Read Genesis 12: 1-8 and Romans 4: 1-5 & 13-17
Faith is a puzzle to many. One way of understanding faith is to use the example of Abraham, a patriarch honoured by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The apostle Paul is fond of using Abraham as an archetype of faith. So is the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, and so it seems that we, too, may benefit by taking notice of Abraham and what his story teaches us about faith.
If we take Abraham as an example, then faith is a long trip, a journey. By the way, when we talk about Abraham, don’t forget Sarah, especially on this International Woman’s Day. Sarah is the heroine of the story. Abraham would have achieved nothing without her, yet sometimes he treated her shamefully. Together with their flocks and tents they set off into the unknown.
To their neighbours they were complete fools and to their wider families, deluded fanatics. To the scholars of that highly cultured centre of Ur, Abraham and Sarah were country hicks with neither the brains nor the education to separate truth from fantasy. Had they booked motel reservations for their trip? Had they arranged to transfer their superannuation? Did they have travel insurance? I’ll bet they hadn’t even done a risk assessment.
But Abraham and Sarah went on the trip of faith. And by what did they have to go? Nothing but this conviction that God was saying to them:
Faith was putting themselves into the hands of God, willing to go on a journey into the unknown, wherever God would lead them. It is very different approach than that of the people who demand an answer for every question, a solution to wipe out every uncertainty, before embarking on a new venture.
It may seem to you that the readings for today are about making us right with God; about being saved by faith. This is, of course, a foundation stone of Christianity, the key to St. Paul’s teaching, and the central notion which led Martin Luther into the reformation So I must agree that this is so, but there is a troubling aspect about the notion of being made right with God through faith, for it seems to imply that we are wrong with God now. Let’s be clear: we are not wrong with God, so much as fearfully unable to accept God’s invitation to life. So most of the time we are struggling on the edges of kingdom, unable to put a foot inside.
This is why I have always replaced the traditional absolution after the prayer of confession, “Your sins are forgiven” with “the door to life has been opened to us.” While it is soothing to hear God say, “the past is past”, it nevertheless ends with our attention focussed on the past. I think that it is far more important (and exciting) to be reminded that we are being called into a future. The vehicle on which we ride into the future is faith.
Faith is trusting God against the anxiety of uncertainty; it is that which enables us to dare to step into the kingdom. For Abraham and Sarah, there would be many difficulties. The troubles would not magically fade away, mistakes would be made, there would be moments when faith would seem extremely fragile in a rough existence. The promise that they would be the forebears of a great nation must at times have seemed like a ridiculous dream. At times they would doubt and misread the signs of God’s will. But they continued on the journey and reached the promised land.
They went by faith and in time, a very long time (for Abraham and Sarah would not live to see it), they did become a great nation and, through them, the Christ eventually would be revealed to the world.
Their story is very similar to that in the Gospels. Faith is leaving lesser things behind and going on a wonderful, though at times dangerous, trip with Jesus of Nazareth. The faith of the disciples was brittle and flawed, but they journeyed with Jesus. The future was not clear, but they believed it would one day become clear.
For the disciples, faith started with a journey, faith ebbed and flowed on the journey, and it was shaped and enlarged through the journey. Their faith trip would take them into the dark chasm of the valley of the shadow of death, and through its darkness and tears, this same valley would become a highway of hope.
None of them were saved from misunderstanding, abuse and suffering. They did not become popular and prosperous. In time they had to face situations worse than their imaginings, and confront powerful people and forces that would fill them with dread. But as they journeyed on in faith, they found the strength and wisdom necessary for each challenge and each trial.
As they travelled, they discovered that, although good times came, like going downhill on a smooth path in calm, sunny weather, faith actually grew more on the uphill climbs, and when storms roared into their faces.
I do not believe things have altered. Faith is still about going on a wonderful trip with Jesus, not certain where it will lead us, except that it leads to fullness of life. Just as God invited Abraham on this journey to life, so to us is held out this grand, generous invitation. If we stay put until we have all the answers, we will never have faith; never experience the kingdom God wants us to have.
If we refuse to move until we have constructed for ourselves a neat understanding of Jesus, or an adequate definition of God, then we will allow life to slip through our fingers without ever finding faith.
If we try to run the church like a business, not venturing forth into any program unless it will turn a profit, not taking any risk lest it cost us, replacing morality with a balance sheet, we will have ceased to be body of Christ. It is by stepping out on the road with that little, scrappy yet precious faith that we do possess, that we will find the greater faith for which we all long.
Sometimes in Sunday School the children sing a quirky little song “Faith is Like a Muscle.” Its theme is that if you use it, it grows. If you don’t use it, you lose it. When I first heard that song, it was to me, no more than a cute but trite kid’s song; yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realised the writer had caught something profound in a most simple image. Repentant, I now salute the writer, for ‘like a muscle’ is indeed how faith grows.
I want to emphasise that the route of this trip to life on the back of faith is not always clear. We come to hard country and have nasty falls. Often we wonder whether we are even still on the right road, but we keep on stretching ahead, believing there is purpose and value in every step we take.
This certainly has been my experience, and by the grace of Christ I have kept going even when I wondered whether I had lost the faith I once had. ButI look back, and see how wonderfully I have been led by faith. I confess to you that my faith is still fragile, but I’m still travelling with Christ on the road. I believe things will work themselves through to a conclusion beyond my achieving.
Like Abraham and Sarah, our faith, both personally and corporately as a Christian congregation, is a trip into a new future that God has in store for us. If we can let go of the fear that holds us back and step out with the disciples, we share the journey with the Spirit of the Christ who opens the Scriptures to us as we walk along the road. If we can’t, if we falter, we are not evil sinners; we simply miss out. The Gospel is always an invitation to life, and that which some call judgement is merely the loss of an opportunity to experience the kingdom. The good news is that the invitation comes again and again, opportunities will arise, and with the grace of God and the support of brothers and sisters in Christ, we will have another chance to respond faithfully and gain the life that has been offered to us.