Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 1:3)
What does it mean to have great faith? A man went hiking, and as he was enjoying the beautiful panoramic view afforded him by his perch from the top, he fell. Gravity did its thing, and he went hurtling down the side of the cliff. As he tumbled down and down, faster and faster, closer and closer to his demise, he managed to grab onto a little branch that was growing out of the side of the cliff. He’d stopped moving, but it looked like there was only one direction to go - down. So, as he hung on to that little shoot for dear life, he looked up to heaven and the following conversation ensued, (maybe you’ve heard this one before) “Is anyone up there?” And a voice came back, “Yes, I’m here. I am the Lord. Do you believe me?” “Yes, Lord! I believe you, I really believe you, but I can’t hold on much longer, please do something!” “Well, since you believe it’s me, you have nothing to worry about. I will save you. Just let go of the branch.” A moment of silence, “Is anyone else up there?”
What does it mean to have great faith? Ask ten different Christians and you might get something close to ten different answers. “Faith” is one of those words that gets thrown out there, used, abused, and is so worn from use that the color and the impact of it are just about gone. In our modern times, it seems we’re having a tough time defining what it means to have faith, let alone what it means to have great faith. So, we see the pretty looking wall hangings at Hobby Lobby (which are somehow always 40% off) - Faith can move mountains. We wear the brightly colored fundraiser bracelet for a friend who’s battling illness and it says, “Just have faith.” We see the youth baseball team who needed a t-shirt to pep them up, and there it is screen-printed on the back, “We’ve got faith, how about you?” Please, don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying any of those things are bad, just that they maybe don’t help us clarify what we mean when we talk about faith, or even great faith. So why does it matter? Well, it’s striking in our gospel lesson today, Jesus said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Jesus talking about faith - it sounds like something we’d expect to hear, but would it surprise you to know that Jesus said someone had “great faith” only two times in the gospels and neither was spoken to an Israelite (Canaanite woman)? This is something worth asking - what does it mean to have great faith?
Luke tells us, When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them. There are a lot of culturally specific details here that might blow right by us, but they’re definitely worth slowing down to see. First off, this man, a centurion, was a member of the Roman army - maybe he was Roman, maybe he was a mercenary, but without a doubt, he was a Gentile. Just about every time in the gospels we hear about Jews and Gentiles, it’s not a happy marriage. But here, it’s strikingly different. The elders of the Jews don’t come to Jesus to complain about this centurion, but to commend him! Jesus, he deserves this! Look at what he’s done for us! He’s as good as they come - he’s kind to his servants, he lets us live in peace, he even used his own resources to build our synagogue - Jesus, he deserves for you to help him! Jews willing to speak up for a Gentile - why? Because of all he’d done for them! It’s pretty clear why they’d speak up for this guy.
But maybe another cultural question to ask is this - why would a Roman centurion make such a huge request from a Jewish rabbi named Jesus? Because the centurion understood that this rabbi named Jesus was no ordinary teacher. The centurion had come to know the God of Israel. He’d heard about the Promise of God to send a Savior. He had learned over and again how Messiah was going to come and make all things right. Not only had this centurion come to know the God of Israel, by the Spirit’s grace, he’d come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior. And that’s why this request comes - because the centurion knew that the God who makes promises and keeps them could and would help in his time of need. So, what does it mean to have great faith? Great faith knows that Jesus is the all-powerful Son of God.
But even so, in that moment of crisis, with his beloved servant knocking on death’s door, don’t you think it would’ve been at least a little bit tempting for the centurion to think, “Hey, I do deserve this! Look at all I’ve done for these people - I don’t cheat them, I don’t beat them, I don’t mistreat them, which is a lot more than other Roman soldiers can say!” But we don’t hear a word of that, do we? Instead, quite the opposite. Did you notice something really interesting about this gospel lesson? Jesus doesn’t go and see the centurion’s servant – the object of his healing. But even more to the point, Jesus doesn’t even speak face to face with the centurion! The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him. The centurion didn’t dare to approach Jesus! And again, after Jesus started making his way to the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.”
A lot of people will see this detail and assume this centurion was only concerned about ceremonial cleanliness for Jesus. If a Jew entered a Gentile’s house, he’d be unclean. So, at most, they say, this was a courtesy for Jesus. But do you think that’s all that’s going on here? Was the centurion concerned with cleanliness or was he conscious of sin? We said before that this centurion had great faith which knew that Jesus is the all-powerful Son of God. So, since Jesus is true God, he certainly knows how to save a sick servant, but he also knows about the sins of the centurion. The Jewish elders boasted about how worthy this centurion was, but the centurion himself made it clear, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof...I’m not worthy. The centurion knew what we confessed earlier. For the evil I have done and the good I have failed to do, you should cast me away from your presence forever. What do we deserve from God? I deserve only your wrath and punishment. Great faith is humble - knowing that I don’t deserve a thing from God.
This is the challenge, isn’t it? It’s challenging because it goes completely contrary to what my sinful nature wants. I want to boast in my accomplishments - however great or small they may be. And some of them may even sound remarkably Christian! Without my offerings, this place would fold in six months. If only some of the other folks would get more serious about their faith, kind of like I am, then we’d be better off. That sin from my past, well, I haven’t done that in years - too bad those other people aren’t as good as I am. Or when something bad happens in my life, my first thought too often is “I don’t deserve this! I’m on the right team here!” This is always a dangerous business to talk about “what I deserve” from God, because of my sin I’m worthy of nothing and don’t deserve a thing from God except an eternity in hell. The centurion seems to have grasped that, and so he made it clear, “Lord...I am not worthy.” Great faith is humble - knowing that I don’t deserve a thing from God. But great faith also knows that God has given me everything in the word of Christ.
[Jesus] was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” “Jesus, I know how authority works. I’ve got about 100 soldiers under my command and I, myself, am under the command of someone else. I get it - if I can tell a servant “Jump!” and he says, “How high?” how much more can you, the almighty Son of God just speak the word and it will be so? I don’t need the fireworks. I don’t need the spectacular visual display, because I know that’s not where the real power is anyways. Just say the word.” And Jesus marvels! When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well. Isn’t this remarkable? This centurion didn’t try to micromanage Jesus’ miracle working; he didn’t ask to get the intent for treatment in writing; he was willing to be content with just a word from Jesus in his pocket. Great faith clings to the word of Christ, even when there’s no physical, visible proof for it. There was power behind that word Jesus spoke to the centurion, and the centurion took Jesus at his word.
But isn’t that how God’s word always is – accomplishing its purpose? Can you think of other powerful words from God? How about in the beginning? Into the inky black of complete nothingness comes the word from God, “Let there be light!” And the darkness was no more. Or how about the powerful word spoken to a childless, almost octogenarian named Abram, I will make you into a great nation, and then came the descendants as numerous as the stars. Or what about God’s impossible word through the prophet Isaiah, The virgin will be with child, and so it was, and his name is Immanuel. Or what about the word that rang from the mouth of Jesus as he stood at the tomb of his dear friend, Lazarus, come out! And the dead man came out alive. Great faith clings to the word of Christ. There’s still power behind the word that Jesus speaks to you, and you and I live from that word. With a nail scarred hand, he pours water over your head, I baptize you, and just like that you’re connected to Christ forever. With that same hand, he places into yours a gift, My body, my blood, and with that comes your forgiveness, life, and salvation. Great faith clings to the word of Christ spoken in his name and at his command - I forgive you all your sins, and they are removed from you as far as the east is from the west. Great faith takes Jesus at his word, because this is no ordinary word. He is the Word of God made flesh for you, to take your sin, to die your death, and give you his life.
What does it mean to have great faith? Ask ten different Christians and you might get close to ten different answers (though, I hope there might be some solidarity among this group after today!). What does great faith look like? Let’s see what Jesus has to say. Great faith knows that Jesus is the all-powerful Son of God. Great faith is humble, knowing I deserve nothing from God, but have received everything in Christ. Great faith takes Jesus at his word. You have great faith - not because you made a good decision, but because the Holy Spirit has called you by the gospel and brought you to faith. You have great faith - not because you’re so strong, but because your faith is anchored on the foundation that does not move – Christ crucified and risen for you. You have great faith because it rests only on the Word of the Son of God who lives to keep his every promise to you. Dear Christian, you have great faith, because great faith takes Jesus at his word.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.