Psalm 22:23-31 •
Romans 4:13-25 •
Mark 8:31-38 •
Acts of FaithWhat is Faith and are their acts of faith that are not works? Tonight I proclaim to you that it is by faith alone and not by works that we are righteous. This may seem to be a contradictory proclamation to that of last week. Last week I spoke of "faith" in terms of what you or I posses consistently over time of our own belief and trust in God that comes of our own accord. So then what is the faith that produces righteousness? Last week I attempted to put forward that this true faith was not devoid of acts. Today I must say that this faith cannot be by works. However this faith is not about simple beliefs held or a trust that comes from my own resources that makes one righteous or saves. In this distinguishing of faith from faith, the faith I spoke of last week, the faith that is as often as not the faith of Protestant forms of Christianity, is a work as much as trusting and living according to the Law. On the other hand the faith that Paul is talking about is that which is connected to the reality of loss of self and identity in Jesus Christ. Paul's use of Abraham as the father of faith or our father in the faith, shows us that he does not see faith as something we do or hold over a lifetime but is a faithfulness that in doubt in confusion in lack of belief continues to hold one self open to God and God's faithfulness, and receives faith as a gift, and not a possession of one's own. Last Sunday I was attempting to say that according to catholic faith and practice baptism, fasting lent, liturgy etc. are not works but acts that open us to Gods grace, thus properly understood these things are acts of faith. There are many acts of faith, following Christ demands acts of faith, which are not works. To understand this we must explore the nature of faith that is not bound to works of the Law and which does not become a work and Law of its own.
The fulcrum here is Paul. As Protestants we know well Paul as that teacher of the nature of faith, the very place we have gone to for the doctrine of "alone by grace through faith." This sumary of the Gospel has had all sorts of misunderstandings to lifting from simple belief completely seperated from any form of life reflecting the Gospel, such that to encourage people to live out their faith it was feard that this was to introduce works into faith. On the other end faith becomes this thing that one manufactures that must be without doubt or question and is shown in a life a near moral perfection or at least keeping to a strict outward moral and ethical code, which can include such things as no smoking, drinking or veiwing or participating in entertainements of varius kinds. At this end of the pedulum swing one must constantly prove ones faith based on various external standards of belief and behavior. The passage before us tonight in Romans is one of the prooftexts of the assertion that it is by faith alone that we are righteous, or to use the theological term Justified. Paul argues that the promise of Abraham was not according to the works of the Law but the righteousness of faith. A key peice of his argument is the assertion that Abraham exhibited great faith. However, in Pauls argument the point isn't simply Abrahams faith, but that Abraham and the promise of God comes before the Law. Paul's claim then is that Abraham lived according to faith and not according to the works of the Law. In faith not his works of the Law was the basis for God reckoning Abraham righteous. To rehetorically drive his point Paul use a seriese of intensifieres concerning the greatness of Abraham's faith, which may give us the impression that the faith he speaks about has no room for doubt, no place for our own individual belief to falter. yet Paul should be read in light of Genesis and Genesis in light of Paul. Let us accpet as true that Abraham was a person of great faith and that God declares him a righteous person not based on his works but upon his faith. Accepting these things as true let us see what such a person full of faith is like. To do so we must turn to Genesis and the stories of Abraham in Genesis speicifically our text in chapter 17.
How does the story of Abraham's life in Genesis match up with Pauls praise of Abraham as the father of faith? We are getting toward the end of the overal story of Abraham. It has been a long time since Abram and Sarai left their home in Ur and travled to canaan based on the word and promise of God. They have endured much and prospered some, but remain semi-nomadic herders of sheep and cattel. God on several occasions after the first call promises Abram that he and Sarai will be the beginning line of a great nation. Yet through it all and despite the repetition of the promise Sarah her self does not bear a child. In their desperatin to have a child (and help God along with the promise, or in an atempt to live into the promise on their own) Hagai becomes suragate to Sarai and Abram has the son Ishmael by Hagar. This brings us to our story today, and again God reiterates God's promise to Abraham. This great person of faith how has he been unwavaring and without doubt? In our passage we see Abraham in responce to Gods promise bring to God his solution, Ishmael. But God's plan includes Sarah who has taken part and walked in faith as well as Abraham. God does not accept Abrahams feeble attempt to live into God's promise. From the first of Abraham's travels from Ur, in responce to God's call, this story of faith includes lying about his relationship to Sarah to save his own life, having a son by Hagar his wife's maidservant as a means to fulfill God's promise, arguing with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah which occurs after this theophany in Genesis 17. Abraham and Sarah struggle with Hagar and Ishmael after Isaac is born. Fear and jealosy drive Abraham and Sarah to send Hagar and Ishmael away to an almost certain death except that God intervenes. The unwavering faith and hoping against hope and steady belief in God was part of a life that included all these false starts, attempts at self preservation and attempting to help God out with God's promise. Faith that Paul is talking about must be something more than always believeing and never doubting and always acting out of belief in God.
What if our fiath, the faith that Paul is talking about has as much to do with God's character as with ourselves? What if faith isn't something we own or posses of ourselves as something earned or naturally posessing? What if faith is a gift recieved through certain acts? Reading Paul and Genesis together suggests to me that faith is larger than our consistency, larger than any presentation of ourselves to the others or to God. In the midst of all Abrahams false starts, failure to trust God and attempts to help God along with God's plans, there is one consistent thread, Abraham is always open to God as God, as the totally other and the very substance of life. This is one side of the faith that leads to the accounting as righteous. This is such a faith because it allows God to work it trust that no matter what God is the faithful one. We like Abraham are inconsistent and faithless, we try to keep up a good image but we are inconsistent, but Abraham trusted God's unfailing love and unwavering faithfulness. God is full of faith and so as Abraham remains open to this faithfulness never claiming any right before God, he becomes a person of great faith through God's faithfulness. Abrahams faith, which God reckons as righteousness is a gift of God's faithfulness to Abraham, not what Abraham earns because of his faithfulness to God. So that the source of Abraham's faith is God, not Abrahams own works.
What then does this life of openness to God look like? How do we know if we are open to God? Jesus tells us: " If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 8:35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." "Mark 8:34-35) Taking up the cross is an act of faith that is not a work of the Law. This loosing of oneself and taking up the cross is an act of faith but not a work. The act of letting oneself and identity go and taking up the cross is an ongoing activity that perfects. But it doesn't necesarily mean having it all figured out, the disciples and Peter in the text certainly don't! The Life of Abraham and Sarah are examples of taking up the cross and letting go of the self. They travel from their home and become nomads, never settling down after taking up the call of God. In the midst they have their failings, they fail to understand what God is doing and they try to help God out. Their selves still raise their heads and at times they continue to act out of selfishness and mere self-preservation. But in the end when the entire story is told they perservered and they no matter the moments of self, or of doubt or failure of nerve they never gave up on God, they alwasy were open to God's appearing and God's word to them, they never settled down. God had sent them on a journey that lasted their entire life time. They are examples of deing to ourselves letting go of what people tell us should be done when we know God has called us to other things. They lost their selves and found new names, that were more themselves given to them by God.
Faith is not something you drumb up in yourself. Faith is not banishing all doubt and never asking a question. Rather faith is the letting down of ones defenses and the walls of human identity and opening oneself up in trust to the faithfulness of God. This faith does require or should have resultant acts things that could be described metaphorically as taking up ones cross and dying. But the act itself does not make one perfect or righteous. God is not asking that we live perfect lives, but in the messiness of our lives, and even when we know we have sinned and messed up that we do not let those things close us to God, that we in faith await the presence of God in our lives. This is much easier now that Christ has come and fulfilled all righteousness and perfectly fulfilled the Law of God, so that we now can do this in assurance that we are Christs.