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The Virtue of Faith

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version

Lent II - 2/28/10 Ezek. 18:1-4, 25-32; Ps. 119:73-88; I Thess. 4:1-8; Mt. 15:21-8

We often say, especially when challenged about something we believe, but do not know how to explain it or defend it, "Well, I just know it by faith!"

That usually ends the discussion, because it is assumed by both parties, the one challenging and the one responding, that faith is not something you can reason about, that it has a kind of personal privacy about it so that you either just believe it or you do not. So the appeal to faith is a discussion-stopper. There is no reasonable challenge, in such a case, that a challenger can make because the believer's "evidence" is within the mind and heart of the believer, inaccessible to the challenger.

On the other hand, when faith is asserted or discussed in the Bible, it does not seem to have that inaccessible and unchallengeable quality.

Jesus (in the Gospel lesson) had gone over to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, a pagan area. Perhaps there were Jews there to whom He wished to minister. A local Canaanite woman, not a Jew, cries out to Him for help because her daughter is grievously vexed with a devil, she says.  Jesus replies to her that He is sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  She comes and worships Him, meaning, I suppose, she falls down before him and pleads her case. Jesus again replies, more harshly, "It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to dogs." She bravely and persistently replies, "Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from the master's table." She does not care, dog or not, she wants her daughter set free. Jesus replies, "O woman! Great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt."

Jesus saw her faith, He did not seem to take it as something inaccessible to Himself. Nor do I believe that we can say, "Well, Jesus was God, so He could see what the rest of us could not." That is true, of course, but not relevant. Faith is never understood in the Bible as our modern "inaccessible" sense suggests.  It is understood as something that any reasonable observer could perceive.  So what is going on here?  Why is faith apparently something accessible and public for all to see in the Bible, but for us something private and inaccessible to others?

The word ‘faith’ in the Old Testament in most cases refers to a quality of faithfulness, to one’s commitment to a covenant relationship, or to the lack of it.  We hear over and over of a breach of faith, or breaking faith, or acting in good faith. The word occurs only about 20 times in the Old Testament.

But in the New Testament, the meaning shifts toward believing something, trusting that something is true.  It is used over 220 times -- and the New Testament is much shorter than the Old.  Faith come much more to the fore because of the New Testament contrast of faith with law in the salvation process.

In our case this morning, Jesus is referring to the quality of belief that the woman had, that the woman believed that He could heal her daughter of her demonic affliction, much as Jesus reflected that He had not seen so great faith in all Israel as in the Roman centurion who asked for His help.  We have again not a Jew, but here a Canaanite woman, one who might well be a member of a particularly sinful pagan religion. So, her faith, whatever it was, was not about her theology, if she had any. It was about her perception of Jesus in particular. She, for whatever reasons, thought that Jesus could heal her daughter, and was not at all reticent about saying so and pleading for His help. She was both bold and humble. She knelt before Him, putting herself at great risk to His possible scorn and rejection.

So, what was the faith which Jesus saw in her? We are not given a lot of clues, only a few sentences. We know nothing at all about her personal past, what kind of mother she was, other than that she very much wanted her daughter healed.

Let us look at the word, ‘faith’, itself.

Generally speaking today, the word ‘faith’ refers to three things:

1. a personal trust -- I have faith in you, I trust that if I leave my money on the table, you will not steal it;

2. our creed, a list of our beliefs, such as the Hindu faith, the Jewish faith, the Christian faith;

3. Often in our culture, we mean by faith a kind of blind belief, a jump into the dark, the kind of answer we give when we run out of reasons for believing something about which we are being challenged. "I believe by faith...."

That is the stop card, ending the discussion. So it also leaves the issue unresolved, implying that there is no possible reasonable answer to the problem. We either believe or we do not. Belief is then an arbitrary thing, not something about which we can reason.

The Bible never thinks about faith in that way. "Come, let us reason together," in Isaiah 1:18 is reflected all through the Bible. The revelation given by God never opposes reason to revelation, but treats the two as though they belonged together.

Immediately after Christians began to advance out to convert the pagan world, Christians ran into Greek philosophy. They recognized the wonderful tool of reason which God had prepared for them to adopt (part of the "fullness of time" for the Messiah to come), but then began to wonder about how their faith in God could be presented reasonably.

There were some early Church fathers who saw a clear division between Biblical theology and Greek philosophy -- i.e., between revelation from God and what we humans can produce by our own reasoning. They suspected reason as being not of God.

There were others who understood that, rightly used, the tools of Greek philosophy could be a powerful weapon for truth, and that reason was indeed not foreign to the Biblical understanding of who God was and is. The Gospel of John declares, for instance, that Jesus is the Word of God, the Logos, the Reason of God -- a thought adapted from Greek thinking.

But it was much later, in the 1800's, that the division between reason and revelation began to become hard and fast. Christians found themselves unable to mount an effective offense against secular Enlightenment thinkers, and began to think of reason as belonging to the worldly, the secular folks, and that they, the Christians, could get along with revelation -- and without reason.

The opposing of reason to revelation was, I think, one of the two worst mistakes the Church has ever made. It rendered the Church ineffective for most of the 1800's, and just about all of the 1900's, leading directly to the open collapse of Christian civilization in the 1960's. We had no effective answers to the secularists.

But let us back up a minute and take a look at those three meanings of the word 'faith'.

We have a personal trust, our list of beliefs or creed, and the blind leap -- all quite different, yet all meanings for the same word, 'faith'.

The phrase, "a teachable spirit", does not occur in the Bible, though the idea and thought is often behind the words of the Bible.  On the other hand, its opposite occurs many times. We hear of a stubborn heart, a hard or a brass forehead, meaning someone who is unwilling to hear what the Lord is saying. "Don't bother me with the facts, my mind is made up!" The Lord looks for persons who are teachable, who can be discipled, who are able and willing to learn from God, who desire, not rebel against, His revelation to them of who He is and of what He wants for them.

In no case is the Lord looking for robots, yes-men, or persons who cannot or will not stand up and have an open and honest discussion about life. God invites us into that discussion. We are consistently, over and over, the ones who do not show up for the discussion. God is discipling us so that we can present His story, His revelation, His plan for all of us, to others who do not know Him.  We must be willing, reasonably, to change our minds when we are wrong.

In Isaiah 43, we see God calling all the nations together to present their case about who is God, and then He says to His own people, you are My witnesses! In other words, you have seen what I can do for you. Tell the people gathered here what you know about Me. He obviously expected them, and expects us, to do that reasonably, in a believable manner, so that the listeners can understand and assent to a relationship with this God of the Hebrews.

Nowhere in the Bible is God seen as being arbitrary in demanding belief, as does the deity in Islam.  The word 'Islam' means 'I submit', no reasoning, no discovering whether it is true, you just submit, leap in.  

Let's just suppose that we insert another meaning for the word 'faith' along with the original three.

Suppose that we add, "a teachable spirit" as a meaning for faith. Suppose that we understand that the risk of faith is the risk we assume when we venture out into the world to discover what it is really like, that we will not accept sloppy thinking on our part or anyone else's part, that we will honestly observe and investigate the world around us, that we will choose the best and most honest teachers, that we will hold ourselves accountable to both fact and logic in our knowledge gathering, and that we will change our minds if the evidence consistently goes against our present belief. We are willing to take that risk. We might be wrong in our current belief. That is the challenge to which God brings us.

If we did that, if we were truly open to the truth, would not our chances be the greatest of having a reliable list of persons who were trustworthy and were not trustworthy, who would not steal from us when we were not looking, who would keep their promises to us faithfully?

And if we were in that manner open to the truth, if we were honest truth-seekers, would we not have the best chance of having an accurate list of beliefs about the world in which we live? a true creed?

And if we were in that manner open to the truth of life, would not our having to leap in the dark tend to diminish. Would we not get to "know our way" around in life, and have to guess and leap in the dark, less and less?  Would it not be like getting to know our way around our home, then the local neighborhood, then the city -- and on to bigger things.

All that is true of the spiritual world just as of our geographical world, our educational world, our social world, etc. If we are honest observers and honest reasoners, we begin to discover the truth about life. We get to know our way around.

The question is whether we want the truth -- at any cost to ourselves. If we were wrong, would we want to know? The pursuit of truth is the way of the cross for the intellect. We give up our right to be right, and let the truth and the Lord of All Truth speak for themselves.

If we do that together, with discipline and as a community, we accelerate our progress immensely. That is what we call research, education, and science.  Theology used to be known as the queen of the sciences. It still is, but most people, including most Christians, do not know that.  Most Christians do not know that we have, by far, the most believable and credible worldview, and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is by far the most reasonable way to live one's life. Christians mostly still believe that reason and science belong to the secular folks, and so remain almost helpless before the claim, "Science says....," and helpless before the challenge to Christians to show that we have a reasonable case for Jesus and the Gospel.

Reason and science to not belong to the secular people.  Science came primarily out of the Biblical framework, not the pagan.  But most Christians have no capacity for reasonably presenting the truth of God to the public.  So the Church remains in the backwater of our collapsing civilization -- instead of being at the forefront of the spiritual renewal which could lead to a renewed Western Civilization.

Science in fact follows the same faith as do Biblically focused Christians, an openness to truth based on careful observation and reasoning. That is why the Biblical worldview alone could provide the worldview foundation for science. Reason and revelation are not opposed. Faith and science are part of each other. Every scientist engages in the same pursuit of faith, and makes the same kinds f blind leaps -- because we are all fallible, none of us have all the evidence on any issue, we could all be wrong on any issue. But as our quest for truth proceeds, we slowly narrow the gap between our meager knowledge and the real truth -- which is known wholly to God alone.

Going back to Jesus and the Canaanite woman, perhaps what Jesus saw in her was a spirit open to reality, a spirit open to the truth..... whatever it might turn out to be, and thus open to Him, standing there before her. She had probably heard about Him, and something in her soul must have responded "Yes!" Perhaps God was speaking to her, "You have heard what this man can do. Go out to meet Him...!" And she did.

She was a woman of faith, meaning she was willing to follow out the little evidence she had, her hearing about Jesus, perhaps with a nudging from the Lord, but to risk the unknown, the uncertain, to risk being wrong. But she stood her ground, pled her case, and won her prize. She was a woman of faith.

That is an example for every Christian -- to have that spirit of openness to truth, however strange it may at first seem, to follow it out to test it, to see whether it has substance.  And in the doing of that we gain our own substance as we come closer and closer in our personal relation to Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Ultimate truth is about personal relationship, not (even as important as they are) about atoms, stars, cosmology, or other aspects of the natural sciences.  It is first about our relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth, and secondly about our relationship with one another (as we learn from the two Great Commandments).  All else is backdrop and stage props for the community of heaven to take place.  Life is about relationship.  And that is where the real adventure of truth-seeking takes place, in our ability (or not) to be open and honest with one another, to live in the light, to make the two Great Commandments the principles of our lives.  That is where our faith is tested most severely, and rewarded most bountifully.

The histories of Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets... all reveal that same boldness of faith, the desire to know the truth about life even if they turned out to have been wrong.  They wanted to know the truth.  Being a truth-seeker is the first obligation of any disciple of God.  If we are not humble enough to know that we can be wrong about anything at all, we are not humble enough to be a disciple of Jesus.  We might also be right, but sorting out which we are is the basic contest of life.

The virtue of faith is not a hard-headed stubbornness that we are right, but rather that openness to the truth which allows the truth to actually and continually become the deep foundation of our lives.

Lord Jesus, we are here because we believe You to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Show us how to be faithful to that belief, not by stubborn refusal to engage in honest discussion, but by being open to the truth, open to possibility of our own error, drawing others into that free and animating contest of truth in which we allow You, the Lord of truth, to speak for yourself.  Set Your people free for the powerful adventure of truth-seeking.  We want the kind of faith that, as Job says, does not defend You unworthily, but rather introduces You to the world, and then gets enough out of the way to let You prove Your own case.   Amen. 

Audio Version

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Date Posted -  2/28/2010   -   Date Last Edited - 09/15/2012