Saved by Faith

A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this Service: Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16, Luke 12: 32-40

Last week I took my nephew to see the production of Jesus Christ Superstar which is playing at the Barbican. It’s a great revamped production and the music, set and dancing feel fresh, dramatic and alive. When this show first came out in the 80s apparently some Christians demonstrated outside the theatres saying it was blasphemy. Quite the contrary, now it seems heartening and courageous that a major production aims to tell the story of the death of Jesus so vividly. The second half is riveting and few could have failed to have been moved by the portrayal of Christ’s betrayal and death. And yet something struck me about the representation of Jesus which I kept thinking about and it was this. As soon as the actor playing Jesus started acting out Christ’s suffering and agony, it was believable, and not hard to empathise and identify- but in the first half when he was playing the Jesus who drew together a group of disciples who followed him, watched him work miracles, and who were meant to believe he was the Son of God …I kept on thinking this Jesus wouldn’t inspire anybody- nobody would ever trust him with saving their souls.  The actor sang and danced well but it was if there was a dimension missing. He seemed petulant, angry, self-obsessed. Perhaps that is all part of the story but surely if Jesus Christ was superstar there needed to be something more we could believe in. This Jesus could convey suffering but not inspire faith.  And it struck me that perhaps for this actor and the audience who watched, faith itself has become the anomaly. In fact as so often happens Judas got far more empathy, sympathy and applause. It was goodness they found so difficult to portray.

Perhaps this is true of society as a whole. We can identify with suffering, we can understand betrayal, violence, victimhood. But what about trust? Are we not in our nation going through  a crisis of trust? A period of massive doubt and suspicion. A period in which we no longer feel the leaders or institutions in our society are things we can really believe in- be it politicians, political parties, Brexit, the EU, health care, care homes, police, local authorities, church, – in fact a feeling that there is no one in whom one can really put one’s faith. And in fact the leaders who have come to the top are those who articulate not a vision of faithfulness but who are able to exploit the mood of national cynicism and blame to their advantage. We know what we don’t trust be we don’t know what we do.

Neither does God escape from our modern doubt or cynicism. How can we believe in this God the Father Almighty in our twenty-first century? Have we really grounds for believing God to be trustworthy when so many of those who profess faith clearly are not? And so often in people’s experience of religion, God is seen as the tyrant, one moment forgiving the next condemning. How can we have faith in our God whose relationship with creation is so unpredictable? We need to believe in a God who is steadfast but, for many, the God they hear about sounds erratic, patriarchal, violent, hypocritical, sexist, homophobic, make-believe, man-made or irrelevant.

If God does intervene directly in our lives then why does God intervene so erratically – working a miracle here but not there. Does God answer prayer or not?

If faith is something we seek then surely we are not seeking something that is irrational, or unpredictable or is simply superstitious. I remember when I was a priest in the South Pacific the villagers rushed to me with a boy who had fallen while climbing from a coconut tree- who judging by the angle of his arm clearly had a bad break. “Father, will you pray for him?”

“Yes,” I said, “I will but I will do it on the way to the hospital.” The boy clearly needed medical attention and quickly- faith in God involved faith in the skills of a doctor to help heal this broken arm. And yet were they not right too- did not healing also involve the healing of God, the one who loves us and created us and in whom all things begin and end. Was there not much I could learn from their faith?  I also remember being on a boat crossing from one island to another and being woken up in the middle of the night to pray for our survival. The boat was leaking and the hold was full of water. The passengers on board were frightened that we were going to sink and asked me to lead them all in prayer. I remember as I was saying the Our Father I noticed that the very limited supply of life jackets was being distributed and feeling, despite my prayer, somewhat anxious that there would be none left. As soon as I got to the Amen I remember asking if there were any life jackets left to which the man next to me replied “Father where is your faith. God is your life jacket”. To which I think I replied something like  “ But didn’t Jesus say do not put the Lord your God to the test.” I never did get a life jacket but we did make it to shore. Whether that was the result of prayer, the crew’s seamanship or the calm weather I do not know. Perhaps all three had their part to play.

So what is faith? Today’s readings both from Hebrews and Luke’s Gospel speak of faith “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The letter to the Hebrews tells us. There is so much beyond our human understanding and advances in science or technology reveal the even greater mystery and miraculous nature of life itself. Science increases our awe and wonder rather than diminishes it. The more we discover about the world the more we wonder at the vastness of the unknown and the astonishing intricacy and interconnectedness of life itself.

By faith, we are told Abraham obeyed when he was called and set out. Have we, not all in our own faith sensed this calling or why else would we be in church this morning? The word calling itself indicates that it comes from beyond us. It is a calling difficult to explain or to quantify or to fully understand and impossible to grasp. A realisation deep within us that there is a meaning to our lives beyond our own ego or selfhood. A longing within us to listen to the God who is greater than us and calls us to follow his Son – a mystery where we like Abraham let go of the simple instinct to cling to place or possessions and enter into a relationship with the One who is above us and beyond us. It is a realisation that there is a treasure greater than anything we possess. Luke’s Gospel calls this a treasure in heaven, Hebrews a “heavenly” homeland.

We discover faith is in fact a relationship with God that grows in substance and meaning in the seeking.  It becomes a trust that holds us- a bit like a compass holds a ship to its course. We can be knocked off that course but it is as though like magnetic north our faith centres us, brings us back to the path. Each time we are buffeted by the storms of our lives our faith can bring us back, re-orientating to that which is lifegiving. Our faith is described in the scripture again and again in the form of a journey or pilgrimage. Letting go, leaving behind, risking all, facing struggle and temptation and yet in that journey of faith weaning us from all that is temporary or material towards that which is eternal and true. Faith involves the dreaming of dreams. And the hoping of great hopes. It needs courage. But the magnetic north itself, the substance at its very centre, we begin to realise is Jesus himself.

The full meaning of faith is revealed fully in him  The Jesus who calls his disciples to leave everything behind to follow him. A faith which seems to demand nothing less than everything. Of course the disciples, like us, do not understand yet the meaning. They are perhaps initially caught up in the excitement and success of Jesus mission. They are amazed by his power to work miracles, to draw crowds, to cast out demons, for even the wind and the waves obey him. Yet actually they still have no faith.  It is only in the experience of Jesus’ love for them and Jesus’ love for the Father that they will discover the true meaning of living by faith-faith not in power or dominion- but faith as the pouring out of God’s loving energy received but also given, life breathed in but also breathed out for others.  Jesus is not only God when he is working miracles, or walking on water- Jesus is God when he is hungry, thirsty, going the extra mile, eating with sinners, weeping at the grave of Lazarus – because real faith, the faith of knowing who God really is, is revealed in this unconditional love. Faith is not just the glory on the top of the mountain its being with God on the road to Calvary, within rejection, within the wounding, within forsakenness, within sweat and blood and within shame, even in the agonising cry of death and with beyond death. How can we trust God? Because of Jesus. He is the one who remains steadfast. “Do you love me?” he asks Peter. “How much do you love us?” “This much”- his open arms nailed to a cross tell us. “Put your hands in my wounds. Stop your doubting and believe.” God’s promises find their yes in Jesus. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For in Christ it is always yes. For in him every one of God’s promises is a yes.”

That’s why when Jesus calls on his disciples to be ready and alert waiting for their master’s return, ready to open the door when their master knocks, he calls them to do this precisely because he knows that, in fact, they are not ready. They will not be faithful. They will be found wanting, unprepared, and full of fear and doubt. The words found in Luke’s Gospel speak beyond the context of those disciples to the early church and to all of us. It’s so easy to give up, to be followers when it suits ourselves but to be nowhere to be found when we are really needed. Jesus Christ himself is going to model the meaning of God’s faithfulness. It’s here in today’s Eucharist. It is his body given for us, his blood for our forgiveness, his death that we might live his resurrection. Tell that to the cynics of our time- greater love hath no one than to offer one’s life for love.

The only way to build trust is by showing trust. The only way of affirming the love of God is by loving God and neighbour. The only way of showing the compassion of God is by becoming the compassion of God. The only way of being the first is by being the last of all. Words alone are a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Our faith must move from the head and words to the integrity of our hearts. If you want to know the true nature of God, look to Jesus. If you want to know the meaning of faithfulness see in him how it is accomplished. If you have lost your faith in both state and religion then it is time to seek faith in the one of true integrity- the one who was crucified outside the city wall among the poor and the outcast and all of us on the edge calling us to a new faithfulness, a new peace, a new truth. The way the truth the life. Our way, our truth our life. In this crisis of faith- here is the one who calls us to faith,  and one of the gifts of faith is the learning to trust again- trusting in the goodness and grace of God.  The God whom we must be ready to meet.