May 29, 2016
I've spent about 36 of the last 48 hours traveling to a family funeral. Due to the realities of air travel, I spent almost as much time in airports as I did on planes or in the company of my family. The larger airports I've been in these past two days look more like malls than the airports of years past. Airports have always had restaurants, and gift shops where you can buy last minute souvenirs and overpriced gum. But now there are restaurants, gift shops, competing coffee chains with full menus. Fast food chains offer express versions of their regular stores. You can shop at jewelry stores, high-end clothing boutiques, wireless kiosks and spas.
When I was killing time in one airport, waiting for my last flight, there was an express spa with a complete variety of services to choose from. I could have had an express facial, manicure or been waxed while I waited to board the next plane. I also had a choice of massages. I had been carrying bags on my back and shoulders for two days. I had been sitting in cramped seats and sleeping with my neck at weird angles. Forget waxing. I wanted a massage! So for 15 glorious minutes, a lovely man named Ira worked on my shoulders and my neck while I took deep breaths and tried to relax. I kept thinking, "I cannot believe I'm getting a massage at the airport!" But then it hit me. "I'm getting a massage at the airport."
When I walked up the express spa, I didn't look for their credentials or licensing. It looked professional enough. It was clean, open, well-lit. Ira and another massage therapist were wearing smart uniforms. I'm sure had I been looking for credentials, etc. I would have found them. But I went in there on faith. I went in trusting that Ira was going to be a well-trained massage therapist who just happened to work at an express spa in an airport. He could have gotten his training at Bubba's House of Massage for all I knew, but I went on faith that it would be okay.
Going on faith. I've been thinking a lot about that. What does that mean? The answer isn't that hard or complicated. Having faith involves trust and belief. For me faith has meant being willing to embrace mystery and set aside my desire for certainty. Maybe the real question is not what does it mean to have faith, but who do I actually have faith in?
My vocation, my whole life really, is about faith. I preach and proclaim it. I studied and trained to preach and proclaim it. I talk about faith. I think about faith. But when it comes right down to it, do I live it? Suppose that right next to that express spa there would have been a place of worship. Not the airport chapel, but a space that looked more like a store than a church. And in that place of worship, there would have been a person proclaiming to heal in the name of Jesus. It would not have mattered to me had the space been as open, bright, and clean as the spa. It wouldn’t have mattered, even if the man or woman claiming this healing power been rational, calm, neatly dressed and professional. I tend to be suspect of random people claiming the ability to heal in the name of Jesus. I put more trust in Ira the massage therapist then I do in someone who claims to have healing power. I would have scoffed at the so-called healer. I would have dismissed him or her as a seller of snake oil. And maybe I would have been right, but maybe not. Why am I more willing to put my faith in a massage therapist than I am someone who proclaims their faith in a way that's different than how I proclaim mine?
I realize this illustration doesn't quite go along with our story from Luke's gospel. In this passage, the Roman centurion who sends messengers to Jesus asking for healing for his slave is not putting faith in a representative of Jesus. He isn't trusting in someone who claims the ability to heal because of Jesus. The centurion is putting his faith in Jesus.
Taken at face value, the centurion comes across as the most benevolent and compassionate of masters and a person of deep faith. A person who worked for him was gravely ill. The centurion had not only heard of Jesus and his life saving abilities, he wholeheartedly believed that Jesus could cure with only a word. The centurion trusted in Jesus' authority. He understood the power of authority. He was a man who lived and worked under the authority of others, and who held his own authority and power. The people who served under him did what he commanded with only a word from him; in the centurion's eyes that kind of authority would have been even truer for Jesus. He, nor his sick servant, needed to see Jesus or be seen by him. The centurion trusted that Jesus had the power to heal from a distance.
Yet when it comes to this story, there are skeptics -- not in Jesus' ability to heal, but in the centurion's motives for wanting that healing. The sick servant the centurion wanted healed was not a servant but a slave. As his master, the centurion had complete power over his slave’s life. Some critics of this passage have suggested that the centurion saw the slave as an investment, and when your investment is ailing, you fix it. The Jewish elders who served as the messengers for the centurion raved about his kindness and faithfulness. He was a great benefactor to the people. He loved the people. He built their synagogue. However, to use a cliché, it is quite possible that the Jewish elders knew which side their bread was buttered on. This man had influence. As part of the occupying force, he held sway over them. It was in their best interests to see that his slave was made well.
All of this could be true, and perhaps it is. But one more question must be asked. How did Jesus respond? Jesus was not easily fooled. He routinely saw through hypocrisy, deceit and insincerity. Yet when the centurion sent friends to tell Jesus not to trouble himself, that he wasn't worthy to have Jesus under his roof, Jesus was amazed. The Greek word used for amazed in this context is the same one used to describe the amazement and awe felt by others when they witnessed Jesus' power.
Jesus was amazed at the centurion's faith. He was amazed and awed and told those with them that he had never seen such faith, not even from Jesus' own people.
“When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
The centurion's faith, his trust that Jesus could do what he promised and what he preached, amazed even Jesus. The centurion was an outsider, a Roman, a collaborator in the occupation of Israel, yet he believed. He put his faith in Jesus and the life of his slave was saved. It seems to me that the centurion's life was also saved; it was changed and irrevocably altered as well.
Who do I put my faith in? I say with all my heart that it is Jesus. But do I live as though that is true? I'm not talking about a personal relationship with God through his Son, although I think that matters. I'm not talking about being faithful in worship, although that matters as well. I'm talking about living like I have faith. I'm talking about recognizing that my life should be altered irrevocably because I believe in God, and that God's Word was made flesh in the coming of Jesus. I have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit. I have been shown grace of which I am unworthy. But do I live as though I have?
Jesus proclaimed that he ushered in the kingdom of heaven. I believe that. I try to believe that. I think I believe that. But I see so much brokenness and violence and hatred in the world that sometimes God's kingdom seems more like a nice fairy tale. What I say is one thing, but I live and go about my daily life as if the kingdom of God is not real, not right here in our midst. If I really believe what I preach, shouldn't I also believe that my life has been changed forever? Shouldn't I live as though it is?
Living a changed life because of my faith doesn't mean that I gloss over the terrible things that happen, the cruelty that we show to God's children. I saw a headline pop up early this morning that it's believed several hundred immigrants may be dead in three shipwrecks off the coast of Libya. My heart breaks at the thought, just as it breaks at the tragedies that seem to unfold on large and small scales all around us. But to I profess my faith in God does not mean that I just sweep these terrible things under some cosmic rug and say that God's got a plan. To live as though my life is different because of my faith, to live as though I trust Jesus more than I trust Ira the massage therapist, means that I respond in any way possible to that hurt and brokenness. Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God, and everything changed. But if I am changed by my faith, than that means that I have kingdom work to do. The change wrought by faith, the trust I proclaim I have in God should be reflected in how I live, what I do, the words I speak, and the love I show.
Jesus was amazed at the centurion's faith not only because this outsider trusted that Jesus could heal, but because the healing of his slave was not required for the centurion to believe. Healing did not have to happen as proof. The centurion believed, and lived as though he did. Isn't that what we are all called to do? Isn't that really what faith is? It is believing, not only that God exists, but that God exists, God is with us, God is working, God is calling each of us to work as well, and to live that belief. The Word made flesh in Jesus changed everything, including me. I believe that, and I want to live it. Let us live our faith so completely that others proclaim, "Such faith!"
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.