The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      26th February 2018
Faith - Hebrews 11
Jeremy Fletcher

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen

Hebrews 11: 1

The word ‘faith’ has become one of those words where context is all. In the classic episode of Yes Prime Minister where Jim Hacker has to appoint a Bishop, he is told that a possible candidate, being sent on a mission to retrieve a hostage, “has faith in the Arabs.” Hacker replies “It’s good to hear of a senior member of the Church of England who has faith in anything”. Bernard then comments that the encounter with Muslims will be “a faith to faith meeting”. Sometimes “faith” describes a doctrine, sometimes a culture, sometimes an aspiration, sometimes a hope. 

Hebrews Chapter 11 begins with the definition that faith is about that about which we are sure but which we cannot prove. It is about hope and trust, and inner assurance, often despite the evidence of our eyes and ears. One commentator says that, as our eyes are the organ by which we see, so faith is the organ by which we believe. To that extent the body of doctrine which we call the Christian faith is something which has to be taken by faith. There may be glimpses of evidence, archaeology and biology which provide pieces of the jigsaw, but very few people arrive at a belief in God as a result of a purely evidence-based process. Even those who do will find themselves arguing with others who take the same evidence and form an opposite view.

Hebrews does deal in this kind of overarching and underpinning faith: those who approach God ‘must believe that God exists’, says the writer, (11:6) and this same faith leads us to believe that God made the world ‘out of the invisible’ (11:3), but Chapter 11 is mainly about another part of the spectrum; the things which faith makes us do. A belief in God is one thing. To believe that you need God, that God can help, that wholeness only comes through God, supremely through Jesus Christ, is another level of ‘faith’ altogether. Christian faith is not just that God exists, nor just that the world owes its existence to God, but that life is made and rescued in Jesus Christ: the last verse of Chapter 10 says that ‘we are … among those who have faith and so are saved’.

This is where, to use a contemporary and not very religious phrase, our faith ‘cashes out’. We are joined to people of all faiths by a belief that talk of God is not madness. In that sense we all use the same organ as the means of believing. But the Christian faith is distinguished from them by the belief that salvation is found only through Jesus Christ. To affirm this faith is then to commit ourselves to action: to offer our lives to the Christ who gave us completely of himself, to put our old lives to death as we are reborn in the waters of baptism, to ask to receive Christ’s grace, to bring our sinfulness and wrongdoing and thinking to Christ that we might be forgiven. This faith requires commitment and offering. This is about sacrifice and self-giving.

The writer to the Hebrews knows that this is daunting, and knows that in human terms there may not be much to show for it. Not many of the examples of faith given in Hebrews 11 end well in worldly terms. Far from being a one-off commitment to be looked back on with nostalgia this is for the whole of life, and may lead us to make huge decisions based on a commitment to the future and a trust in God which perhaps few others will see. The examples quoted throughout Chapter 11 are about people who have made amazing commitments, beginning with Abraham and his relocation hundreds of miles from his home. Had he not done that, the history of God’s chosen people would have been impossible to contemplate.

The whole of our Christian life is about the assurance of things we cannot see being worked out in the every day. We will disagree on this. Yesterday I read of a church in the United States which is asking its members to bring their AR15 Assault Rifles for blessing. I can’t see how that is an outworking of faith, but they clearly can. There may be examples in your own life where a decision about the future had to be taken ultimately on trust. There will be a complex series of events which lead to a conviction that God may be asking you to do something. Ask any ordained person about the nature of their call and there will be stories of discussion, discernment and testing, and somewhere a touch of the supernatural, a conviction that somehow God has spoken, which has then been taken by faith and worked out in action.

Beware the faith which goes for only that which can be seen, proved, tested, of which sense can be made. Use these things, but remember, says the Letter to the Hebrews, we live not only in this life, but for and in the world to come. To fix our eyes on this is to trust in that which we cannot yet see. In the graciousness of God glimpses are given: be ready then for God to challenge, and be ready for God to ask everything of you. Our faith is that, at the end of the end, it is not our stumbling faith in God through which we are saved, but God’s unwavering and sure faith in us, to whom be all glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, now and for ever.

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