ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 7, 2016
Ephesians 3: 8 – 21; Luke 22: 29 – 34
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Mrs. Brown told her pastor, “I’m so scared! Joe insists he’s going to kill me if I keep coming to your church.” “Yes, yes, my child. You’ve been telling me this for 6 months,” replied the pastor, “I will pray for you. Have faith – the Lord will watch over you.” “I will Pastor, only, well, now Joe is saying if I keep coming to your church, he’s going to kill you!” “Well, now,” said the pastor, “Perhaps it’s time to check out that church on the other side of town.”
Our question for today is: “what is ‘faith’? What is meant by “faith” can seem confusing. Does it mean that we get whatever we want? That everything will be alright? If so, then why do things not always go well for us? Does it mean that if we hang on through this life, everything will be alright in heaven?
People often understand faith as a currency with which we purchase the favours of God. We think it works like a cash withdrawal. We put in our debit card (faith), punch in the numbers (say a prayer) and out comes our cash (whatever we desire). I’ve had people tell me, “I tried religion (or God or faith) and it didn’t work”. What they mean is: they put their debit card of faith in the great ATM of life and were told their PIN was wrong, or the account was NSF or the card got stuck. So they gave up. They didn’t get what they expected and so they blamed the system. “The Bank of Jesus Christ” is obviously not a reliable institution. Some people are altruistic, what they desire isn’t for themselves. They pray for something good and trust in God. When it doesn’t happen, they’re confused. They go to another Christian, “a bank employee” – someone in the know – and are told, “you need more faith.” Your debit card was too small or worn out; your prayer was “wrong”; your account was overdrawn and so you can’t blame the bank – it’s your fault. You needed more “faith”. When we pray with faith and don’t get our goods we think God is unfair. So we spend a great deal of energy kicking the bank machine, or ourselves, trying to understand why God didn’t produce.
When we say “Have faith” or “have more faith” we reduce faith to an optimistic “Pollyanna” world view. We know things do not always go well for us. I once had a bumper sticker that read, “Life is hard, then you die.” While this is often the case – on both accounts – it seems to me that the “hardness of life” shouldn’t have the power to brush off faith. Faith should address our harsh realities in a way that’s life-giving. Faith is more real than our difficulties and disappointments. When the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon, Jesus said, “You`re not yet taking God seriously. You don`t need more faith. There is no `more` or `less` in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, you could say to a mountain, “move” and it would do it. (Matthew 17:20 msg) The outcome of faith is that our “joy will be a river over-flowing its banks” (John 16: 23 msg) . Yes, life can be hard and we don’t always get what we want the way we think we want it, but surely faith has something to say, some power to offer, in the face of our trials and tribulations.
Does having faith refer to a bigger picture? Is having faith to live in the hope that eventually things will be set right when we go to heaven? Well there is that, and certainly the spiritual songs of many a slave encouraged an endurance of life’s injustices, difficulties and disappointments as they held out the promise of a better life “beyond the river”. Faith is definitely about the big picture, but the big picture is not only about our future in heaven, it’s also about the larger, sweeping unseen picture of what God is doing in the here and now. It’s an understatement to say St. Paul was a man of great faith. Paul also experienced a great deal of suffering. In Ephesians Paul wrote from prison about his ministry, “Of this gospel I have become a servant – although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God.” (Ephesians 3: 7-9) He goes on, “this was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God” (3:11) Paul is saying that he’s in prison because God chose him to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. He places his life experiences in the context of God’s purposes. Not just God’s purpose for him but God’s “eternal purpose”for humanity, “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God”, that is: God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. Paul accepted his suffering because he saw God’s plan of salvation unfolding in and through his life. Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Not necessarily the things we’ve hoped for, but the greater vision of God hope. Faith is trusting that regardless of what happens, God is “King from the very start, working salvation in the midst of the earth.” (Psalm 74:12) Faith then is seeing the world and the events of our lives, through Jesus’ eyes. It’s trusting that even when we’re being unjustly crucified, God is faithfully working to create his kingdom. He’s using whatever is happening to make us “efficient and graceful… fully mature adults, fully developed, fully alive like Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13) Faith gives us strength when we are being“sifted like wheat”so that we“may not fail”. (Luke 22:31-32)
Years ago I sat in on a course on spiritual gifts. As an example of the gift of faith, the leader held up a woman he knew who believed God would just give her everything she wanted if what she wanted would further God’s kingdom. She had a table that seated 8 so she’d pray that God would send 7 people to study The Bible with her and voila she’d get 7 people. I went to him afterwards and said, “If that’s faith, I don’t have it; I’ve seen too many faithful Christians suffer.” He thought for a moment and then said, “There was a woman in my previous congregation who had breast cancer. They thought she was cured when it came back. When she told me she said, “And I know that God will walk with me through this as well.” I replied, “I could have that kind of faith.”
When the events of life are understood in the big picture of God’s salvation, then we can accept when prayer isn’t answered as we desired or things do not go well for us. We can even feel secure and loved in the midst of our trials and tribulations. God is holding us and the world in his hands – within his own vision of hope. What God is doing is bigger than any one of us. In 2 Corinthians 5:7 Paul reminds us “we walk by faith, not by sight”. We may not perceive what God is doing, but we can trust that God is loving and he’s working for our salvation.
This story describes that kind of faith in action: A 6 year old girl had been shopping with her Mom. As they were about to leave they noticed a group of people waiting at the exit. Outside, it was gushing rain. Some waited patiently, others were irritated because nature messed up their hurried day. After a moment the girl turned to her Mom and said, “Let`s run through the rain,” “No, honey. We`ll wait until it slows down a bit,” Mom replied, “otherwise we’ll get soaked”. “That’s not what you said to Daddy this morning”. “What did I say to Daddy this morning?” “You were talking about a problem and you said, if God can get us through this, he can get us through anything!” The entire crowd was listening. Mom paused to think about what she would say. This was a critical moment in her daughter’s life; a time when innocence could be nurtured so that it could bloom into faith. “Honey, you’re absolutely right. Let`s run through the rain. If God lets us get wet, well maybe we just need washing,” Mom said. Then off they ran. They got soaked. But they were followed by a few who screamed and laughed like children all the way to their cars. The author added, “And yes, I did. I ran. I got wet. I needed washing.”
We walk by faith and it is God who knows whether or not we need washing and what will make us clean. He also knows that when we walk by faith, someone else will follow us into the downpour where they too will be washed. I would urge you as others have to “have faith”. Just don’t expect that having faith will always make life easy or perfect or fixable. What faith will do is help you, while you’re waiting for the next life, to face whatever this life brings knowing that God is at work in and through you to make you more like Christ and to bring about his Kingdom. May you have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in Jesus Christ and may you not lose heart over the sufferings we all encounter. Remember, what God is doing in your life, may become the glory of someone who is being saved.