Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 08/11/2019

“I don’t know how people without faith get through these things.” That’s a comment I’ve heard many times over the years when individuals or families experience difficult times, in particular, when they experience the death of a loved one: at such times there’s more of an awareness of the role of faith. So that’s one comment about faith but how about, “He didn’t go to church pastor, but he had faith.” That’s another one I’ve heard a lot, or you might hear someone described as “one of the most faithful people I know.” Those we recognize as saints are admired for their faith.

In church circles “faith” is one of those words we throw around like we know what it means or maybe a better way to put it would be to say that it’s a word we throw around like we all agree on what it means. Those of us who preach, especially in Lutheran churches probably do it more than anyone else as Martin Luther was big on faith. It’s one of his solas; Sola Fide, faith alone. The choir has an anthem in which “sola fide, on faith alone I stand” is the oft repeated refrain. It’s not just Luther though; Jesus was big on faith too. Many of the accounts of his healings end with some version of “Go; your faith has made you well.” In other places he says, “Do not fear; have faith.”

Faith is all over the place and…we talk a lot about the importance of having faith, but just what is it? What does it mean to have faith? For many of us, I think we start with the idea that faith and belief are pretty much the same thing. So we learn the basic doctrines of the church, about God and Jesus, the creeds being the foundational statements and faith then means believing those doctrines and statements to be true. Having greater faith means believing more strongly and confidently in those doctrines. Perfect faith then would be believing it all lock, stock and barrel, the absence of any doubt concerning God, Jesus, the Bible and the doctrines of the church.

Unquestioning belief in the doctrines of the church probably is still the predominant understanding of faith. It does work for some, they do have that kind of faith and, however you look at it, faith and belief are certainly related. The problem is, that definition of faith leaves many behind or on the outside looking in, feeling like they don’t belong because they have trouble believing it all, they do have doubts and questions. The good news is that the lock, stock and barrel acceptance of doctrine definition of faith is not really the biblical definition. It’s not that we don’t need the statements of belief that have been handed down to us. We do; we honor the inspired insights of the early church fathers along with those of reformers like Luther and others as they wrestled with these things. They provide us with a necessary framework for belief and faith and such a framework is important.

Today’s verses from Hebrews though, frame faith differently. Hebrews is kind of a difficult read, at least I find it difficult, but it does include this chapter on faith beginning with words that might be familiar: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That’s quite different from “Faith is believing all the right things without question.” Instead, it’s assurance of things hoped for; conviction of things not seen. What that describes is an attitude. It’s a way of approaching life that not only longs for things to be different but expects that they will be different. It’s faith that trusts that God is still in control and that the way of God will ultimately prevail despite much evidence to the contrary. It’s faith that helps you to keep on keeping on, not naively oblivious to what’s going on in the world, but confident that God will have the last word.

Jesus admonition to “not be afraid” in today’s gospel goes along with the Hebrews description of faith. For Jesus, fear is always placed in opposition to faith. Then or now though, we could say, “Yeah, but there is so much to fear,” and there is, whether it’s terrorism, mass shootings, disease, death, economic collapse, unmanageable debt, on and on up to and including a broken government and political system in which the main tactic of both parties seems to be to create fear over what might happen if one party stays in control or the other party gets control. They want us to be afraid but then the voice of Jesus says, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

That’s quite a statement: “It’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” and the kingdom isn’t so much about the heavenly hereafter, more about the here and now and this world being what God would have it be, a world not centered on fear but a world of faith, centered on welcome and forgiveness and peace, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

The Father’s good pleasure fits very well into a theology of grace. Jesus gives us the image of a God who isn’t about withholding gifts until we earn them, but instead it’s a God whose pleasure it is to give us the world we long for. It’s a God who takes initiative on our behalf and that’s a God of grace. The words of Hebrews are about trusting in that image of God as representing the truth about God, truth that we find most clearly revealed in Jesus. Faith in that God means having an attitude that doesn’t allow fear to carry the day but instead rests in the assurance of things hoped for, the assurance of God’s promises. In a world that can seem very broken such faith is a tall order but as part of Jesus’ little flock, we are called to such an attitude.

In the New Testament, the Old Testament character of Abraham is the most frequently cited model of such a faithful attitude and that’s true in Hebrews as well. When the word of the Lord came to Abraham, calling him to leave his home, he set out with nothing to go on except the promise of God. He wound up with plenty of questions along the way, his faith was not the lock, stock and barrel variety, but through it all he continued in the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Like pretty much all characters in the Bible, Abraham wasn’t perfect, but he’s still recognized as a model of faith.

Today we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism and our Lutheran understanding of baptism helps to highlight another aspect of faith. It’s faith that lets God, the God whose pleasure it is to give us the kingdom, faith that lets God be God. You probably know that in some churches believer’s baptism is the norm; you might be dedicated as a child but you’re not baptized until you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, you’re not baptized until you make a profession of…faith. Note though, that that brings us back to faith being about believing the right things, and relative to baptism, Luther resisted that.

He wasn’t opposed to people believing the right things and he definitely had clear ideas about what the right things were, but for him baptism was a means of grace, a gift of God, an act of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. To him, believer’s baptism didn’t allow God to be God until the person being baptized did something. For Luther though, there was no “until” about baptism. As a means of grace, it’s pure gift, God being God.

As far as I know, little Jackson hasn’t made any statement of belief a couple of months into his life. This morning, his parents and sponsors and all of us gathered here will make a statement for him in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. As important as that statement is, it wasn’t the main faith focus for Luther as he unpacked baptism. Responding to the question of how the water of baptism can grant forgiveness of sins and salvation, in the Small Catechism he says: “Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and…faith, which trusts this word of God in the water.”

Jackson is here this morning because his parents and sponsors and extended family trust in the promise of God’s presence in the water. They trust that this isn’t just a cute rite of initiation but that something significant happens here, that Jackson is named and claimed as a child of God by the grace of God. It’s an example of faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen and such faith is a necessary part of the sacrament.

Faith is one of those words that we throw around without much explanation. I wish I could say that I’m confident that I’ve cleared faith up for you this morning but I fear it’s more likely that you’re just more confused. Faith perhaps winds up being one of those things where the best approach is to say that it’s hard to define but we know it when we see it. If you want a definition though, I don’t think anyone has improved on “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” If you want an example of that kind of faith, baptism is as good as it gets.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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