“I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in…(fill in the blank)”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

First Kings 8:22-23, 27-30, 41-43
Galatians 1:1-10
Luke 7:1-10

If Jesus were to descend today–reversing the activity of His Ascension, not coming for the day of judgment–where would He say He found the greatest faith? When He was here the first time around, where did He say He found it?

The second question is easier to answer than the first. In fact, it can be found in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson. The surprise is that Jesus found this great faith, not in one of His disciples, not in any of His friends or family, not even in all of Israel, but in a Roman soldier! It is even more surprising that this was not some common foot soldier. He was the commander of 100 soldiers–a “centurion.”

The story opens with Jesus entering Capernaum. The centurion had a servant who was very seriously ill, “about to die.” The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some Jewish elders to Him, asking Him to come and heal the 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.” Jesus went with them.

Before Jesus arrived at the house, however, the centurion sent some friends to Him with an amazing message. The elders said he deserved Jesus’ attention, but the centurion said: “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 apparently did “say the word.” The servant was immediately healed, but Luke doesn’t share that word with us. Jesus may not have uttered the words aloud. He did say something aloud, however, and it might have shocked a few Jews in the audience. He said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

The centurion’s humility is noteworthy. As he said, he was a man who told people, “Go,” “Come,” or “Do this,” and was immediately obeyed. Legally, he could have sent some soldiers to compel Jesus to come. Roman law allowed a soldier to compel any citizen to travel along for one mile to carry armor, provisions or whatever. A different centurion compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha. It was probably in reference to that law that Jesus once said, “If anyone compels you to go with him one mile, go with him two.” Since Jesus believed in rendering to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, He would have gone along.

It is also important to note that the Roman official sent Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come. His association with the Jews had made him aware that he, a Gentile, should not approach a Jewish Rabbi in public. Rather than being offended by this potential slur, he submitted to it. It is likely that the “friends” who stopped Jesus outside his house were also Jews. He did not want Jesus to risk becoming ritually unclean by entering a Gentile home.

At the same time, his humility could have given way to his desire that his servant be healed. The word he used for his servant in verse seven of Luke’s story means “young lad,” “child,” or even “son.” The centurion’s relationship with this servant was hardly one of master and slave. It was filled with genuine love. Only this centurion’s faith allowed him to maintain his humble posture before Jesus. His suggestion that Jesus merely had to “say the word” for the lad to be healed was a sign of tremendous faith and Jesus pointed to it so that the entire world, including all of us, would see it.

In the book, Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling, Howard Clinebell told the following parable: On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea. With no thought for themselves, they went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved through this wonderful little station and it became famous. Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time, money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

Some members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They wanted to provide a more comfortable place as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members. They decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club.

Fewer members were now interested in going out to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decoration and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where club initiations were held. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty, sick and some had black skin, some yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities because they were an unpleasant hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted that lifesaving was their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself and, if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along the shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown!

(Clinebell’s footnote says that this parable originally appeared in an article by Theodore O. Wedel, “Evangelism–the Mission of the Church to Those Outside Her Life,” in The Ecumenical Review.)

The story should help to bring us back to my original question: Where would Jesus say He found the greatest faith today? Would it be in the church? Or has the church become the lifesaving station of the parable? More importantly, would He find such great faith in you and in me? Do we expect Him to simply say the word and great things will happen or do we have little or no respect at all for His Word?

As with the centurion, these are not questions to be answered with our mouths, but with our deeds and our lives. Here is a real shocker–the centurion’s faith came before Jesus’ death and resurrection, and before the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Your faith and mine… well, you get the idea.

When a centurion compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha, Simon did it because the law demanded it. When Jesus went to Golgotha, no law could demand such an injustice. Jesus went there willingly. He went there for you. He went there out of love for you and me. There was and there still is no other way we could be saved and have eternal life. Christ’s mission is the lifesaving station of the entire world. Those who know the Good News about Jesus must tell the Good News about Jesus.

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