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Monday, May 30, 2016

The many facets of faith

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 7:1-10.

If you look up the word 'faith' in the dictionary, you will find a series of definitions that largely have to do with trust, confidence and belief.  In other words, the dictionary definition of faith consists largely of words which are considered to be synonyms for faith.

But sub those words into phrases we use on a regular basis: "I have trust"..."I practice confidence"..."I am a person of belief"...do any of these ring true or really accurately describe what it is to have faith, to practice faith or to be a person of faith?

Not for me, and neither, I suspect, for you.

The thing is that faith is actually a much deeper construct that trust, confidence and belief.  It is, I would argue, a tool kit for living that is much more versatile that just having trust, confidence and belief (which are all important and nice to have, mind you).  I would argue that faith is like a Swiss Army knife of coping skills and virtues, and I think today's Gospel passage exemplifies that.

Today's Gospel passage centers around a Roman centurion who asks Jesus to heal his sick and dying slave.  Seems like a simple enough scenario, but there are actually quite a few oddities that should leap out to us immediately.

First, this man cares about a slave.  As I have mentioned before, slavery was very common in Jesus' time, and although there were laws that governed the treatment of slaves, slaves were essentially commodities, to be cared for only insofar as they were able to discharge their duties.  When they were unable to do so, they were discarded.  Although it would not be unheard of for masters to develop a bond with their slaves, it was certainly a rarity.

Second, this centurion loves the Jews and they love him back.  Bear in mind, the Romans were a hostile force who had conquered and were occupying the area.  There ought to have been no love between Roman and Jew.  The former was the oppressor, and the latter was the conquered.  But Jewish elders approach Jesus and plead on behalf of the centurion for him to help.  They tell Jesus that he loves their people and even built them a synagogue.  Although it seem that in many areas, the Romans tolerated the practice of Judaism, to have a centurion encourage and support the practice of the Jewish faith would once again have been quite rare, and for Jewish elders to plead on behalf of the oppressor would have been equally rare.

Third, he asks Jesus to help his slave.  Due to his position and rank, he could have commanded Jesus to heal him, and perhaps threatened him with torture or even death should be refuse, but the centurion debases and humbles himself.

It is this humility which I think is the heart of this passage.

The centurion sends a message to Jesus as he is en route, saying "I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one 'Go' and he goes, and to another 'Come' and he comes, and to my slave 'Do this' and the slave does it".

This is a man who is used to getting what he wants.  This is a man who enjoys wealth, power, rank and authority.  He is used to issuing commands and getting stuff done.  But here is something he can't command: the illness of his slave.  Here, he is presented with a situation in which all of his power and money and authority are worth precisely squat.

And so he humbles himself and asks someone for help, and I would argue that humility is an expression of faith.

Jesus responds, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith".

His response is reminiscent of several other Gospel passages in which he tells someone, "Your faith has made you well", or that their faith has made someone else well.  I am thinking here specifically of the woman who was suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years and the Syro-Phoenician woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter.

The first woman had spent all her money seeking a cure for her condition.  She had likely visited legitimate doctors and quacks, and had probably tried every snake-oil cure known at the time, but all to no avail.  12 years is a long time to be sick.  Why didn't she just lie down and give up?  What made her get out of bed and seek Jesus out on the slender chance that he would be able to cure her?

Hope, which is one expression of faith.

The Syro-Phoenician woman stuck her neck out in approaching Jesus.  First, she was a Gentile, which explains Jesus' first response, "It is not right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs".  Jews and Gentiles did not get along.  Second, she talks back to him, saying "Even the dogs can eat the crumbs the children drop".  In that day and age, women did not talk back to men.  So what made her risk rebuke at the very least?

Courage and love for her daughter, both of which are expressions of faith.

I think you see where I am going with this.

Yes, faith is trust and confidence and belief, but faith is also hope when you have no good reason to hope anymore.  Faith is courage when you feel anything but courageous.  Faith is the humility to know you are out of your depth and need to ask for help.

There are many other facets of faith, many other expressions.  I would encourage you to reflect on what is happening in your own life and ask what facet of faith you need today.  Do you need to be courageous?  Do you need hope?  Do you need to forgive or be forgiven?  Do you need the humility to ask for help?

These things and more are all facets of faith, and I pray that you can turn to the facet you need today.

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