Thursday, August 04, 2016

August 7, Proper 14: Prophecy 6: What is Faith?

Go to this link for the video of a hymn-sing.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 21-24, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40

“Fear not little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” To give you the Kingdom. But so often I hear it said that we are supposed to build the kingdom of God. I heard it at General Synod, as a call for Christian action and church planting and investment and even sacrifice. As if not for our efforts the kingdom of God would not get built.

But according to our Epistle to the Hebrews, it’s already built, and not by us. Its builder and maker is God. It’s waiting for us to get to it and it’s God’s good pleasure to give it to us as we approach it, already now, at least its first-fruits.

That does not mean we should be passive. Rather Jesus gives us all these metaphors for being actively alert, actively ready, dressed for action, your lamps lit. Your activity includes putting down those competing things that distract you, setting aside those desirable things that might hinder you, taking off whatever would slow you down, as active as a second baseman or a shortstop, even before the ball is hit.

It’s not your action that brings it, it’s your action that receives it, it is God who brings it. Your receiving it from God is not by means of your good works, not from your trying to build it by good work, but simply through the medium of your faith. You receive it by your faith.

My topic for today is faith. We use that word a lot. How do you know when you have it? What does it feel like? Wow do you know when you are using it? This topic fits nicely into our sermon series on prophecy, because faith is what prophecy asks for in particular. This might not be true in other religions, but it is true of prophecy in the Biblical sense, prophecy as we’ve seen it in this series of sermons, prophecy as the invitation and witness to the alternate reality, prophecy as that collection of images and icons and windows into that alternate reality—this sort of prophecy exactly appeals to faith. The way that you respond to prophecy, to its invitations and it promises, is by faith.

We use faith all the time in many ways. When you drive down a two-lane highway you have faith in the driver of the truck coming toward you that he will not swerve into your lane. It is a fact of life today that we take enormous risks all the time, and we live with more danger and more complexity than people have ever lived before, so that we have constantly to put our faith in people we do not know and in institutions removed from us. You have to live by your faith in many ways all the time.

Faith is found among certain birds and animals, especially those species that mate for life, like loons, or among domesticated animals towards us who are their masters. “Fido” is a dog’s name because it’s Latin for “faithful.” The faith of animals is rooted in affection. That’s true for human beings too, but our species takes it beyond the level of affection to the level of projection. We put faith in promises, in ideas, in images, of the future, in visions of what might be. “I have a dream!” “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice!” Human beings are the species that is able to envision the invisible and imagine the insensible. We project, and so we all have to live by faith.

Everybody lives by faith, even if we’re not religious. The question is what we put your faith in, whether science or humanity or reason, or nature, or luck, some worldview, a vision of the world, or maybe some god. These are not mutually exclusive, and we interweave these objects of our faith and prioritize them. What do you have some faith in, what do you have more faith in, and what do you have most faith in? By your prioritization you make your choices in life. Think of the many things that you have faith in. You can tell this by how often you’ve been disappointed. Think of the people you’ve had faith in, and again, how often you’ve been disappointed, whether from their failings or maybe from your own transference. To guide your prioritization is one main function of religion.

According to the Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed Church, dating from 1563, faith has three things in it: knowledge, conviction, and assurance (Q21). In that order—knowledge, conviction, and assurance—from objective to subjective, from information to emotion, from your head to your heart to your soul.

Faith needs knowledge; to wit: What exactly are the promises? What is being promised here? What’s the vision, what’s the prophecy, what’s the alternate reality by which we can judge the presenting reality? Does it make sense? Does it help to make better sense of everything else? Is it reasonable? 

Your human reason is not to be denied here, and yet your faith must go beyond your reason, because, by definition, faith is what you engage when you go past proof. Faith is precisely for “things hoped for” and for “things not seen.” As in Hebrews 11:1, famously, “Now faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen.”  That verse is worth your memorizing it, but it’s notoriously difficult to translate, so it’s worth memorizing in several versions. I learned it this way: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Do you catch it? Faith makes its own evidence, so faith is in itself a kind of knowledge.

Then faith moves from knowledge to conviction, from your head into your heart, where it gets personal. To wit: Am I convicted by this prophecy? Does this promise call out to me? What does it demand of me? Can I commit to it? Do I dare? Because, again, by definition, faith responds not to proof but to an invitation. What if I don’t? What do I lose, what do I gain? Will I let it change me? Can I bet my life on it? Dr. King said that you’ve got nothing worth living for if you’ve got nothing worth dying for. Faith has to go from your head to your heart, from knowledge to conviction.

Then your knowledge passes through conviction to assurance. Faith has to go from your head to your heart to your soul. Your soul is the channel of your emotions. You can feel it in your breathing when you have assurance. But your soul is also your connector with your God. Your soul is how you reach out to God as well as the conduit through which God comes into you.

Both Jews and Christians believe that the Spirit of God enters you, and it’s that Holy Spirit who gives you your assurance. If you draw your assurance from your own internal resources, that will fail you, no matter how good you are. So you depend on the Holy Spirit creating assurance inside you.

What does that feel like? The thing is, you’re not going to have a distinct feeling of the Holy Spirit, distinct from your own feelings. That’s because the Spirit prefers to blend into you, like sugar dissolving into water. The way the Holy Spirit does it is by using your head and reminding you of the promises of God, either privately inside you or through the words of a friend or a hymn or a worship service at church.

Don’t find your assurance in your own certainties but find it in the promises of God. “Fear not, little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Your faith is the conduit for you to experience God’s faithfulness to you.

So the secret to assurance is not the what of your faith but the who of your faith. Not just what do you believe, but in whom do you believe? Till recently in this church, whenever I called for you to repeat the Apostles Creed, I would ask you, “What do you believe?” But now I ask you, “In whom do you believe?” The first question was good, but the new one is better. Because the what depends upon the Who. The whole purpose of the what is to point to the Who behind the what.

And also because of the gap between the what that is promised and the what that is received. We are incomplete, we are pilgrims looking for a better city, and we will die before we get there. Like Abraham, like Moses, like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the words of the Epistle, “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. . . . Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, indeed he has prepared a city for them.” You believe in the City of God because you have faith in God. The fullness of the what is still to come, but the fullness of the Who is fully here.

Faith can be rich and powerful and fruitful and world-changing when its knowledge is of many things, of many prophecies and promises. But your faith will save you even if it only knows one thing, the heart of the matter, in whom to trust. A baby does not even know her mother’s name, but she knows her mother as her safety and security. Fear not, little child, it is your mother’s good pleasure to give you her love. I invite you to put your faith in the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

No comments: