Amazing faith

Sometimes those outside the church have more faith than those inside.  Amazing!

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Amazing faith

May 29, 2016 – Luke 7:1-10

 

             Former Methodist Bishop Will Willimon tells of a church named Antioch.  It was a large city church, whose days for ministry were clearly ebbing.  Attendance at Sunday worship had continued to dwindle.  The little offering they received barely covered a part-time pastor’s meager salary and the not-so-meager expenses of their historic building.

            So, Antioch decided to keep their building open 24 hours a day so that anyone on the outside could come inside to pray.  A number of people did come off the streets to pray.  About a dozen spent most nights sleeping in the sanctuary.  Their insurance company, though, told them they couldn’t keep their sanctuary open 24 hours a day.  They had to keep the doors locked except on Sunday for worship.

            Antioch church looked for another insurance company that would allow them to keep their sanctuary open 24 hour a day.  They couldn’t find one.  So, they kept their church locked.  But they put the key under a rock outside the door that had the word, “Key,” painted on it.

            Now, I tell you this story, not because I think we should unlock our doors, or keep our sanctuary open 24 hours a day for people to pray or sleep.  I tell you this story because of what it taught the members of Antioch.

            One member said, “These people who come to our church really want to be here.  In fact, they are here more often than our members who can only seem to come once in a while.  They’re better at being the church than we are.”

 

            The people of Antioch saw faith where they didn’t expect it – in those they considered to be outsiders.  That’s a lesson the Jesus tries to teach his disciples over and over again.

            After calling his disciples and delivering the core teaching to them, Jesus enters Capernaum. Some local leaders come to him on behalf of a Roman centurion.  A centurion is a mid-level officer in charge of about 100 soldiers.  Although he represents the oppressive power of Rome, he has ingratiated himself to the community by building a synagogue.

            He has a slave who is deathly ill and some Jewish elders to approach Jesus on his behalf, in hopes that Jesus might heal his slave.

            When Jesus hears of the sick slave, he immediately sets out.  Before he gets to the house, however, word comes again from the centurion.  “Master, don’t bother coming yourself.  I would be embarrassed to have you enter my house.  But I am a man under orders.  I am also a man who gives orders.  This is how things happen.   So, if you would just give the order for my servant to be well, I’m sure that would be enough.”

            Jesus stops in his tracks.  “Never in all of Israel have I found such faith.” And without going to the slave, without touching him, without even saying a word, the servant is healed.

 

            At this point, I can imagine the disciples whispering to each other.  “Wait a minute!  Did you hear what he said?  ‘Never in Israel have I found such faith!’  What are we?  Chopped liver?  We have left everything.  We have hit the road with him.  He even spent a whole night talking to God about us before he personally selected us to work one-on-one with him.  And this Roman – OK, he may have his good qualities but he is still a Roman – this Roman has more faith than any of us?”

            And they have a point.  This soldier had never met Jesus.  He didn’t claim a personal relationship with him.  He didn’t confess him to be the Son of God.  I’ll bet he didn’t know any Bible verses either.  So, what is so amazing about this man’s faith?  How is it that he gets to go to the head of the class?

            It is not merely that he is an outsider, a symbol of Roman oppression, a representative of the enemy of Israel.  He is a man of power.  Yet he has come to the limits of his power.  He has encountered his own powerlessness in the face of things that really matter in life.  A slave that he cares for is deathly ill.  He cannot order the sickness to leave.  He cannot command his slave to be well.  He cannot fight death with a sword.  He is a man of power who has come face-to-face with powerlessness.

            Perhaps this is what makes him humble.  He deems himself unworthy.  That may be in a personal sense, but it also may be a sense of embarrassment at the thought of a holy man coming into his house that carries all the signs of wealth and power that accompany his station, signs that now seem completely empty because none of them can save his slave.  And that is what he most desires.

            He is powerless.  He has a need.  He calls on Jesus.  And just as he is a man who obeys orders, just as he is a man who gives orders, he trusts that Jesus can give orders to do for the slave what he – as a Roman soldier – cannot do.

            He knows who he is.  He knows what he can do and what he cannot do.  He appeals to Jesus.  And he trusts that Jesus can.

            That is his amazing faith.

 

            I’m not sure I know exactly why I started going to prison.  I do know why I keep going. It’s because there I can learn about faith.  I can witness in the handful of men I see, the desire for change, the commitment to be a better man, and the faith to walk that path.

            On Thursday, in the course of our discussion, my partner raised the question, “What do you say to those who think that meditation makes you soft, makes you vulnerable, makes you a target of others?”

            One man, who has been coming regularly to the group and always brings his Bible to the group, started talking about the difficulties he was having with his new cellmate.  This cellmate seemed to be going out of his way to make life miserable. So, this man said, “Over and over again, I humbled myself.”  He was practicing self-control, I told him, which is a kind of power.

            Then another man, who was new to the group, said, “You know, before we come in here, we have street cred.  We know what we can do.  But when we get in here we need a different kind of cred.  And that comes from really knowing who we are.”

            He went on: “You know, Jesus was the coolest dude.  When the devil said to him, ‘If you are who you think you are, then jump off this steeple or turn this stone into a loaf of bread.’  But Jesus didn’t do it because he really did know who he was and that made him strong.  He said, ‘We do not live by bread alone.’”

            Now, I’d like to think that, before Jesus responded to the devil, he stopped and took a breath.  He noticed the pull of temptation to satisfy his own desires.  He noticed the desire to fight or to flee.  And in that pause, the word that came to him and he spoke.

            But no matter how he did it, that prisoner was right – Jesus really knew who he was.  He understood what it meant and what it did not mean.  He knew what his power was for and what was not for.  Because of that he was able to rely on God, to trust in God. And that’s what made him strong.

 

            Each one of us has street cred.  You may not think of it in those terms, but each one of us has things we know how to do and we know we can do them.  Each one of us has a part of our life we can control.

            But each one of us also needs another kind of cred.  Or, rather, we need someone who has a kind of cred that we don’t have.  Because there is part of our life that we don’t control, and all our money and all our power and all our reputation won’t get it done.

            We need faith like the Roman soldier.  We need to know who we are.  We need to know who Jesus is.  And we need to trust in Jesus, to have faith in him that his word has the power to do what we cannot.

            And that is amazing!