Sunday, August 14, 2016

What is Faith?

Good morning everyone. It is quite exciting to be celebrating my first Sunday morning mass here at Saint George’s!

My family and I moved into the rectory last Friday on July 29th, but I drove up a day earlier to drop off our cats, Lily and Sable. While I was here I was also interviewed by a very pleasant reporter from the Schenectady Gazette. Maybe some of you read the article. We sat right down there in the front pew and he asked me all about who I was and what it was that lead me here to where I am today as the 19th rector of St. George’s.

It was an unexpectedly powerful experience. As I recounted my own spiritual journey to this young man I had only met moments before, I was reminded of all the wonderful ways in which God has been shaping me throughout my life to serve him. His invisible hand has guided me each step.

The reporter also asked me what it was that I planned on preaching about on my first Sunday. I had to confess that I had no idea! This morning’s readings, however, present one obvious theme that also seems rather appropriate: Faith.

In our lesson from Genesis for instance God makes a promise to Abram. God promises that his decedents will be as numerous as the stars and that he will make of him a great nation. Abram could see no way in which this could ever happen, after all he and his wife, Sarai, were already advanced in age, but he decided to trust God. He set out not knowing where he was going.

 When I accepted Jesus Christ as Lord, when I took those first tentative steps in obeying his call on my life, I had no idea where he would lead me. I certainly had no idea that he would bring me here to Saint George’s in Schenectady. How could I have? I had to step out in faith trusting in God’s providence.

A coworker of mine had a motivational poster hanging in her office. It was a picture of someone walking in the dark and read, “Faith is taking the first steps when you can’t see the whole staircase.” That’s a decent definition of faith, one that the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard might have agreed with. He himself described faith as, “setting out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water.”

But how is it that Holy Scripture defines faith? The author of Hebrews, in our Epistle reading today, describes it this way, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” He continues, “Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.”

Let us unpack this description. This verse is notoriously difficult to translate. Many might be familiar with the King James Version which says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The question is whether or not to understand this verse in the objective sense of the subjective. In other words, is the word translated alternately as “assurance” or “substance,” describing the quality of a person’s faith or the object of that person’s faith?

It is hard to say, but I tend to think the more objective sense used by the King James Version is more accurate, and here is why. Our confidence in the truth or our trust in God comes and goes. It wavers according to our emotional state. You could be convinced of something intellectually, but become suddenly overcome with doubt, anxiety, or fear.

 Take getting on a plane for instance. You can know all about flight. You can be assured of the competency of the pilots, the safety of the plane, and the unlikelihood of a crash, but suddenly you are in mid-air and you panic! You have a crisis in confidence. Likewise, you might be convinced intellectually of the truth of the Christian faith, but when faced with difficult life situations that trust can waver.

Faith is the power that enables you to persevere through those times. Faith is what holds you up when you cannot stand yourself. Faith—in the Christian sense—is not about our own confidence or conviction. It is not a power of our own, but one that comes to us from beyond ourselves. It is a supernatural virtue infused in us by the Holy Spirit. Its power consists not in the strength of our conviction but in the substance, the certainty, the reality, of what is hoped for, the object of our faith.

If you were to step out on a bridge over a thousand foot canyon, what is it that would keep you from plummeting to your doom? Would it be your confidence in how secure the bridge is or would it be the strength and durability of the bridge itself?

It follows then than that the object of our faith really matters! Sometimes people act as if the mere exercise of faith is a virtue, as if we can simply believe things into existence. We have been told, “if you believe it, you can achieve it,” but this may not be the case! This is merely faith in faith. In order to be effective, my faith must be placed in what is real and trustworthy.

 If I place my faith in the belief that if I leap from the steeple of Saint Georges I will sore in the air and go flying above the Stockade, you will soon be looking for a new Rector!

What is it, or who is it, that we are really placing our trust and confidence in? Where is the sure foundation upon which we can build our lives? Brothers and Sisters, earthly possessions are fleeting, political parties and their candidates disappoint us, our strength fails us, our faith wavers, and even our own moral character is helplessly flawed, but Jesus Christ is our rock and our sure foundation. If we put our trust in him, we shall never be disappointed.

If you were baptized, God washed you clean of all your sins and pledged his undying faithfulness to you through his son Jesus Christ. Cling to those promises. Remember your baptism. In it God poured his Spirit out upon you and gave you grace in order that you might have faith in his love for you and the salvation that Christ purchased for you. I love the way the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it,

“Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered to us in the gospel”

Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and all the other patriarchs and matriarchs were justified by their faith in him. They did not so much as hear the name of Jesus Christ, they died long before his coming, yet by faith they saw him from afar and greeted him. This faith was accounted to them as righteousness. So how much more will we, who have heard and received the gospel of our Lord with joy, be justified by our faith in him?

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