Faith is/not

Sermon for Lent 2 (8 March 2009)

Romans 4.13-25
Mark 8.31-39

The Apostle Paul tells us that Abraham received a promise from God—a promise that he would be the father of many nations. Paul also says that Abraham received this promise through faith—after all, he was an old man, and he and his wife were childless. How could he become the father of many peoples? Sometimes, it takes a lot of faith to go through life. So today, I want to talk about faith. What faith is, and what it’s not.

First, we’ll look at what faith is not.

I have a blog, in which a few brave souls write comments. Here is one:

Faith of course is belief, belief in something without proof…

This is a common idea, and has a grain of truth. Faith involves belief. Trouble is, people define belief too narrowly. Belief is more than your ‘beliefs’. Faith is a trusting kind of belief. When I was going out with Karen, I believed she was a good woman. But that bare belief wasn’t enough. I had to make a commitment—I began to have faith that it was the right thing to marry her. I had to go one step further—I had to trust her. I could have believed she was a good woman but not taken that step of faith, a step that involved trust. In the same way, faith means trusting God, not merely believing that there is a God.

Let me recap that a bit. Firstly, I knew about Karen; I learned to trust her—in other words, to believe in her and love her—and then I can I say I really started to know her. Not just know about her, but know her.

I think I can say I know her pretty well now. But she can still surprise me.

And I think it’s like that with faith in God. To start with, we know about God. We learn the stories, we believe things about God. When we take the step of trusting God, and find that we love God in some way, we start to find that we know God. God can still surprise us!—but our knowledge is real.

It’s a two-way thing—we know God as God knows us. But God knows us first.

When we say we know God, it seems arrogant to people who don’t share our faith. And who can blame them for thinking like that? But we are known by God, as a child is known by her mother and father; and we then grow in our knowledge.

Another thing that faith is not: faith is not our ‘contribution’ to our salvation—it’s not our ‘bit’. God owes us nothing. God doesn’t reward us for our faith. Our faith is not a way to get God to give us something. It’s really important to get this: faith is not a work we do to get right with God.

Ok, if faith is not just about beliefs; and faith is not the thing we do to get saved; what is it?

In its broadest sense, faith is something everyone has. Ultimately, all our commitments are based on faith—whether it is faith in another person, faith in God or faith in whatever we believe to be true. No one can fully stand apart from their commitments and say they have nothing to do with faith.

But what about Christian faith?

Christian faith is a trusting response to God’s unmerited grace. God loves us, and God gives us everything. Every particle of your body, every breath you take, everything you have ever experienced, is a sheer gift of God. Faith responds to these gifts of God by trusting the Giver.

If I have a gift for my children, I expect them to hold out their hands and receive it. (And I’m rarely disappointed!) Receiving the gift doesn’t mean they are wonderful people; it’s not a virtue. In the same way, having faith doesn’t mean we are good people, or even better people that those who don’t accept the gift of God’s grace.

It’s crucial to realise that we are not saved by generating faith, by pumping it up within ourselves. It’s also vitally important to get this: God’s grace and our faith always go together; yet God’s grace always comes first and foremost. Without the grace of God, we could never be saved. Faith is accepting that this is true. Faith is trust. Faith is growing in the knowledge of God.

In theological shorthand, we are justified by grace through faith. In other words, no one is righteous enough to come to God on their own. We have all failed. Since it is impossible to be righteous through good works, God gives the free gift of righteousness to all who will accept it the only way it comes—by faith.

Faith is a relationship of trusting. Christian faith is trusting in God. It’s trusting that God is good, it’s trusting in Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord. It’s trusting in the Holy Spirit as our Guide in life. Faith is about love and hope, as well as belief. It is a relationship with God, and it involves the heart, and mind, and body. It involves every part of us.

God wants us to give everything over to him, and so find true life. This is what it means when Jesus says, ‘those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ In faith, we lose some things that seem important in order to gain things of eternal worth. We give of our time, talents and money for God’s work, rather than keep them for ourselves. We allow the Spirit of God to probe us, and bring to light those parts of us that need to be changed. We can allow this because in faith, we trust in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In this relationship of trust, we may sometimes have questions. Faith enables us to ask questions. Peter had questions for Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading; he was rebuked, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have asked questions. I think Jesus’ rebuke quite likely meant that he found talk about avoiding the cross a temptation to be overcome. In the light of bushfires, floods, and economic gloom if not doom, we may well have questions for God. Faith can ask them!

Faith gives us courage and freedom. Courage to trust the One who went to the cross on our behalf, and who doesn’t promises to shield us from the cross, but challenges us to take up the cross and follow him. Faith is being free to live for Jesus, and to die to whatever keeps us from following Jesus.

Faith realises that without the light of Christ, we are stumbling in the darkness. We can’t see too far ahead; we don’t know what our lives will bring. New joys, new sorrows await us. In faith, we hold the hand of Jesus and walk through the darkness. I remember often going to school in Yorkshire on foggy days. I could see no further in any direction than a few metres. Everything beyond that was totally blanketed. But as I took a step forward, then the circle in which I could see moved with me. Places that were hidden just moments before came into view. All I had to do was take that next step. Faith is like that.

Darkness becomes light when we put our trust in the Light of the world.

Faith is prepared to swim against the current. Faith strengthens us not to go along with the crowd, when the crowd goes against Jesus. With that trusting faith, we are not ashamed of Jesus or of his words.

It’s been said, “Faith is not something you have; It is something you do.” (Christian Wiman, ‘God is not beyond’, Christian Century, 24.02.09) Faith inspires us to care for others. Faith motivates us to work for healing and for justice. Faith sees what needs to be done and, in the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus, faith does something about it.

If we don’t do something just because we are people of faith, we run the danger of losing the faith we have.

When we keep moving forward in faith, then the way is opened up for us. If we stay in one place, then we will never know what lies beyond. Faith is an adventure—and we have a great Guide, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Faith. It’s not primarily about getting our beliefs right; it’s not our contribution towards our salvation. Faith is our response to God’s grace, a relationship of trusting in the God of grace, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Sometimes the relationship is tested by doubt, but faith can grow through doubt. Faith brings us to life!

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