What is faith? Is it assent to a set of beliefs? Or, is it putting your trust in someone else? We don’t recite The Apostles Creed very often, but it’s a standard Christian confession of faith. It begins with the words: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” It goes on from there to speak more fully of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, as well as his ascension and his partnership with the Father in judging the world. There’s also a brief mention of the Holy Spirit and then statements about the holy, catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. While we Disciples may have set aside the creeds in the name of unity, this creed does raise the question: what do I believe and why? Is belief the same as faith?
As we approach the reading from Luke, the question is twofold: What did the Roman Centurion know and believe, and why was Jesus amazed at his faith?
The opening verse of Luke 7 tells us that after Jesus completed his teaching session, he entered the village of Capernaum. This little village, lying on the coastline of the Sea of Galilee, was Jesus’ home base. It’s also where Peter and Andrew lived. Apparently, there was a Roman Centurion stationed there as well. He would have had eighty to one hundred troops under his command, and he represented Rome’s imperial power in that part of the empire. According to Luke, this Centurion had a slave, whom he valued highly, who was close to death. Apparently, the Centurion had heard about Jesus and his healing powers. Believing Jesus could heal his slave, he asked for help from the local Jewish community. Since he was a Roman soldier and a Gentile, he seems unsure of whether Jesus would respond positively to his request. So, he asked the Elders to intervene. Despite representing an oppressive occupying force, they agreed to speak for the Centurion who was a benevolent representative. The Elders told Jesus that he loved the people of the community, and he even used his own funds to build their synagogue. Therefore, he was worthy of Jesus’ attention.
Jesus listened to their request and decided to go with them to the home of the Centurion. But, before they get too far, another delegation arrives. This time it’s friends of the Centurion who come to tell Jesus that the Centurion feels unworthy of receiving him in his home. Nevertheless, the Centurion believes Jesus can heal his slave, without ever coming into his house. He suggested that all Jesus needed to do was speak the word and his slave would be restored to health. As a soldier, he understood how power and authority worked. So, when a command is issued, it gets fulfilled. He figured that what worked in the imperial system, worked in the spiritual realm. Since he assumes Jesus has spiritual authority to heal, all he has to do is issue the command and it will be fulfilled. He can do it just as easily from afar as he can close at hand. This is where we’re told that Jesus was amazed at the Centurion’s faith. Luke tells us that nowhere in Israel had Jesus seen such faith. With that, the delegation returns home to find the slave fully healed.
That’s the gist of the story. At least that’s the surface story. There is a lot going on between the lines. For one thing, this is one more example of Luke’s interest in the mission to the Gentiles. There’s also the Centurion’s status as an occupying soldier. Sure, he might love the Jewish people and even be attracted to Judaism; he might have built a synagogue for the people, but he still represented an occupying power. Besides that, he owned slaves. He might be a benevolent slave owner, but he was still a slave owner. With the Juneteenth observance just a few days in the past, when the African American community celebrates the end of slavery in the United States and calls on the rest of us to remember the stain slavery left upon our nation, we can’t skip over this reference to a slave. Although first-century slavery was a different species from the kind of slavery practiced in the United States, it was still slavery. Men and women had their freedom taken from them. They belonged to someone else. Not only that, but passages like this were used to support slavery in the nineteenth century. Some argued: Sure there were bad masters, but there were benevolent ones as well. All of these realities color the way we read and respond to the passage. The Centurion is a complicated figure, but Jesus welcomed his faith. What we don’t know is what happened next.
So, what is faith?
In his book Dogmatics in Outline, Karl Barth suggested that faith can be understood as trust, as knowledge, and as confession. There is a progression in faith that starts with trust and moves toward knowledge of God and then moves to confession. Confession, Barth declares, “means a living confession,” that involves acting upon one’s belief or trust. The Centurion trusted, he came to understand, and he acted. Jesus responded accordingly.
If we take a step back in Luke’s Gospel from the story of Centurion’s request to chapter 6, we find Jesus engaged in teaching on a level place. Some of the people who gathered around Jesus came to hear him teach, while others hoped he would heal their diseases. At the end of this class session, Jesus tells a parable about “two foundations.” In this story, two people each build a house. One person digs a foundation and sets the house on bedrock, so when the flood comes, the house isn’t shaken. The other person chose not to dig a foundation, so when the rains came, it washed away the house. One person listened and acted on the Word, and the other ignored it. Jesus’ message is that faith begins with hearing the Word of God, which leads to understanding and then to action. This is what it means to have faith.
The Centurion heard about Jesus. He put his trust in Jesus. He acted on that trust by confessing his unworthiness to receive Jesus, but also by recognizing that Jesus could heal his slave. Jesus responded positively to that request.
So, what do we make of this? I think one thing we can take from this is that faith is more than simply agreeing to creedal statements. James put it this way with regard to the relationship between faith and works: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19). Faith begins with trust and leads to action.
There is another point that emerges from this story. That point has to do with conversion. Jesus commends the Centurion’s faith, but he doesn’t ask him to convert. He didn’t ask the Centurion to change his profession either. He simply healed the slave. Life went on.
I don’t want to this press too far, but I began to wonder what this story says to us about the way we work across religious lines. We as a congregation have engaged in numerous interreligious experiences during my time here. I thought about my own deepening commitment to this work over the past eleven years. Now, it’s a calling I share with Brett, as he pursues his education in California. I think back two Sundays to our Pentecost Sunday service, which included visits from friends Ed, Padma, and Ali. These three friends of mine and the congregation represented three other religious traditions, and they came to help us celebrate one of the most sacred days of the Christian year, as well as our own anniversary as a congregation. I thought about the recent Iftar dinner, which we shared with the Turkish American Society of Michigan and the broader community. I thought about what this says about the way we live our faith in the world. Is this not an expression of our faith in a God who is loving, inclusive, and just? This is our confession, and this is a way of acting upon it.
In the Gospel of John, in one of the best-known passages of Scripture, we hear that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). What does it mean to believe? If it means entrusting our lives to the care and leading of the God who is revealed to us in Jesus, where does that lead? As we consider these questions, might we act on the promises of God, even as we sing: “Standing on the promises of Christ my king, through eternal ages let us praises ring; glory in the highest I will shout and sing, standing on the promises of God.”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
CentralWoodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 23, 2019
Picture Attribution: Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56189 [retrieved June 22, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gaspar_de_Witte_-_Jesus_heals_the_servant_of_the_centurion.jpg#mw-jump-to-license.