“Faith: What is Faith?”
Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16 ~ Northwood United Church – Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook – August 11, 2019
What is the deepest fear in the heart of the church today? If we were to imagine that we were an organism…a living, breathing body ~ to use Paul’s metaphor of being ‘the body of Christ’, what would you imagine to be the deep-seated fear alive in the church today? As you ponder your response, I’ll give you a hint at what I would propose as the answer. It has nothing to do with finances or bums in the seats and pews, though this surely provides much fodder for discussion in the era of post-Christendom church decline. Our deepest fear has nothing to do with whether we have become too political or lacking thereof. It has nothing to do with us being too liberal, or too conservative, or falling under for that matter that we place negative connotations upon. I think that the deepest fear in the heart of the church today is that faith will not be at the centre of who we are.
When we think about the church, faith has always been the core foundation of our existence. In fact, it has been the foundation of all religious communities since the beginning of time. Imagine any World Religion that has ever existed…faith has been the core of what united them, what grounded them, what informed them. We might love Northwood and have joined in the anniversary celebrations. We might love the people who make it a church. Yet at the centre of it all is…faith. Faith is what grounds us. Faith is what allows us to live and move and have our being in God. As the children’s analogy of the church goes: ‘this is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors and see ~ (I would like to propose) not ‘all the people ~ but rather…the faith of all the people’. Faith is the core essence of what we practice, what we seek to grow. Everything is an extension, an expression of faith. If we were to think of ourselves as being a business…we are in the faith business. Not just community-building ~ though we certainly value community. Not just service and caring for others ~ though we are called to live our faith. It is not just love or laughter or friendship or stained-glass windows and beautiful buildings ~ as beautiful and sacred as all those might be. We are a community founded upon faith. As Paul puts throughout various letters to the early church: ‘It is by God’s grace, through faith, that we are saved’. It is our faith that allows us to experience, and participate in, God’s grace. It is our faith that allows us to discover our unique identity as God’s beloved child; it is our faith that allows us to live within and further experience the unfolding mysteries of God. The goal and the purpose of the church is in being, first and foremost, a community of faith; a community that embraces faith; that shares faith; that lives faith. And whenever you hear someone raising a fear of the church ~ it’s direction, its decision making, its stance…you will find that at the core of the fear is the concern over the church losing its way in faith. Indeed, Jesus’ fear was voiced in a similar way: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
An appropriate place to begin is in considering what it is and what it is not. We talk about faith so much, have you ever considered a definition? What is faith, we ask? As we begin an exploration into faith over the coming few weeks in the summer, this question of faith’s definition forms the nature of this morning’s service. Through this service, it is my prayer that we will all come to a deeper awareness of the essence of faith in our lives. Is faith given from God? Is it something that we bring to the table on our own? Is there ‘blind faith?’ Do we need encouragement to have faith? So many questions about faith, aren’t there? Our conversation partner over these coming weeks will be the letter to the Hebrews that we find towards the end of the Bible. Many will be aware that there is a set of assigned readings that the United Church, along with the majority of Christian churches in the world follow. And over the next few Sundays, one of the threads that intrigued me was a focus on the Letter to the Hebrews.
A little background on the letter to the Hebrews is probably helpful given that we do not spend a lot of time with it on Sunday mornings. Firstly, while it comes towards Paul’s Pastoral Letters, it is not attributed to Paul. The writer of Hebrews, in fact, is unknown. Reading through Hebrews, it is clear that the community to which they were written, however, were (as the letter is titled) were Hebrew people deeply versed in the story of God’s presence as revealed in the Jewish community. As we embrace the text, the immediate challenge will be for us to put aside our 1st World privileged status and hear these words within a community who lived challenging lives on account of their faith. Some of the people in this community were subjected to prison; others had their possessions plundered; most experienced hostility, ridicule and shame. All because they followed Jesus, a crucified saviour and they found themselves at odds with the surrounding culture. So…imagine with me for a moment that your faith was something that put you at odds with your culture; imagine that your faith put you at odds with your family; imagine that your faith put you at odds with achieving a comfortable life; imagine your faith cost you ~ in some cases ~ everything. If we can be gin to imagine, even some of these things, then we are beginning to have the world-view of the Hebrews.
So what is faith? The working definition that we are given from Hebrews is found in verse 1: “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. As we begin to unpack this definition and set it beside our own experience, we first notice that faith is incredibly multi-layered. Faith is not a simple matter of ‘blind belief’, is it? There is a component which originates from God. It is “the assurance of things hoped for. Faith is an assurance…a gift of God’s unconditional love. Yet faith does not stop there. Faith is not a passive ‘download’ from God. Faith is also our human response of trust and gratitude that is later expressed in deeds of love, justice and care. The word for “assurance” in Greek is ‘hypostasis’. This word is consistently used to express a confidence in things that cannot be verified or confirmed. Yet, with faith, there is a confidence, an assurance, a conviction in the arrival of that outcome. It will come…may tomorrow …perhaps in many tomorrows…it will come one day! God’s grace and provision will arrive…in time. With faith, there is a deep feeling of confidence that all will be as God wishes one day.
A second dimension of faith is that the believer anticipates the final outcome of what is being believed. In our faith, we actually participate in God’s outcome. Now to be clear, it is not that such anticipation will cause the event to happen. But rather with faith we are active participants (not passive) in the unfolding of God’s Kin-dom on earth. Later on, we will explore the ethical components of faith’s calling. With faith, we actually participate in a sacred partnership in the unfolding of God’s vision of peace, justice and love. With faith being an assurance of things hoped for, we find a deep sense of knowing that God’s Way will unfold in God’s gracious time. With faith, we come to actively participate in the unfolding of the Kin-dom.
Finally, a further dimension of faith is that it almost serves as a new kind of seeing. While the later half of the definition speaks of “a conviction of things not seen”, with faith we learn to ‘see’ with the eyes of faith. Seeing with faith allows us to begin to perceive the Way of Jesus and understand, more deeply, who we most truly are: a creature created and loved in the image of God…part of the living body of Christ destined to fulfill his Way on earth. We more fully see that the accumulation of wealth, or power, or privilege is not a part of our core identity. But rather our identity is found in our reception and expression of God’s love. With faith, we see with the eyes of Christ.
Perhaps an illustration might bring something so intangible as faith to life even further. A little ‘show and tell’ on my first Sunday back. One activity I had the joy of participating during my holiday was entering the ‘Rugged Maniac’ with a group of friends. The race was run over 5 kilometers where you would navigate obstacles such as climbing through mud pits, jumping over fire pits, and climbing up rope ladders. My two favourite team-mates were my two children. In the picture on the screen, you can see us on the final obstacle as we slid down a 30 foot slide to the finish line. What the picture doesn’t show you is how you get to the top of the slide. On the next slide, you can see that there is a 15 foot warped wall that you must run at full speed towards, then as the wall curves upwards, you run up and jump to reach the top of the wall where your team mates are there to help pull you up. The warped wall is the most difficult of the 25 obstacles…partly because it is at the end of the race and you are tired. But mostly because in order to get to the top of the wall, you need to have faith in your team in catching you and pulling you up. Few of us can ran the wall and pull ourselves up unassisted, yet all of us were able to run at full speed and then have the faith to know that if we reach out our arms and jump, our team mates will catch us and help us to the top of the wall. It is like watching a great trapeze artist. There is the flyer, who flies back and forth while gripping the trapeze bar and there is the catcher who is hanging by their legs with open arms to catch the flyer. Usually we think of the star as the flyer who fearlessly leaves the bar and flies to the catcher. The real star in the trapeze world is the catcher because the catcher is the one who actually does the work and is relentlessly there for the one flying to her.
As you can see, we have just begun to look at the tip of the iceberg in considering what faith is. Our journey ahead will further explore what faith is not, how faith might surprise us, how faith might inform our living. But this morning, we give thanks for this core gift of our lives…faith…“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.