What is faith?

Faith. Hmm. What is faith? Keep the faith. Walk in faith. Have faith. It could be 

1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
2. Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than truth.
3. A system of religious belief.
4. A firmly held belief or theory

It’s actually easier for me to tell you what theology is. And before you think I’m skirting the question of what faith is, I think the following definition will help us in our quest. According to one classical definition, theology is ‘faith seeking understanding.’ That saying is attributed to Anselm of Canterbury who lived in the eleventh century. 

I think this saying above many others is more pertinent than many others for our texts today. We seek understanding of our faith so we can stand fast in our faith, in our trust in God. As we seek understanding of what it means to live out our lives as Christians we are all practising theology. That might be uncomfortable for some, but our lives, our faith and our education means that we all question our motives or beliefs from time to time. Doubt creeps in, but this is all part of the journey of faith. In essence, that is what theology is about.

Other sermons I have listened to in the past ask how faith is spelt and then the preacher says it is spelt R. I. S. K. Because stepping out in faith is risky. And doubt has a fully valid part to play in our faith seeking understanding. Why we believe what we believe. Why we say the words of the Creed or the Gloria and what those words mean to us.

But what we can’t do is to separate faith from evidence. The greater society and education systems have tried very hard over the past two centuries to cause a great divide,. The period of the enlightenment secularised much of the world as we see it, fracturing long held beliefs and bringing a divide in to separate faith from everything else as we know it. Of course there is some good in what the Enlightenment brought to us, but there are also negative impacts and this is one of them.

If one can prove something, then one does not need faith to believe it. That is one of the core messages of the Enlightenment through to the present day. It has the effect of shoving faith underground where speaking about it almost becomes a taboo. And there is a great deal of evidence that points to God in this day and age but because we have been taught with the wisdom of those who feel religious belief is nothing more than a system of doctrine, or in some cases indoctrination, we do not gain the benefit of believing some of the arguments or miracles when they are presented to us. 

But that’s not the message of our texts, and its why I think Anselm’s phrase is so important for us today. Theology is ‘faith seeking understanding.’ Our texts seem to suggest that faith isn’t so much about stepping out into the unknown, but doing so knowing that others have done so and that they’ve been ok. It’s about taking a calculated risk on the basis of what is already been experienced (either personally or by someone else). It’s not a blind faith and it’s not stupidity. Though of course, there are those who will see it as just that and our attitude towards that is matter for another day.

In our text in Genesis, we have walked alongside Abraham, getting to know him and understand his history of where he has come from. We find him talking with God looking up at the stars and we discover his faith is a complex mixture of previous experience and what he longs for. And we’re told that God reckoned this as righteousness.

In the New Testament reading, we are presented with the history of Abraham but as ‘by faith.’ ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.’ By faith Abraham obeyed…By faith he stayed for a time…By faith he received…Why are we reminded about Abraham’s history? Because our history is tied up with his. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews exhorts and encourages us. It is written in such a way to stir up passion and active belief. By faith these things happened. Faith is presented to us as the air that we need to breathe. We are part of Abraham’s story. 

We are part of an ongoing story just as Abraham was. And our quest for seeking understanding of faith will have consequences for those who follow in our footsteps. We live with a mixture of knowing what God has done – some of it written in the Bible, and some of it written in countless testimonies to God published worldwide and also not knowing but longing to see what is to come. This latter feeling has discontent or disquiet wrapped up in it. There’s a certain restlessness because we don’t know, but if we knew, we wouldn’t need to have faith to believe…

So…what is faith? It is based in a knowledge of God, but as we’ve explored in the past, knowledge of God is not the same as knowing God. So faith fuels our quest to know more of who God is. It’s not cut and dried, and it can’t be found within the pages of a book. It’s far more dynamic and restless and exciting.

If we look briefly at our Gospel reading, we discover a paradox of Jesus describing himself as both master and thief. We are described as waiting servants whose master is known but can also be unpredictable. There’s a tension here that we must sustain. This master of ours, of whom we are waiting for cannot simply be pleased by doing our tasks routinely. If we expect that then there is no room for his unpredictable nature, there is no room for the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. 

To be a living, breathing community seeking understanding of our lives in Christ we need to allow our master, Lord and Saviour to be himself in our midst. If we are prepared to put up with that unpredictability and allow change to test our faith, there will be joy in the days to come. 

To sum up our quest this morning, we come back to the question of what the Christian faith is. Trust or confidence in God in ways that actually are really difficult to explain. Which is why we are so dependent on the stories we hear about other people’s faith. Because that encourages us on our spiritual journeys. It’s one of the reasons we come to church, to be encouraged by others seeking the same thing. To worship together, knowing that in the words of the Creed to follow and the rest of the service that we stand together as a body, as the body of Christ. Faith seeking understanding.

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