Gen 12:1-9, Heb 11:1-3, 8-16,
Abraham is remembered for his faith. It’s faith that motivates both him and Sarah to undertake a journey to a new land where they will be a blessing to all humankind.
Faith is central to our being here today. Jesus talks about faith often, and praises people who have it. Faith he claims is central to discovering the fullness of life he offers. Often it seems that faith opens the door for the power of God to move as we see in the healing stories of Jesus. Paul proclaims it is faith that will save us, and he is talking about the healing or salvation of the world. Faith is vital stuff, faith is utterly central to the Christian life, but what do we mean by faith?
When I hear people talking it seems to me that the most common way of looking at faith in our time is believing that certain things are true. Faith is believing that God is real, or that Jesus was God’s son, or maybe that Jesus was born of a virgin and walked on water. Faith is about believing the resurrection. People who believe these sorts of things happened usually some time in the past are called people of faith. It is usually about believing that certain things are true which in the normal run of things might be considered odd or even impossible. Equating faith with believing that certain things to be true was given prominence when Protestant traditions like ours were birthed in the Reformation. The reformers were involved in all sorts of arguments about what was true and surprise, surprise, these arguments gave birth to a whole raft of churches that believed different things. New creeds or statements about beliefs sprang up like the Westminster Confession which shaped our Presbyterian tradition. I’ve seen the original confession now held at Westminster College Cambridge and seen the wonderful line in the confession that proclaims the Pope is the anti-Christ which I might add was a popular and common belief at the time among Protestants. In those days people were burned at the stake because they refused to profess a belief in what the others in power believed. Some believed that bishops and priests should run the church while others appointed elders who ruled as a group called the session. Some believed the bread and wine in communion actually changed into the body and blood of Jesus while others said they were powerful symbols.
To help maintain faith as believing certain things in the Presbyterian tradition catechisms became important. The Shorter Catechism set out by the Westminster Assembly in 1647 is a series of 107 questions and answers with scriptural proofs which made the learning of faith easier.
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct
us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A. The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.
If you learned and assented to the Shorter Catechism you had faith, and if you failed to assent you were a doubter and did not have faith. Faith and doubt were hand in hand as opposites.
I simply want to point out that Jesus never went around asking people about their beliefs. Jesus to my knowledge never formulated a creed to express his faith. He never really had arguments about what people he came across believed. Now before you think I might be saying let’s tip all our beliefs down the plug hole I want to affirm beliefs are important, but when we use them to define what we see as faith we risk losing the heart and power of our religion.
When the writer of Hebrews holds up Abraham as a man of great faith, and I think the writer should have included Sarah as well, they weren’t talking about what Abraham and Sarah believed or didn’t believe. Faith for them had a different meaning. The ancient meanings of faith revolve around not what we believe in our heads but faith is about relationship. Specifically there are two key parts of relationship – faithfulness and trust. I invite you to think of what faithfulness means. Commonly today we will think of faithfulness in terms of sexual behaviour. Actually faithfulness has a much deeper and richer meaning. It is about commitment, allegiance, and attentiveness – working to uphold and build up the relationship. Think of what commitment, allegiance, and attentiveness might mean in your journey of faith. Commitment, allegiance, attentiveness. It’s why you are here this morning committing time to maintaining and deepening relationship. It’s what most spiritual disciplines in your life are about, like prayer and contemplation, or spiritual reading or discussion. Upholding and building up the relationship. Of course most of us, myself included, too easily slip into patterns that are lazy in the area of building up and growing our relationship with God.
The second meaning of faith is linked. Faith is about putting our trust in God. I sometimes talk of faith in terms of learning to swim. You’ve heard me talk of this before, but swimming doesn’t come naturally to us humans. We have to learn to trust the water and more specifically we have to learn to trust the buoyancy of the water. I recall learning to swim in Dunedin. We first learned to hold onto the side and let our legs float and then even putting our heads under the water and just holding onto the side. But then we were asked to let go… I learned that as soon as I became afraid and tensed up and started thrashing around that I sank, but if I relaxed and simply lay there on the water I could float. The secret was relaxing and trusting. Faith is trusting in the buoyancy of God. There are other biblical metaphors that may make more sense to you like trusting in God as our rock and fortress. God is our solid ground, our safe place. Interestingly the opposite of this way of looking at faith is not doubt or disbelief, but fear, worry, and anxiety. Ever wondered why one of the most common statements of Jesus is, “do not be afraid”? I know I get anxious and fearful. I sometimes worry about what others might think, or I worry about failing in some way. Sometimes I even think the world rest on my shoulders. I know I have to keep learning to relax and trust God. I know I need to let go, to be still and know that God holds me and yes things may be tough or messy, but I am not alone and I am not abandoned to sink into the depths. I need to remind myself often that it doesn’t all depend on me but I’m walking with God. I know one day I will have to let go of the gift of life. Learning to trust the buoyancy of God is at the heart of faith.
But the writer of Hebrews takes us a step further in our thinking about faith. Stage two of my learning to swim in that dismal Dunedin pool was to hear the instructor say, “now it’s time to learn to swim across the pool to the other side.” Learning to trust the buoyancy of the water wasn’t enough, I had to learn to strike out across the unknown depths for the destination of the other side. By an act of faith Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. Faith opens the door to another place. Faith tells us that this is not as good as it gets, but tells us there is another destination. Faith unlocks the holy discontent of God and says there is a deeper life, a healthier life, a more just life for all. Paul called this other side the new creation. Jesus called this new life the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God and asked us to pray that we would find this new life amongst us now, not in some distant place but here on earth. As Abraham and Sarah looked for a new land where all life existed in a state of shalom or harmonious peace, we are called to seek a new earth. A place where creation is nurtured instead of abused for gain, a place of respect for all people, where huge gaps between the haves and have nots are no more, where our God of justice and love reigns.
I know you have faith. That is why you are here. My prayer today is that we all may go from this time with our faith enlivened and your lamp relit. Ready to work at nurturing our relationship with God, ready to trust the buoyancy of God, ready to seek the life God is calling us to in the new creation… where heaven and earth are one.
Dugald Wilson 11 August 2019