Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4: 13-24; Mark 8:31-38
March 1, 2015
Our reading from Romans deals a lot with faith; ten times the Greek root word for faith is used. The passage talks about the faithfulness of Abraham, and finally our faith. We talk about faith a lot in church, perhaps we don't do such a good job defining faith. I got out my Greek bible to check out the word translated faith in this passage and discovered three different English words that come from the Greek root pisteos. All three English words have this same root, but small variations with meanings we find in English that weren't there in the Greek. The other two words, believe also found in our reading and looking ahead in Romans, in chapter 15 the same root is translated trust. I find word usage very interesting, some of you are already nodding off. Please bear with me as I want to talk about what our faith means and to do that, we need to gain some understanding of what Paul meant by his use of the word translated faith, believe and/or trust.
He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice. “Jack, Jack. Can you hear me?"
"Yes, yes! I can hear you. I'm down here!"
“I can see you, Jack. Are you all right?"
"Yes, but who are you, and where are you?
"I am the Lord, Jack. I'm everywhere."
"The Lord? You mean, GOD?"
"God, please help me! I promise, if you'll get me down from here, I'll stop sinning. I'll be a really good person. I'll serve You for the rest of my life."
"Easy on the promises, Jack. Let's get you off from there; then we can talk. Now, here's what I want you to do. Listen carefully."
"I'll do anything, Lord. Just tell me what to do."
"Okay. Let go of the branch.""What?" "I said, let go of the branch. Just have faith. Let go."
There was a long silence.
Finally Jack yelled, "HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE ELSE UP THERE?"
Jack had faith, but not enough to let go and let God save him. And that may be where we get mixed up on faith's meaning. If Jack wasn't willing to let go, did he really have faith? We know he didn't trust God in that situation, so did he have faith? He believed in God, but did that belief allow him to let go? No. So let's look at those three English words.
When we think of faith, I think we define that by feelings more than anything. It is kind of like confidence, it is the opposite of fear or doubt. Having faith can be kind of like “think positive thoughts and you'll be okay”.
Belief makes us think of intellectual understanding. We believe in things that we think are probably true. Some people believe in Bigfoot or UFOs. It doesn't necessarily change how they live; beliefs are intellectual, acting upon them is optional.
Trust on the other hand suggests that there will be some kind of corresponding action. If we trust someone, our actions will show it. For instance, a parent who trusts their teenager will give them some freedom; you can say you trust them but if you keep tight wraps on them, that is not trust.
I remind you, these three English words all have the same Greek root word. When we read the bible, it is helpful to know this. So when the bible speaks about faith, it means more than a feeling; more than confidence, even more than intellectual assent. Biblical faith is much more about actions of obedience than our English translations suggest.
Abraham is acknowledged for his great faith in our reading and in many places in scripture. The book of Hebrews tells us about his faith, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he set out for a place he was to receive as an inheritance. By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised.” In these instances, faith was followed immediately by action, acting in trust. I'm afraid too often we have substituted acting in trust for mere assent. We see this in some evangelism; the story of Jesus and his power to save is shared and the listeners are asked if they believe it. If they say yes, they are assured of going to heaven. Scripture teaches that there is more to faith than a simple yes.
Then the idea is taught from some pulpits, from lots of televangelists and many books is that if your faith is strong enough, God will fix anything you ask for. Is that true? Scripture has stories of prayers being answered by people who admit their faith is weak. “I believe, help my unbelief” is a familiar plea. Jesus says faith the size of a mustard seed is enough. So does strong faith guarantee that God will fix everything? That nothing bad will ever happen if our faith is strong enough? Let's go back to Hebrews, God's Hall of Fame in chapter eleven. The writer lists many examples of faithful Old Testament people and then explains what their faith produced. And at first glance, we see wonderful rewards for people with faith. Victories won, lions muzzled, flames quenched, weaknesses turned to strength, enemies routed, the dead raised. Seems the faithful are receiving their due.
But as the writer continues these stories of great people of faith, the tone changes. We read that the faithful were tortured, jeered, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, sawed in two and put to death by the sword...financial ruin, persecution and mistreatment of all kinds. Then, and I quote, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.” These wonderful saints were lauded by God and yet their faith didn't fix everything. Faith may lead us to victory; faith may lead us to trials. Despite what the TV preachers tell you, the results are not dependent upon the strength of your faith. Biblical faith saves but doesn't guarantee a problem-free life.
Biblical faith is what God wants from us, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” so says Hebrews 11: 6. And if you believe in God, you should want to please God. And so understanding biblical faith is important. But not because it gets you ahead in this world. It is about believing in the Son of God and receiving the gift of eternal life. Sometimes we need to stop and think about someday standing before the throne of God, standing before the One who knows all our secrets, all our sins. Faith means that those secrets, those sins are forgiven by the grace of Jesus Christ. And the faith we are talking about is faith that goes beyond a generic, “yes I believe in God.” Jesus tells us what this faith looks like in today's reading: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It is a faith that is willing to take up our cross daily to follow Jesus. It is a faith that says yes when God calls you to serve as an elder or deacon in the Church. It is a faith that moves us to give gifts of money or supplies or time to others in need. It is a faith that is ready to answer God's call when it comes. It is faith that would allow Jack to let go of that branch. It is a faith that says no to self and yes to others. It is a faith that endures through the valleys, the hardships, the doubts that we have. See, faith doesn't mean we don't have any questions or doubts. I read this article this week by Senator Chris Coons about his Divinity degree, “I came out of school more convinced than ever that doubt is essential to faith—that without doubt it's not faith; it's a dogmatic belief that can become extremism. Faith rests on a foundation of doubt and questioning that demands of us humility as we interpret text(s).”1 The faith I'm talking about this morning is a faith that seeks intellectual understanding; faith that includes our feelings and trusts that God walks with us and talks with us and saves us. And then leads us to action. And that action showing our love for God and for our neighbors!
All that said, we are reminded time and again that our works, our good deeds, even our own measure of faith is not what saves us. Here is what our Romans passage tells us from the Message translation: “This is why the fulfillment of God’s promise depends entirely on trusting God and his way, and then simply embracing him and what he does. God’s promise arrives as pure gift. That’s the only way everyone can be sure to get in on it, those who keep the religious traditions and those who have never heard of them. For Abraham is father of us all.”
Faith. Trust. Belief. To please God, we are told these are essential. And our worship, our prayer time, our studies are all intended to help us grow in faith. But we should not get caught in the false teaching that if we have enough faith, all our troubles in this world will go away. Faith allows us to know God's presence in our troubles. Faith allows us to trust God with our eternal destinies. Faith allows us to come before God in prayer and believe that God's will is best and we trust that will. Faith means that we serve as Christ served and we recognize his hand leading us. Faith means we don't worry about our eternal future because grace is given to us as a free gift. Faith means we can sing about the risen Lord who walks with us in this life and beyond.
Hymn: I Serve a Risen Savior 158 HLC
Pastor's note: This series of sermons is based on the book 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe by Larry Osborne. This sermon reflects Chapter 1: “Faith Can Fix Anything”
1Chris Coons, Yale divinity School and Yale Law School; US Senator. Christian Century Feb. 18, 2015.