Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Lent 1. Celebrating Faith
March 13, 2010, 8:41 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 21st February 2010

Our overall theme on Sunday mornings during Lent is “Celebrating the Faith”, meaning to say the whole complex of beliefs and practices that makes up the Christian religion. But my brief this morning is narrower, omitting the definite article. Not “Celebrating the Faith”, but “Celebrating Faith.” What’s the difference? Part of the difference is in the words that follow “Celebrating the Faith” on the Altar: “We believe and trust.”

I would say that Faith, in the sense of belief and trust, is the fundamental disposition that makes all the rest possible. Faith is the doorway into the Faith. Let me explain. At the Reformation there was a lot of argument among Christians, going on to this day, about what puts someone in a right relationship with God. Is it what you do, or is it “faith”? Actually, a lot of the argument was just about words, but it led to a lot of unhappiness. It involved what people thought the Bible was saying, and sometimes misunderstanding it.

Soon after Our Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension to heaven, the Christian Church consisted mainly of Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Hardly any non-Jews had even heard of Jesus. But from the beginning, Christian leaders such as Peter and Paul came to see that the Messiah or Christ was not just for Jews, but for people of all nations. Paul especially went out into the non-Jewish world to bring the Good News to everyone.

A practical problem soon appeared. If non-Jews wanted to be followers of Jesus, did they have to become Jews? Did they have to accept Jewish food-laws (no pork) for instance? And how important were these rules even for Jews now? You can see that this could be a difficulty. Everyone wanted to be obedient to God, and in the Old Testament God had commanded all sorts of religious practices for Jews, which had never been regarded as applying to non-Jews. But then, the Messiah himself had been regarded as a purely Jewish saviour. It was very confusing.

Paul’s teaching, for instance in his letter to the Christians at Rome, was that the Jewish Law had been a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Now that the Messiah had come, what was really important was people’s attitude to him. This was what put everyone, Jew or non-Jew, into a right relationship with God. The right attitude to Jesus, Paul said, was “faith”.

So what is faith? You know the story of the man who fell down a cliff. He caught hold of a branch, but could not get up or down. He calls “Is anyone there?” and a voice says, “Yes. Let go of the branch.” “Is there anyone else there?” he calls. What the unknown voice is saying, in effect, is “Trust me.” Trust is not a specially religious idea, it is something we need in human life generally. Most of what we believe and rely on we have never proved, or easily can prove. We accept it on trust. The world is round. My parents are really my parents. This medicine will do me good… hundreds and thousands of daily situations depend on trust. Sometimes our trust is let down. Sometimes we definitely don’t trust a particular person. But we could not survive without a general presumption that other people can be trusted, if we have no special reason to doubt them.

Faith, at root, is trust. When Jesus told us about God, do we trust him? When we are told that God loves us and wants our welfare, do we believe it? When he promises to help us when we turn to him, do we rely on that promise? When he tells us how we should live, are we obedient to him? Trust is the basis of our relationship with God and with Jesus. When Paul taught that we are “saved by faith”, what he was getting at is that God can only help us if we trust him. If we refuse to let go the branch, if we wonder if there is someone else out there, God cannot save us.

The Jews did not, and do not, think (as some misunderstand them) that simply doing what the Law says is the important thing. It is doing it because God has commanded it that counts. They trust God to know best how they should live. This is at least a part of faith as Paul means it. The new situation is that God’s word is no longer just a written text, it is a living Person.

Even in ordinary human relationships, when two people trust one another there is a sense of security and peace and happiness. If there is mistrust, there is anxiety and unhappiness. But in human relationships there are times when trust is simply taken for granted, never called into question. A child, hopefully, simply accepts that its parents love it and will take care of it. Only later do they perceive the human frailties that we all have! But sometimes we do find ourselves questioning, perhaps in regard to a new acquaintance, “Do I trust this person?”

How can I be sure of my faith? That can be taken in two ways. How can I be sure I trust God, or Jesus? or, How can I be sure that God, or Jesus, can be trusted? We can answer the second question, “Yes, of course. God is wise and good, God is powerful. What he says, goes!” But do I really trust him? That is tested by seeing how I behave. Do I try to frame my life on his teaching? Do I act as if I trust his promises? Do I in fact obey his commands? The answer, probably, for most of us, is “I do try, but often I fail.”

Jesus once asked a poor man who asked for his sick son to be healed, “Do you believe, do you have faith?” The man replied, “I do have faith- but help my lack of faith.” That was a good prayer. Because faith is not just a matter of will-power, rather it is a surrender to God’s power. We can choose to let go of the obstacles to trust- clinging on to the branch. But the trust or faith itself is something we cannot just create in ourselves. It is God’s own gift to us. We like to feel we are in control of our lives, but then something happens- illness, maybe, or unemployment- and we feel helpless. It is then that we are challenged: do we really believe that God is in control of our life, that he really cares about us? Can we let go and let him decide what is to happen to us?

Faith is a gift. We can see it at work in other people, giving them joy and confidence in what they do for God and for other people. We can envy it, we can ask for it. Faith in God is compatible with a lack of faith in ourselves. Words I read a long time ago, of an old priest, have stayed with me: “In my life, I have often let God down. But he has never let me down.”

How do we think of God? Is he a stern ruler, concerned for his own dignity, issuing laws just to test our obedience and punishing our disobedience? Or is he a wise and loving Father, concerned for our welfare, and giving us advice to keep us safe- advice which we may reject or neglect, but with consequences to ourselves for which we must take responsibility?

Faith involves believing in the truth of what God teaches, in relying on the promises he makes us, in obeying the commandments he gives us. But believing in God’s truth is not the same as always understanding it properly. The promises we are to rely on are of happiness with him at the end, not the avoidance of all pains and problems along the way. His commandments are for our welfare, not just to test our obedience. He may say, “Let go the branch”, when we are in trouble; but are we listening to him saying, “Don’t go near the edge!” before we even get into that position? That is what the Commandments are about. It is when we are given advice that we don’t like that we are challenged most to trust him!

Do we believe in God? We believe and trust in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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