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.” So then, what is Hebrews 11 teaching us about what “Faith” is?
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…
At the core of the concept and calling of discipleship is the idea that, while journeying with others as they learn, we are learning more about our own faith, about ourselves, and that God’s Love is around us and within us all the time. And so, it is hard to justify interpreting Paul’s journey to Macedonia as being only to evangelize others or to “save” a rich merchantwoman from eternal Hellfire and Damnation.
Our scripture readings this morning all touch on different aspects of the issue of Discipleship.
In Acts 16, we see Paul and his team of co-workers responding to Paul’s vision that they are to minister in Macedonia. Once they arrive there, we see a woman in turn responding to Paul’s evangelism. She establishes a church within her own home; a church that Paul’s Epistles tell us supported him and his ministry for the rest of his life. Yes, Paul, Silas and Timothy were all Disciples. But, so was Lydia and so were those who succeeded her in the Church at Phillippi, and so are we.
Our reading from the end of the Book of Revelation is John’s penultimate vision of New Jerusalem: descending from Heaven, unifying Heaven and Earth. We will finally see the face of God; forever free from any curse or sin.
Paul’s dream, his work, and ours, are all part of preparing for the New Jerusalem; which is the goal of our Discipleship: the vision in the Book of Revelation is of what will be made manifest when our work, as disciples working together to build the Kingdom of God here on earth, is complete.
But, Literalists tend to see this passage, and the Book of Revelation as a whole, as a declaration of how everyone must become a Christian, and that those who refuse that call will perish. (Meaning us too, since we do not interpret the Bible in the same way they do.) For many of them, the Book of Revelation is an affirmation that there is one and only one true faith, and that it is theirs. It saddens me how those who believe there is a very narrow path to salvation are often equally certain they are one of the few who have actually found it.
But, did Jesus actually teach this? Is it a helpful interpretation of scripture?
Lent teaches us that the Kingdom of God is not a magical solution to all of the bad things we’ve had to endure. It will not take away our pains or erase our scars. The Kingdom of God is about Love, not hate. It is about healing, not magic; it is about conquering fear, not eliminating what spawned that fear within us. The Kingdom of God comes about after the death of all of our hope, and all of our fear. The Kingdom of God is realized only through our openness, brokenness, and repentance.
On Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem: The Crowds celebrate his arrival, believing it heralds a new era for the people of Israel. The Messiah has come, and will set everything right: the occupiers and their Empire will vanish; the evils and oppression they brought with them will be cleansed from the land. The incompetence and greed of Israel’s own leaders will be made as if it had never been, once David’s descendant, anointed by God himself, takes his rightful place on the throne.
Israel will regain its long lost greatness, and will indeed become greater than ever: a new Empire of God, with the Son of God himself as their King. The glory of the Temple and God’s renewed presence within it will shine forth to every nation and people in all the world, forevermore. It’s all so beautiful, so wonderful, so magical: what a great thing to witness. What a great time to be alive.
But then it all comes crashing down. Now, just a few days later, Jesus and his disciples are hunted by the authorities: they know it is only a matter of time before Jesus, and maybe all of them, are arrested and maybe even executed.
The crowds are turning against this latest in a long string of disappointing Messiahs. They now see that the magic they’d seen in him has no substance or reality at all. In the eyes of the people and their leaders, he is a fraud.
The magic is gone. The people feel that Jesus has betrayed them; and the disciples feel that God has betrayed them, and it seems like everyone has betrayed Jesus.
To Christians, the veil of Death, that dark, impenetrable horizon that marks the end of the journey of all of our lives, is not a fearful boundary between the worlds of the living and of the dead. It isn’t the end. Yes, the dead do not return – yet, but there is nothing to fear – as Christians we know that our journey will require us to travel through the valley of the Shadow of Death during our lives, and then beyond – into the realm of death itself. But, Jesus has returned, has shown us that God’s love – the undying and uncompromising love of our Creator, the creator of all that is, including Time itself, is a love that is more than sufficient to pierce the veil that separates these two worlds.
Halloween is a very ancient festival, known as Samhain by the Celts. It was the Festival of the Dead. Cattle were brought back from their summer pastures and livestock slaughtered for the winter. Bonfires and lanterns would be lit; and the spirits had to be propitiated so that the people and their livestock would survive the winter.
Like most major feasts in ancient calendars, Samhain was a day of transition: in this case marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the season of darkness: a time of concern. In these ancient communities, which did not have the safety nets or resources we have now, a bad winter, or a bad harvest, or a delayed Spring, could be catastrophic. They knew something had to be done to calm supernatural anger. It was necessary to seek help from friendly spirits and from one’ ancestors who were already in that realm.
Many ancients, not just the Celts, believed that at this time of year the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest, making it easier for us to communicate with those – the spirits of the dead and supernatural entities – who are part of that realm, but it also made it easier for them to trouble us if we didn’t treat them right! Halloween and All Saints Day both recall these beliefs, which have persisted for thousands of years, or more.
All Saints Day was a joint celebration for all the Saints of the Church – since there were far too many to each have their own feast day, and All Souls Day was a day to remember the faithful who died in the previous year.
Most Protestant Churches have either merged these three days into a one day celebration that recognizes all saints of the church – known and unknown (meaning us, when we pass, too); or else they ignore the Festival completely – like the old Calvanists did – disdaining the Holiday, as they did all Holidays, as being too “Popish” in nature.
The tie that links Halloween, All Souls Day and All Saints Day together is the same ancient belief the Celts had, that the veil between this world and the next is thinnest at this time of year. It was a day very appropriate for seeking to calm our fears and uncertainties in this world by reaching out to the next, as the three days in the Medieval Christian Festival each did in their own ways.
I want to reflect for a moment on my last sermon, given on October 4th, where I spoke on the concept of Belief. I pointed out that as Christians, we often think that “believing” is a goal – of having a firm, unshakeable commitment to the absolute truth of God. But, I argued that belief is actually a process – a journey with God, not a journey to God. Belief is not something we achieve, not a goal. Belief is something we do. We don’t know where Belief will take us in our journey through life, but we know where we’re going to end up.
The point of this morning’s reading from The Revelation of John is similar: we’re not certain what road we’ll follow to get to the end, but that we’ll get to the end is certain.
The seeds of the Kingdom of God always surprise us – often originating as what others see as a weed or a nuisance. And yet – they grow and grow and grow, and are unstoppable. … This is how our faith is: small beginnings that produce wonderful results we didn’t know could happen!
This particular lesson looks at the Parable of the Mustard Seed, which is found (with only minor differences) in Matthew 13:31–32, Mark 4:30–32, and Luke 13:18–19.
This lesson works best when presented at the time of the year (May or early June) when the “Garlic Mustard” plant – an invasive weed here in the U.S. – is in blossom. It is often widespread in the understory of forested areas, and can also be found growing in disturbed soils, including along the edges of roads, paths, fences, etc.
Presented at First Baptist Church, Belmont, MA; June 17, 2012.
Scriptures: 2nd Corinthians 5:6-17 (We walk by faith, not by sight…)
Mark 4:26-34 (The Parable of the Seed that Grows of Itself and the Parable of the Mustard Seed)
How many of you are familiar with the Garlic Mustard plant?
It’s a common weed in this area. If you crush its leaves, it smells like garlic; and it has a taste similar to that of mustard, hence it’s name. In colonial times it was a common herb, since the colonists had no money to buy spices from overseas, such as pepper, even if they had access to them. It was also very easy to grow. …Perhaps a bit too easy.
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.