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.
Most people think God judges to punish sinners and vindicate the faithful. But the Bible says there’s a lot more to it than that.
- How Passover differentiates God’s people from those of other gods
- Some characteristics of God’s people
- How God’s sheep are differentiated from the goats
- The importance of right practice, not just right belief
From the beginning, God has wanted a people. God created Adam and Eve, called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, and rescued the family through Joseph in Egypt. In Exodus, God just wants his people to worship him. God says, “I will execute judgment on the god’s of Egypt,” but really, he’s just differentiating his people.
God’s people are different than the people of Egypt’s gods, or any other nation’s gods. God’s people are characterized by sharing with others, not hoarding for themselves, and actually following where God leads. This is why Passover instructions tell small families to host one another, and to burn any leftovers, and to be dressed and ready to go.
The ultimate sign of God’s people is that they trust him for deliverance. This is what the blood of the lamb proves, that God’s people don’t look to the gods of Egypt, or of any other nation, to deliver them. They look to God.
So when God says mark yourself with the blood of the lamb, God’s people do it. Then God sees it and recognizes his people. And then God delivers them. God didn’t judge Egypt to punish them, but to call his people to identify themselves. One way we can avoid God’s judgment is to trust God for deliverance, not the god of the nation in which we live.
Jesus gives us more direct counsel. After excoriating the religious leaders, giving visions of end times and parables of final judgment, he concludes this long discourse with the parable of the sheep and goats. It is among the most disturbing passages of the Newer Testament for Christians, especially professional Christians like me.
We try so hard to get others to believe right things. Right belief is called “orthodoxy.” Traditionally this has included the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed. Sometimes it has included the Sermon on the Mount. Normally we encourage others to have “quiet times” and to observe the sacraments. Perhaps you have even memorized the “Romans Road” and led others in the “Sinner’s prayer.”
The challenge of this passage is that sheep are sheep, not because they know Jesus as “Lord”—for the goats also address him as “Lord”—but because they did right things. And they did right things not because of the Lord, but because they were the right things to do.
Doing right things is called “orthopraxy,” and it includes feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty a drink, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner.
I have to wonder how many times was this passage preached in the segregated south. Or how was it interpreted? They refused to feed blacks. They refused to share water fountains. They refused strangers who were black. Preachers like me—and Christians like you—ought to ask ourselves, “These people that Jesus talks about, who are they today? To whom is he referring, not just literally, but figuratively also?”
In my hometown of Colorado Springs, we don’t see many naked people. But we see underclothed folk. How well are we caring for them today? Today we know sickness includes not just the physically ill like Simon the Leper or the Woman with the Hemorrhage, but the mentally ill also. How well are we caring for them today?
Prisoners in Jesus’ day—and especially in Matthew’s audience—were political outsiders, those who were socially vulnerable. Today we know that some people are imprisoned to addiction. How well are we visiting such people today? Likewise, who are the hungry and thirsty today? Who are the strangers?
Jesus wants us to be sheep to avoid God’s judgment—or better, to survive God’s judgment. He wants us to be God’s people, to bear the marks of God’s people, just like in Exodus. We are God’s people not when we recite the Lord’s Prayer, or celebrate the sacraments, or attend worship—not when we have orthodoxy alone, but when we have orthopraxy also.
We are God’s people when we share, not hoard; when we welcome, not suspect; when we care for, not ignore; when we are ready to follow God wherever God leads. For God leads his people not to judgment but to blessing; not to a kingdom of this world but to one prepared for them from the foundation of the world. God leads his people to salvation as we care for the least of those who are members of his family.
Since Amos, the “day of the Lord” had an ambiguous meaning. Traditionally it referred to the hope of ancient Israel, a nation oppressed by others, the hope of God’s deliverance. But in Amos, the nation has become the oppressor! The day of the Lord is still the hope of oppressed people, but not of an oppressive nation. For such a nation, the day of the Lord is a day of darkness and reckoning.
By the time of Jesus, the nation of Israel was both. It was oppressive to some of its inhabitants, and it was again a nation oppressed, this time by Rome. Into this situation, Jesus, like Amos, talked about God’s deliverance. Referring to the “Son of Man,” a title used by Daniel to refer to the Jewish messianic hope, Jesus urges his followers to trust God’s timing and to be ready and patient. As part of Jesus’ teaching on this topic, he offers the parable of the widow and the unjust judge.
The book of Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ final words to the ancient Israelites on the threshold of the Promised Land. He is reminding them that they must keep God’s commandments if they are to keep the Promised Land.
The widow in Jesus’ parable probably wouldn’t know much of the Bible, but she apparently knows this verse: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and widow of justice.” (Deuteronomy 27:19) Not only is this the revealed Law of God, but it is also a reasonable practice among people. But it wouldn’t be very convincing to judge who “neither fears God nor has respect for people.”
In Jesus’ day, widows were in a precarious situation. As women they had no rights. If there was an eligible male relative, they were expected to marry him. If she had had a son with her husband, he assumed responsibility for his mom. Widows were socially vulnerable, easily exploited, and an unwanted drain on society. But the widow in Jesus’ parable has some claim to justice, for she keeps asking the judge to grant it.
Jesus may have a particular situation in mind, actually. He starts the parable by referring to “a certain town.” If he is referring to a concrete situation, then the audience would murmur in knowledge. In that audience may have been people who considered the judge an answer to prayer. Maybe his predecessor had too much fear of God, or too much respect for others. Maybe he bent justice to favor the religious or the socially powerful.
For others in the audience, the judge has caused despair. His delay of justice has been a denial of justice, and so people have simply stopped asking. Rather than an answer to prayer, the judge has caused people to stop praying.
For Jesus, this situation provides an illustration for “the need to pray and not lose heart.” Following his teaching about God’s deliverance, Jesus urges us to pray while we wait for God’s justice, for the redemption of the world. Jesus has faith that this is certain.
This is why he contrasts God with the “unjust judge.” Unlike the judge in the parable, God is just, and God’s justice is coming. And those who deny justice will find themselves cursed, just like Deuteronomy says.
So, Jesus teaches, we who believe in God are to pray and not lose heart. This is also part of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, which we know as the “Lord’s Prayer.” There, we pray that God’s kingdom would come “on earth as in heaven.” We’re to assume a day-to-day attitude as sustenance is given to us (“Give us this day our daily bread”). And we’re to forgive others as God has forgiven us. In other words, we’re to begin living according to God’s coming justice now, in the meantime, while we wait.
But the truth is, even as we pray and do these things, we can still lose heart. In this situation, Paul tells us to at least continue praying. He taught that even when we no longer have the words, the Spirit prays for us. Eventually, Paul suggests, our lost heart will return to us as hope.
The technical term for this attitude in prayer is “supplication.” This word shares the same Latin origins as “supple.” It suggests a person bending the knee to beg or plead before a king or a judge, asking for something only they can do.
The Lord’s Prayer is supplication (despite how casually many of us recite it). The Spirit’s prayer for us described by Paul is supplication. They refer to the things only God can provide.
Jesus knows that there is injustice outside God’s kingdom. He urges us to pray and not lose heart. And so at the end of the parable Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Let us hope that he does, especially among those of us who follow him.
These are some notes from my participation in an introduction to centering prayer workshop in February 2017. While not a novice to the material, I found lots to think about on the presentations. Here’s some.
- are opportunities to relate, intend, surrender to God
- attractions and aversions are stronger, and harder to let pass
- evaluations and insights are also distracting thoughts as are
- pleasant memories and pleasurable thoughts.
- many of these are really our attempt to capture the experience–to attach to it but
- the point is to surrender.
- we were taught not to
- Resist thoughts, or
- Retain them, or
- React to them, but to
- Return to the sacred word, or I might add, to
- Rest again in God
- a helpful image of resting for me is a small animal held in the hands
- the motivation to begin and continue/endure in the practice of centering prayer is the presence of God, which may be assumed
- NOT the experience, which may not
PRACTICE, PERFORMANCE, PRESENCE, AND PERFECTION
- centering prayer is a practice
- as a child, practice was always secondary and in service to a performance (like on the piano)
- one practiced so that the performance would be perfect
- but in the practice of centering prayer (yoga instructors speak of one’s “practice” also)
- there is no upcoming performance
- there is no perfection
- there is only presence, God’s ubiquitous presence and
- our presence to God
- as long as I still assume performance and perfection related to the practice of centering prayer, I will not experience God’s presence to the highest possible degree
- WHITE NOISE is a symbol of what all other occasional noise actually is, and can actually become
- for example, the noise of continuous traffic is really no different than the noise of a single car passing through a previously silent time
- I am to treat both as white noise–noise that I can either attend to or ignore
- and this applies both to external, physical noise as well as internal, mental/emotional noise
- the more I practice treating all noise this way, the better I will become
- DEEP BREATHS at the beginning energize me and give me cleaner oxygen than my typical shallow breathing
- this means I can re-energize and re-focus by taking a few deep breaths during the practice
- MY TYPICAL SEQUENCE is to be distracted by some physical discomfort like a pressed joint or an itch
- then I experience some performance anxiety
- then I notice environmental distractions like noise
- then I experience a creativity download–my mind finds all sorts of great things to think about
- finally I rest
- AT THE END, I typically have two responses
- relief, or
- sometimes surprise
WHEN “ISSUES” SURFACE
- I find it’s helpful to consider whether this is
- a gift which can be used in service to others, or
- a compulsion which needs to be healed
PRACTICING IN GROUPS
- Have people silence their phones (not just vibrate) and watches
- Good to outline the steps in detail so people know when it really begins
- Use a short musical peace for the final “get set”
- at this time, people can smooth out ripples in their shirt, clear their throats one last time, scratch that last itch, etc.
- pre-end with a rain stick or bell, leaving another :30-:60 for exiting the practice
- exit with a spoken prayer of thanksgiving
- Gregory the Great talked about contemplation being “knowledge impregnated with love”
- Centering prayer leads us from conversation to communion (see Matthew 6:6 and John 14:20)
- The word for prayer in Jesus’ Aramaic is something like “shayla” which apparently means to open oneself up
- One participant said she hopes to better “live in the present instead of waiting for the perfect”
- the distinction between helping others and serving them is that helping has an ego-element
You can look to creation and discover God as powerful and ordered. You can look inward to find God as love. But to know God as Savior, look to Jesus Christ.
- Two ways of knowing God and their limitations
- A third way revealed in the Bible
God is known in many different ways, which leads to various ways to talk about God. These ways are all provisional and conditional, and they are complementary to one another.
One way to know God is through nature. It basically derives from observing creation. Doing so suggests a God who is powerful and ordered. Knowing God this way leads some people to fear, and others to trust. In our passage, Paul refers to this God by stating, “From one ancestor God made all nations, and allotted them times and locations with the hope that they would reach for God and find him.” In other words, noticing creation and our limitations within it, we might search for and find the Creator.
Another way to know God is to look not outside ourselves at creation, but inside. Introspection leads some people to discover sparks of divinity, for God has made us in the divine image. Paul acknowledges but also has reservations about this way of knowing God when he says, “We are God’s offspring, but we should not think that God is an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”
These two ways of knowing God—looking outward at creation or inward to the divine image—will lead to what Augustine called “vestiges” of God, or to what Paul identifies in Romans 1 as “inferences” of God. They yield some knowledge of God. But can we know even more?
The context of this passage has Paul in the city of Athens. He acknowledges the extreme religiosity of the citizens, finding shrines and idols everywhere and to every deity, including—just in case they might have missed one—an altar “to an unknown God.” Paul desires to focus our fuzzy understanding of God.
Whatever other gods there may be, Paul says, there is a God who is creator, who is Lord of heaven and earth, and as such is not confined by religious buildings, religious dogma, or maintained by religious rituals. This is a God who transcends all these and yet, Paul says, is not far from anyone.
How does Paul know this God? Such knowledge is beyond natural theology and introspection. The God Paul knows, he knows because God has revealed himself to Paul. Paul had a direct and personal experience with this God.
What did he experience? On the way to Damascus with papers in hand to arrest wayward Jews who had begun to follow “the Way” of Jesus, the resurrected Christ confronted Paul. Over the course of the revelation, Paul discovered the God who saves.
Jesus doesn’t appear to many of us in such dramatic fashion, but we have Paul’s testimony. And we have the testimony of others, going all the way back through scripture.
Psalm 67 begins, “May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us, that your ways may be known upon the earth, and your saving power among all nations.” When God wants to be known beyond creator and beyond our divine image, God reveals himself, and what God reveals is that he is Savior.
What God said to the ancient Israelites God says to all of us in Christ: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You will know that I am the Lord your God who has saved you from slavery and sin.”
Returning again to Psalm 67 to conclude, “Let the people praise you, O God; let all the people praise you.”
God of Grace, we thank you that you made space in the universe for our world, speaking words of creation to bring all people into existence and to share life with you. We thank you that our Lord Jesus Christ made room among his disciples for tax-collectors and zealots. In his name we invite all people to his table of grace, for Jesus gave it to us as a vision of your all-inclusive kingdom. We praise you that for centuries our country has welcomed refugees of war and poverty, industrious people seeking a better life, and that we have pursued righteousness among those who were brought here against their will. So this morning we pray for those who have been banned from our great country, turned away or sent home because of our fears and the evil actions of a tiny minority. We who are your children lament that our country now stands outside your hospitality and grace, that what we have freely received we no longer freely give, that we reject your Word which charges us to be grateful and generous with all our blessings. We pray you will not withdraw your blessings upon us who have been so unfaithful in our stewardship of them. And we pray for the refugees of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia, and the many employees of American companies from these countries who are now exiled. Lead our country, through our president and our prophets, to the hope you have promised in Christ and died to provide for all people.
According to Ephesians a “great mystery” has been revealed: God has brought near those who were far away. Just how far does the mystery apply?
- The great mystery in Ephesians, and why it was hard for some Jews to accept
- How the great mystery transformed Martin Luther and reformed the church
- How the great mystery will encompass all in the ages to come
After being blown away by Jesus’ ministry, Christ’s first disciples had to deal with this: That the Spirit was given to non-Jews, called Gentiles. This is the “great mystery” of Ephesians, not so much that grace was given to us, but that grace was given also to them.
Ever since the Exodus when God delivered the Jews from slavery to Egypt through the wilderness, the Jews figured they were particularly special. “Chosen” was the preferred term. This is why Jeremiah cites the Exodus, writing during the Exile, when God seemed far away and the Jews felt forsaken, not chosen, and certainly not loved.
But, Jeremiah reminds them, God came near to them. After they had suffered the sword, when they were needing rest, out in the wilderness, God came in grace. The reason is because God had continued to love them. And so, Jeremiah encourages, God will come again during the Exile.
This, then, is grace, that God would come near to us, despite our sin, forgiving our sin, and giving us life.
When we realize this—truly realize it—it is a world-shattering mystery. Just ask Martin Luther. For twelve years he was a monk and a theology professor. Luther was obsessed with his sin, going to confession multiple times a day, consuming so much of his confessor’s time that he eventually told Luther to go and not come back until he had committed some real sins.
Luther did everything the church required for forgiveness, the official acts and even some extraordinary ones. Still he found no peace. Until he discovered the mystery: “By grace you have been saved through faith, this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
“Boasting” here does not refer to the bravado so prominently on display in our times. Instead it refers to self-reliance, self-achievement, what would come to be called self-righteousness. In Ephesians it refers to an ethno-centric religiosity. It was the attitude that our religion and our nation are especially blessed. But neither religion nor ethnicity—Judaism in Ephesians, Roman Catholicism for Luther—is at the center of salvation. At the center is God and God alone.
This is the great mystery. It is by grace we have been saved through faith, not by works so that no one may boast. That last line means, “so that no one need despair,” not the Jews in Exile, not the Gentiles far away, and not Martin Luther. It transformed his life, and he struck the match that would reformed the church.
How far does the mystery go? It goes as far as a sin-obsessed monk, as far as Jews lost in the wilderness, as far away as the Gentiles. But can we measure how far the mystery extends?
Ephesians says, “God has raised us up with Christ,” and it continues, “so that in ages to come, he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace.” Grace extends not just to Jews and Gentiles, not just to Luther, not just to us, but to all.
Psalm 67 captures the vision. “Let the people praise you, O God,” it begins. Let those liberated from Exodus and Exile praise God. Then it continues, “Let all the people praise you,” including all the nations, including all creation. All.
Some Jews of Jesus’ day, and in the days of Ephesians, and in the church of today, can’t imagine the “all” extending all the way. “All” would be too scandalous because it certainly couldn’t include “them.”
But that is exactly the nature of grace. God comes near to those far away. God saves the Jews and Gentiles. God saves the sinner. We who know this praise God. We who know this also have hope that all the people will praise God in the ages to come.