March 19, 2017

Lent3

Lent 3 - Year A

A sermon preached by Rev. Ian Delinger

 

A couple of weeks ago, I was with someone who asked me how I have faith. This person had been raised in a household with no expression of faith, and she wanted to try and understand what it meant to be a person of faith. So, we had a conversation about it, with mutual respect for our backgrounds and beliefs. It was a refreshing change from the nasty, hateful comments about people of faith that I come across regularly, both on the internet and in person. As a clergyman, I am apparently a strawman for all the horrible acts committed by people of faith, both now and throughout history.

 

I often hear people say, “I wish I had your faith, but I just don’t.”

The overarching theme across
today's reading and psalm is
FAITH. But what is faith?

We have it. We talk about it. Sometimes it wavers. But what is it? Faith as we find it in the New Testament continues the relationship with the God of Israel that we have in our Hebrew roots of the Old Testament. What is distinctive is Jesus Christ – same faith with the addition that God acted through Jesus as the One to be believed, trusted and obeyed as the Divine Lord and Savior. It is through Jesus that the divine acts of healing, rescuing from danger and the granting of eternal life come. That's what the Christian faith looks like.

 

If we went through the exercise of defining FAITH, there would several different responses from among you. Throughout time, many have attempted to define FAITH. What I find interesting is that we have allowed the definition to change, and society and culture has driven that change. The most simplistic definition can be derived from the Book of Acts and Paul's letter: Faith is the adherence to the Gospel preached by the Apostles which describes salvation through Jesus.

 

I looked at a few of the attempts to define faith within Christianity over the last 2,000 years.

  • Dionysius and Maximus describe faith as the spiritual union with God which draws us into the mysteries that lie beyond the realm of the physical world.
  • Aristotle described faith this way: “To believe is an act of the intellect assenting to divine truth by virtue of a command of the will, which is moved by God through grace so that the act rests on a free decision directed toward God.”
  • During the Reformation, the concept of being justified by faith, from Martin Luther, has become the mainstay of Protestant theology, but that isn't really a definition of faith. For Luther, "Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times." From then onward, the argument between Protestants and Catholics regarding justification by faith and the necessity of good works, respectively, continue.
  • The Enlightenment introduced the challenge of scientific proof. Post-Enlightenment brought in the historical method and questions around the Historical Jesus and the historicity of Jesus. After WWII, theologians were exploring existentialism and the individual relationships between God and humans and the exchange that is going on.

I had a look in the Catechism is the Book of Common Prayer, and there was no definition if FAITH; it is something that is assumed. The Roman Catholic Church has a whole committee devoted to FAITH called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, founded by Pope Paul III in 1542 – squarely in the middle of the Reformation. Currently, the Roman Catholic definition of FAITH is as follows:

 

“5. The obedience of faith (Rom. 13:26; see 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him. To make this act of faith, the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit must precede and assist, moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind and giving joy and ease to everyone in assenting to the truth and believing it. To bring about an ever deeper understanding of revelation, the same Holy Spirit constantly brings faith to completion by His gifts.”

 

This is grounded in Romans and 2 Corinthians, and longstanding since the Council of Nicaea with minor post-Modern alterations.

 

The Lambeth Conference of 2008, the 10-yearly conference of Anglican Bishops from around the world, established the Inter-Anglican Standing Committee on Unity, Faith and Order. In all sincerity, it was basically established to keep the American and Canadian Anglicans under control with respect to the ordination of Bishops who are in same-sex relationships and to keep the Anglicans in the global south within the fold when we do.

 

This is not to say that we Episcopalians do not have a distinctive understanding of faith. Anglicans rely heavily on what we call the 3-legged stool of Scripture (the Holy Bible), Tradition (the practices and beliefs of the historical church) and Reason (the intellect and the experience of God). It’s described as a stool, because if anyone of those gets out of balance, the stool falls over. It was crystallized by Richard Hooker during the English Reformation, tracing its history to Thomas Aquinas in the 13C. Throughout history, our 3-legged stool has allowed and encouraged us Anglicans to draw from the scholarship that has gone on for thousands of years of what it means to have faith.

 

The Anglican Communion website states about what is particularly distinctive about Anglican doctrine:

“An important caveat is about
this question is that if you ask
three Anglicans about doctrine
you’ll get five different answers!
Anglicanism’s greatest strength
- its willingness to tolerate a
wide variety in Anglican faith
and lifestyle - is also the thing
that provokes the most debate
among its practitioners.”

It continues more seriously:

 

“Anglicans, however, do agree that their beliefs and practices, their authority, derive from an integration of Scripture, Reason and Tradition. This ‘three-legged stool’ is said to demonstrate a ‘balance’ in the Anglican approach to faith contrasting it with Roman Catholic and the Protestant doctrines. The term via media when used in reference to the Anglican tradition generally refers to the idea that Anglicanism represents a middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.”

 

Let's go back to the readings.

  • In Genesis, Abram's faith is demanded.
  • In the Psalm, faith is assumed.
  • In Romans, an argument for faith is put forward.
  • In John, faith is misunderstood.

I know from the conversations I have with people who want to know more about faith that these aspects of faith are all different stereotypes that others have of people of faith:

  • Some think that our faith is demanded by God, and see us as sort of wooden puppets of God's whim and fancy. Like Abram, we will do whatever God commands, without question or hesitation, and we will take those closest to us with us.
  • Some think that our faith is assumed, that we took on the faith of our parents and never questioned it. Like in the Psalm, we believe in a protector God who lives in the distance, but upon whom we call for guidance and protection.
  • Some think that our faith is something to be challenged. Like Paul, put forward a good argument, and they might be convinced, but probably not. Unlike Paul, offering a person's faith as an example of faith is not valid.
  • Some think that our faith is misunderstood. Like Nicodemus, and more dangerous, we are not adequately or correctly following our faith, and our hypocrisy is hurting the world.

During Lent, when we are to be examining our faith through fasting, prayer and alsmgiving, so that on Easter Day we can reaffirm our faith, we may discover new aspects of our faith. We may discover questions, doubts, new certainties, new interpretations, old habits. All of that is part of having a healthy faith. Certainly, today's scriptures give us opportunities for reflection and consideration. Knowing what others might think of our faith, and if I'm honest, knowing that my faith and that of my fellow Christians, is fluid between being demanded, being assumed, to be challenged and being misunderstood by others and by me, how can I spend these next few weeks contemplating:

  • How can I be more like Abraham and trust more in God's plan for me?
  • How can I be more like the Psalmist and trust more in God's love and protection of me?
  • How can I be more like Paul and be able to stand firm in what I know my faith to be?
  • How can I be more like what Jesus requires of me and live in the Spirit given to me at my Baptism?

When you wonder what the outcome of faith is, you may reflect in these readings and think that the response to your faith is God’s love. That is to fall into the same trap that we have done for millennia, which Paul is addressing in Romans and Nicodemus is exhibiting, himself. That trap is humanity putting humanity at the center of our world view. But we need to be reminded that God’s love isn't because we believe. It is when we believe that we discover that God’s love is always there...freely available to all. No amount of doctrine will change that, because God is at the center of everything.

© 2017 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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