As Jesus entered the village of Capernaum, a Roman captain came up in a panic and said, “Master, my son is sick. He can’t walk. He’s in terrible pain.” Jesus said, “I’ll come and heal him.” “Oh, no,” said the captain. “I don’t want to put you to all that trouble. You know I am not worthy to have you under my roof. Just say the word and my son will be fine. I’m a man who takes orders and gives orders. I tell one soldier, ‘Go,’ and he goes; to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes.”
Taken aback, Jesus said, “I have yet to come across this kind of simple trust in all Israel, the very people who are supposed to know all about God and how he works. This man is the vanguard of many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions —streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God’s kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then those who grew up in the faith, but had no faith will find themselves out in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened.”
Then Jesus turned to the captain and said, “Go. Let be done to you according to your faith.” At that moment his servant became well.
Faith is, of course, one of those important words and it is a fact that human life is impossible without it, without faith. I have always thought that one of the most common manifestations of faith is the way we walk into restaurant after restaurant without asking to inspect the kitchen. If someone invites you to ride with them, they do not ask you to sign a waiver. Life together is impossible without such faith. In short, faith is a dimension of any truly human existence.
But when we move to Biblical faith, we are dealing with something far deeper and more critical, with the question of saving faith, faith that is the difference between anxiety and confidence, between hope and despair, between life and death. And in these old stories it is clear that some realize this kind of faith and others never find it. “Truly I tell you in no one in Israel have I found such faith,” says Jesus of his encounter with the Roman
centurion. Jerusalem, with its piety and ritual nevertheless misses him when he comes, but shepherds, in Jesus’ day excluded from the community of faith as unclean, nevertheless manage to find their way to him.
One could pick any number of stories in the Gospels, but the one about Jesus’ encounter with the Roman soldier is in many ways typical. “When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my son is lying at home paralyzed.’ “
In any event, the story begins with a move of some desperation, does it not? Real faith is not available to the curious, to the half-interested. Real faith comes only when we are up against one of the limit experiences of life, when we confront our vulnerability as human beings. Real faith becomes an option in those moments when we run out of our own resources, when we become aware of the reality that all our wits and ingenuity and money will not do it. The man’s a centurion, commander of a hundred men in the Roman Legion, a man with all the culture and power of that great civilization at his beck and call. But his son is desperately ill and there is not a thing he can do about it. And so he is able to make the move that leads to faith.
William Willimon, former chaplain at Duke, now bishop of the Methodist Church, tells of a lifelong friend who hit bottom: spun out of control, crossed the median, headed the wrong way down the interstate at a hundred miles an hour. In other words, he fell from his prestigious perch as an attorney to the depths of alcoholism. The good news is, he is on his way back, thanks to a loving wife and children and the good work of Alcoholics Anonymous. Among the many things that surprised him on his way back to life was church. Willimon writes, “He had always gone to church, my friend, but like many smart people, he always considered himself a step or so above it all. Church was for losers, for intellectual wimps.” ‘You would be amazed at what I’ve learned about God,” said my friend. “Like what?” I asked. “So many words,” he said, “I had heard all my life in church have suddenly, like a flash of blinding light, become real to me. Words, little Christian slogans, that I’ve heard all my life, are suddenly, amazingly real, deep, true. Like ‘You can only find your life by losing it.’ Or say like, ‘Take up your cross daily and follow me.’ Through my pain, by hitting bottom, I’ve met God.”
The possibility of faith comes only when we come aware of our limits, face up to our creatureliness, recognize that we cannot manage everything. Scary and not a little humbling, hard to accept and acknowledge. We do not easily go for help. We prefer to believe in our autonomy, our capacity to manage our lives without outside assistance. One businessman of authority and leadership, viewing himself as independent, able to manage his own life, without any real needs, retired into a rather unproductive intrusion upon his wife’s daily routine, became little more than a fixture on the couch. One day during a commercial break from one of his favorite shows, he initiated a rather odd conversation with his wife. He said, “You know I can’t stand the thought of being dependent. So just so you know, I don’t ever want to become dependent on a machine and live in a vegetative condition. If that ever happens, just pull the plug.” She quietly replied “OK,” got up, walked across the living room and unplugged the television.
But the story that presents at Christmas is the story of rescue, of redemption, available only to those who know they cannot manage on their own. It is addressed to a human nature that is flawed, that has failed, apart from a real relationship with God. Unlike other religions that assume all we need are pointers, instruction, rules and rituals, the Christmas faith comes to those who know they cannot pulled it off on their own, who need inner transformation, growth, change. “This holy tide of Christmas, Doth bring redeeming grace.” Redeem, that’s liberate, free up.
We need to listen more carefully to the language of the season. “Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.” Meek, that is humble, needy. Metaphor, poetry, but it points to a sense of our limits, our need for help. That’s how the great German theologian of the 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, defined faith, a deep inner sense of our ultimate dependency upon God. We use a lot of different words to try and describe this inner mood and move. It is like letting go, like turning it over, like resting ourselves in another.
When the late Dr. John G. Paton was a missionary in the New Hebrides, he wanted to translate the Gospel of John into the native tongue. He found that there wasn’t a word— at least he couldn’t locate a word — in the native tongue which meant “to believe, to have faith.” How could he translate the gospel of John without a word for “believe?” It is a key word and occurs more than ninety times in the gospel. So he laid the manuscript aside.
Then one day, he got his word. A native worker who had been out in the hills came into Dr. Paton’s office, flopped down in a chair and put his feet up on another, and used a native word which meant, “I’m putting my whole weight down.” Dr. Paton said, “I have my word.” He translated the gospel and every time he needed a word for “believe,” put in the native word which meant, “I’m putting my whole weight down.”
It is what Christmas invites us to do. It is the absolutely essential and critical internal response to the good news of Christmas. A judge in New York City, presiding over a difficult strenuous trial told later how he came to a point where he was beaten, his nerves frayed by telephone calls, vituperation, threats against his life and the lives of members of his family. He says, “One day I felt I had to leave the courtroom. And, I’ll be frank about it, when I left I was certain I could never go back. I had stood as much as I could. But suddenly there in my chambers I found myself like a frightened child calling to his father in the dark. I asked God to take charge of things and that His will be done. I cannot report anything mysterious or supernatural. All I know is that as I lay on the couch some new kind of strength flowed into me. That brief period of surrender to my Maker saved not only the trial but my sanity as well.”
And it is not only desperation of circumstances that plague and threaten, it is also desperation of soul, our personal inadequacies, our moral failures that require this move. “Lord, I am not worthy, …” said the Centurion. The late Lewis Smedes tells of his difficulty in dealing with something he did to his mother. The Smedes were very poor. His father died at 31, leaving a wife with no skills, no knowledge of English and six
children to feed. She took in washing and ironing and scrubbed floors. But in her pride, she tried to prevent her children from knowing how she earned money.
One day on the way to school, fourth grader Smedes saw her on her hands and knees scrubbing someone’s porch. She saw him. “Hello, Lewis” is all she said and then resumed scrubbing. “I was ashamed and she knew I was ashamed.” And this shame clung to him for many years thereafter, shame and guilt at feeling so ashamed. Clearly according to his own witness it was only when he was able to recognize his helplessness here, able to accept this shadow deep within, able to place it in the hands of God, that he was freed. He writes, “..alone, dangling over the edge, falling where nobody could rescue me …I fell into my own abyss. And found I fell into the hands of God.”
“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” In our unworthiness, we make the inner move, let go and turn in dependence and trust to our God and find he is there for us.
So it takes desperation, dependency, and then, new daring . “Lord, only speak the word…” It is not true that dependency upon God breeds passivity. Faith is above all else courage. Letting go leads to getting going. Precisely when the judge is able to rest himself in God, the strength comes to get on with the challenges of life. “Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.”
She jumps skyward, arms flung. “Give me an R…” “Rrr,” the crowd roars. One of seven cheerleaders, she’s the blonde on the far end, a laughing, smiling University of Hawaii cheerleader, the one doctors said would never walk again. It happened so fast. They were practicing a human pyramid. Two guys stood side by side, arms-length with shoulders straight and level. Up Kathleen Beumel climbed to place a foot on each shoulder. Then another young woman climbed all the wobbly way up to stand on Kathleen’s shoulders and cap the pyramid. Three times before on that July afternoon of practice they made the pyramid, no problem. On the fourth try, Kathleen broke her neck.
She was 22, a former Kentucky state champion track star, in perfect health. “You will never walk again,” the doctors said. At first there was nothing. No feeling, no movement, nothing. “I’m a living nothing,” she told her mother. “I’m just thankful I can talk because that’s what I’m best at.” Her neck was broken at the sixth and seventh vertebrae, doctors said, offering the girl a wheelchair. “Whaddyyamean a wheelchair?” she said, “I’m going to walk out of this hospital.”
“They patted me on the head and said, ‘Sure, Kathy.’ They thought I was crazy. I said,“Look, you don’t know. I’ve got God on my side and we’re working on this together and nothing can stop us.” Two months later, a muscle twitched in her left thigh. “Hey, I’m there!” she said. “It was my first step.” She never stopped trying. Finally she had movement in her right leg. It got a little bit more, a little bit more. She never quit. Whenever she could move anything, she’d move it. She eventually walked out of the hospital, as she had predicted. At the homecoming game, before 50,000 cheering football fans, Kathleen Beumel walked across the field at halftime – literally a walking inspiration.
Some people called it a miracle. But she and her physicians agreed that it was her faith that made the critical difference. “My faith in my God.” To the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the son was healed in that hour.
Does it always happen this way? Of course not. That would be naïve and simplistic. But faith never begins with that question. Faith begins as courage to seek the best possible future, no matter what comes.
There are a couple of other things we need to note here. It is specifically to Jesus that he comes with his desperation and dependency and daring. Is there something he sees in Jesus that he has not seen in Zeus and Apollo, gods fickle and uncaring? It is important to which God we bring our fears and failures, the God of frown and judgment, the God of the philosophers vague and impersonal, the God of our darkest imaginations, or the God Jesus brought down to us, the God he presents and portrays, a welcoming, caring God who comes to us at our lowest, in our need and despair, without question or condition, no matter where we come from and who we are, to evoke what the other gods cannot do, real faith.
It is to the divine he senses in Jesus that he opens himself, the divine that is willing to reach out to an outsider like him. He is a Roman, occupier, despised, alien, foreigner. He does not belong to the God’s group. He does not attend the right church. His mind is that of a pagan. Yet it is he, the stranger, who finds faith, faith in Jesus as courage and hope no matter what life presents. Rather like three foreigners long years before, outsiders, strangers, foreigners also, who came longing, daring, searching, following a vagrant star in order also to bow down in faith before him.
Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom. Makes you wonder who in the world will be there, doesn’t it? .