Ordinary Time 20C; Pentecost 13C; Proper 15C
Today and last Sunday, the lectionary has directed our thoughts to Hebrews 11, the great ‘Faith Chapter’. Key Old Testament figures of faith are remembered in this chapter: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Samuel, David, and others. Of course, if we were writing this list today we may have included Sarah with Abraham, and named more women than Rahab. Women like Hagar, Ruth, Deborah and Judith would really round the chapter out for many of us.
The stories of people of faith can be a great encouragement to us. The people of faith we ourselves know can also encourage us.
I want to tell you about a time when I wondered if I really was a person of faith after all. A time when I thought my faith may just evaporate.
First, let me go back to when I was in my teens. I first started intentionally following the Christian way when I was around fifteen. I didn’t have a church, I wasn’t part of a churchgoing family; so when my best friend at school invited me to his church, I was glad to join him there. His church was an Open Brethren group, part of the Plymouth Brethren movement, which you may have heard of. Some of you may not know much about the Brethren; it may help you to imagine them as ‘baptists on steroids’.
This experience introduced me to an understanding of the Christian faith which was based on the bible being ‘inerrant’. I was taught that the bible had no mistakes and contained no inconsistencies. Put it this way: the bible wasn’t just inspired, it was ‘super-inspired’. In other words, very soon I believed that to be a real Christian you had to be what is known as a ‘fundamentalist’.
I was taught that faith was a series of ‘propositions’. I couldn’t have faith without believing in these propositions. I’ve just mentioned one of them—the bible is ‘inerrant’. I knew that people in other churches accepted that there were differences within the biblical text, and I knew (for example) that people in some other churches didn’t believe that Adam and Eve were literally real people in a literally real Garden of Eden.
I was taught people like that can’t really be true Christians, and so that’s what I believed. They didn’t believe the right proposition—‘the bible is inerrant’—so they couldn’t have true faith.
I was encouraged to read widely by one of the men in the congregation. As I did, I realised that the biblical scholars who made the bible really live for me were not fundamentalists (back then it was Oscar Cullmann and Joachim Jeremias). In fact, I began to grasp that scholars like these were actually more biblical that the fundamentalists! That was a startling discovery.
I also noticed things in the bible that I couldn’t reconcile with the fundamentalist ideology. Things like obvious differences in the gospel stories as you go from Matthew to Mark to Luke and especially to John. Things like God commanding the people of Israel to commit genocide. Things like women having to keep silent in churches—that was a big one for the Brethren.
It all started to get too much for me. After about eight years, I left that church. It was a very hard decision to make.
Soon, I began to hear rumours that absolutely floored me. Paul has left us; he couldn’t have been really saved. Or, Paul is thinking about becoming <gasp of horror!> a Uniting Church minister; was he ever a true Christian? I started to doubt myself. Could they be right? Did I ever truly believe?
My friends and I no longer knew how to relate to one another, and we just drifted away. In a very small way, this reminds me of Jesus’ words:
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
(Let’s be clear: Jesus isn’t saying his purpose was to bring division. But division can certainly be a consequence of following Jesus.)
I had hoped that I could remain friends with some of the people in Brethren circles, but it was too hard.
I left the Brethren in the mid-70s. I soon began to wonder just how long I would be a person of faith. Would whatever faith I had just evaporate? Or was it never real in the first place, as some of my former friends were suggesting?
Well, I didn’t leave the Brethren until I had a place to go to. I was welcomed into an inner-city Christian community call the House of Freedom. The people I met there were largely from Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist backgrounds. They accepted me as a person of faith. I found that Presbyterians and Methodists were Christians! And that I could feel at home with them in a way that I couldn’t in the Brethren.
You know, some people talk as if having faith—or rather, having enough of the right kind of faith—solves all our problems. You know—If you had enough faith you’d have recovered from illness. If you have enough faith your child will be kept safe. If you had enough faith you’d never worry again. But faith isn’t always followed by what we call ‘success’. You can see that in Hebrews 11. Some
did extraordinary things: they defeated world powers; put justice into practice; and won promises of loyalty. They closed the jaws of lions; put out raging fires; and escaped unscathed from savage violence. Although their positions seemed weak and vulnerable, they were given strength and became formidable warriors who successfully repelled invading armies. The things faith has achieved! Faith-filled women saw their dead loved ones raised back to life.
But that’s not the whole story. Some of our ancestors in faith
even endured torture—refusing to cave in and go free—sustained by their confident expectation of the ultimate freedom that comes with resurrection. We have stories of others who were publicly humiliated and flogged, or locked up in chains. Others were battered to death with rocks, or sawn in half, or hacked to pieces. We know of others who lived as refugees; forced out into harsh isolated environments, deprived of their basic human rights, and constantly subjected to persecution and harassment. Dressed in rags, homeless, powerless, and shunned; they had to survive as best they could on the edges of a hostile and callous world—a world that did not deserve them!
Some people lose faith because God doesn’t deliver. Max Lucado has said,
Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right.
Sometimes, we appreciate what God does and sometimes we don’t. That’s because God’s not aiming to please us, but to remake us in the family likeness of our elder brother, Jesus. And that’s the focus of our faith. Our faith is in Jesus, and faith guides us on our journey to become more like him.
Faith looks forward. It peers into the distance, believing that God has a new future for the world. Hebrews 11 starts with these words:
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith looks for things that are yet to come. Look at what the Faith Chapter says about Abraham:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going…For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
The ancient people of faith looked forward—to the promise of land, to the Exodus from Egypt, to all that was to come. Like Abraham, they didn’t know the way, but they walked forward together in faith.
God had more planned than they could ever imagine. Firstly, the message would go out to the nations, to us. The great promises of God would be poured out upon the Gentiles too.
Secondly, all this would happen through the Great Example of faith, Jesus Christ. The first few verses of Hebrews 12 would be better included in chapter 11, because Jesus is the person of faith.
We still have something, or better, Someone, to look forward to; we are to
run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…
The end of the journey of faith—the race of faith is a long-distance race—is Jesus Christ. And once more, the purpose of the journey is for us to become like him.
Note this too: as a person of faith, Jesus himself also looked forward:
for the sake of the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Faith looks forward.
It seems to me that when divisions occur, the kind that Jesus spoke about, it’s because faith has forgotten to look forward. Rather, faith has become a means of control and compliance.
That was my experience as I left the Brethren. I was looking for something else. In the words of Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), my faith was seeking more understanding. It doesn’t just happen in churches like the Brethren; it can happen in the Uniting Church.
In my first placement as a minister, a bloke came to me to tell me that the reason the congregation was not being blessed by God was that an occasional attender didn’t believe that the Virgin Birth happened in a literal sense. He saw it as a metaphor for God’s coming into the world and into our lives. That wasn’t enough for the bloke who believed God would not bless us while someone like that was in the congregation.
I had some difficulties with this, because in my opinion people were being blessed. What this bloke meant was that things weren’t going the way he wanted them to go. For him, faith wasn’t about looking forward to Jesus; it was more about uniformity of belief. And that’s a different thing altogether.
People of faith can differ in their beliefs. When faith seeks understanding, people can have different understandings and still be faithful people. When faith looks forward to Jesus Christ, people with differing understandings can be united through faith in the Lord.
Can this work? Well, we saw it in action on Thursday night at the presbytery consultation on marriage and public covenants for same gender relationships. We worked in groups of three, with people we didn’t necessarily know; we were asked to look at such things as
- marriage in the wider community;
- biblical texts and themes that inform our views;
- the Uniting Church’s view of marriage, using the Declaration of Purpose in our Marriage Service;
- differences between Christian people regarding marriage and same-gender marriage; and
- we discussed what would cause our views to change.
There were certainly different views in my group of three, but we shared together with genuine respect. I heard mostly similarly positive feedback from others.
This is the beginning of a process our church is taking nationally. Where will it take us? Like Abraham, we walk together by faith, not knowing the destination but trusting it to God.
Faith looks forward to what Jesus has for us. Faith seeks a deeper understanding of the Good News of God’s grace given through Jesus.
We are people of faith, and in the words of our vision statement, we are
Living God’s mission
as disciples of Jesus
united in the Spirit.
We can do it. Amen!