Hebrews 11 – Faith: What do you believe?
Over the last few months we have been grappling with the challenges of this ancient church building, and our buildings in the Pallant. As we’ve done so, I have been reminded time and time again of the generations of Christians who have worshipped in this place before us. Sometimes we have uncovered evidence of them, in the walls or in secret corners. For example, a few weeks ago we removed a heating flue from the old toilets in the Pallant Centre, and we discovered a pencil drawing of Adolf Hitler on the back of the pipe – with the words ‘he is here’. No doubt this was a joke, at the time that rumours were circulating about Hitler not having really died…but quite disturbing for a moment.
Then on Friday, I was poking about in the organ chamber, and I came across a whole load of signatures, scrawled in pencil on one of the old monuments back there. I guess they were previous organ builders who wanted to leave their mark. Again, when installing the refurbished weathervane on top of the tower on Friday, I noticed the number of names that are carved into the cement at the top of the tower steps – quite probably from when the tower was rebuilt in the 1800s.
All these encounters with the past have impressed on me that we are but the latest generation of people who have worshipped here, maintained and improved our buildings, and been witnesses for God in this community. More than that, we are the inheritors of the faith which they have passed on to us down the ages…the faith which we will declare again together in the words of the Creed – in a short while.
But faith is a slippery thing, isn’t it? Something I discover more and more as a parish priest is the wide range of things that people believe in. Some believe in aliens, and some in fairies. Some believe that the end of the world is coming any day now, and others believe there is a conspiracy of ancient masonic powers who are really governing the world. Within the Christian church there are also a huge range of beliefs to grapple with. You pays your collection – and you takes your choice. Let me ask you to think for a moment…what do you believe about some of the following questions?
• Is the Bible the inerrant Word of God, a guide-book for every human decision, or is it a collection of writings about how our ancestors sought to understand God?
• What exactly happens at the Eucharist? Is it simply a memorial to the death of Jesus, or does the bread and wine actually (or just spiritually) transform into the body and blood of Christ?
• Is God really three-in-one? Does the Spirit really ‘proceed from the Father and the Son’ or does he only proceed from the Father? (That, by the way, was an issue which split the Catholic and Orthodox churches around the year 1000).
• How does Jesus save us from our sins? Does he ‘redeem’ us – by paying a ransom to the Devil? Or does he take our punishment for sin from an angry God?
• Is there such a thing as a Devil? Or is the Devil a metaphor for the sinful things we humans do?
• Is baptism meant for babies, or only for adults who can confess their own faith?
All these questions, and many more, are part of the ‘inheritance of faith’ that we Christians have received. Before us, generations of Christians have argued, fought and even burned each other at the stake over.
Why is this?
Why has it become so important to believe in certain ideas about God, and reject other ideas? When you think about it, this is actually a rather odd notion. It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads – as if believing the “right things” is what God is most looking for, as if having “correct beliefs” is what will save us.
I prefer to think of faith as being more like a trampoline – a flexible canvass platform that is held up by a lot of different springs. The springs are ideas – ideas which together give the platform its stability. It is quite possible to take off one of the springs from time to time, without the whole thing collapsing. One can examine the spring – see how flexible it is, see if it is still working. Perhaps one might need to grease the spring, or repair it – before putting it back in place.
One of the reasons why we have got into such a pickle about ‘faith’ is that we use the one word to describe what, in the original languages of the Bible, were rather more complex images. The most common way that we tend to use the word is captured by the Latin word ‘assensus’ – or assent. We give our ‘assent’ to a certain idea, whether or not there is any evidence for the idea at all. This is about ‘faith in the head’ – what we choose to believe about God.
But there are many other ways of understanding ‘faith’ – ways that I would argue are far more accurate, and far more liberating. If ‘assensus’ or ‘intellectual assent’ is ‘faith of the head’, what about faith that is ‘of the heart’. Such faith is ‘fiduciary’ faith – or faith that is based on trust. That’s the kind of faith that Abraham had. He trusted God’s plan for his life, and left his home to follow God’s Way all across the deserts.
Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean. The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard suggested that fiduciary faith – trusting faith – is like swimming in a deep ocean. If you struggle, and tense up and thrash about you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float. Just as in Matthew’s story of Peter walking on the water with Jesus. When he began to be afraid, when he worried with this brain about what was happening, he began to sink.
Another Latin word often translated as ‘faith’ is ‘fidelitas’ – from which we get our word ‘fidelity’ or faithfulness. Faith as fidelity means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the ‘heart’.
Then, finally, another word for faith is ‘visio’ – or ‘vision’. This is faith as a way of seeing…a lens through which to see the world as God’s place, in which God is working his purpose out.
I wish I had time to explore these ideas some more – but the clock is against us. Suffice to say that if you would like to think more about these different understandings of faith, that’s precisely what we will be doing at Café Church, later on this morning.
For now, let me leave you with this thought: true faith is much less about what you believe, and much more about how you believe. I don’t really mind if you believe in angels or not, or exactly by what mechanism Jesus is the Saviour of the world. If you are able to see the world as God’s world, if you are able to trust that God is working his purpose out through his people - the Church, if you are able to be faithful to that vision for the world and for Havant, then you are my brother, you are my sister.