From the gospel according to saint John 4.50
Jesus saith unto him, go thy way, thy son liveth. And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way.
How is faith born? And how does it grow? And what does it look like, when it is mature? These are questions every believer should be able to answer, and today’s gospel lesson is wonderfully instructive in this regard. Let’s look at it carefully.
The story begins in “Cana of Galilee”, the place where Jesus did his first miracle, changing the water into wine for the wedding feast. No doubt the report or rumour of this and other miracles had circulated widely in Galilee; for the news of Jesus’ return from Judea to Cana drew out of Capernaum, a town some distance away, a certain nobleman, desperately afraid for his son, who was “at the point of death.” He came to him, and begged him to “come down, and heal his son”.
Now the nobleman it seems was a royal official in the court of Herod Antipas, son of King Herod, who ruled Galilee at that time. You may savour the irony, that the important, and perhaps self-important servant of a proud and worldly king, humbles himself to seek the help of the prophet of the Kingdom of heaven. But that is a necessary condition for faith’s birth: only when the barriers of pride are broken down, perhaps by some adversity or sorrow, can there be any opening to God. Only then can the vague rumours of God’s mercy to men awaken a strange hope – a wild surmise –of his help.
So in the nobleman we have the vague, rudimentary beginnings of faith, driven by desperate need, and ignorant of what it believes in. For in asking him to “come down” to Capernaum, he was limiting Jesus’ power to do good to his physical presence, as if Jesus could not heal at a distance, in his absence. He has not yet learned what it is to believe in Jesus.
And so we should not really be surprised that this initial appeal meets with a kind of harsh rebuff. Jesus says, “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe”. There is something odd about this saying which no modern English translation can show us. In Greek and older English, there are two ways of saying “you”. You can use a word that indicates you are speaking to one other person, which in English is “thou”. Or you can use a word that indicates you are speaking to more than one person, which in English is “ye” or “you”. But in modern English, of course, there is only one way of addressing another person or persons, namely the word “you”, and you can’t tell whether one person is being spoken to or more than one, unless you are from the south, and can say “you all”. Modern English translations of the Bible therefore are intrinsically less accurate than the King James Version – a point rarely if ever acknowledged by the scholars and publishers who profit from them.
The point of this digression is simply this: when Jesus says “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe”, the word “ye” tells us that he is not singling out the nobleman for criticism. If he were, he would have said “thou”. His rebuke is addressed to a general tendency among the people who came to him – a greedy appetite for sensational signs and wonders together with an indifference to the teaching those miracles were meant to confirm. And in this greed for miracles, there is an unwillingness to believe, an unwillingness to lift up hearts and minds in response to his teaching beyond the realm of things visible and tangible to the realm of things invisible and intangible. There is a false faith that is blind to the greater goods of the Kingdom of heaven, obstinately materialistic, and lasting only as long as the supply of miracles. And sustaining that kind of false faith is not the business that Jesus is in.
Despite this sharp rebuke, the nobleman persists in his plea. “Sir, come down, ere my child die”. Here is a powerful man, used to having his own way, yet he does not burst out in a passion when he is crossed. He does not stamp his feet or waste time in resentment. Wounded pride is an indulgence he renounces when his son’s life is at stake. Wounded pride is always an indulgence to be renounced, since our soul’s eternal life is at stake. And though his faith is still rather vague and confused, yet his humble perseverance in prayer proves that it is real; and Jesus rewards his faith with a word of promise and command, “Go thy way, thy son liveth”. By telling the man to leave, with the assurance that his son will live, he pushes the miraculous event, the wondrous sign, out of the spotlight, where it cannot be seen and cannot become a sensational crowd-pleaser. The miracle is pushed ‘offstage’, and the challenge of faith and obedience in response to Jesus’ word are brought into the spotlight instead. So the question for the royal official becomes not, will Jesus come down and heal my son, but, will I obey his command? And that in turn depends upon the question, will I believe his promise?
Those are the questions for us all, when we bring our hopes and fears to God in prayer. Will we insist on his submitting to our demands? Or will we subordinate our wishes to the purpose of his will? When we rise from our knees, are we still trying to have our way with God, or have we decided to let God have his way with us? Specifically are we ready to trust in his mercy, and obey his will, leaving the outcome to him? Notice also that you can’t believe, but refuse to obey; or obey, without first believing: Christ gives us something to believe, and something to obey, and our faith and obedience are the right and left hands by which the soul receives the blessing he gives.
The first miracle of this story is this: “And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way.” Without signs and wonders, without Jesus’ physical presence, he takes Jesus at his word, abandons his own condition, and accepts that of Christ, and goes his way, believing what he cannot see, trusting that Christ can work mightily by his word alone, though absent in his body. Notice that it is at this point that his attitude to Jesus first deserves the name of faith; when he submits his mind and will to the word of Christ, in trust and obedience. Before he had a vague and wishful hope that Christ would help his son; now in the word of Jesus he has a firm assurance in which he can rest his heart and mind. Before, in the naivety of arrogance, he had a plan for Jesus to carry out, in order to help his son; now, in the wisdom of humility, he obeys the plan that Jesus has for him, in order to help his son.
Such true faith and obedience does not go without vindication, even while he is still on the way home, before he has even seen his son. “And as he was now going down, his servants met him, and told him, saying, Thy son liveth.” By his faith and obedience, he has opened the door to the benefits promised by Jesus, which unbelief would have kept locked close. Now notice what happens next. “Then enquired he of them the hour when he began to amend. And they said unto him, Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him. So the father knew that it was at the same hour, in the which Jesus said unto him, Thy son liveth: and himself believed, and his whole house.” Earlier, we were told that the man “believed the word that Jesus spake”; but now we are told, that after reflecting on the word of Jesus, and the recovery of his son, we are told that “himself believed”. What is the difference? In reflecting upon what Jesus has done for him in this particular case, he is moved to trust Jesus in all respects. “He [had] believed that particular word of the Lord’s; but this is something more, the entering into the number of Christ’s disciples, his yielding himself to him as the promised Messiah” (Trench 131). Out of thankful remembrance for all that Christ has done, he surrenders himself and his whole life to Christ. And so it is for us all. “The more carefully the divine works and benefits are considered, the more nourishment faith acquires” (Bengel quoted in Trench 130 n3).
This is the fullness of faith, the maturity of believing. But that is not all. His faith grows and matures in another way also. Not only did he believe, also “his whole house”. His faith did not remain buried in his heart, like an embarrassing personal habit. It breaks out in joyful testimony, thanksgiving and praise, for what Jesus has done by his word to help his son. And in response to testimony from such a trusted source, his entire household – family, staff, servants – also came to believe. “For it is” says Martin Luther, “in the character and nature of faith that it attracts other people, breaks forth and becomes active in love”. As Paul said to the Galatians, the only thing that avails in Jesus Christ is “faith which worketh by love” (5.6). Faith does not remain silent, buried in one’s breast like a guilty secret; it cannot stay quiet, it must praise God and seek its neighbour’s good. Such are the signs of a mature faith, and the fruit it bears in the lives of those it touches.
Writing many centuries ago in a cold cell in a northern English monastery, the Venerable Bede summed up today’s gospel lesson with admirable conciseness. “So we see that faith, like the other virtues, is formed gradually, and has its beginning, growth, and maturity. His faith had its beginning, when he asked for his son’s recovery; its growth, when he believed our Lord’s words, Thy son liveth; its maturity, after the announcement of the fact by his servants”. May it please Almighty God to grant us all the same beginning, increase, and maturity of faith in all humility and obedience; a faith that is founded upon his word to us in Jesus Christ, a faith that is active in love, fruitful in good works, vocal in praise, redounding to his glory, and effective to our salvation.