Imagine yourself as part of this biblical story. This man Jesus had been to Capernaum before, and had healed people. Still, there were other healers wandering the countryside. You heard parts of a great, long sermon that he preached, talking about blessings, about loving one’s enemies, and not judging others, lest you be judged. He said to build your house and your faith on God, and to not just hear his words, but to live them out in your lives. You walked with the crowd as he entered the city again, and you saw some Jewish elders approach Jesus. You gasped a little as you heard them say that a Roman centurion, someone working for the government that was suppressing everyone you knew and loved, wanted Jesus to come and heal his slave. Still, they did say he was good to the Jewish community (Remember that you and Jesus were both Jewish), that he had helped them build the sanctuary. But, still, he was not of the faith, and he worked for the oppressors. You wondered what Jesus would do, and when he began to go with them, you followed at a distance, just to see what would happen. But as Jesus got nearer to the big house, some more folks came out to him and told Jesus that the centurion said for him not to come in, that he was not worthy of having Jesus in his house. Thank goodness, you thought, because that was true. Jesus would make himself ritually unclean by going into this Gentile dwelling. What a relief, you sighed, this is over. Yet, the words continued to be relayed from this centurion, talking to Jesus about his authority, and about Jesus’ own authority. It was obvious that the man respected and revered Jesus, that he knew Jesus had authority greater than his own, even though he had a lot of authority, and that he knew Jesus’ authority came from God. It was obvious too that he cared for the slave who was so ill, that he “valued” him beyond the fact that he was his property, that perhaps he even regarded him as a friend, and he wanted him to be healed. This was astounding. But the most amazing thing that was relayed was that this centurion knew Jesus could heal simply by his word. And you watched in amazement as some ran back to the house, and found the slave healed and well. Jesus talked then about how amazed he was at the faith of this man, and even said that the faith of this Roman, an outsider, an oppressor, was greater than all the Jewish community. You stood in shock, and after Jesus walked away, so did you, but you wondered just what happened, and what it meant – for you and for your faith community.
As with all biblical stories, there is more here than meets the eye. This story points us backwards, reminding us of Old Testament stories about Elijah and Elisha also healing those who were Gentiles from a distance, especially the story of Elisha and the commander Naaman. Naaman did not have as much faith in Elisha as the centurion did in Jesus. His friends had to convince Naaman to dip in the water seven times, as Elisha had told him, to be healed. Our story shows that Jesus’ authority is like yet greater than that of other prophets. And the story also points us forward, towards another Gentile, one who has a name, Cornelius, in the book of Acts. Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian Cohort, yet he feared and worshiped God, donated to the congregation, prayed constantly, and encouraged his whole household (wives, children, servants) to worship the God of Israel. (Acts 10:1-2) Our story also points forward to Jesus sending the disciples out to bear good news and to bring healing. This story says a lot to us even today about what Jesus expects of those who profess faith in God.
For living in faith is much more than just coming to church on Sunday morning, or even of participating in church activities from time to time. In recent years, we have heard a lot about about those who are “spiritual but not religious,” meaning those who pursue practices that help them spiritually, but do not participate in any kind of organized religion. But lately there has been more talk of those who are “religious but not spiritual,” meaning those who attend church and donate large amounts of money, but who do not live out faith in their everyday lives. How we live every day should reflect what we believe. A life of faith gives us vision.
Religious author Dorothy Bass says:
Lacking a vision of a life-giving way of life, we turn from one task to another, doing as well as we can, but increasingly uncertain about what doing things well would look like. All the while, an uneasiness lies just beneath the surface – an uneasiness made of personal restlessness, worry about our loved ones, and apprehension about the well-being of the world. (Bass, p. 2)
Many of us can probably relate to feeling restless, worrying about our loved ones, being anxious about the well-being of our state, our country, our world. Bass reminds us, in a book called Practicing Our Faith, that living a life of faith takes discipline and work, and it results in a vision that sees all of life as sacred, as God’s created order for which we have been given dominion and responsibility. Practicing our faith can change the way we live life, for the better.
Dorothy Bass gives two wonderful examples of faithful living that encompasses all of life:
She tells us about a Catholic priest who traveled to Israel, arriving late on a Friday afternoon, just as everything there was shutting down in preparation for the Jewish Sabbath. Even public transportation had shut down, and he could not get to his destination, a house where he was expected, but was 15 miles away. So, with nothing else left to do, he picked up his suitcase and began walking. “He did not get far before a family saw him and invited him [Remember, he was a Catholic priest, probably in his vestments] to spend the Sabbath with them. He accepted their invitation and they all had a wonderful time. When [Sabbath was over and] Saturday evening came, he found his bus and was on his way.” (Bass, p. 2-3)
Then she told a story of a Jewish friend of hers, who wore his hair long in the 1960’s, as many young men did then, and who liked to travel. As he as traveling in Spain, he got off a train in a little village well into the night, and every building was dark, except for one. A little frightened, as he was alone, he headed for that building. It turned out to be a monastery. But the monks did not turn him away. They invited him in, and gave him a place to sleep. And as he started back on his way the next morning, he put his hand in his pocket and realized they had left him some money. (Bass, p. 3)
These true stories, Bass says, show us people who live their faith in every way, in this case welcoming strangers that were not like themselves, even at their inconvenience, yet they shared the love and hospitality of Jesus at all times. Living faithfully, you will find, influences every aspect of our lives – our standards and morals, how we spend our money, how we vote, because all of life on earth matters to God.
When Jesus praised the faith of a Roman centurion above those of his own faith, perhaps he saw people who were religious but not spiritual, who made a show of being at synagogue, and even donated great amounts of money, but who, during the week, mistreated those in their household, cheated on their wives, were dishonest in their businesses because they wanted above anything else to make great amounts of money or to be regarded well in the community. In the centurion, he saw someone who cared enough to speak up and seek help for the one of the lowliest of society, one who could not speak for himself. This story does not address the evils of slavery at all. But it speaks of compassion and faith in ways that show us what Jesus expects of us. And not only does Jesus expect us to live better lives, Jesus showed us how by living a simple life, as he traveled with few material possessions, relied not on money but on the kindness of others, or on what he and his followers could catch or gain. And he did not ask his disciples to follow him only on the Sabbath day, but on every day.
Today, as we once more confirm two members of the class that Taylor and these other wonderful leaders have been nurturing all year, it is good to remind them and ourselves that living a faithful life takes work. It takes personal work, reading and studying the Bible and praying, and it takes community work, worshiping and studying together, and serving together in the ways that we reach out to church members and the community. Our youth will learn a lot more about living out their faith all day long during their Mission Stay in Durham the week of June 19, I imagine. And Taylor wants you adults to go along with them because she wants them to see people living out their faith.
There have been two rather startling deaths this week that have affected our young people greatly, as well as many of our church community. Brian Nicoll battled cancer for many years without telling very many people about it. The cancer finally took his life this past week, with family gathered around loving him. He was only 58. Death came too soon for Brian and his family. And a young friend of many of our members, Trey West, was killed in a car accident this week also, a very sudden and startling way to end a young life way too soon. These are hard things for anyone to absorb. Yet I am convinced that it is faith that enables us to keep going when such tragedies happen. We need to nurture our faith all along the way, so that when such awful things happen, we know that we can reach out to God and to our faith community for help along the way. And we can.
Hear these words about faith from Psalm 40 in The Message Bible, a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson: “Blessed are you who give yourselves over to God, turn your backs on the world’s ‘sure thing,’ ignore what the world worships. The world’s a huge stockpile of God-wonders and God-thoughts.”
Let’s look for those God-wonders and God-thoughts.
May God enable us to walk with faith through every day, through every event, tragic and joyful, knowing that we are not alone.
Praise be to God! Amen.