What is Faith?
It’s not a simple question. For us, the answer to that question begins with Genesis … and never really ends.
As I’ve said before, Faith defines how we see ourselves, who and what we choose to have relationships with, and what we envision our end (and the eventual end of all 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 and beauty of Creation. And, it enables us to exist in a world of uncertainty and change.
A lot has been written on the topic of Faith; not just the in Bible, but in everything from Hamlet or Pilgrim’s Progress, to Harry Potter and Star Trek. We admire those who have faith, and we honor those who die for their faith. We seek to encourage faith in others, and our faith impels us to minister to those in need. Faith is a powerful thing, and central to our existence, even though we may have a hard time defining exactly what it is.
The 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrews is a profound response to the question of “What is Faith?” Hebrews is unique, no other book in the Bible is quite like it. It reads 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 familiar with many of those phrases, such as: “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”.
Much of its Theology is subtle, but the delivery isn’t, nor was it intended to be. The author was addressing a community in crisis. The people had lost their faith, and had no hope in their future. The author intended to stir them up; re-awaken their faith; and help them reclaim God’s hope and plan for themselves, their community, and their future.
Chapter 11 is where the evangelist reaches the crescendo of their message. I imagine them preaching it: arms waving in the air, voice thundering, starting each new thought with the ringing phrase “By Faith” …
By Faith Abraham obeyed when he was called … (and)
By Faith he and his descendants dwelt in the land God promised them, even though they did not yet possess it… (and)
By Faith Abraham believed God’s promise of descendants, despite he and Sarah being far too old to procreate…
As I was preparing for this message, I was struck by the sentence that ends this chapter. In it 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 the promises of their faith fulfilled. In fact, we are still waiting…
Second, they were not allowed to see that fulfillment apart from us. They knew this, and yet did not lose hope for themselves. Their hope lies in us, their faith lives on in us, and it is being 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 it to the exclusion of anyone else’s faith: past, future or present, because its fulfillment requires that their faith, and our faith, and the faith of those yet to come, be made perfect, together, for all, and for all time.
And finally, this passage promises that the fulfillment will come, and will be better than any of us ever imagined or hoped it would be.
Faith is not just an individual choice, it is not just our belief, faith is a communal act. Faith defines a community of believers in both a “local” sense – all of us here today, and in a “universal” sense – a community united as one, across all space and time.
Faith is not a passive thing, not an attribute or label. It is a force acting upon all Creation, past and present and future; tying us all together and giving all of us access to the Kingdom of God. Faith makes it possible for all of us to participate in God’s plan; for all of us to see and become part of the Kingdom of God. It is the basis for the hope we all share in the eventual fulfillment of all God’s promises. A fulfillment that will be seen by all of us, together, at one time; not just for a favored few in some distant, nebulous time.
What we have faith in, is something we call “The Kingdom of God.” In our reading from Luke, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God as being immanent, not in some unknown future. In fact, it is already here, simply waiting to be revealed; and its revelation will be unexpected, a surprise; so we must always be ready.
Now, the Kingdom of God is not just a place or a time, but a force: taking us on a journey far different from our intent. It messes with 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; calling into question the claims of those who tell us they have certainty as to the purpose, nature or culmination of God’s Plan.
It is an unpredictable and messy “Kingdom of God” that we have faith in. And, 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, and the role it and we have in the Great Plan of God. Faith defines the nature of our relationship with God; even though we don’t know the details of this promised Kingdom to come.
We view our present through this lens of faith that tells us of the reality of the Kingdom of God. It shows us the path we are treading through time as we progress towards its revelation. It enables us to make sense of the present, and have hope for the future by enabling us to see, through faith, where we are going.
Yet, my original question, “What is Faith?” still has not been answered.
Our reading in Hebrews begins with the words “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, that’s the whole point.
If God came down from on High and set up his throne on the Temple Mount, doling out miracles and judgment to all who petitioned for them, 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 and concrete fact. Faith would no longer be needed.
So, God is a mystery not just because God’s infinite nature is beyond our comprehension; but also because we must choose God, freely: without coercion or deception, out of faith. If we don’t, then we’re simply God’s puppets, or 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. God chose to not stop us from having real choices, with real consequences, and it started with that tree. Choosing what we will have faith in is a real choice, a choice that matters.
And, God did not stack the deck. (Well, not much!) Our choice to have Faith must be made out of our own conviction, not because of someone else’s command or direction or facts.
Now, if science somehow came up with absolutely solid proof that there was no God, no afterlife, no salvation, then why bother believing in such a fiction?
Such a Godless world would be a world without Faith, without hope. Our personal end would be known, and the world’s end would be known: no grace, no salvation, merely a certainty of eventual oblivion for us, and all that we know.
Without Faith there is no Hope. Without Hope, there is no Faith. If there is no Faith and no Hope; then in such a world, I ask you: can Love exist?
To have definitive proof of God’s existence would require God’s active intervention in the present. But, to have definitive proof of God’s non-existence would require going beyond what science is capable of, because to scientifically prove or disprove a thing requires evidence one way or the other. And yet, as we already know, God is not in the business of satisfying our desire for proof, but of building our faith. Proof is not part of the deal, we can’t “Trust. But Verify.”
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 and connects us with our past. Faith helps us find meaning in the present through the lens of hope. Faith helps us envision and find direction for the future, and provides the hope we need for life itself.
We still haven’t defined what Faith is. Perhaps the ultimate answer is that Faith is a mystery, and must remain so: a mystery that can never be fully resolved without destroying Faith itself. As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
So, we have faith, we enact our faith, we build up faith in ourselves and others; and we need faith.
But, “Having Faith” is meaningless except within the context of a community of believers. Our community supports us, sustains us, and helps us understand what our faith means to us. It is foundational to all that we are, and all that we hope to be.
Hebrews was written for a community in a crisis of faith, a situation similar to what we as a nation, and as a people of faith, are facing right now. The lessons of Hebrews are relevant to us here today: that great cloud of witnesses (that the evangelist speaks of, in this chapter of Hebrews) relies on us to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition for all: for them, for us, and for those yet to come.
They’re 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: united as one Body by virtue of the Holy Spirit: a people who have faith that we all have a place in the great Plan of God, through the infinite and irrevocable Grace of God.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, August 7, 2016.
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)