02.26.17 Our Faithful Response Philippians 4:4-7 Sermon Summary
What does it mean to be faithful? There are many answers, beginning with all the ones found in the Bible.
- “Having faith” during the Reformation and the Enlightenment
- “Faith” in the biblical sense
- Ways our faith is like Abraham’s
- Ways Paul exercises faith
- The fruit of biblical faith—spiritual peace and joy
Figuring out what it means to be faithful is especially challenging in hard times. But it’s also a challenge during good times. One of the hardest times to determine faithfulness is when we are experiencing doubt. From one perspective, the Bible is simply a compendium of answers to question of faithfulness, answered by diverse people in a variety of circumstances.
It’s helpful to begin with what we mean by “having faith.” The period of Reformation which began 500 years ago can be understood as the disagreement on the interpretation of Scripture. During this time “faith” referred to matters of practice. It answered questions about how we hear the Bible, and what the sacraments contribute.
Two hundred years later during the Enlightenment, the questions were about the authority of Scripture. During this time “faith” referred to matters of doctrine. “Faith” was what one “believed in,” and that usually meant “believing in” something unscientific, for example, that the earth is 6000 years old. This is still the way fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists define faith.
Biblical faith, more than practices or a doctrines, is best understood as a matter of perspective. It is a way of viewing the world, a way that is characterized by openness to God and the response that follows. Sometimes biblical faith is unscientific. There are times when revelation supersedes reality. But even in these extraordinary situations, faith still begins with openness and elicits a response.
In a word, faith is the response to God’s promise. Sometimes God’s promises are irrational, but more often they are quite rational, like the faith that claims that God is present with us in love, or that God desires us to do good and be just, or that God has blessed us and expects us to bless others. These are rational perspectives shared by people of faith and people of no faith. And because they seem so ordinary, such rational instances of faith make faith hard to discern and practice sometimes.
Biblical faith isn’t characterized primarily by irrational belief, or doctrinal adherence, or upholding a behavioral moral code. It is responding to God’s promises.
Today’s texts give us a couple of examples. First there is the covenant with Abraham and Sarah. Their whole lives they have been childless. About a decade before, they had already been “chosen” to pilgrimage from their homeland to the Land of Promise, which included the promise of children. Now they had begun to despair.
It is at this time that God gives Abraham what theologians call a “special revelation.” In visions, dreams, and trances, God assures Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars at night. The Bible tells us Abraham, “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteous.” Abraham’s faith was one of responding to God’s promise, and this is the right way to relate to God.
Not all of us can expect special revelation, or visions, or even dreams. I know very few people who have them. But we can believe nonetheless. And when we do, it counts to us as righteousness. There are other aspects of faith we can share with Abraham. Like Abraham, even though we believe, we still have questions. After about a decade, Abraham asks God, “How am I to know that I shall possess the land?” Faith as response still allows questions.
And like Abraham, we observe ritual. All the next day Abraham cut animals in two, arranging the pieces in a special way, chasing away scavengers, and waiting patiently for God. And eventually, like Abraham, we see the fulfilment of God’s promises.
The second example of faith is given to us by Paul in Philippians. In this letter, Paul offers some faithful practices to help in mediating conflict in the church. On one hand, there are tensions in the community coming from the outside. Rival preachers are taking advantage of Paul’s imprisonment to proclaim the gospel differently than he does. Paul’s response? He is thankful that, regardless of the motives, Christ is still being proclaimed.
On the other hand, there are tensions arising from within the community. There appears to be a power struggle between two female pastors, Euodia and Syntyche. To guide them to reconciliation, Paul quotes a hymn of Christ’s humility and how we should also adopt his mindset. Paul urges them to follow his example in finding his contentment, not in his accomplishments, but in Christ. He says his only ambition is to take hold of Christ.
Whatever the challenges, Paul depends on faith which keeps Christ at the center. This faith allows Paul to “rejoice in the Lord always.” He urges us to gentleness. And he commends prayer and supplication with thanksgiving as practices of faith to guide our lives. We can do these things, Paul says, because the Lord is near.
And what is the result of such faith? It is spiritual peace. This is not the absence of conflict, or the absence of doubt, or the absence of questions. Spiritual peace exists in uncertainty because spiritual peace is the assurance of God’s presence. Faith leads to peace, because faith is the response to God’s promise to be present throughout our lives in every situation in which we find ourselves.
Psalm 67 invites all people and even creation to praise God. It does so on the basis of God’s grace and blessing, and the basis of God’s justice. We praise God for God’s guidance and providence. In short, all people can praise God for all the reasons we can have faith. People of faith believe God’s promises, and act according to them, with joy, confidence, thanksgiving, and peace.