“Leap of Faith”

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In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

You occasionally hear people saying that they are about to take a “leap of faith.”

An entrepreneur who is starting a new business may admit that while he has a good product, he can’t be sure of success. He realizes that he’s taking a big risk with his own money. He’s making a leap of faith.

This phrase seems to have entered into our common speech from the works of a Danish philosopher named Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard originally meant the expression to apply specifically to Christian faith.

Kierkegaard was a severe critic of the popular religion of his time. The Lutheran Church was the established church of Denmark; many citizens felt that being Christian was simply a part of being Danish. But while religion was as much an element of being a good citizen as patriotism, it wasn’t expected to have much effect on one’s life decisions.

Kierkegaard felt that this superficial faith would be unable to handle the uncertainties of human existence. Like the entrepreneur, we realize that we can never know what will happen next nor can we be certain what God wants to do.

Kierkegaard uses, as an example, an incident that occurred in the life of the Old Testament figure, Abraham. Abraham believed that God wanted him to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. And he was ready to do just that. At the last moment, the Lord said he could put down his knife and spare his son.

Although we modern people might see this incident as reflecting a primitive understanding of God, the ancient Hebrews believed that the story displayed the anxiety human beings feel when we make momentous spiritual choices.

The command was a test. Abraham had to demonstrate that he trusted the Lord; and his leap of faith was proof of his devotion.

Faith is also the subject of today’s Gospel reading. Although the leap required here is much less traumatic than the one Abraham confronted, the person whose faith is in question isn’t a religious leader. He doesn’t even believe in the Hebrew religion.

The person is a centurion from the occupying Roman army. The officer chooses to come up to Jesus and ask him if he will heal one of the centurion’s slaves.

Jesus marvels at the man’s belief. The centurion has decided to trust Jesus to cure his slave’s illness. He believes in Christ’s powers, even though the slave is in the centurion’s house and Jesus can’t even lay hands on him and pray for him in person.

So Jesus turns to the crowd that had followed him and says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” The Gentile’s daring request is rewarded: When he returns to his house, he finds his slave “in good health.”

This story, then, is more than just another healing miracle. It’s a story about faith.

And one lesson we learn about faith from this text is that, sometimes, God doesn’t respond directly to our trust in him. Sometimes, he rewards our faith by acting at a distance.

During the time Jesus was engaged in active ministry, he did sometimes heal the sick people whom he met on his journeys. But these direct healings could only take place while Jesus was ministering on earth—likely a period of only a year or two. And, of course, after Jesus rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, he was no longer physically present on earth to lay hands on anyone.

So the disciples were reminded that from then on, healing from God had to come from the far away – from the invisible realm of the divine. Future healing would have to be like the slave’s recovery. It would have to come at a distance.

The story of the centurion thus reminds us that when we have a problem and we pray for God’s help, we are doing something extraordinary. This is not a routine, this worldly act. It isn’t like going into a bank and asking the teller to cash a check. When we pray for something, we take a step into the unknown.

A second lesson from the story is less obvious. This lesson is that faith can be scary.

We see the risks of faith in the potential sacrifice of Abraham. As Kierkegaard observed, Abraham’s obedience only made sense if the infinite divine will could override our conventional view of right and wrong.

Yet the centurion also is taking a risk. He hopes that the Hebrew Rabbi Jesus might somehow save his loyal servant. After all, the reason the story is repeated in Scripture is that it was possible that the slave wouldn’t be healed.

Indeed, in a common sense view, the servant seems doomed. The centurion has come to Jesus out of the blue–as a complete stranger. In addition, he’s a pagan foreigner who has no claim on the attention of a Jewish teacher. He could have expected that Jesus would ignore his request.

In fact, Jesus didn’t come to earth to be a medical missionary. Looking at his mission as a whole, Christ was sent by God to introduce God’s Kingdom of love and healing. Having brought the Kingdom, it was up to his people to work for its final establishment.

The mystery of where God acts and where he doesn’t arises then because Christ’s presence on earth wasn’t intended to end all evil. Rather his occasional miracles were signs—signs that pointed to God’s power over the forces of darkness.

Some people find that the need for an occasional leap of faith can be threatening. So they look for an interpretation of religion that is more accommodating. They might look, for example, for a moralistic faith that doesn’t ask us to take risks but instead tells us precisely how to behave in every circumstance. Or they might give up on religion altogether. They might retreat back into the secular world, and try to find pragmatic ways to try to deal with their issues.

My own choice is the centurion’s. I want to try to take a step off into the realm of God and see where that leads.

And if I do that, I may find that Kierkegaard’s idea is not quite as risky as I thought it was. For I don’t entirely leap into the unknown.

It’s not like we’re traveling on the Starship Enterprise, going “where no man has ever gone before.” The unknown isn’t entirely unknown.

Since the time of the centurion, many, many people have put their trust in the power of Christ. They have learned that even though God acts at a distance, he definitely acts. Many people like the pagan officer—people who saw themselves outside the normal categories of “religious”—have found that faith is available to them, too.

Even the pagan could make the leap of faith. Even those who feel they are only half-believers can find that the invisible God brings wholeness to their lives.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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