If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. - Jesus
Faith is Bilbo Baggins in Mirkwood Forrest or one of the servants in Downton Abbey trudging along but knowing that they have been placed on that path by a God who loves them and impowers them to go on.
"Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1)
What do we do if we lose our preacher, our organist, our choir? How will we go on if our church building is torn down, or worse yet, made into a beer hall? (which is what often happens in Pittsburgh) How can I worship God in without my holy stuff?
There are miracles that only Jesus can do, and there are miracles where Jesus is providing an example for us to follow. In Mark 4, Jesus is out in the boat with the disciples and a storm comes up. Time for a miracle which only he can do. Jesus calms the sea. But wait, the story begins with Jesus asleep in the bow and when the disciples wake him and say, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”, Jesus rebukes their anxiety by saying, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Note the back and forth of that dialogue. Hear it this way: Us, “Don’t you care?” Jesus, “Why are you anxious?” Substitute whatever crisis you recently went through for the storm that caused the anxiety in the disciples. I bet your dialogue with Jesus was the same. Jesus does the miracle of calming the sea, so that the disciples might learn to be non-anxious people in the midst of the storms of life.
I recently went through a family crisis. People were shouting. Anxiety was high. I would gladly have traded places with those disciples in the boat tossed by the storm on Galilee. Anxiety is anxiety, fear is fear. It doesn’t matter if we are in a boat, a hospital room, a family crisis, a fox hole. The miracle is that we can learn to be non-anxious people. We can apply the lessons of Jesus and faith. We can step back and rebuke our fears. Further, when we are in the boat with people who are having their own personal storms and are causing us havoc, we can choose to be the non-anxious presence. Being like Jesus, this is the essence of our faith. Where is your faith?
Jesus has to do some pretty silly stuff to get people to believe that he’s alive. In John 20, he lets Thomas poke him in the side. In Luke 24:36-48 he eats a bit of fish. Don’t think of a nice salmon broiled with butter. No. The disciples are poor folk in Jerusalem during the height of the tourist season. The city is three days away from the sea. The fish is likely to be boney. Think a pounded piece of perch from Galilee, dried on the dock, packed in salt — the bottom of the barrel. Jesus has a resurrected body. He’s not hungry. He does it so that they will believe.
So believing is really important. We need to believe that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus. That believing in Jesus has the power to change our lives. And that Jesus died, intentionally, to save us from our sins. And that Jesus is alive again, and promises to make us alive again when we die.
Yet believing seems to be something that we can’t control. God knows that real spirituality has to be cultivated slowly and diligently in our lives. He doesn’t overwhelm us with obvious “that’s got to be God” moments. He scatters a few spiritual ah-has over the years. Yet, we are commanded to believe.
While the moment of belief seems to be out of our control, we are responsible for putting ourselves in the right place. Most of the disciples hung together, even though it was difficult, after Jesus was crucified. The came back to the upper room, swimming upstream against their doubts. They put themselves in a place, and with a fellowship, where faith was possible.
Who are these guys and why are they going to Emmaus? Recent archeology puts Emmaus at 19 miles from Jerusalem (160 stadia), not seven (60 stadia). This agrees with some of the oldest texts. Early scribes dropped the one hundred stadia, perhaps because it seemed incredible that someone was trying to walk that far, in sandals, without GPS or an MP3 player. These dudes were motivated. Even though the women were saying, “Jesus lives,” they were hitting the road, hard. I guess witnessing a crucifixion does that. Especially when you are afraid of being tarred with the same brush.
“Is there no balm in Gilead?” This is the moment after the iceberg has struck the Titanic when the fact that the boat will sink becomes common knowledge. Suddenly, the lifeboat that you dismissed when the “In the unlikely event of an iceberg hitting us…” lecture was given, becomes foremost in your mind. Is there really a life preserver under my cot? Or that moment after you accept the fact that your cancer diagnosis is terminal; is there no balm in Gilead? Jeremiah knows that the nation is about to be destroyed, the temple torn down, and the brightest of Judah’s youth to be hauled off to Babylon for seventy years.
The old New English Bible that I used while I was in college falls open to Hebrew 12. The page is ratty, covered with ink underlines hued red, blue, and black; minuscule notations cram the corners, and a box brackets verses 18 to 29. This was the rock that I clung to throughout my transition from free-spirited teen, to married man, to seminary student. It says, simply, “Remember where you stand.” I learned during that quartet of years that surrounded my entry into a second decade, that religion, and life in general, offered a number of places to stand. It is not up to us to invent places to stand. A person caught in a crime might seek for a lie to stand on. Moses brought the people to a place where they could see the gulf that lies between our human frailty and the expectations of God. But this not where we stand.
We stand on the border of eternal life. No matter what age we are, we are short-timers in this country. Life soon ends. Those with wisdom, look through the peep hole provided by scripture into heaven. They pray “Thy kingdom come, on earth as…” They stand firm here because they trust what they have seen is coming.
Who makes your list? When we look at Hebrews 11, we are seeing a list of the people this first century Christian preacher thought were the best examples of faith. Today, our ‘the greatest’ list might include someone from the Olympics, like Micheal Phelps, or a past sport legend like Mohammed Ali. I don’t have any sports people on my personal list. I have the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the singer Paul Simon, who captured my definition for a hero with the lyrics, “When I run dry, I’ll stop a while and think of you.” The Hebrew 11 list is short on architects and sports icons, but it does include the walls of Jericho, Sampson the demolisher of temples, and David who danced half-naked before the Lord (not yet an olympic sport).
In providing us with such marvelous brains, the Lord-God established three gifts for seeing the unseen. We have the natural sciences for discovering why inanimate objects behave the way they do. We have the social sciences for explaining human behavior. And, if we want to know why we exist, how we should live, and what lays beyond the seen world for ourselves and the people we love, we have faith. I know this is a simplification, but it may be helpful to speak it publicly from time to time. The three epistemologies above are often in conflict (cognitive psychologists fight with those who favor materialistic bio-mechanical models of human behavior, for example) and often in each other’s pockets (what do you mean creation didn’t happen in six days?), but we all benefit from accepting each others strengths and keeping the lines of dialogue open.
In the children’s game of Rock, Paper, Scissors: Fear is represented by the stones that cause us to stumble, Reason is the pair of Scissors that cuts away falsehood, and Faith is the insubstantial seeming Paper that wraps up our fears and overcomes them. So, Rock (fear) breaks Reason (scissors), Scissors (Reason) cuts undeveloped Faith, and Faith, as always, defeats Fear.
Paul reminds us that Abraham was saved by grace. We should know that obeying God’s laws isn’t the golden key that unlocks heaven’s doors for us (see Romans 4:4). So, go tell your people that all their being good isn’t getting them anywhere. This is the point at which all great religious reformations start.
Abraham reformed the religion of his day by rejecting the civilized temples with their rituals of offerings, guaranteed to bring good luck, and set out on that long walk that happens when you simply listen to God. “Take a right here,” God says and Abraham does. This is faith in its most refined and reformed state.
Jesus emphasized humility and told individual’s who were poor in spirit that God’s Kingdom had already granted them admission. He rejected the classism of Israel’s religious leaders. His reformation went face to face to tell people that they were okay. It distributed soul-healing freely.
The story is that Alexander the Great had a mistress named Campaspe. She was beautiful and he was proud of her, so proud, that he took her to the famous artist, Apelles, who painted her in the nude. Alexander loved this painting. He noticed something, though. The reason Apelles did such a good job at the painting, was because Apelles saw Campaspe’s beauty more clearly than Alexander did. Now you would think, Apelles would get in trouble for ogling the Great’s girl. But Alexander chose instead to give Campaspe to Apelles as payment for the painting, which he took home to his palace.
If we listen to Spock and follow the dictum that the good (comfort) of the many outweighs the needs of the few, then we best do the usual talk of Abraham’s faith in nearly sacrificing Isaac or skip the passage all together. The truth is, Isaac is profoundly passive throughout his short trip across the Bible’s stage. He is a young teen when he carries the wood for his own impalement, making him an accessory to attempted murder. You have to put the near-sacrifice of Isaac within the context of a life, almost not worth living. Not only does he pale in comparison to Abraham and Jacob, Sarah and Hagar, but hopefully, he compares badly to you and me.
So the mission, should you choose to accept it, is to speak a word of encouragement to those who are living codependent lives. Is there anything we can say to help people today, who are carrying the wood of their own sacrifice?
Judas is given a specific amount, thirty pieces of silver. Jesus is the most unquantifiable presence in our lives. In the passion story, irony drips blood. We often trade the invaluable for the known quantity. We leave open ended grace and head for the certainty of written doctrine. We trade mercy for law. We trade the joy of seeking for the security of our life with the 99 in the fold. We move from being children of a heavenly father who owns the sheep on every hill, to the employees of an institution that provides us with a weekly allowance. We take our thirty pieces of silver and walk away from the mystery of what lies beyond door number 3.
I’ve been hearing a lot about church splits these days. The story goes like this, the denomination loosens one of its policies. The people go to their local priest or pastor and say, “Didn’t we always believe X-Y-Z?” The only real answer to this question is, “We are not in the ‘certainty’ business, we are in the ‘seeking’ business.” An oil firm may have a division devoted to exploration. If the management puts a production quota on these geologists, neither the division nor the company will last long.
If you start at the beginning of Matthew 26, the order of events is this:
The definition of faith as the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1 KJV), has always felt to me like an algebraic equation. You just plug in faith as the unknown ‘x’ and the math leads to saintly people doing dangerous things. So you read on in the chapter and you find that by faith: Noah builds a really big boat, Abraham leaves Ur and sacrifices his son, Moses leaves the palace and splits the Red Sea, and Rahab the prostitute commits high treason. All this seems a bit mysterious until you circle back to the word hope. Hope, not faith, defines the passage.
I write fiction, from time to time. Call me Ishmael, but the greatest challenge to writing a best-selling novel is not making up the words. It’s developing realistic characters. And, what makes characters believable and interesting is their hopes and dreams. The author of Hebrews understands this. He or she, begins with the most basic hope we all have. In verse 3, we read that by faith we know that the world is not a meaningless collection of random events. Our lives have purpose. The creator of all that is, did it with a plan. God set us into this particular time and place, did so knowing that by faith we would come to glimpse his plan and find hope for our lives.