This is why the pastor’s absolution is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself. It works even when it feels like evil is winning in your life. Jesus doesn’t even need to be physically present here today for His Word to work any more than He needed to be physically present in the home of the centurion. Only say the Word, the centurion said, and my servant will be healed.

The Word is all we need, and it’s more than we deserve, but Jesus graces us with His physical presence anyway. The leper said, Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. The leper knew he didn’t deserve the Lord’s healing touch. The centurion knew he didn’t deserve to have the Lord come under his roof. We’re no different.

But the risen Lord comes, bearing His grace anyway, opening your eyes to recognize Him in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:30—31). Your Lord’s healing touch comes to you, physically, in, with and under His body and blood in the Sacrament. He doesn’t leave you to guessing about His love. He cured the leper bodily, but He comes to you in body and blood to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul.

That Jesus healed the leper physically was no small thing, and it teaches us something else about why we come to church other than having our sins forgiven. Lepers were to stay away from people for the good of everyone. That wasn’t a disease you would want to spread, so a few suffered for the good of the many. But their suffering was profound. It meant a life of isolation.  Leviticus 13 prescribes certain guidelines for lepers so as to limit the spread of the illness.  It says,

The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’

In other words, you knew a leper when you saw one. There was no mistaking them. Leviticus continues:

He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp (Lev 13:45–46). 

Leprosy robbed a person of their heath and family, along with their ability to work and worship.  The fear of spreading this disease was so great that lepers were forced into a very lonely and isolated existence.

But it’s not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Our Lord wasn’t willing to leave a few to suffer for the sake of the many. If there was one thing our Lord and Caiphas agreed on, it was that it was better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish (Luke 11:50) or even for a few to suffer for the sake of the many.

So the One died for the sake of the many. Jesus shed His blood on the cross for the sick, the isolated, the unworthy. Nobody is excluded from this many, not even a leper, not even you. Our Lord delights in community. It is not good for man to be alone. When Jesus touched the leper, it was the first of many more embraces he would feel. Jesus restored the leper to life in community.

This is the other reason we come to church. This community, this life together, is vital to the life of the Church. There’s more to coming to church than just your own spiritual welfare. It’s not just about having your own personal Jesus who forgives you all your sins and that’s it. We come because we are the Body of Christ, and bodies don’t work well when they don’t work together.

St. Paul said in today’s epistle: I long to see you… that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. This is a big reason why we gather together in church, why you can’t have church all by yourself at home or near the lake or wherever. We come to receive the grace of God together, to encourage one another, to set a good example for the younger ones. And woe to those who cause one of the little ones to stumble (Matt 18:6)! Your presence or absence here speaks volumes.

 You can’t reject Christ’s Body (the Church) without also rejecting Christ. There’s no such thing as church-less Christianity. To say you believe but have nothing to do with your brothers and sisters in Christ is like saying you love food but never eat.

So we pray for one another, not only here, but at home. We bear one another’s burdens and open our lives to one another. Sometimes in the church we act as if our brothers and sisters in Christ were lepers, having nothing to do with them except maybe a quick handshake and a forced smile.

Like St. Paul, Christians rejoice in the opportunity to meet together for teaching, fellowship, communion and prayer, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. Sometimes people quit coming to church, thinking all they need to do is believe in God and that’s that. We forget about the obligations we have to our family in Christ. We hear about this in the baptismal liturgy where we welcome the newly baptized saying, “We receive you in Jesus’ name as our brother or sister in Christ, that together we might hear His Word, receive His gifts, and proclaim the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Jesus wants us to hear His Word together, to receive His gifts together, to sing hymns and declare His praise together.

It can be very discouraging to watch individuals and families drift away from the church, move away, die, or transfer somewhere else. When we gather together, we are mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. Singing is more robust. It’s encouraging to know that we’re in this together. As important as it is for you to be here and receive the grace of God, it’s just as important to the faith and well-being your neighbor. It is not good that man should be alone. Your presence or absence here has more of an impact on the faith of your brothers and sisters in Christ than you know.

One of the greatest leprosies of our time is church hopping. When conflicts arise, rather than stay and work out whatever differences people have, the all-too common solution to conflict is to pack up and leave. This damages our unity in Christ so badly that it’s almost impossible to repair.

Do you remember that little Israelite girl that was carried off and forced to work for Naaman’s wife? Now I don’t know about you, but I probably wouldn’t be very eager to try and help out someone who had raided my country, taken me captive, and made me his slave. But that’s just what this girl does. When she heard of her master’s affliction, she said: Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:3).

Like Jesus, who prayed for His enemies on the cross and died for us while we were still sinners, this girl did not repay evil with evil. She didn’t try to avoid him, but instead sought the good of her adversary, to live at peace with him. This is a picture of the Church at Her best: living in love and unity, desiring the good of one another, working out our differences. As the Psalm says, Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1).

The Church is one body with many members, the many from east and west that our Lord spoke of in today’s Holy Gospel. The Church is made up of all who are baptized and believe: your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ here today, the faithful departed, and even those Christians with whom you’ve found yourself at odds. As the late Norman Nagel once said,

Our worship this morning is not an isolated piece of time. It expresses the whole of who we are and what we are for together. You cannot be Israel by yourself or “just me and my friends.” Israel is Christ’s people, not sundered or destroyed by generation gaps or future shock. Ponder those glorious genealogies with their funny names and doubtful characters. They proclaim the continuity of God’s Israel and show how the unlikeliest of people are included, (Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel, 42)

This is the great Epiphany of our Lord, that He welcomes all into His Body, the Church: Jew and Gentile, leper and centurion, those from east and west, even you and me.

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Matthew 8:1—13
The Third Sunday after Epiphany: “Why Church?”
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