Wednesday, 28 August 2013

By Faith...

This is a sermon I preached recently on the fabulous paean to faith, Hebrews 11. To listen, click here:

Or you can read on...

In 2007, the writer and comedian Ben Elton wrote a novel called ‘Blind Faith.’ In this dystopian UK of the near future, it is illegal not to have faith, and in this novel, having faith means accepting anything and everything, streamed through internet social media, with nothing more controversial or critical than an ‘Awww, lovely, babe!’
The novel’s title, Blind Faith, hints at the fear that faith means deliberately shutting our eyes to the world around us; like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Ben Elton’s novel captured something of the Zeitgeist; at the 1992 Edinburgh International Science Festival, Richard Dawkins claimed this: Faith is…blind trust…the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.
Ironically, Dawkins’ own blind faith in the concept of evidence leaves many questions unanswered: what kind of evidence? How do we know what counts as evidence? Who gets to decide what is evidence and what is not?

The God that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in is very different indeed from the God I do believe in, the God whom the Christian church worships, so really, it’s not very surprising that Dawkins doesn’t find any evidence for him.

Not only that, but Dawkins’ definition of faith bears no resemblance to any Christian understanding of faith, including that which we’ve heard in our reading of the epistle to the Hebrews. Faith, says the writer to the Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Now I try not to delve too deeply into the original Greek in my sermons, but this morning, I really can’t avoid it, because that statement contains some tricky words.

As it stands in the English translation we’ve heard, it is in danger of sounding as if faith is really all about personal religious feeling – assurance and conviction are words which we might us to describe how we feel when our spirits are soothed or stirred and our consciences pricked. Please hear me when I say that there’s nothing wrong with assurance and conviction –in fact we need more assurance and conviction in our lives and churches – but Hebrews is talking about something else.

The words used in that first statement about faith in our reading today would be much better translated: faith is the substance of that which is hoped for, the proof of things that are unseen. That needs a little word of explanation: the Greek word for substance, hypostasis, is about the reality which underpins everything. In the first centuries of Christianity, theologians debated the hypostasis of God – that is, the very nature, the substance, of God.

This word isn’t to do with religious feeling, it’s to do with claiming a religious reality which is true regardless of how we feel. The word ‘proof’ – ‘the proof of things unseen’ is also about claiming a reality; it’s the same word that was used in Greek courts of law; funnily enough, not a million miles away from the evidence which Richard Dawkins talks about. To Dawkins, faith and evidence are opposites; to Hebrews, faith and evidence are the same thing, because faith is itself the evidence of the underlying reality of God that underpins all that we see.
To borrow a metaphor from C. S. Lewis, having a stomach doesn’t necessarily mean that food is readily available, but it does presuppose that such thing as food exists; so in Hebrews, faith itself presupposes the underlying reality, the substance, of God.

This all sounds pretty abstract, any maybe the writer of Hebrews thinks so too, because he – or she – goes straight from defining what faith is, to describing how it affects peoples’ real lives, in a wonderful passage which I’d so recommend you to read, recounting the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who surround us and stand for us as exemplars of faith.

We often think about faith as having certain Christian beliefs – belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and all the other beliefs which we affirm when we say the Nicene creed – and of course it’s good and important that we can say as Christians what our beliefs are. But the writer of Hebrews isn’t just interested in what this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ believed; this inspirational passage focuses on what these great heroes of faith did – what faith inspired them to do.

That refrain that we hear through the passage, ‘by faith’, is always followed by a verb. Faith is about doing as much as it is about believing. Maybe faith that stays in the heart and mind, and never does anything, is no faith at all. The letter of James in the New Testament sets it out it succinctly: faith without deeds is dead.

A living faith will lead people to do things, and, judging by this passage from Hebrews, it will lead all sorts of people to do all sorts of things. Faith is about doing, but it is not about us all doing the same thing; rather, it’s about us discovering the person whom God has created us to be, and the things which he is inviting us to do.

One of these great heroes of faith in Hebrews is, of course, Abraham, the great Father of Faith about whom we heard in our Old Testament reading. In our reading from Genesis, we hear God not commanding Abraham to have blind faith, but quite the opposite, to look – to look up to the countless stars in the night sky, and to see in them a promise of the children God would give this elderly, childless man.

So Abraham’s faith is quite the opposite of blind. It is a faith that looks – it looks up, it looks forward, and it looks out to the way that God is leading, even when that way is new and unknown. Rather than having blind faith, Abraham has faith that sees far more than most people ever do, sees past the immediate to the lasting, past the temporary to the eternal, past the wilderness and its tents, to the lasting home which God had promised on that starry night.

When I was learning to drive, my driving instructor – the one who finally got me through my test – taught me that the most important part of the human body for steering a car is not the hands but the eyes – we tend to veer in the direction in which we are looking.
What we do starts with what we see, what we notice. We might notice that someone hasn’t been to church for a few weeks, and decide to give them a phone call and tell them we’re thinking of them. We might see that there’ a need for people in the church to help with one of the groups we have, and decide to speak to the person who runs the group. Our doing starts with seeing, and it’s all done in faith, as an expression of how God calls us to live by faith.
Living by faith also means looking inside ourselves, and seeing ourselves as God sees us – being brave enough to consider that God has wonderful plans for us and invites us to come and see them, too.    

And living by faith means seeing the world as God sees it, through the eyes of justice and love. It means being brave enough to consider that God has wonderful plans for his world, and that we can play our part in bringing about that vision of justice and love which we celebrate every Sunday. In his last recorded speech, given the evening before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King, Junior, said this: 

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Mine eyes have seen. In all of Dr King’s doings, this was the central truth. Mine eyes have seen what the world could be like, should be like, must become like if it is in any way to reflect the nature of the God who created it in love. That vision was the inspiration for so much action.

So, catchy though Ben Elton’s book title is, faith is anything but blind. Faith means looking, seeing, noticing – seeing those around us, seeing ourselves, seeing the world – as God sees them. And from that seeing comes doing – acts of service, small things maybe, but that doesn’t matter. Mother Theresa said that not all of us can do great things. But all of us can do small things with great love. And maybe if we could allow ourselves to catch sight of this vision – of God’s vision – we ourselves would stand as the proof, the evidence of the reality of God that underlies everything, for a world so desperately searching for evidence. Amen.  

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