A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 13 June 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells.

Readings of address: 2 Corinthians 5. 6-17

We live in a time when old hierarchies are being abolished, and new but less durable authority structures are emerging. We’re especially aware that life is easier for some than others, by simple accident, or by earnest or sinister design. We’ve adopted a whole language of inequality, from understated terms like postcode lottery to more strident language like class privilege, gender discrimination or white supremacy. Through cruelty, competition, or craftiness, people have long supposed that the way to lift themselves up was by putting others down.

But hostility from others isn’t the only limitation we face in life. There’s our own shortcomings, like weak memory. There’s the constraints that the world puts on all of us, like not being able to fly. And there’s the nature of life itself. And this is the big one. We die. We can spend all our life arguing about injustice, working for equality, striving for freedom, but in the end we all die. Death allows no bypass, and has no get-out clause for the privileged, mighty, talented, or beautiful.

In the face of the inevitability of death and the vulnerability of our human condition, we have a couple of options. We can develop our own capacity, by enhancing our physical fitness, keeping our mental faculties racing, building up a legacy of achievements and wealth for those who follow to admire and imitate, perhaps even reaching such a profound state of peace and calm that even the anticipation of our own death can’t trouble us. Or we can find healthy ways to rely on others. We can make relationships of mutuality and gratitude, where we meet one another in our tenderness and embrace each other in our gentleness. We can invest in family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, or on groups of online solidarity, who can stand beside us as we descend into the unknown. We can develop networks of medical support that ensure we can avoid pain and extended distress.

These two strategies can be profound and beautiful, and give us dignity and strength as we approach our greatest challenge. But they can only take us so far. Sooner or later we realise the fragility of our own faculties and recognise there’s nothing around us that won’t one day go the way we’re going, since all things are subject to decay. The ultimate question of our mortality is about the confrontation between what lasts for a limited time, which is everything we know, and what lasts forever. When we say that word ‘forever,’ we run up against a host of things unknown, uncertain and unprovable that constitute the most important questions of our existence and epicentre of what we mean by the word ‘faith.’ It’s no use rolling our eyes and saying, ‘That’s way too complicated,’ or claiming, ‘I’ve got a lot on, I’ll think about that later,’ or simply suggesting, ‘I’ll find out the answers to those questions soon enough, but for now I’ll just concentrate on living.’ The point is, the answers to our questions about forever determine our understanding of everything we’re doing now. If we’re rushing off to do something more important than reflect on forever, that’s a statement that we’d rather live in a perpetual present tense than contemplate a daunting future.

What I want to do today is to explore two kinds of faith that sound the same but turn out to have very different strategies for approaching the questions of forever.

The first is the desire to attain a level of certainty, conviction, and passion that somehow carries us over the chasm of doubt, distress and despair. It’s like psyching ourselves up before an exam, sporting contest or difficult conversation so that we can be transported into a different realm of consciousness and achieve things beyond our normal powers. This is what I sense is communicated by the word ‘belief.’ The notion of belief is that we bind ourselves to certain extraordinary commitments, rituals, and ideas about reality that may seem bizarre to outsiders or locked in an ancient thought-world but give us access to the secret workings of the true power at large in the universe. We can’t expect to know the logic or understanding the purposes of that secret power, but beliefs connect us to it as successfully as we can aspire to in this existence. To keep the magic at work, we surround ourselves with people who hold these convictions more ardently than we do and cultivate experiences that take us to a rarefied form of feeling, so we’re lifted out of our mundane lives where everything feels so fragile and vulnerable.

The interesting thing about this notion of belief is that it seems to be understood in a similar way by adherents and outsiders alike. It’s common for journalists or lawcourts to refer to a person’s beliefs – thereby speaking of something beyond the rational, steeped in obscurity, fiercely held, impossible to argue with, and central to identity. Think of parents apparently unaccountably refusing medical assistance for their child when doctors are eager to intervene: we’re told it’s because of the parents’ ‘beliefs.’ But it’s also common for a person to defend their beliefs, as something that’s profoundly personal and of great comfort, and shouldn’t be a reason for discrimination, even if another person finds it offensive. What all these understandings have in common is the assumption that belief is fundamentally a form of escape. It’s a magic carpet that lifts you out of the ordinariness and jeopardy of your life and transports you to a realm of miracle, mystery and cosmic purpose, and the more you can get yourself into a holy reverie to match this grand drama, the more you can be free of the limitations of self, world and life, and the threats of others, and thus find something called salvation.

If you follow news and current affairs, you could easily come to think what I’ve described as belief is the only kind of faith there is. But I want to describe to you another kind of faith that isn’t based on escape. Think about what it means to develop a life-limiting condition. Your wrist starts to swell. Next day your knee can’t bend. In days you’re in hospital with autoimmune arthritis: your immune system is attacking your joint tissue. After a month your condition stabilises, and you start to build your life again. You need rehab and physiotherapy. You have to learn to walk again. You develop strategies, depend on others, learn to accept help, do a routine of daily exercises. It’s a complete transformation. Your infant daughter is learning to walk at the same time as you. You thought your job was to teach her but now she’s teaching you. It’s humiliating but beautiful. You appreciate the tiniest gifts of life. You cherish the people that care for you. You say, ‘Thank you for walking with me’ and you mean it literally. You’re gradually making progress. But faster than you re-learn to walk, you are becoming a better person.[1]

If there’s one word that sums up the journey I’ve described, it’s trust. Trust doesn’t assume life is about overcoming limitations. It’s about finding friendships, truth and beauty in the midst of those limitations. Trust doesn’t think if you wave a magic wand, things will change overnight. It finds companionship among the community of the waiting. Trust doesn’t pretend if you hold tight to the right things, nothing will ever go wrong. It inhabits the exercises and patience required to rebuild after matters have been strained or broken. Trust doesn’t use people as a means of getting things, but places all its energies in making relationships that transcend adverse and depleting circumstances. Trust, rather than belief, is the better part of faith.

Here’s the crucial point. You can eradicate belief from your life. You can say I’m not going to commit to anything that’s not scientifically provable. But you can’t live without trust. When we’re hurt or betrayed our ability to trust inevitably suffers; but the abundance of our life suffers to the same degree. The question of trust isn’t about whether we should trust – it’s about who and what we trust; and in the face of death that’s about what we can trust that will last forever.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians about the scarcity of our present existence and the abundance of God’s future glory, he speaks of what we could call both belief and trust. At times it sounds like he’s striving for the kind of belief we’re just questioned. He says ‘the love of Christ urges us on,’ conveying that sense of an overwhelming feeling. He claims he’s convinced, suggesting he’s looking for a kind of certainty that will remove all doubt. He lets his readers know he’s sometimes ‘beside himself,’ implying others think him irrational and illogical.

But he also describes a kind of faith that’s much more about trust. He talks about being ‘well known to God.’ It’s a phrase that could be scary if we imagine God as a censorious inquisitor; but when we realise Paul’s talking the language of trust, to be well known to God is a wonderful affirmation of a firmly founded relationship. Paul has a vivid description of the highest aspirations of trust: he says, ‘those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.’ A perfect expression of trust is to be so confident that God has your best interests in hand that you no longer need spend all your time looking after your own interests but can be free to look after God’s interests. Then finally Paul’s most memorable phrase: when we are ‘in Christ’ there is a new creation. The term ‘in Christ’ is the most succinct way of describing what trust means. We’re like the infant girl learning to walk tucked into the coat tails of the crucified and risen Jesus. Our story’s enfolded in Christ’s story. When we look for Jesus, we look not up into the sky for a saviour but right beside us for a companion whose trust will never let us go.

There are two kinds of faith – belief and trust. And here’s the irony. God’s faith in us is belief. It’s irrational, far-fetched, and mysterious. There’s no good reason for it. But everything depends on it. Our faith in God is trust. It’s saying there’s going to be setbacks, misunderstandings, and patient rebuilding. But I only want to be with you. When we think faith’s all about belief, we beat ourselves up for not being able to hold together all the mysteries and contradictions and far-fetched ideas. But that’s not what Christianity’s really all about. The Christian faith’s really all about trust. It’s not an escape where Jesus the magician whisks us away on a magic carpet of happiness and glory. It’s about facing the unknown and seeing Jesus turn round and offer us his hand and say, ‘Let’s learn to walk through this together.’ He’s the broken man. We’re the infant girl. He’s saying, ‘Take my hand. We’re going to walk across the unknown together.’