What is Faith? (Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost)

Sermon Reflections and More Sept. 9, 2018
Sermon and Children’s Message on YouTube:

On Sunday afternoon, I’ll be working with this year’s confirmands to begin writing their “faith statements”. This is something we ask all of our confirmands to do at the end of the Confirmation program. And in those faith statements, we ask them to write about their faith and what faith means to them.

But in spite of the fact that this sometimes causes great anxiety, everyone has always managed to do it! And then a few of the confirmands are always willing to read their statements to the congregation on Confirmation Sunday. People in the congregation often look forward to this. They’re always impressed with what the confirmands have to say. And mostly, they’re glad that they don’t have to do this themselves!

And that’s because, even though we use the word “faith” all the time in church, it’s often a hard concept. What does “faith” really mean? What does it entail? And how do you “live your faith”? Those are questions we ask our confirmands to wrestle with. But in fact, from the very beginning, “faith” has sometimes been a difficult concept for Christians to figure out.

For some people, “faith” isn’t that strong of a word. After all, we sometimes use “faith” as a way of expressing:
• A guess – you know, I have “faith” that I’m right about this… (but I can’t prove it!)
• An often unrealistic hope – well, you just gotta have faith that everything will be all right …
• An excuse not to do anything – we just gotta have faith that God will make this all work out (when in fact, God may be asking us to be his hands and instruments of fixing stuff…)
And those kinds of attitudes about faith are what’s clearly behind what James has to say about faith in today’s second reading. James writes, “Can faith save you?” And, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Martin Luther really hated the letter of James (and called it an “epistle of straw”) because it seemed to contradict a basic tenant of Christian faith as expressed by Paul in Romans, “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” (Rom 3:21) And so, if it takes “works” to save me, then salvation is in my hands, not God’s.

But in fact, the letter of James was probably written a while after Paul wrote Romans. The Christians to whom James wrote had probably read what Paul wrote. And James is writing against an interpretation of “faith” that Paul clearly doesn’t intend.

The “faith” that some people thought Paul was talking about was simply a knowledge of God in their minds or a warm, fuzzy feeling of God in their hearts. And they figured, that was enough. They didn’t have to act in accordance with what they knew about God. They didn’t have to share the love they felt from God. They could just wish others well, and walk away from them.

And this REALLY bothers James, and rightfully so. And when he asks, “can faith save you?”, he’s not asking about eternal salvation. He’s simply asking, “can faith (if it’s just a feeling) save your neighbor from starving?” Can faith, if it’s just an idea, make any difference in your life if you don’t act on it?

Faith, as both James and Paul understand it, is supposed to be a transformative experience in our lives. It’s a relationship we live in with God and with one another. And it’s not a “thing” we can stick in our pockets (or just in our hearts or our brains).

Instead, faith is supposed to be something that we grow in each day, and which affects our whole selves. So, here’s what I try to get the 9th graders to think about when they think about faith. And it’s a useful exercise for all of us everyday.

How is “faith” about:
• Growing in your understanding of God’s presence in your lives – faith is not just in your head, but it does always call us to be open to new ways that God may be moving in our lives…; and it calls us to ask questions and seek understanding; It’s not just about memorizing Bible stories, but sometimes the Bible stories can make us think and give us some guidance…
• Deepening your trust in God’s love and care in your life, even when things are going badly; Faith isn’t just about your heart, but it’s definitely more than a “warm fuzzy”; it supposed to be about growing in confidence to face adversity being convinced that you’re not alone or abandoned…
• Actually acting on your faith – because often, it’s actually acting on your faith that makes your faith grow; (I often use the story of Peter walking on the sea out to Jesus to illustrate this…);
James isn’t questioning faith as a way of trusting the grace that gives us the promises of God. But like Paul, James is telling us that faith is supposed to be a real and living experience in our lives, not just a vague idea of God, or warm feeling, or a spectator event.

And for faith to be real and living, it has to include our heads, our hearts and our hands. Faith has to affect how we live our lives each day. And faith has to be something we continue to grow and develop each day of our lives.

And when we open ourselves up to that kind of faith, and when we’re willing to be active participants in growing in faith, it’s then that faith will give us confidence to face adversity. It’s then that faith will give us hope in the midst of challenges. And it’s then that faith will transform us into the people that God calls us to be.