Sunday, 21 August 2011

What exactly is faith?

A sermon based on Matthew 16: 13-20

This seminal event at Caesarea Phillipi marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus, because from there marks the long road to Jerusalem and to crucifixion.
What is being commended in Simon, and why he is given the nickname Cephas or “Petros”in Greek from which we get the name Peter is faith – and it is faith on which the church will be built. And this church, this community of faith will have the authority to decide what is in step with the way of God as modelled by Jesus and what is not – the authority to “bind or loose” as it says in the gospel.  The obvious problem is, there are about a thousand or more denominations in the world all binding and loosing different things!
The natural question for me is what is faith? What is meant by the question “Do you have faith?”
There was a time when I would have said as a new Christian that the answer to that question was quite straightforward. Faith was simply a question of believing certain things and being able to say yes to them. It might be any number of things and alarm bells start ringing when every denomination has its own list of things that must be believed to qualify as having a true faith. It might include things like the virgin birth, miracles, or belief that the Bible is the inerrant literal word of God  in some protestant churches.
You are required to believe things like the immaculate conception of Mary if you are a Roman Catholic, or be required to believe that speaking in tongues is a true sign of real faith in a Pentecostal church.  On the further shores of Christianity you have the Jehovah’s witnesses where you would have to believe that only 144,000 people go to heaven and the Mormons where an article of faith is that Joseph Smith found a missing book of the Bible on gold tablets – which conveniently went missing again!  Another benchmark used is whether you believe whether anything “happens” to the bread and wine in the Eucharist or not. All come under the general Christian umbrella but all have a different list for us to believe in, to have faith in.
All of these tests of faith are about holding specific beliefs about specific things and draw very thick dividing lines between people. You either do, in which case you are “in” because you have faith or you can’t believe some or all of them in which case you are “out”.
But as a more mature Christian and standing on the other side of traumatic events I now know as clearly as I can know anything that faith is not about that. It is not really about believing this or that about anything in particular – not that most of them are in themselves wrong (though some are clearly ridiculous to my mind).  I would be prepared to bet that if a secret list of things that each of us here today actually do believe in was compiled - that would produce a pretty wild and far reaching list that none of us could actually agree on.
So what is faith if not believing in things on a prescribed list prepared for you by your respective religion? I would say that faith is more akin to trust. Simple trust. Trust that no matter how bad things are, good things can emerge from them. Trust that the world, despite signs to the contrary, is basically good. Trust that God really is love......not a cliché but actually true. A trust which leads to a kind of trust that was put so eloquently by the Medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich that because of that trust that God really is Love, in the end, “All will be well and all manner of things will be well”.
A trust that God is indeed mystery and can never be captured and neatly packaged by any religion but that His very nature and character is that which was revealed in the life of Jesus that is loving, inclusive, forgiving, healing and constant.
It is a trust that while the world might appear at first sight to be opaque, it is in reality shot through with this divine mystery, that there is a depth to life and in this depth is the source of all life and that He actually cares about what happens to us.
A trust that feeds into our daily life and informs the way we are and how we relate to God, to people, and to nature. A Christian is as a Christian does – not whether you can pass a test as to whether you can subscribe to a set of prescribed beliefs. How do we know a Christian? By their fruits said Jesus, not by their stated beliefs.
Christianity as the way of love is a reflection of the way of Christ, which was in itself a revelation of the way of God, and trusting that this is so.
The church for me is a community travelling together in trust that God is love and is present to us and can be related to personally in prayer. A community journeying through life together trusting that God has been and is revealed in life, in people, in things, in nature, to such an extent that we can commune with God, this divine mystery, by sharing bread and wine together and trust that in so doing we are communing with God. For me, this is the church and this is our faith and on this rock we are built.

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