This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 18th August 2019, the tenth Sunday in Pentecost.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, 29-12:2
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen: for it was by faith that our ancestors received approval. So we are told, in the phrasing of the New Revised Standard Version in Hebrews 11:1-2. This verse has been of great comfort and rousing sustenance for many, including me, but a nagging question has arisen for me in recent years, and especially in recent days: what exactly is faith? Specifically, what does this word mean in this case?
I have mentioned more times than I’d like to, and I’m name-dropping it here again, that the first of my four university degrees was in Sociolingustics. I mention this now, and all times previously, to tell you why it is that I am so nerdy about language. I’m a words-nerd, as well as a preaching-nerd, and I love the way that language works. In the way that some people get all sweaty about number patterns, or galaxies, or the intricate dance of sub-atomic particles I cannot get enough of how sounds and scribbles make meaning, and the different messages conveyed by the same words in different situations. So that’s me, and my personality, and my interest. So it’s not that I have a university degree in something the rest of you have never even heard of and that that is a reason for me to boast, no it’s an excuse for why I’m such a nerd about words. It’s an apology really; but probably less than full-hearted because here I am doing it again.
So, “faith”; what is this word and what does it mean in Hebrews 11 and in my-slash-our today?
Well, I have come to the conclusion that oftentimes when Biblical authors and editors write of faith the key outcome is always about trust or hope. Christian Faith (and Jewish Faith for that matter) is not about a list of doctrines or proofs for truth, faith is trust is the one who is inescapably more and who is therefore utterly dependable and trustworthy. This is why I like the way the New Revised Standard Version uses the phrase faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen because assurance and convictions are words about trust: whereas the more common (at least to my ears) phrasing that faith is the evidence of these things is more about proof of truth. So, maybe you are scientifically or mathematically minded and for you God is a puzzle to be solved or an equation to be…equated…whatever, and for you evidence is an important word. That’s fine, I’m not saying it isn’t. But for me, a sociolinguist (someone who looks at language as it is used in society) and a narratologist (someone who look at how stories are put together) God is a story to be read, and Christianity is an autobiography to be lived. I don’t look for evidence to prove a theory and make a law; I look for assurance and conviction to keep going toward the next chapter, it’s how I am.
I hope I haven’t lost you. Have I? No? Good. My point is that Christianity is a personal thing and God works with us, the us who we are not only as sinners in need of grace but women and men with unique personalities and distinct interests, and that because of that the words we use can have different implications depending upon where we have come from in life.
I believe truth. So there’s a statement for you, just in case you were wondering about all my talk of assurance rather than evidence. I have read where Jesus calls himself the Way, Truth, and Life, and I have assurance and conviction that Jesus is the Truth, and that if I follow Jesus and get close to him through discipleship then I will be where Truth is. So let me tell you something true, something I have found to be true by following Jesus for more than forty years.
The deepest truth of Christianity is that we are not saved by faith.
Wow, weren’t expecting that were you? Actually as the congregations where I preach regularly (or as readers of my blog, hello!!) you might well have been. No, here’s the tricky linguistic bit: we are saved by grace through faith.
The deepest truth of Christianity is that we are saved by grace.
This is actually the deepest truth of Judaism too, salvation by grace: Jews are saved simply because God chose Abraham (seemingly at random) and promised him the salvation of his descendants simply because God wanted to do it. Yes there were covenants and so forth, but the fact that Abram was offered a covenant out of nowhere, and no-one else in Sumer was offered such a covenant, is significant. The realisation of that promise came because of Abram’s response, and that story is summarised for us at Hebrews 11:8-12. The significance of that story today is that Abram knowing nothing about God, having no set doctrine or a Romans Road of Salvation set before him, chose to say “yes” and to trust the God who addressed him. Grace saved Abram, and he allowed himself to be saved by trusting the One who held out a hand to him.
So as for Abram and the heroes of Jewish History, so for us that salvation is entirely and solely through the free gift of God who is Father to us. Those of you hearing me this morning (or reading me later) and who are saved were not saved according to how well you acceded to doctrine, I mean how much of Christianity you believe to be true, or how complicit you are in the idea that faith is belief without evidence. No, salvation is by grace: and your part in it, the faith aspect, is that you trust that Jesus did it all on the cross and therefore there is nothing else you can do or say that will add to your salvation.
Salvation by grace means that no matter how else you try to save yourself you will fail: only the blood of Christ can save. Even if you are trying to save yourself through the work of belief and gathering evidence which demands a verdict in favour of The Gospel argument, that work in itself will not save you. God’s grace is not a trial to be won but a gift to be received, a gift which is all-sufficient and needs nothing else. Salvation by Christ’s blood needs no batteries, no patch, no 2.0, and neither does it need help from you or your creeds. As was read to us in Hebrews 11:13-16 there are options to return to safety and to stop trusting God, you may well have been there where it’s a bit “whoa God, slow down eh, this one’s too deep for me” and you are wondering whether God’s sat-nav is out when you’re slipping all over Kane Swamp Road all the while knowing that Yarrock Road is bitumen and would have got you there more safely. I think the point here is that God’s way is trustworthy, even if Subaru’s installation of Tom Tom and/or your own sense of direction and expediency is not. Jesus who is the Truth is also the Way after all. This is why assurance, in my thinking, is better than evidence.
But what about the legitimate place of evidence: I mean, just because I personally am a word-nerd it doesn’t make Science wrong. In other words, what’s the point of faith and creeds? Is there any point to these? Yes, the point of creeds and beliefs is discipleship; in other words how your salvation directs your life of gratitude and thanksgiving, and worship and service.
In Hebrews 11:29-12:2 we read a summary of a summary, how by faith (which is to say with complete trust in God’s goodness and ability) God’s people went from the condition of enslaved, landless Hebrews in Egypt to established Israelites in Israel with David of Judah as king. Look at the record of history and scripture, hear the traditions of the elders and scribes passed down in word and deed, remember how faithful God is and know, always know, that God is to be trusted. God is so good that God saved us by grace, and by God’s grace we live in confidence and trust that by God’s grace we will never be shamed or destroyed. It’s only when trust in God’s grace is misplaced and we try to save ourselves that things go pear-shaped: that is when we end up in a divided kingdom without an heir of David to reign over us, and then the whole twelve tribes end up landless and enslaved again, this time in Babylon, where Jeremiah waits for us with a wagging finger and a plaintive cry of “if only!!”
Trust-derived discipleship looks like many things for me, but here’s one as an example. I believe that I was created in the image of God, and I believe that because that’s what it says in Genesis 1:26. That belief won’t save me, Christ’s activity on the cross saved me, but the belief that I am God’s very own and that I was made by God in God’s own image for God’s own glory and delight directs how I live my life. As imago Dei I try to live as Christ would, if not entirely WWJD then at least following the character of the man revealed in the gospel accounts. And, perhaps more so, if I’m created imago Dei then so are you, and that belief which does not save me might save you because I’ll honour you as a child of God and a divine presence because of that. I’ll treat you as sacred, set apart by God to bear God’s image in the world; and I’ll treat you as precious and important, and I’ll tell you how special you are as imago Dei, the image of God, in case you’ve never been told that, or you once were told but now you’ve forgotten and you life looks more like Babylon than Jerusalem.
In Hebrews 12:1-2, which I remember was a memory verse for the Year Ten class at my Christian school in 1987 (but which I have forgotten enough that I can no longer recite it from memory), we are presented with a great image. The great cloud of witnesses has been compared to the end of the Olympic marathon where the final part of the race is a lap of the stadium. As you enter the stadium, having run forty one and a half kilometres to that point, you have five hundred and ninety five metres to go. That distance is one full lap of the stadium from the point where you entered, plus a home strait to the tape…or clock…whatever. Anyway the stadium is packed, and it is packed not with ticketed-spectators and corporate types in corporate boxes, no it is packed with those who have already finished the race. And they are going absolutely American on your behalf. Man, they are hollerin’, they are shootin’ in the air, they are whoopin’ and singin’ and chantin’ and dancin’, and U-S-A! they chant U-S-A! Now, of course, you’ve been trained by a sociolinguist so you hear what they are supposed to be chanting and not the confused babble that they are chanting…they’re saying U-S-A but what they mean is A-U-S. Regardless, it’s all for you…Oi oi oi!
Why this? Because it’s true. Those who trusted God finished the race, and the race did not finish them. They have run and they have won (because everyone who runs God’s race wins it when they finish) and they are so excited to be home that their joy bubbled out, spills all over the floor we heard last week, and they welcome you home with such abandon. This is our faith: our trust in God who alone is mighty to save, our hope in this God who is willing and capable to save, and our creeds and beliefs written down by those who went before us to cheer us on as they were cheered on so that everyone will finish.
You were saved by grace and you are constantly being saved by grace. You walk as the road goes through the wilderness, through pagan lands, through green fields and beside still waters, maybe you run through the valley of the shadow of death, (or maybe you tip-toe, just keep going forward), and on to the outskirts of the distant homeland (Hebrews 11:14), and through the shires and suburbs until you reach the place of completion where The Glorious One waits to crown you. Do you trust the One who runs with you? Run by grace, with trust.