The Nature of Faith

Sermon delivered on Trinity 11C, Sunday, August 7, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 1.1, 10-20; Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Since we are justified by faith [or declared not guilty and put right in God’s eyes], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5.1). With these words to the house churches at Rome, the apostle Paul alerts us to the critical role of faith in our salvation. Simply put, without faith we cannot possibly begin to please God. But why? And what exactly does biblical faith look like in our lives? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We start by reminding ourselves that everyone has faith of some kind, even atheists. Since only a very small percentage of our knowledge comes from direct or first-hand experience, most of our knowledge is based on faith that results from indirect experience. For example, I’ve never seen Berlin Germany (direct experience), but I know it exists based on maps and other evidence, even though I have never seen it (indirect experience). The whole discipline of science is based on faith in underlying laws and principles that exist and provide order, many of which are unseen and not fully understood. So faith plays a critical role in the human experience. We all show our faith in a myriad of ways. But as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, biblical faith consists of two things: (1) the assurance of things hoped for; and (2) the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11.1). It is this faith that merits God’s approval and is therefore worth our close examination.

The writer of Hebrews starts by reminding us that when he is talking about our faith in God, he is not talking about a blind faith. Faith is not whistling through the graveyard, blindly ignoring the facts or reality. No, faith is the assurance of things hoped for. In other words, hope is the sure and certain expectation that something is real and that our future is secure. This hope always has a real basis undergirding it. For example, we as Christians have a resurrection faith and hope, even though we’ve never seen a resurrected person first-hand (unless, of course, we have seen Jesus in the same way the apostles did). Our hope isn’t wishful thinking based on some kind of deluded optimism. It is based on historical reality and the present experience of Christ’s body, the Church. Because we have solid evidence that God really did raise Jesus from the dead (a different discussion for a different day), and because of the witness of those who did see the risen Lord and pass on his teachings about the kingdom of God and our role in it, we have the sure and certain expectation (or hope) that we too will share in Jesus’ resurrection (cf. Romans 6.3-5). So even though most of us have not laid eyes directly on our risen Lord, we have experienced his presence in and through prayer and the power of the Spirit, in the reading of God’s Word, and in our fellowship with each other. All these things give us the conviction that Jesus is alive and here with us. To be sure, we don’t always feel Jesus’ presence. I dare say that most of us here today have experienced the dark night of the soul where Jesus is terribly absent from us. But even his absence reminds us of the reality of his presence. We couldn’t sense the former without knowing the latter! So our faith is always informed and has a solid basis for it. As we saw last week, we must think carefully about our faith and those things on which it is based. We mustn’t let our feelings trump our thinking because our feelings about matters of faith and our current reality can be notoriously unreliable, much as our current culture would like us to believe otherwise about the importance of feelings.

When we know God exists, even though we cannot see God (the conviction of things not seen), when we know that God created us as his image-bearing creatures along with this vast cosmos, so that we look to God’s original creative purposes and intent to help guide our living and decisions about moral issues (one of the main reasons the creation narratives in Genesis 1.1-2.25 were written in the first place), when we know that God loves us with a radically redeeming and life-giving love because we have witnessed the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our own lives and the lives of the other saints around us (the assurance of things hoped for), our faith in God gives purpose and destination to our life. How so, you ask? Good question! I would hate for you to remain ignorant!

We start with the destination for those of us who have faith in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We know our destination is the new creation, the new heavens and earth. We believe our citizenship is secure because of Jesus’ death on our behalf. All this is a matter of faith, and so we follow Jesus who inaugurated the new creation at his resurrection. Likewise with Abraham and Sarah in their day as the writer of Hebrews reminds us. Even though they did not live to see some of God’s promises to them ultimately fulfilled, they still believed that God was good to his word, that among other things they would ultimately be citizens of God’s future country God had prepared for them, the new heavens and earth when they are fully revealed.

Their future hope therefore dictated the way they chose to live their mortal lives. For starters, at God’s command Abraham moved from his homeland to the land of Canaan. This reminds us that faith always leads to obedience. As the apostle James reminds us, faith without works (obedience) is no faith at all (James 2.14-26). It is an oxymoron. Why? Because faith always leads to behavior that is consistent with the nature of the faith. To be sure, Abraham and Sarah’s faith wasn’t perfect. Twice Abraham lied about who Sarah was to save himself from the natives who wanted her and who would kill Abraham to get her. That’s hardly indicative of a perfect faith in God’s protection. Then there was the fact that Abraham and Sarah both laughed at God’s promise to give them a child (Genesis 17.17, 18.12). And who could blame them? Both were well beyond child-bearing years! In fact, they tried to take matters into their own hands, so to speak, and this failure to trust God’s promises, despite how ridiculous they sounded, produced the sad story of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16.1-15). When we fail to have faith in the power of God, we rob ourselves of the hope and purpose for living that can be ours. But when we put our faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, imperfect and faltering as it can be, we are promised that we will find the purpose for living and the promised reward of eternal life that results.

Let me give you an example of how this works from my own life. The last years of my parents’ lives were not good and it was heartbreaking to watch. In my mom’s case, she suffered from spinal stenosis, a painful and debilitating disease that robbed her of her movement and independence. She opted to have surgery to correct the stenosis because she wanted to have some purpose to her life again. She was tired of being confined to her house and not being able to interact with others. After two surgeries and months of frustratingly slow rehab, she stroked out after her second surgery and died over a three day period of time. The minute I walked into the ER I knew she was gone and the only thing left to do was to play the waiting game. But it was terribly hard. She struggled to breathe and it was clear she was afflicted with anxiety. As many of you sadly know, it is a hard thing to watch a parent die like that and it would have been easy for me to lose my faith. My daughter actually did after her grandpa’s death (yet another story for another day).

As I sat in that hospital room and watched my mother dying, it flat wore me out. But this is where my faith came into play because through it all I had the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen. I kept reminding myself that despite the ugliness of dying I was witnessing, one day that ugly, sick, worn out body that contained my mom would be raised and transformed into unspeakable beauty, never again to be afflicted with the physical and emotional afflictions I was witnessing. I knew this to be true because I knew my Lord’s resurrection was a fact and that my mom was his, despite appearances at the moment. Her mortal life cycle was about to end, but her real life was about to begin, and I took comfort in that.

And even though I could not see Jesus, I knew he was there with us. In my sadness and in the burden of watching my beloved mother struggle and die, I watched Dondra minister to her. And when things were getting unbearable, two chaplains “just happened” to stop by. Coincidence, right? Yeah, right. Their love and compassion for us all were unmistakable reminders that they embodied the presence of my Lord and I found some relief from my own suffering. I want to stress that things didn’t magically become better. That’s not how faith works. I was still incredibly distressed at the prospect of seeing my mother lying there in weakness and dying. But I found some relief, and it enabled me to go on with courage and hope. My faith saved my sorry butt during those days because it reminded me my mom was going to be OK. In fact, I knew the Lord was there and that she was finally going to find release and ultimate rescue from sin and evil and death.

Does that mean I have perfect faith? Hardly. My life simply does not bear the fruit of one who has perfect faith. The reason I told you this story is to emphasize that I had to be intentional about my faith during that dark time. I had to recall the promises of God. I had to remind myself of their reality. Had I not done that, I could have easily slipped into the abyss of hopelessness as I watched that terrible scene unfold. This is why Scripture reminds us constantly to remember—remember who God is and his mighty acts of power like Jesus’ death and resurrection, especially when we are in the midst of the dark valleys through which we all must walk. We aren’t told why we have to walk through them. We are simply promised a power that is not our own to help us through the darkness (see, e.g., Psalm 77.1-20). This is part of what Jesus was pointing to when he told us in our gospel lesson to not be afraid because it pleases his Father to give us the kingdom.

We can apply these lessons to our other readings as well. As we have seen, faith leads to obedience as God’s people. In the case of our OT lesson, God’s people had lost their faith and acted accordingly. They had divorced religion from their daily life experiences. They came to worship God at the Temple and then lived in ways that produced all kinds of evil and injustice, especially for the poorest and weakest who lived among them. This did not reflect the Image or will of their Creator. So here in our lesson God reminds them (and us) through his prophet that there needs to be a radical reorientation of their lives so that their daily lives reflect the religion they espoused when they worshiped. Religion and daily life needed to be integrated.

And even in the midst of this smack-down, we see the incredible love and mercy of God show through. Once they showed their faith in God by acting the part, once they demonstrated that they believed God not only existed but that he had some very definite ideas about how Israel should act as his people, they would find God’s healing love because it had always been there in the first place, waiting for them to take it. God would be pleased with them because they were living faithful lives in the manner God always intended for them as his people. And if they were skeptical, God invited his people to reason it out with him as to why they should live faithfully because God loves his people and wants only the best for us. This is the love of God made manifest, the love of God who cannot and will not let his people go, thanks be to God.

Likewise in our gospel lesson. Notice how faith is assumed in our Lord’s teaching. Little flock, he tells us, don’t be afraid. It pleases your Father to give you the kingdom. If it pleases your Father to give you the kingdom, how can you possibly fear lacking anything? Your faith leads you to trust me and therefore enables you to give yourselves to others, to embody my great love for all the world. It will be hard at times and you will be taxed. But fear not. It pleases my Father to give you the kingdom! So be ready! This is how you live your faith. Be ready. To be sure, I have been taken from you. But one day I will return, and when I do, I hope to see you living your faith by giving yourself away to others in the manner I have lived and taught. As my servant Paul told you, this means I expect you to love each other and treat each other with charity, compassion, respect, and humility. I expect you to forgive each other, to work tirelessly for each other’s good, and to help each other when you find yourselves in dark valleys. You are to do that not only for each other, but for the world, even though they hate me—and you as well because you are mine.

And if you do these things? Well, when I return I will not ask you to serve me. I will serve you! At this point, we want to say to Jesus, C’mon, man! Everyone knows returning masters don’t serve the servants. It’s the other way around! Not so, says our Lord. Remember when I washed the disciples’ feet on the night before I died? Remember how I suffered and died for you so the kingdom can be yours, even though you are incapable of obtaining it yourself? If you believe the promises these things represent, you will live your lives in noticeably different ways from those around you. And you will live without fear and have real hope! If you don’t believe this, you’ll act just like those who don’t believe in me. They act unjustly and selfishly because they only trust themselves to get what they want/need. They have no faith in me. Don’t be like them.

When you live like me, some will be attracted to you and others will despise you because you expose their evil ways. But don’t be afraid because it is the Father’s good pleasure (and mine) to give you the kingdom. My blood shed for you is proof of that. And when you believe this, you will find what it means to live as a real human being who bears my Father’s Image. It won’t always be a cakewalk now, but the day’s a coming when it will be. And when you believe this, you act accordingly and it is pleasing in my sight. It will be pleasing to you as well because you demonstrate that you understand the Truth, and that you really know you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.