Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellow saint and sinner Saskia de Vries, whom we recently spoke with about neuroscience and theology (see our four-part interview, The Brain on Faith) is also a preacher.  She preached the below sermon to her congregation yesterday, and kindly agreed to share it with the rest of us.  Her elaboration on the essence of biblical faith, which turns on two different translations of the Greek phrase pistou Christou (“faith in Christ” versus “faith of Christ”), is both a provocatively new and helpful way of framing what it really means “to believe” (in) Christ.  

I would also add here, by way of stepping onto one of my many soapboxes, that Saskia has never gone to seminary.  

Which begs the question: what would happen if we professionally trained clergy vacated the pulpit just a bit more often? In addition to empowering God’s people to be more  of a “priesthood of all believers,” we might get a vacation, and, we’d learn something, too.  But enough of my rants.  Here’s Saskia…

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.  -Galatians 2:15-20 or 21

 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 7:1-10

Most of you know that I am a scientist, a neuroscientist to be specific. As you may imagine, when my colleagues discover I am also a Christian, it is not uncommon to get some awkward questions. “Do you really believe all those stories?” Or more specifically, “how can you be in a field that demands empirical rationality but then believe things without evidence? How can you just have faith?” I imagine many of you face similar questions in your day-to-day life – if not from your friends and colleagues, maybe even from yourself. What exactly do I believe? Did these things really happen the way the Bible says they did?

It might not help that there are lots of different voices telling us what we should believe. Magazine articles on “What are the beliefs required of Christians” or books on “What Presbyterians believe.” Both fundamentalists and ardent atheists inform me that I must believe every word of the Bible to be literally and inerrantly true in order to qualify as a true Christian. But I’ll tell you something. I don’t. Take for example the six days of creation … I don’t buy it. I mean, how could plants survive when they were created before the sun?

So then what is it that the Bible actually tells us to believe? In our scripture reading earlier, we heard Paul tell the Galatians that people are justified – or made righteous – not by the works of the law, but by faith in Christ. So this indicates we must believe IN Christ. But those of you who were reading along in the pew Bibles with a sharp eye might have noticed that there’s a footnote on that phrase that says “or the faith of Christ.” It turns out that the Greek phrase here, pistis Christou, is grammatically ambiguous. For centuries this has been translated as the subjective genitive, the faith OF Christ, where Christ is the one with the faith. It’s the way we talk of Paul’s letters – or the letters OF Paul – or Maggi’s sabbatical. However, at some point in the last 50/60 years, translators decided that this phrase was better translated as the objective genitive, faith IN Christ, where Christ is the object of our faith. After all, you believe IN things, not OF them.

This change in translation happened fairly recently, as in fact the idea of faith being belief in something is a relatively modern notion. A number of writers such as Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg remind us that for much of Christian history, faith wasn’t about intellectual assent – believing things with your head. Instead, faith had a broader meaning. Faith involved fidelity or faithfulness, being committed to people or laws – in the way that we are faithful in marriage. Faith also involved trust, fiducia. We see this in Abraham’s faith as he followed God, trusting that he would indeed be given land that would be filled with his descendants. Even the word credo, “I believe,” from which we derive the word creed – our statements of faith – has the same root as that for heart, cardo, suggesting that in believing in Christ we aren’t thinking something about Christ but rather we are giving our heart to him.

These meanings for faith, however, lost precedence following the Enlightenment when faith took on the meaning of believing things with our heads regardless of, or even in spite of, evidence. Faith was not about trusting God or fidelity, but rather thinking the right thoughts. Faithfulness was defined not by commitment, but rather by how well you adhered to a list of statements. It is this definition that continues to dominate our discussions of faith today. And it was this concept of faith that spurred translators some 50/60 years ago to look at the phrase pistis Christou and deduce that it must mean “faith in Christ” rather than “faith of Christ.”

But the debate over this phrase continues to this day. There are numerous articles and books written about just these two words – are we justified by OUR belief IN Christ or are we justified by Christ’s faithfulness? Is it the objective genitive or the subjective genitive? This is the kind of phrase that keeps dead languages alive. There is another possibility, though, – as there usually is – which is that it is an adjectival genitive. That is, we are justified by our Christ-like faith. We are made righteous, we are made whole, by our faith that resembles the faith that Jesus taught and demonstrated for us.

So then what is that faith of Christ? Did Jesus himself ever ask us to believe anything? Did Jesus say anything about faith? Looking through the synoptic gospels, I found that most of the times that faith is mentioned is in passages like the Gospel reading we just heard from Luke: healing stories. This story of the centurion’s slave isn’t the only one – there are many others. There’s the woman who was bleeding for twelve years who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. Jesus tells her “your faith has made you well.” There are the ten lepers that Jesus heals of their leprosy and then sends them to the priests to be declared clean. When one of the lepers, a Samaritan, comes back to Jesus to thank him, Jesus tells him “Rise and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” There is the Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter, begging for crumbs from the master’s table, to whom he says “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”

The story we read, though, is perhaps the epitome of healing stories. A Roman centurion hears that Jesus is in town, and asks him to come heal his dying slave. It is, in fact, a group of Jewish elders that entreat Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. “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,” they tell Jesus. So Jesus sets off to the centurion’s home, who upon hearing that Jesus is coming tells him NOT to come. “Do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof,” he says. Well that’s odd, don’t you think? Please, please, please work a miracle – alter dimensions of space and time to heal my dying slave – but oh, don’t trouble yourself. I’m worthy for you to heal my slave, but not to come to my house. What’s that about? The centurion gives a little speech about how he too is a man of authority – he tells one to go and he goes, he tells his slave to do this and his slave does it. He says jump, they ask how high. “Speak the word,” the centurion says, “and let my servant be healed.” Luke says that Jesus heard this and was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Wow. Did you hear that? This Roman centurion is the paragon of faith. Out of all of the people that Jesus encounters – Jews and Gentiles, rabbis and disciples – this centurion is the prime example of faith.

But what is that faith? If we stick with faith as intellectual assent, as believing things with our heads, this just doesn’t make sense. Neither the centurion nor any of the other people who are healed by their faith recite the Apostle’s Creed or affirm substitutionary atonement. Where do they answer questions from the Catechism? Why isn’t Jesus quizzing them – what is the chief end of man? What is your sole comfort in life? Clearly this is absurd as these creeds and confessions developed long after the time of Jesus, but the question remains, how in the world was Jesus able to assess their beliefs without any statement of faith on their part?

Some suggest that the faith the people in these healing stories exhibit isn’t about believing specific things about Jesus, but it is more along the lines of trust. They believe and trust that Jesus can heal them. They are willing to be vulnerable before him, and they trust that he will heal and not hurt them. This centurion has even more trust than the others because he is confident that Jesus can heal his slave just by saying the word – without even showing up. While this trust in Jesus’ healing power is definitely part of the story, I don’t think it’s the full story. My sense is that when you have been sick and broken for many years, when you’ve seen every doctor and tried every remedy under the sun, you are willing to try just about anything. What do you have to lose? Jesus was not the only healer roaming around the Sea of Galilee in his day, and I suspect these people were willing to throw themselves at the mercy of any of those healers. Furthermore, this is not the only healing story where someone is healed from a distance. Not only are there other stories in the Bible where Jesus heals people from a distance, but there are also stories in the Talmud of a contemporary of Christ’s, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. He was one of the other healers in Galilee at that time, well known for his ability to perform miracles and to heal people through his prayers. There are, in fact, not one but two stories of Chanina healing the sons of prominent Rabbis from a distance – just like Jesus healed this centurion’s slave. So if the key to faith is trusting in Jesus’ ability to heal, especially from a distance, then how is this centurion’s faith different from that of the others who were similarly healed?

I don’t think it’s the distance that is special about this story. I think it’s something else that sets this Roman centurion apart. Here is a man of power and authority turning to a Jewish man to care for his slave – not for a powerful person, not for his son, but for his slave, a piece of property. Not only that (after all there is some economic incentive to keep your property alive and healthy) but we hear that this centurion is a friend to the Jews. “He loves our people,” the elders say. He’s not just a friend, but he even built their synagogue! Indeed, some commentaries note that the reason he prevents Jesus from coming to his house is because of Jewish laws about consorting with Gentiles. While it wasn’t strictly forbidden to enter the house of a Gentile, it was highly discouraged given how easy it is to accidentally defile yourself. The commentaries suggest that the centurion was aware of this and was sensitive to Jewish laws and customs. This is the man that Jesus holds up as the paragon of faith. “Not even in Israel,” not even among the Jews, “have I found such faith.” If faith was about thinking things – say, believing Jesus to be the Jewish messiah, the centurion might have converted to Judaism, or at least been a proselyte. If faith was about trusting in healing from afar, we might be singing praises to Chanina ben Dosa. But that isn’t it. The faith this centurion exemplifies is that of valuing people. Faith is building houses of worship for people of a different tradition, being sensitive to their laws and customs. Faith is caring deeply for a slave. Faith is valuing people, even people who aren’t valued by society. And while this centurion is the paragon, all of the healing stories show this. Faith is knowing that whether you are a bleeding woman or a Gentile, you are just as worthy of healing as the sons of prominent men.

Now, I will admit that this faith is something I struggle with. And, while I know some people who are – who see the value and the commonality in all people – as a whole we as people aren’t very good at this. Instead, we excel at dividing people into categories – into us and them. We do so in politics, not only nationally, vying democrats against republicans, but also internationally “either you’re with us or you’re against us,” and even locally. We do so in our workplaces, in our relationships and in our churches. One of my favorite jokes – and it’s a nerdy one – is that there are ten types of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t. There are lots of jokes based on making such distinctions. There are two types of people in the world: those who finish punchlines. Or ultimately, “there are two types of people in the world: those who think there are two types of people and those who don’t.”

These distinctions are more than jokes, however, and they do more than serve as colored jerseys indicating who is on which team. These distinctions, in fact, impact how we treat people. A study was done at the University of Michigan last year, looking at how people empathize with others. Students were approached either at the University’s library or at the bus stop outside of the library (during the middle of winter mind you), and they were told a story about a person who had gotten lost on a hike with no food, water or extra clothes. The students were then asked what was most unpleasant for the hiker, what was his most pressing need: hunger, thirst or cold. Not surprisingly, the students who were questioned waiting outside at the bus stop overwhelmingly rated the cold as the most unpleasant condition for the hiker – much more than the people inside the warm library did. This result indicates that our empathy derives from our ability to imagine ourselves in other people’s situations.

However, an interesting twist was added to this study. In the story that was told to the students, the hiker was identified either as a liberal, gay-rights supporting, Democrat or a conservative, anti-gay-rights, Republican. And following the survey, the students were asked similar demographic questions about themselves. What the researchers found was that this result, where the students standing out in the cold rated the hiker’s concern for the cold higher, only held when the hiker in the story had the same political stance as the student. Their ability to empathize was limited to people they judged as similar to themselves. For hikers that were different from the student, however, the cold students questioned at the bus stop we no more likely than the students inside the library to rate being cold as the most unpleasant condition. As the researchers note, “knowledge of another person’s politics should not influence how cold or thirsty one thinks he or she is.” But apparently it does. In many ways, we are very good at empathizing with others – of understanding how they are suffering, of imaging what their pain is, and even of thinking of how we can help them. But our empathy, and likewise our ability and willingness to care for and help others, is often limited to those people we consider similar to us.

And yet, the faith of Christ is to value those people who aren’t like us – who don’t look like us, who don’t think like us, who don’t vote for the people we vote for, and who don’t even believe what we believe. Throughout history, starting in the Bible and continuing to today, we find the people of God setting up boundaries, defining who is in and who is out, who they will care for and who they won’t. Yet again and again, God subverts those boundaries – be they distinctions of lineage, of ethnicity, or of ideological beliefs. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book The Luminous Web, “the Bible is one long story about how God demolishes human beliefs in order to clear space for faith.” Throughout the Bible we encounter God breaking apart the boundaries and distinctions we’ve established to find ways to embrace and include more people. We hear the prophets urging us to care for powerless people. We see Jesus healing and befriending the sinners (the people outside of the law). And we find Paul extending that inclusion to Gentiles of all stripes.

And yet we have continued marking divisions and establishing litmus tests for who’s in and who’s out, who’s acceptable and who isn’t. We’ve struggled with racism and sexism. We debate whether (and how) to fully include gays and lesbians and transgendered people in our churches and denominations. Even in the midst of these debates we struggle to respect the people on the other side. We’ve set up all sort of doctrinal and dogmatic divisions. In order to belong you must agree with this or that list of statements, of putative facts. But I tell you what – I don’t think it really matters what we think. God loves us – all of us. Not because of who we are, not because we belong to the right club, and not because of what we think or believe. The corollary is that God loves everyone else too – inside this church, outside this church, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, even atheists and people who could care less about God. God loves them. And we are made whole, we live our life by the faith of Christ, when we extend our love, our healing care, to all of God’s people.


Regardless of what you believe, live your life by the faith of Christ, knowing that God loves you and God loves everyone else too.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus