Sermon presented at the Congregational Church of Grafton, MA, July 1, 2012.
Mark 4:30-32 (Parable of the Mustard Seed)
Hebrews 11:1-7 & 11:32-12:2
What is Faith? That’s not a small question. In Christianity, the answer to that question begins with Genesis … and never really ends. Faith defines how we see ourselves, who and what we choose to have relationships with, and what we envision our end and the end of Creation, to be. Faith helps us make sense of the events and circumstances that shape us and our world. It lays out a path for us to follow into the future. Faith enables us to gaze into the infinite and the unknowable and find a place there for ourselves. It helps us make sense of the mystery of God and the vastness of Creation. Faith enables us to exist in a world of uncertainty and change.
Faith. A great deal is expressed in that one tiny little word. So, it’s kind of audacious to think we can have any sort of meaningful exploration of this topic and yet still have time to get to the Sox and Mariners game this afternoon.
A lot has been written on the topic of Faith. Not just the Bible, but everything from Hamlet or Pilgrim’s Progress to Harry Potter and Star Trek.
We talk a lot about Faith too, saying things like “I have faith in Evolution” or “This (or that) strengthened my faith” or, “I lost (or I found) my Faith.” But, we never define what Faith is, even though we talk a lot about how much of it we have, or need, or how to find it, or how to use it.
We also talk a lot about how important faith is to us. We admire those who have strong faith, and we honor those who die for their faith. We seek to encourage faith in others, and we minister to those in need as a product of what our own faith impels us to do. Faith is a powerful thing, and central to our existence.
Yet, even though we talk a lot about what to have faith in; or, how to find faith; or, how to use our faith, we never define what it is. It’s assumed we already know. I’m not sure that’s a good assumption.
The 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrews is, I think, one of the best statements in the Bible as to what Faith is. Hebrews is unique, and there is no other book in the New Testament quite like it. We call it an “epistle”, meaning a letter, but it reads more like an old time evangelist’s sermon: full of color, movement, stirring imagery and ringing phrases that were meant to be memorable when spoken. We are all familiar with many of them, even though where they originated is may be forgotten. Some in this morning’s reading include: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” – and – “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” – or – “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith”.
Although much of the theology of Hebrews is subtle, the delivery isn’t, nor was it intended to be. The author was addressing a community in crisis. A community that had lost its’ faith, a community that had no hope for the future. The author’s intent was to stir these people up, to re-awaken their faith, to help them reclaim God’s hope and plan for themselves and their community.
Now, we don’t know what community that was, nor do we know who wrote Hebrews. Scholars think it was written sometime between 60 and 90 AD by someone who was well acquainted with Paul’s writings, and perhaps knew some of his disciples. The author was also well educated in both Greek and Christian thought. A scribe in the second or third century added the title “Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews”, but it seems they were making an educated guess, and knew no more than we do about the origins or audience for it, though scholars are fairly sure that Paul himself is not the author.
Chapter 11 is where this evangelist reaches the crescendo of his message. I imagine him as really rolling at this point, arms waving in the air, voice thundering, starting each new thought in his message with the ringing phrase “By Faith” …
By Faith Abraham obeyed when he was called … (and)
By Faith Moses was hidden by his parents … (and)
By Faith the People passed through the Red Sea …
And so on…
As I studied this chapter, I was struck by a sentence near the end of it, where, after inspiring us with examples of long ago heroes of faith, the evangelist says:
“Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
What an odd statement. … Kind of troubling in fact, especially that last bit: “…so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
This statement very clearly says three things.
First, those who came before us did not see their own faith fulfilled in their lifetimes. All of the promises they hoped and lived for were not fulfilled, and are still waiting to be fulfilled.
Second, that in fact, they are not allowed to see that fulfillment apart from us, and somehow they knew this, and yet did not lose hope for themselves. Therefore, their hope, as the author says, lies in us, their faith lives on in us, and it will (somehow) be fulfilled through us. Their faith, their faith, ties us to them. Our faith is not ours alone, but theirs as well. We share faith, we don’t own it outright, we can’t claim our faith as ours alone.
Third, and finally, it says that the fulfillment will come, but will be even better than we (and our predecessors) had hoped it would be.
The text states that the Faith of those who came before cannot be separated from our faith of the present. Faith is not just an individual choice, it is not just our belief, it is a communal belief, one that binds our community together in the present, and across time: tying the community of the past to the present, and tying us to the community of faith of those who come after us. The author of Hebrews is saying that Faith defines a community of believers in both a “horizontal” sense – all of us here today, and in a “longitudinal” sense – across time.
More importantly, this faith is not just a passive thing, giving us an identity as a people of faith. The author makes the amazing claim that this faith is a force acting across time, right now, tying us all together and in so doing giving all of us – past, present and future – access to the Kingdom of God. Our faith and the faith of those who came before us work together, to make it possible for all of us to participate in the future, for all of us to see and participate in the Kingdom of God. Our faith today provides Hope to those who came before, and the faith of those who follow is the basis for our own hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises in the future.
Another aspect of this is that the hope we have for the future, what it is we have faith in, is something we call “The Kingdom of God.” In our reading from Mark, Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God as being in the present, not some future event, as we often think of it. And, as we learned from our discussion about the mustard plant, the Kingdom of God is not just a place or a time, but a force: it takes us on a journey far different and far beyond where we intended to go, and messes up the orderly world that we think we have created for ourselves. It forces us to look at things in ways we’d never thought of before.
This unpredictable and messy “Kingdom of God” is what we have faith in. When we say we are “of the Christian faith” it means we have a specific view of the purpose of creation, of our vision for the direction and eventual culmination of history, of our hope for our community in the present and across time, and of the role it and we have in the plan of God. It also defines the nature of our relationship with God. We don’t not know all the details about this Kingdom, and its clear, as we saw with the excitement over “May 22nd” earlier this year, that some claim to know far more about the Kingdom of God than they really do.
Yet, we view our present through this lens of faith, this lens of our faith in the reality of the Kingdom of God, this lens that shows us the path we are treading through time as we progress towards the Kingdom. This lens that enables us to make sense of the present, and have hope for the future. This lens helps us make sense of the present by enabling us to see, through faith, where we are going.
We’ve now uncovered a couple of things about faith that we don’t often think of, that faith defines a community in the present and across time, and that our faith is not ours alone, but that of our community as a whole. Yet, my original question, “What is Faith?” still has not been answered.
To get that answer, we could just look it up in a dictionary or online, but, since we have a whole Bible devoted just to helping us understand what Faith is, it would seem that Websters or Wikipedia are not going to provide more than a minimal definition for us. One dictionary’s definition goes like this: Faith is confidence or trust in a person or thing: it is a belief that is not based on proof. This definition is very close to what we found at the start of this morning’s reading in Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Well, this seems like a good start. Faith is a belief in something for which proof does not exist. In fact, I’d argue that’s the whole point.
If God came down from on High and set up shop on the Temple Mount, doling out miracles and judgment to all who petitioned for such, faith would no longer exist: we would no longer be a people who choose to have faith in God. Instead, God would be an inescapable fact. Faith would no longer be needed.
I believe God is a mystery for a reason, and not just because God’s infinite nature is beyond our full comprehension. God is a mystery because we need to be able to choose, a choice made freely and without coercion or deception. Otherwise, we’d be no better than God’s puppets, or God’s pets. That the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden had no protection around it to keep us from partaking of it was deliberate. In order to have Faith, we must be able to choose freely. Therefore, God chose to not stop us from having real choices, with real consequences, starting with that tree.
So, I believe God designed this universe so that our choice to have faith in Him would be without coercion. God did not stack the deck to force us to choose in his favor. Our choice to have Faith had to be one made out of our own internal conviction, not a choice we make at someone else’s command or direction.
Similarly, if science somehow came up with absolutely solid proof that God did not exist, then faith would cease to exist in this case, too. If it was clear there was no God, no afterlife, no salvation, why bother believing in a fiction?
Not only would such a Godless world be a world without Faith, but also a world without hope. Our personal end would be known, and the world’s end would be known. There would be no unknown, no doubt, only certainty of our own fate and the fate of all we know, and that it is inescapable.
To say it another way, without Faith there is no Hope. Without Hope, there is no Faith. If there is no Faith and no Hope, then I ask you: can Love exist?
Yet, even science has a set of principles we rely-on, that we put our faith in, to find the answers to the questions we ask of it. If we did not have faith in the validity and value of the scientific method, science would useless to us. So, science is a type of faith. A faith that seeks to probe the mysteries of the universe in ways different than Christianity, but nevertheless, is still a faith.
Therefore, to have definitive proof of God’s existence would require God’s active intervention in the present. To have definitive proof of God’s nonexistence would require going beyond what science is capable of, because even going to bed at night with the expectation that we’ll wake up to see the sun in the morning is a matter of Faith. Faith is an inescapable fact of life. We cannot exist without it.
Let’s see where we’ve gotten so far on this quest: we’ve learned that Faith is an integral part of who we are and how we see ourselves. Faith gives us a place in our community, faith connects us with our past, with that “cloud of witnesses” the evangelist talks about. Faith helps us find meaning in the present through the lens of our hopes for the future. Faith helps us envision and find direction for the future, and faith provides the hope we need for life itself.
But, we still haven’t defined what Faith is; we’ve come close. Like so many other issues when discussing faith, we’re dealing with an infinite and ultimately unknowable God, the vastness of all Creation, and the unimaginable span of years from the Beginning to the very end of Time, and even beyond all of these things.
So, I think the ultimate answer is that faith is a mystery, because all that we have faith in is a mystery, and is a mystery that can never be fully resolved without having faith to begin with.
We have faith, we enact our faith, we build up faith in ourselves and others, and we need faith. But, we can never fully define what it is that so moves and sustains us.
I’ll close by emphasizing once again the communal nature of Faith. Faith is a communal act, not merely an individual choice or belief. If you think about it, having faith is meaningless except within the context of a community of believers. We need that community to support us, to sustain us, and to help us understand what our faith means to us, and that it is foundational to all that we are, all that we understand, and all that we hope for.
The evangelist who wrote Hebrews was addressing another community in another time. A community facing a crisis of faith, in some ways similar to the situation we as a nation, and as a people of faith, seem to in right now. So, I think the lessons of Hebrews are of value to us. The great cloud of witnesses the evangelist wrote about still exists, and they are relying on us to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition for all of us.
The faith of those in the past is still with us. We are all one community, all part of the same Body, stretching across space and time. We are a single people, a people of the Christian Faith, a people united in the Body of Christ, a people who have faith that we are united in the Kingdom of the Living God.
Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).