September 24, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
This fall our sermons are exploring words that are part of our regular vocabulary as Christians—words which we many not always be aware of their full meaning. Each Sunday we are going back to the source to examine what the Bible has to say about these terms and ideas. A few months ago I was telling one of our committees at the church about this sermon series and explaining what we are trying to do. When I asked the folks in the room what words they wondered about, what words they hear others use without always knowing what they really mean, the first person to chime in said, “What about faith? I mean, I know that’s a really important thing, I know it’s something we have or are supposed to have, but I’ve never really been quite clear on what exactly it is.” That’s our question today: What is faith?
If we’re seeking to answer that question, the scripture we just read is a great place to start. The book of Hebrews mentions the word “faith” more times than any other book in the whole New Testament. It includes this classic definition of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Ok, well that clears everything up doesn’t it? Maybe for some of us, that answers the question. But for many of us, this definition alone doesn’t really explain what faith is. So, the author of Hebrews goes on to give us examples, many many examples of what faith looks like as seen in the lives of the heroes from the Old Testament. Those stories, the full biblical witness, together shed light on the meaning of faith.
So what is faith? Simply put, faith means trust. Trust. Trust that grows within a relationship. There are some people you know that you can trust without question. Some you trust with you life. Some you trust to always act a certain way. Well, as the Bible teaches, faith is trust in God’s love. Reliance, assurance, confidence, not in our own goodness but in God’s goodness.
As a great preacher once said, faith is like waking up to real life from a dream or a nightmare. A nightmare of a world in which we are all on our own and there is not goodness or love, truth or source of being beyond ourselves. To wake up from that dream can be startling, but it can also bring real clarity and honesty.
The great Reformed theologian John Calvin had a long-winded way of saying the same thing. His definition of faith is one that has been a helpful guide for Presbyterians throughout the centuries. I’ve printed it in your bulletin, and I invite to follow along. Calvin says, “We shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” [i] Did you get all that? He says faith is knowing God’s love for us with both our mind and our heart. In other words trust. Trusting God’s love.
It reminds me of the story of Cynthia Rahn that I read in the wonderful book Listening is an Act of Love. Cynthia grew up in rural Appalachia, in a poor family that lived outside of town. She was in kindergarten learning all about animals, and one day the teacher gave the class an assignment. Everyone was supposed to bring to school something that would be found in a barn. Maybe a stuffed animal of a cow or a sheep. Maybe a plastic toy farmer or tractor. Whatever you could find, just bring it in the next day and they were going to use them to build a barnyard scene for their lesson. Cynthia knew that her family seemed poor compared to everyone else and she was a little anxious and intimidated by these kind of assignments.
When she got home she did what children often do (or at least used to do), she ran off to play with her friends until it got dark. Her mom came home from work, they ate dinner, got ready for bed, and then panic struck Cynthia. She had completely forgotten the assignment. So her mother lovingly helped her look through her toys but there wasn’t a single farmyard toy anywhere in the house. No plastic horse, no stuffed cow, nothing. She started to cry and said, “I can’t go to school tomorrow and not have anything.” Her mother responded, “It’s too late. There are no stores open…you should have thought about this when you got home. You weren’t responsible. You have to go to bed now.” So full of tears and anger, Cynthia stomped off to bed.
As soon a she woke up the next day the first though in her head was that she didn’t have anything to take to school. Her mother’s job started very early in the mornings and so she would always leave the house before the children got up, but would always leave breakfast waiting for them at the table. Cynthia remembered that morning: “I went downstairs, and sitting on the kitchen table was a barn made out of notebook paper. She had taken just plain notebook paper and folded it; she folded the walls, she folded the roof, she folded the doors that opened so horses could go in and out. She had shutters on the windows. She had little steps that went up to the loft. And it was just sitting there. It was like magic. I looked at it—there wasn’t a staple in it. There was no tape. She had just folded a barn for me. I was so happy and exited when I saw that barn…I [couldn’t] believe she did that!”
Cynthia remembered what it was like when she go to school: “The other kids had bags of store bought plastic farm animals. [But] everybody was so amazed at my barn. I felt like the most special kid in the class…It made me a very happy little girl…. And I knew, too, that she cared.”[ii]
I knew that she cared. Because of this surprising experience Cynthia knew, in her head and in her heart—she knew that her mother loved her. That morning she trusted the love of this loving parent who did for her what she could not do for herself. That’s what faith is.
Faith is trust in God’s love that sets us free from our fears, free from our self-control, and free from a loving relationship with God and one another. Biblically speaking, faith is simply trust. Faith isn’t intellectually agreeing to some long list of doctrines. You’ll notice today when we welcomed a new member into our midst that we didn’t ask her go point by point through the Apostles Creed, we didn’t ask her to write an essay on predestination. We simply asked do you trust in God’s love shown to us in Jesus our Lord. Likewise, faith isn’t some decision that we make which changes God’s mind about whether or not to love us. As another theologian explains, “The gospel does not say, ‘Trust God and he will love you,’ [No] the gospel says, ‘God already loves you, so trust him.’ Faith is not a ‘work’ that save us; it is our acknowledgement that we are saved.”[iii]
Faith is not something that we do. We don’t have faith on our own, we receive it as a gift from the Holy Spirit. That’s what the Bible teaches. You can’t just decide one day to start trusting someone. Neither can you just decide to start trusting God’s love. It takes time. It takes a relationship. It’s not something you can control. It is a gift.
And the truth is, sometimes that gift is in short supply Sometimes our faith isn’t there. Sometimes our trust in God’s love is week and wavering, and we fall back into our old attempts to rely on our own goodness, our own power, our own control. There are those sleepless nights where we know there just aren’t any toy farm animals and we are going to fail.
The gospels tells a story about a father who’s son has been sick for his entire life. Worn out from his years of worry the father comes to Jesus begging for his son to be healed. In their conversation the father confesses to Jesus one of the most true statements of Christian faith. He says, “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24). And that’s precisely what Jesus does. He heals the boy, and he heals the father’s trust in the love of God.
So if that’s what faith is (and isn’t), then I think there’s one more lingering question to ask. How do we get it? If it is solely a gift, how do we come to receive it? Just this week a friend of mine sent me an email asking this exact question. She said that she hasn’t felt a connection with God for a long long time and she wanted to know what she should do to try and reconnection with her faith. My suggestion to her, and to anyone else who might be experiencing something similar is the same advice that a wise mentor passed on to me in my own moments of disconnection from faith. It’s pretty simple and it’s two-fold: 1) show up and 2) just do it.
1) Show up in the places that we expect to find God’s love being shown. Show up to be fully present in the friendships and the relationships where we have felt God’s love in the past. Show up in the kinds of community where others seem to have their faith nurtured and strengthened. Show up for Sunday School to learn more and more about the stories of the Bible that reveal God’s love in Christ. Show up in worship to hear over and over and over again the things we say in church—the good news of the baptismal font, that we are claimed as God’s beloved children before we ever knew it, the good news of the confession and pardon, that we are forgiven and set free by God’s freely given grace, the good news of the table that we are welcomed as honored guests to a heavenly feast even though we know we don’t deserve it. Show up in the places and with the people that the Holy Spirit promises to meet us. Show up.
2) And then, just do it. This whole faith thing, this whole business of discipleship and obedience to God’s will, all that language about using our gifts to serve God and love our neighbors. Just do it. Say the words, even if you don’t completely agree with them. Sing in the choir, even if sometimes the words you sing are ones that you couldn’t honestly speak on your own. Teach Sunday School even if the questions the children have are the same ones you still have. Just do it, and wait and see how the Holy Spirit will be at work changing you, giving you the gift of faith right under your very nose.
That long list of heroes that Hebrews describes, folks like Abraham and Moses, Rahab and David, they did some mighty amazing things, “by faith.” By faith. Not because they had it all figured out and could see the big picture, but because they trusted God’s love for them enough to show up and do it, even when they couldn’t see, because “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 2.
[ii] Cynthia Rahn interviewed by Adrienne Lea in Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project, edited by Dave Isay, 10-12.
[iii] Robert McAfee Brown, quoted in Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 322.