One man said “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” Another asked for the Lord “to come down immediately and heal” his son who was at the point of death. To the first man the Lord “I will come and heal him,” but the man replied “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” To the second man the Lord said “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
Nevertheless the second man said “Sir, come down before my child dies,” but the Lord would not go down to his home; rather he said “the word”: “Go, your son will live.”
“The man believed the word Jesus spoke to him,” but did he believe because Jesus spoke it, or did he believe it because his servants met him on his way home “and told him that his son was recovering”?
The first man said to the Lord “I too am a man 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 servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” The first man understood the power of authority; a power so great that mere words caused actions to be done. The first man understood-perhaps imperfectly-that Jesus was also a man of authority and that all he had to do was to issue an order “and [his] servant will be healed.”
The second man, though “he had been delivered from danger not simply, or by chance, but of a sudden, all at once; that it might be apparent that it had taken place, not through the course of nature, but from the action of Christ” still believed only because his servants had confirmed the hour of the healing. And it was because of this that “he himself believed and all his household.”
Of the first man Jesus said “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith”; of the second man, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe”—and yet the New Testament is full of examples where the disciples-let alone a ruler or a centurion-would not believe unless they saw the very same.
Perhaps most famous is Thomas who said “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
And of course there’s Peter’s attempt to walk on water that ended with near disaster and these words “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Meanwhile-safe in the boat-the other disciples “worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God,’” but only because of the “signs and wonders” they had seen.
And speaking of lakes, boats and storms, when Jesus was awakened by the shouts and screams of the disciples who thought they were going to drown in a storm on a lake, he said “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” When he had “rebuked” the winds and the waves, the disciples asked “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”
So lest we become too harsh on this man whose son was near death, or Thomas, or Peter, or the disciples, not believing unless one sees “signs and wonders” has a long pedigree in the New Testament, and it really isn’t hard to understand when you consider that “faith” is not something that is static. The Epistle Lesson read after Easter from 1 Peter 2 says as much:“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
Faith is not like the electric chair, in which a criminal is placed, a switch is thrown and voila, the entire body is electrocuted, all at once, with no hair left unsigned; rather faith is a process of growing in Christ, and if it takes “signs and wonders” for that growth to take place, what of it? Growth still is taking place and that’s what’s important.
Not all of us are centurions, in fact my guess is most of us are more like the ruler in this story, or Thomas. Maybe even like Peter, who stepped out of the boat with a great deal of faith, but became frightened and began to sink. Faith is more often like that kid on playground who was always being bullied by someone else: lunch money taken, knocked off a swing, pushed down on the gravel, maybe a bloody nose, but yet he kept getting back on his feet and he grew up.
This ruler’s faith was “bullied” by the sickness of his son and by the refusal of Jesus to physically accompany him. Even the words “Go, your son will live” were not enough—his faith was still being “pushed down.” And it was his servants who told of him of his son’s recovery-not angels outside a tomb, or a voice from heaven-but servants, who for all practical purposes thought the boy had recovered on his own and Jesus was simply yesterday’s news.
But the man knew, and in that moment, faith picked itself back up and refused to be bullied again. Would his faith always be perfect? We don’t know, but if I were to bet, I’d say “No.”
Yet I don’t think the idea of an “imperfect” faith appeals to the average Christian…except when it does. When our faith is less than perfect-for instance when disobedience is clearly more enjoyable than obedience-and we’re called on it, we all want to cry with the man from Mark’s Gospel “I do believe; help my unbelief!” The argument being that a less than perfect faith has been instrumental in causing us to sin, but that only works for you or me; when another person’s “imperfections” impact us, suddenly the centurion in us comes alive, and in our “Only say the word” moment of perfection, we’re able to sit in judgment of that less than imperfect faith saying “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.”
Then of course if there happens to be a clash of wills at an event, suddenly we’re the only parish in Pennsylvania that is not made up of saints; if only we could be perfect…or at least if more people here could just be like me or you! Parishes like to believe there are “perfect” pastors; pastors like to believe there are “perfect” parishioners, and no one wants to settle for an imperfection of any kind, least of all in their own lives.
The reality is the very reality of “signs and wonders”-a reality that we have all been a part of:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
“Signs and wonders”: an empty tomb with seated angels; the resurrected Christ appearing to Thomas still bearing his wounds; grave clothes neatly folded and left in the tomb; a messiah mistaken for a gardener, the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost upon all the world, with the promise of that same Spirit making his dwelling within us, and if all that were not enough, there on the altar is the greatest “sign and wonder” of all: the Eucharist where the imperfections of bread and wine are made perfectly holy by the power of the Holy Spirit, and where such a meal is fed by a perfect Father to his less than perfect children so that by the grace of a perfect Son, a bullied and “imperfect” faith might become stronger, as you and I become more able to love and to obey He who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
The issue is never “perfection,” but rather the process of being perfect-ed.
 John 20.25
 Matthew 14.31
 Matthew 8.26
 1 Peter 2.2-3
 Mark 9.24
 Luke 18.11
 1 Peter 1.3ff.
 1 Peter 2.9