These are the first 3 verses of chapter 11 in the book of Hebrews. The book is attributed to the Apostle Paul but probably not written by that specific individual. It is essentially an exposition, clarification for Jews that had followed that Jesus movement, we know now to be Christianity. Its’ intention is to speak the past history of Israel into the life, death, resurrection into a new life experience: a life experience based on one man’s refusal to accept the status quo as a fulfilling way to live. I know I just said a lot and I want to break this down into a few different pieces.
To me, it has always sounded convoluted and confusing. Assurance of things hoped for.
Read outside of a biblical/spiritual context is sounds like a promise to receive the thing I want.
Things I personally hope for are happy endings; I hope to graduate this next spring; I hope to visit my family in Idaho this Christmas. And none of those things are guaranteed; because nothing is certain and absolute. A class I need to graduate might not be offered and so my graduation date might be put off. My parents might go somewhere else for Christmas, or I might not have the money to travel that distance. No one is guaranteed a happy ending. But we all move through life in stride and take the next logical course of action. But faith in this context sounds like belief that an event or outcome I desire in my heart will come to pass. That statement seems logical and based on the next phrase” the conviction of things not seen”, very accurate in how faith is defined right here.
I’m going to draw a wider circle now. I am going to go back to a time during the Reformation; the second big split in the church started by that monk, Martin Luther. Ok, it technically wasn’t started by him, it expanded well over a hundred years, and he was one of many squeaky wheels. He wasn’t satisfied with the church’s definition of faith with regard to salvation. In this context faith is understood as a trust in what the Church and scripture said was true. Faith equals trust. Trust according to the Random House Webster’s dictionary is: reliance on the integrity, strength ability, surety, etc. of a person or thing: confidence. Actually, there are 23 definitions of the word trust and that was the first, but most fitting. To have faith is to be confident in the integrity of the words of the Church and of Scripture.
But that didn’t sit well with our monk friend, Martin. As fallen creatures, there is nothing that we can do to ensure our salvation. To have a trust in words of Scripture signifies that some action on our part can affect our salvation. Luther understood that salvation comes solely from God. It comes from the actions of Jesus and the promise of Scripture. Humans can only accept God and the actions of God as Jesus in history. Faith is understood as belief that the Gospel is true. The gospel here is understood to be the life ministry, crucifixion, death, resurrection and return of Jesus. Belief. Belief is understood as a confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.
Martin Luther made a distinction between the two words because one implies an action and the other an acceptance. For me, fifteen hundred years after this debate, it is a splitting of hairs. And these verses remain an uncomfortable mystery of something that I haven’t yet understood.
There is so many ways to use the word Faith. We use Faith when we talk about our Religious affiliation “well my faith doesn’t allow me to …..” it’s essentially saying “it is against my religion to ….”
Faith can be used to explain the unwavering devotion to a set of beliefs in a specific understanding of scripture. When I was studying the New Testament books in a historical capacity, the reality of how the Bible was put together is not the way we teach children in Sunday school. It is more complicated and new insights have a real tendency to shake foundation: Foundations of faith.
It is not the reality of God I am questioning or the function of the crucifixion, but based on new information, how can my understanding of God in relationship to Creation not change and what does that mean with regard to that which I once understood? It’s confusing and it’s hard to sit with and it’s worth it to me to do the hard work of challenging old and childish understandings to attain a mature responsible religious practice.
Let me rephrase that. To grow in understanding of how I am to respond to God and creation, I need to deepen my understanding of my religion. It’s like accepting simple math as the only math. Yet there is geometry and algebra and the mystical math of physics. You can’t do physics with addition and subtraction alone. And you can’t have a meaningful religious experience with a first grade understanding of the Christmas and Easter stories. So my insistence of challenging my understanding of the word faith is my desire to deepen my relationship with the Source of all creation. And a circular logic does not satisfy my desire for understanding.
I have a professor that has assigned a specific author for every class I have taken with him. I have had 3 classes, so I’ve read 3 books by the same author. So that is not true. I read half of one book for one class, did not read much of the second and was so glad I only had to read 2 chapters for the class I am taking now. The problem is the difficulty I have in following along with this man’s writing. It’s really academic and I often don’t see my way to the point this man is trying to make. I’ve got some resistance here with this author. Imagine my delight and humble surprise when it was this man that gave me a different perspective and understanding for the concept faith.
That in itself is important to me. Regardless of my interest and willingness to acknowledge this person’s value to my education, it was there. Every perspective has value regardless of our comfort level or interest in a topic. It all seems to go back to our willingness to be in relationship with other people.
So let me read to you what Paul Knitter said that has changed my understanding of faith.
“I suspect that most Christians would agree that in speaking about their life of faith, it is more accurate to say one LIVES one’s faith, rather than one HAS one’s faith. The same would be true of being “faithful to the gospel”…It is something that one lives and practices day in and day out and faith is a matter of BEING rather than HAVING, of LIVING rather than AFFIRMING. And then he goes on to say, and THIS is what is important to me “the grounding or source for this faith cannot be the gospel or the Bible all by itself. The Bible alone would suffice if faith were a matter of having or affirming. All that we would need to do is understand what it means and then preserve that understanding. But if faith is primarily a matter of living and acting, then we have to…apply what we hear in the Bible to what is going on in our…day to day lives.” (Paul Knitter, Jesus and the Other Names 1996)
And I can understand faith as an action. I can sit with the concept of faith being my response to the Grace of God through Christ the Redeemer.
The author of Hebrews said “by faith, our ancestors received approval.” (By their actions rather.) We know that the Israelites were in a covenantal relationship with Yahweh. A covenant is a mutually beneficial relationship that is dependent on each side fulfilling their responsibilities. Their actions in fulfilling their responsibilities are attributed as faith.
So let’s bring this back to the very beginning now. I explained earlier that the book of Hebrews is an exposition, for Jews that have followed that Jesus movement, we know now to be Christianity. Its’ intention is to speak the past history of Israel into the life, death, resurrection into a new life experience.: a life experience based on one man’s refusal to accept the status quo as a fulfilling way to live. This man rejected religious and social norms and openly invited everyone into relationship. He opened relationship with God to those that his own religion considered untouchable. Jesus’ love and acceptance of the leaper, the outcaste, women, children, servants, Gentiles, Samaritans confused those that understood right relationship as a purity law. Jesus reframed right relationship as loving kindness, respecting the body and acceptance of the person. And it is our faith that requires us to respond like Christ to each and every single person we came in contact with. Not just those that look like us, that believe like us, that worship like us, and that agree with our political ideas. Our faith requires that we respond as redeemed creatures accepting the whole of creation as loved by God. We can’t see what redemption is. But we can respond to our neighbor with a faith that redemption is certain. That life is redeemed through Christ. Our unity is seen at the common table and it is seen in our willingness to help our neighbors after they experience loss and trauma. It is in our actions that we express our faith. And it is in our actions that show the world where that faith is focused. Is it in Christ and the making of the Kin[g]dom come, or is it in the accumulation of comfort for ourselves at expense of the suffering that we are surrounded by.
I’m still going to struggle with this. I hope you do too. My hope is that all of us can step out in faith and offer our lives in service.