I was working as a chaplain in a Boston hospital, visiting various patients on my roster. One woman’s face sticks with all these years later. I don’t remember her name anymore, but I remember her face. She was a senior, sitting in a gloomy hospital room with the curtains drawn -- staring at the floor through thick goggle-like eyeglasses that made her eyes look comically large. There were no lights on. No music. There were no get well cards in the room, no flowers, no indication that there was anyone who cared she was there. When I talked to her, she said that her only child, a son, did not talk to her anymore. Her body had failed. As existence deteriorated slowly, she was convinced it was because she did something wrong and was being forsaken by her family and her God. She had a question for me: "Why doesn't God heal me? I’ve asked for forgiveness. I’ve tried to do the right thing. I have faith. I pray and pray, but I don't get better. I once heard a minister say if I had enough faith, God would answer my prayer. What more can I do?" And she began to sob in the dark corner of her hospital room.
I have met many more people her since that encounter in the hospital; people who suffer in sorrow because they believe something about God's miraculous power that just does not square with their experience. A convincing clergy person, an earnest friend or a bestselling book has proclaimed, “If you only have enough faith, you will have complete physical healing. If you only have enough faith you will experience financial recovery. If you only have enough faith, your relationships will flourish.” Those statements put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the sufferer. It’s YOUR fault God does not grant your heart’s desire. If you are not living a healthy, prosperous life, then YOU are doing something wrong.
Listen closely in certain circles and you will hear it. It’s called prosperity theology. We used to call it the name-it-and claim-it gospel, or the blab-it-and grab-it gospel. As one preacher in this movement says, “If you need a healing, you can’t sit back and wait for God to drop it down on you. You have to do what it takes so you can rise up in faith and take what rightfully belongs to you . . . But if you read the Word with traditional eyes, not believing the promises are for you, you disqualify yourself from receiving those promises. It takes faith—believing in God . . . to transform your situation.” That we can quantify faith as “enough” or “not enough” doesn’t make sense. We are asked just to take it on faith.
What is this faith, though? For some, the definition of faith goes something like this: Faith is believing the unseen as the truth. Faith is hoping for, expecting and seizing something for which there is no proof.
Here is my problem with this definition. It sets up a system of haves and have-nots, insiders and outsiders, those who get something from God and those who don’t. The underlying assumption is that those who have enough belief in God’s unseen power and miraculous promises get blessed. If God is not blessing you, then you don’t believe correctly. Faith becomes a matter of pursuing personal happiness, almost as if it’s an inalienable right. It justifies the disease of unchecked individualism, which sees faith as a matter of personal belief rather than community action.
Is that what the church is for, to ensure individual happiness? To ensure prosperity for the believer? Because I thought Christ set up the church to help mend the torn fabric of humanity. I thought our job is to reestablish created goodness. I thought Jesus teaches us to take care of relationships that are most in need of healing and people who are most in need of care.
I want to offer a different definition of faith. Let’s listen to the Gospel of Luke and think about what faith might look like if it brought freedom instead of guilt.
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also 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.” 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.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. Luke 7:1-10The Gospel of Luke often puts Jesus in encounters with outcasts to make a point. For instance, in Luke’s very next story in chapter 7, Jesus visits a widow and raises her dead son to life with a touch. The widow is a social outcast. Touching dead people is defiling. That doesn’t stop Jesus. He raises them both to new life. He eats with sinners and tax collectors! He cures people with diseases and plagues and evil spirits! In Luke’s gospel, detested Samaritans become good Samaritans! In today’s reading, the outsider is a Roman Centurion. He’s a warrior. He represents the worst of what Roman Empire has occupation has to offer. He hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly. He has expert knowledge in how to fight with the sword and shield. The popular perception of many centurions was that they were brawny, not too brainy, and often abusive. Here we have a Roman soldier, the backbone of the Roman army, displaying faith in Jesus. Jesus says he’s never seen anything like it. But what is it, really? Is the Centurion’s faith courageous hope in a reality with no proof, or is something else going on here?
The Greek word for faith used here is pistis. For you philosophers out there, it’s where we get the word epistemology. The original Pistis was one of the good spirits who escaped Pandora's box and fled back to heaven abandoning humankind. In the ancient Greek myth, Pistis, Restraint and Charity abandon the earth, leaving humanity to be overrun by their evil hungers. The original meaning of pistis meant “trust in others.” Pistis doesn’t mean belief, it means trust! "Faith" implies a relationship of trust and allegiance and not just acceptable beliefs.
The Roman Centurion knows all about trust and allegiance. His training and religious oaths prepared him for a life of obedience to orders. The Centurion knows about authority. He speaks and people obey. He recognizes authority in Jesus, too. But there is a difference in the power of Jesus. Military might can’t heal the sick or raise the dead. An army can't heal a faithful servant. Imperial power can’t gain the affections of a people. It can only control with fear. Jesus' power is not like the power wielded by Rome or any other empire. Jesus' power heals people and communities. It brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. It turns the world upside down and inside out. The fact that a Centurion — a violent, brutish, instrument of military occupation—can trust in Jesus’ empire destabilizing power is the very essence of faith. Trust sees the world with God's eyes. Trust opens us to the possibility of a world renewed by God's love.
The miracle of this story is not just the healing of a sick slave. What’s miraculous to me is an outsider, moved by compassion, yields trust to a restorative power. And Jesus says “Yes!” Jesus offers healing as if to say, “You trust me? Well you know what, Centurion, I trust you, too! I have faith in you. Change is going to come just like this. God will not be restrained by the boundaries we draw around one another. God will surprise us. God's love extends even to those whom society deems unworthy of such a gift. This has happened before, and it will happen again.”
We can leverage our power to control others through fear and domination, or we can leverage our power to repair the word. Here is where I put my trusting faith: Jesus has faith in you and me. Jesus trusts us to be those who mend.
In a world of indifference to those on the margins, Jesus trusts us to pay attention.
When people in power turn to violence and anger to solve problems, Jesus trusts us to be peacemakers.
When our loved-ones struggle with invisible pain, Jesus trusts us to be a community of embrace.
When beauty is hidden, Jesus trusts us to marvel at the treasures God has created each of us to be.
When equality is compromised, when fear threatens to separate us, when it looks like faith, restraint and charity have flown into the heavens and left humanity to suffer at its own hands, Jesus trusts us, as communities of love and hope, to make a difference, to help restore the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion
where the lonely are not alone;
the poor not without help;
where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded
and those who are wronged are heard
Jesus trusts us. And we trust God. We trust that in our worst moments a wave of Light will break into our darkness. We will sense a voice saying, “You are loved. You are accepted. Now rise.” I trust that when my name is called to come forward, I will have the kind of trust to say yes and to the holy work that the Divine Spirit invites me to do.