Faith schools, faith communities, inter faith, multi faith – the word faith litters the lexicon of contemporary politics, but scratch the surface just a bit, and it becomes all too apparent just how little understanding or agreement there is about what the word ‘Faith’ really does mean.
Listen to some people and you would think that faith is something that no normal person would have anything to do with – it’s like swallowing 12 impossible things before breakfast. For others faith seems to mean little more than simple minded credulity, easily ridiculed by anyone with a rational mind – faith in the lucky charm worn around the neck; faith in quack medicine which takes no account of how the human body actually works; faith in the horoscopes at the back of so many weekly magazines. It’s the kind of faith that touches wood and hopes for the best. Then there is faith as a system of dogma or credal forms, or just the cultural norms with which a person has grown up; it’s that which gives a sense of identity and causes around 70% of the population to describe themselves as Christian, whether they have much thought through the impact of their ‘faith’ on their lives or not. For yet others, it is the outward expression of such a faith system that is all important – they may call themselves Catholics, or Muslims, or Jehovah’s witnesses, but theirs is a faith that depends for its strength and assistance on belonging to a tight community that believes and/or practices the same things that they do. Then for yet more, faith may be that outcome of a long and painful process of thought and reflection leaving them with no alternative but to affirm ‘Here I stand and I can do no other’.
So, we use the language of faith so much, but with so little agreement about what we mean. How very different from the first century and the context which gave us the writings of St Paul, as in our first lesson tonight. When Paul wrote of living by the law of faith, both he and his correspondents would have had a pretty good shared understanding of what he meant. In their minds would have been all the rich heritage of the Jewish scriptures and the Hellenistic culture in which they lived. In the Old Testament the word that shaped this meaning of Faith had a Hebrew root which gives us our word ‘AMEN – So be it. Yes, indeed!’ It is a word which describes that on which a person or community comes to depend. Isaiah likens it to a secure peg on which to hold on the face of a cliff. And in the Greek world the most commonly used word for faith means just the same: it describes that confidence and trust which is the hallmark of a relationship in which you feel truly confident and secure.
So for Paul, and those to whom he was writing, to live by faith is to live by a conviction based on historical evidence which then shapes both behaviour and belief. And here we do come to something which is common to almost everyone in our society today, because it is simply an accurate description of the way in which most of us live our daily lives. So on Friday I sat in a dentist’s chair whilst a man I barely know injected a toxic substance into my gums, drilled bits out of my teeth, and packed the hole with a substance I could not see. I thereby demonstrated a touching faith in people I have never met, processes I do not pretend to understand and skills that I will never ever possess. As I sat there I believed, but I could not immediately prove, that the anaesthetic was of the right strength , the equipment had been properly tested and designed, and that the dentist was not incapacitated by an all too liquid lunch. Even more extraordinarily a couple of weeks ago I sat strapped into a seat at the end of a runway whilst snow was falling all around outside. Had the engineer checked the gauges properly when the air-craft was refuelled? Did the fitter ensure that the doors of the hold were tightly closed? Had they used the right de-icing mixture for the leading edges of the wings? Had the pilot just come on duty after a blazing row with his wife and with blood pressure sky high? Of course, I didn’t think these things at all. I sat there calmly reading my newspaper, because experience – and not just mine but that of millions of other people over nearly a century – had given me the necessary faith; faith to believe that which I could not fully prove, but in which I was prepared to trust, even to the point of quite literally staking my life on it.
And so it was for Paul and his faith in God. He did not have all the answers. There were times he said when it was like ‘looking through smoked glass’, but his own experience and the experience of millions of people through not just one century, but many, gave him the basis for such trust, such faith, to utter a firm ‘Amen’ to the promises of God, and make a confident decision that in God he would trust.
And the word decision here is important. For Paul the law of faith was a particular faith in the particular person of Jesus Christ; a person in whom he had not always had faith; indeed one whom he had specifically rejected. But then came that particular moment of transformation on the Damascus road. Paul, we know, was a man with a deep pride and faith in his Jewish ancestry and upbringing; he was a man deeply moved by Greek culture and philosophy, he was a citizen of an empire which had created the Pax Romana by faith in the civil institutions and armed might of Rome. But Paul, in that moment, put his ultimate faith in Jesus Christ. It was a moment that I am sure was shaped by all the years of faith experience and reflection that had gone before but, from that specific point of decision that here in this one life, the life of this man Jesus, really was focused that whole life and purpose of God, that whole meaning of human existence on which it is worth staking your own life and saying ‘Amen – Yes’ to that, from that decision and that conviction then flowed that extraordinary and breath-taking life of intense activity and equally intense suffering, which changed not only Paul, but (and it is not too extravagant to say this) changed so much in later human history, and not only here in the Western world.
That is because Paul saw so clearly that general conviction and particular decision about something which really can be trusted absolutely, and held to utterly seriously and without reserve, must have universal application as well. If something is true and worth staking life on for one, then it has to be for all. You can’t have an aircraft which is truly trustworthy for you and not also for me.
To have faith is not, as some would suggest, to shut down our critical faculty, to stop asking questions, or to retreat into a world of fantasy into which no thinking person would wish to go.
The reality is that our human critical faculty can only operate on the basis of faith. So, a scientist will proceed with an experiment on the basis of what he or she believes to be true. They then submit that belief (based as it is on the observation and experience of their own and others) to critical questioning and experimentation. But the questioning is always secondary to what is first believed. As St Augustine said: ‘Credo ut intelligam’ – ‘I believe in order that I might understand’; and I am sure that here he was recalling the older words of the prophet Isaiah who said (7/9) ‘Unless you believe you will not understand’ or, perhaps a better translation: ‘you will not endure’. Without that secure underpinning framework of belief and faith, you’ll be all over the place – as are so many people today.
Faith – it’s not an end in itself, as it is sometimes made out to be. Rather it is entering into that relationship of trust that may lead to hope and to love. It is the starting point from which our thinking and our understanding begin. But not just thinking and understanding – which is just head stuff. Faith involves behaviour and action – life stuff, too. As one Classical scholar has put it: ‘Faith is not just belief. Belief is passive. Faith is active.’ (Edith Hamilton). Faith is that steadfastness in belief which shapes character, which leads to action, and then remains committed to that action even when the final outcomes may not yet be seen. Like planting an acorn knowing that you will be dead before the oak tree is fully grown, acts of faith are also acts of deeply profound hope.
Without faith there can be no start to understanding, and so no meaning to life, and so no grounds for real hope. The only question for all of us is; where are the grounds for our faith to be found?
Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
Righteousness through Faith
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
A Girl Restored to Life and a Woman Healed
While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well.
Rt. Rev’d Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter
21st February 2010