Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden
8 August 2004

Today we shall focus on the subject of Faith. We heard that strong passage on faith from the Letter to the Hebrews, and it is certainly a topical subject. Faith, we hear, read, and know very well is on the decline in our country and in Europe in general, and has been for a long time. (Not so, however, in America and Africa.)

But what does the word mean? There is no doubt we use it in a number of different ways. We talk of 'the Christian faith', or 'the Jewish faith', or 'Islamic faith'; and we mean a set of beliefs and practices in each case, some not unlike each other in fact, others special to each religion. But that set of beliefs is like a set of boxes on a form: can you tick them all? how many can you tick? -- on a scale of 1 to 5.

But does that go to the heart of the matter? A person may tick most of the boxes, even all of them, but you might feel that they were not really people of faith. For 'faith' has another meaning: loyalty, trust, attachment: to a particular religion, yes, but more than that, attachment, loyalty to God, to Christ, to the Christian community as his people. You may not be able to tick all the boxes, the list of formal beliefs as they have come to be stated, but your attachment, devotion to God and to Christ is firm.

Or maybe you find that, as you may put it, 'faith' ebbs and flows, goes up and down: like inefficient water pressure or central heating. But we need not take that too seriously: it is a matter of mood -- how we feel on a particular day. Often there is not much we can do about it anyway; but we can learn from it that God in no way depends on how we feel about him -- how could he? And, by care and discipline, we can persevere in our loyalty to God for example, however we feel at the time. Absurd to act as if God depended on our moaith and truth depended our mood-swings; as if God depended on how we felt.

But the reading we heard points us in yet another direction. Faith is trust -- through thick and thin, with Abraham as a prime icon and example. It is therefore close to love. Of course it is reasonable, and common, for people to say that such faith makes no sense: we are trusting in what we cannot see or prove. 'Faith', we heard, 'is the conviction of things not seen'. It is a way of putting our minds together and going for it, heart and soul -- letting it make sense of our lives.

That is why faith is like love. Who can justify their love for this person rather than that? Well, we can point to various characteristics that adorn them: things that attract, even make sense of our loving. But others may well say: Yes, I see all that, but all the same, your attachment of love, whether for marriage or for friendship, is in part irrational: you have simply chosen, and, within your choice, you will explore. That is faith.

So faith, like love, is always unfinished -- like Abraham's faith in the reading. We should be wary of religious people who have everything sewn up, an answer to all questions. Is it not ridiculous to suppose that we, little 'we', could get God clear, know and understand all about God? With God, there is always more -- as indeed in human loves. As Hebrews put it, we 'desire a better country', 'are seeking a homeland'. God is always 'more', always 'beyond'. Yet we go on, in thought, in musing, in prayer, to seek: 'Our Father' -- that has all the depths we can need.

St Paul taught us that God accepts us, relates to us, not as a reward for our good deeds, not for our achievements, but on the basis of our sheer, pure faith -- our wanting, our being with and for him. Our motto will be not 'look what a good boy -- or girl -- am I', but 'God be merciful to me a sinner'. Or rather, that is part of it. More broadly, there are the words of the hymn (English Hymnal 73):

My God I love thee, not because
I hope for heaven thereby . . . but
Solely because thou art my God
And my eternal king'.

The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

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