Sermon Archives

Sunday, October 2, 2016
The 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22C, RCL)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
What is Faith

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Collect for Proper 19)

“Lord, increase our faith” the apostles said.  Before, however, we can even begin to discuss the increase of our faith, we must first ask, what is this thing called faith?  It stands at the center of our passage from Luke, yet we seldom speak of it directly; and, unless we have some understanding of what faith is, we will go round and round about mustard seeds and mulberry trees without getting very far.

So, what is faith?

For some, faith is simply a magical alternative to the all too often hard and troubling realities of this world and this life.  As such, the world we live in is simply a broken, easily discarded, reflection of some alternate world. 

For others, faith is a set of propositions to be taken, “believed” we often say, without, and at times in direct contradiction to, the aid of our intellectual inquiry.  As such, faith is a set of precepts or statements to be received without question – and therefore without comprehension.

Both, however, discount a substantive portion of reality.  The first, discounts the value of the world itself.  The other discounts the value of our individual lives, our experience, our wisdom, or insight.  

And neither, I contend is faith, let alone Christian faith.  On the contrary, faith is ultimately an individual’s response.  An individual’s response to an experience of such truth that one’s whole life must be re-cast, re-directed toward the expression of that truth. 

This truth, however, is necessarily un-provable.  We can speak of its validity for me, or for you; we can explain why we believe this experience reveals such ultimacy, and demands such a drastic re-shaping of one’s life; yet, at the end of the day, the truth revealed in any experience will never be provable in the way that scientific theories are explored.  Ultimately, one’s experience is either true or false; but we will not know that until all things are revealed (which, I expect, is still a long way off). 

The depth of Christian faith is found in this latter stream.  It is, that is Christian faith is, an individual’s response to the experience of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  It is the response of Thomas touching the wounds of his hands and his sides; it is Peter response to the Jesus along the banks of sea and proclaiming his three-fold love, it is Mary Magdalene crying, Rabbouni in the garden to the strange gardener who knew her, and two disciples breaking bread with a stranger on the road to Emmaus.

And it is our response today, to this same man who lived two thousand years ago.  The Christian faith is our response to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose life contains such power and significance that we must continue to explore it, pursue it, and en-act it in our lives today.  Our Christian faith is our response to what we believe is the ultimate truth and reality of the world:  Life.  Grace.  Self-sacrifice.  Saccharine as it sounds, Love, as revealed in, and through, and by, a singular person, Jesus of Nazareth.

So when we speak of our Christian faith, we mean to say such things as:

  • I put my trust in the power of this ultimate Love revealed by Jesus Christ;
  • I trust in that union of power and goodness that I see and experience in Jesus Christ (William Temple);
  • I am convinced that generosity and sacrificial love as revealed by Jesus are the source of my life and all life;
  • I mean to live my life with the same generosity and sacrificial outpouring of myself as Jesus lived for me and for you and for the world
  • I am convinced that such love, and such life, cannot be overcome.

Such faith, I believe is supremely powerful.  That is what Jesus means when he responds to the disciples’ request:  “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Now, Jesus is not saying that having faith like his will provide his disciples with magical powers, but that the faith with which he lives, and the faith he invites them to live, is of such power that it will not only defy, but ultimately overturn, the powers of this world. 

And if we look about ourselves, we will see that it already has.

If we look at the most laudatory examples of change in our world, we don’t see greed and self-aggrandizement.  Rather, in those places of greatest impact and social uplift, we see women and men who give first, who are willing to sacrifice something of themselves (their time, their status, and their wealth, in particular) for those whom they do not know; we see men and women who choose to stand together against oppression in all its forms, and to respond to strangers, enemies even, with generosity, kindness, grace, and sacrifice.  Whether it’s Rosa Park’s defiance, the ceaseless work of Habitat for Humanity volunteers, or the simple gift of a blood donor, the life-giving change we long for and celebrate, and so desperately need, is rooted in generosity and self-sacrifice.

And that is the faith of Jesus . . . That is the powerful, life-changing, faith of Jesus.

This is the faith we are invited to choose and to live, as well.  As disciples of Christ, we are invited, called even, to live a life rooted in the faith of Jesus.  We are called to live in such a way that the many and diverse facets of our lives reflect the generosity and self-sacrifice of Jesus, who first poured himself out for us – not out of obligation, but as a gift of love.

The one who loved us first, calls us to love one another and even the stranger.  The one who gave himself up for us, even unto death on the cross, calls us to sacrificially give of ourselves for one another and even the stranger among us.

At the end of the day, then, the test of our faith isn’t a set of precepts or even a creed (a conversation for another day), but the very actions of our life.  As James reminds us in his epistle, our life, our words and our deeds, our commitments and our allegiances, will proclaim the faith of our heart.  Or, to use Jesus’ words – “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

The question in the end, is not how do I increase my faith, but, rather, how do I profess my faith more boldly, more confidently, more completely, with and through my deeds? 

How do I live with the same generosity toward my neighbor, that Jesus lived for me?  How do I begin to pour myself out for you, and even for him or her who insults or injures me, as Jesus so lovingly poured himself out for me?  Ultimately, how do I live with the same love for you as Jesus lived for me?