By Faith Alone

12th Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 11                           
11 August 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert                   

There is a very good chance that the book of Hebrews was written by a woman named Priscilla, who with her husband Aquilla, was leading a church in Rome.  Although for many years, thanks to the dominance of the King James Version, Hebrews was falsely attributed to Paul, there was documented doubt of his authorship as early as the 3rd century.   Hebrews could have been written by Barnabas, Apollos, or even Luke, but I put my faith in Priscilla, especially as female authorship would be a good reason for early scribes to remove the name and turn it into an unsolved mystery.

The central theme of the epistle is the doctrine of the Person of Christ and his role as mediator between God and humanity, but among the most inspiring chapters, we have 11, 12, 13 – our readings for the next several weeks.   Today’s reading invites us to sit down and hear the recitation of our faith family’s history.   It is a long, because there are so many people of faith who came before us, and this is a short list.   So we read them to remember our heritage, much like you would go to to discover your own personal heritage, or even better, you would listen to your parents or grandparents tell stories about the family, some which get exaggerated in the telling.   

My mom loves to tell the story of her grandfather who lived to be 92 and walked the post office every day of his life, including the day he died.   I enjoy walking and hope to be like able to stay active like this man I never knew.   My mom talks about her mother singing solos in church.   I was named for that grandmother and though I do not remember her, I know we can connect via music.   Not all our family stories are positive – my grandmother Elizabeth suffered from mental illness in the days when shock treatment and long hospitalizations were commonly practiced.   She had lots of support but still it must have been a hard life for her and her husband.  It is the same with the Biblical narrative. Some of the stories are the history of struggle, of pain.  Thereby, they teach us to cling to the faith, by which alone we live.  Some of the stories are exaggerated through years of oral history, thereby teaching us not to worry as much about the facts as the faith they impart.   Hear now the stories of the faithful in our reading from Hebrews 11:  

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. 4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain's… 5 By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death… 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 7 By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household… 8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." 13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them… 17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son... 20 By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. 21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, "bowing in worship over the top of his staff." 22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial. 23 By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king's edict. 24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh's daughter, 25 choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin… 29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land… 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. 32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-- 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. 

(New Revised Standard Version)  

What is faith and how do you know if you really have it?   Most of us have considered that at one point or another.   Hebrews 11 opens, Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

Young’s Literal Translation (Greek word for word) puts it like this:  And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen, a conviction.   The Common English Bible, says, Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.   The New Century Version:  Faith means being sure of things we hope for and knowing that something is real even if we do not see it.    And the New Living Translation:  What is faith?  It is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen.   It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see.

Faith is at the center of Christian life. We profess that we have been saved by faith, and that we now live by faith. But what does it really mean to have faith? What does it really mean to believe?

This is an important question, especially in our day, because for a great many people, faith has first and foremost to do with the assent of the mind. For them, to have faith means to give our intellectual agreement to a proposition, to believe that a claim or statement is true. There are a great many Christians who understand their faith in this way. They have given intellectual approval to certain claims or statements about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, and about the human condition. But when faith is understood primarily in this way, it becomes a just matter of the head rather than of the heart. When Christian faith is seen as an assent of the mind, the emphasis shifts to holding the correct views, believing the right things to be true.

Genuine faith involves trust. Christian faith, Christian belief, has to do with a radical trust in God which grows with the practice of trusting. It does not mean trusting in the truth of a set of statements about God; it means trusting in God.
Example:  When our firstborn Emily first went away to college, we had to trust in God that she was okay, even though we could not verify that with our eyes, with our own experience.   We had to trust, as we have with the other children, between phone conversations, that all would be well.  We got to practice even more trust in God when she went to Greece to study abroad – just about the time that the movie, Taken, was in the theatres.   I did not see it then because my trust was too fragile, but I have seen it now. 
Then there was the year in Korea, and many of you remember that fretful night when we had to trust in God that Catherine, barely 21, in Korea visiting, would find a way to get for Emily would get the medical attention she needed, after a seizure-like experience in the middle of the night.   Emily is now in Switzerland for a few weeks, visiting her boyfriend.   There was a mishap in the surprise visit she was paying him, and so she got stuck alone in Milan and he did not know she was there. Last I heard, which was 1:00 pm on Friday, she had still made no connection with him or his sister who was to pick her up.   But I have been practicing my trust in God that Emily is fine, even with no evidence that this is the case.    Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

I have never seen God.  I have only seen evidence of God’s goodness.  I have felt God’s love in a mysterious sort of way.   But I have chosen to commit myself to a life of faith.  I have felt sufficiently inspired by the Spirit of Jesus Christ to give myself over to this faith.   What about you?   Have you made that conscious choice?  All people have passions/causes/relationship into which they pour themselves.  Whatever it is, this new person/thing/cause captures our attention and awakens our devotion.  We believe in what we are doing, and we commit ourselves to it with our whole being.  We continue to push forward even when obstacles arise or doors close.  Because we believe in it, we persevere.   

That’s what it means to have faith in God – it is to make that relationship foremost.   This act of commitment, of devotion, can happen suddenly or gradually, but it is surely renewed by repetition -  such as participating in worship, saying prayers, reciting creeds or other statements of faith, hearing sermons, singing hymns, taking communion, making offerings.   All these activities provide space for building the faith to stay convinced of things we cannot see, and assured of things for which we hope.   For some it is easier to believe in mysteries, for others, there is a desire for fact. Yet what we have is faith, ours along with witness of so many others who have gone before us.   When your faith is weak, remember the faith of those who came before you.   By faith alone we live.