The centurion in today’s gospel, a Roman citizen and a Gentile, was praised by Christ as having most excellent faith. Our Lord said: “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” So, this Roman soldier knew what faith was all about. But let us start with some ideas about what faith is NOT. Then we can go on to discover what faith IS according to the centurion’s testimony. This is necessary because so many people misunderstand faith today and we need to be clear about what we as Orthodox know to be true about faith, or as we might say “saving faith.”
Firstly, saving faith is not some sort of airy-fairy notion in our heads about the existence of God. Faith is not abstract and static but concrete, personal and dynamic. The centurion’s servant, clearly a man deeply loved by his Master, was “lying at home paralysed, dreadfully tormented.” Faith, therefore, is a life and death issue, a human concern touching upon God’s love and power in relation to man’s needs and destiny. We live by faith, we do not simply think about God. The universities are full of people who think about God in terms of abstract theology or in the implications of believing for social policy; but this is not faith. Faith is engaging with God because He-is-Who-He-is and our life and our salvation depends on struggle, sacrifice, obedience and putting Him first in our lives. Faith concerns radical life-saving trust in God rather than idle speculation as to whether or not He exists.
Secondly faith is not opposed to reason but equally it cannot be reduced to reasonable logical statements in the manner of the Medieval Latin scholastic theologians. The reaction against reason in the west after the Reformation (although many Protestants had their own scholastics) manifested itself as a preoccupation with extraordinary events, signs and wonders. Lewis Carroll wrote well about this in his fantasy “Through the Looking Glass.” This is the White Queen’s conversation with Alice concerning her alleged extreme age.
“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Now whatever faith is, it is not “believing six impossible things before breakfast.” True, “with God, all things are possible,” (Matthew 19:26) but He usually doesn’t do incredible (that is unbelievable) things such as, for example, turning the moon into blue cheese or getting the wind to blow in perfectly straight lines. However, reason has its limits and sometimes God does do things that to the eyes of reason rather than faith seem truly incredible - in the White Queen sense of the word. How about raising the dead, the resurrection, since that lies at the heart of our faith, or perhaps healing the centurion’s servant at a distance simply by declaring it to be so? Are these not two of six impossible things to be believed before breakfast? To the faithless, they are, but to men, women and children of faith, they are not.
Now let us be clear, we do not believe in the resurrection or the healing power of Christ simply because these are in the Bible. That would place them utterly beyond reason in the realm of blind faith and impenetrable dogma, White Queen territory. On the other hand we must be careful what we take to be evidence for faith’s claims, namely that God can and does do extraordinary things. Take the resurrection for example. Many years ago, a lawyer, Frank Morison in his book “Who Moved the Stone” argued for the resurrection as he might in court by carefully examining the biblical evidence. As interesting as that project was, thousands of people did not become Christians because of it. Faith is not generated by attempts at logical proof. Reasons, as I have said already, is necessary, but has its limits. Likewise, the healing of the centurion’s servant at a distance expressed the soldier’s faith but it did not kindle the faith of many other onlookers or else the whole of Israel and the ancient Gentile world would have risen up as one man and declared Jesus to be the Christ. They did not and their equivalents today do not either. Clearly, something else is required for saving faith in addition to a basic and limited reasonableness. That extra added ingredient is the experience of God coming through repentance and engagement with Him at a personal level.
The great Orthodox Christian theologian, Vladimir Lossky defined faith in this way as “our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself.” Now Lossky sometimes wrote with unnecessarily difficult words so let us try and translate that into ordinary English. We might say:- “Faith is holding fast to and taking part in the He who comes to us – that is Christ, God in the flesh.” We can simplify that even further by saying “hold on to Christ, dive in to Christ and trust in Christ.” This is saving faith, this is our experience of being a Christian. This is the faith that the centurion exercised for the healing of his servant at a distance by our Lord and simply by His word, for He is the self-revealing Word from the Father. This is the faith that believes in the resurrection because it has met the Risen Christ personally and knows Him to be alive. Empty tombs are all very well but hearts full of the Living Christ are much, much better. These God filled hearts and lives arise through baptism in both water and the Holy Spirit and are nurtured in the Church, the Body of Christ and Fellowship of the Holy Spirit from the Father.
Faith then is not a matter of conjecture or idle speculation, but rather a dynamic and lived experience. Saving faith is a verb rather than a noun. We “do” faith in order that we might dwell in Christ and both see and become instruments of His saving power amongst the nations. Glory be to Him who is the author and finisher of our Faith, even Christ our God!