It's like these Christians have a different word for everything 3) Faith

Hespeler, 17 January, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Matthew 21:18-22, James 2:14-26, Romans 10:11-17
D
o you remember the first time you read this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew? I sure do. I don’t know how old I was, but I must have been fairly young when I came across it because I remember finding it pretty darn exciting.
      When I read that Jesus said, Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt… if y ou say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done,” I was all ready to go. Jesus’ instructions couldn’t have been more clear. All I had to do was believe – I mean be really certain without even doubting a little tiny bit that I could do it – and I would have fig trees and mountains and pieces of chalk and blackboard erasers flying through the air in no time. Ha, ha! People couldn’t help but notice me then! (I was a bit of a shy and retiring child.)
      Did I try? You bet I did! Come on, admit it, you tried it too, didn’t you? I remember sitting there and
staring at some random object and trying to convince myself that if I only really believed that I could do it and especially banished all doubt that I couldn’t, it would happen.
      It never did. And, at the time, I just figured that it was because somewhere deep inside I had some little tiny grain of doubt and that is why I never succeeded. It was only in later years that I began to consider that maybe my problem was that I never really understood what Jesus was trying to say at all.
      I have done a lot more reflection on what Jesus had to say on the topic of faith since those days and I have learned a few things. What we often don’t realize is that the meanings of the words, “believe” and “faith” have actually changed a great deal over the years.
      Our modern English word, believe, comes to us from an Old English word “geleafa” which means to hold something or someone dear. The second syllable, “leafa” actually comes from the same Germanic root as the word love. So, in its origins, belief was much more about giving your heart to something than it was about being certain about it. It didn’t have anything to do with evidence or intellectual choice. It was about your heart’s commitment.
      That is a far cry from how people use the word today. In fact, people often use “I believe” to explain the opinions that they hold or the facts that they hold to be true. It is primarily an intellectual activity, not really an action of the heart.
      The other word that we use to talk about belief (and especially religious belief) in English is faith. That word didn’t come into English from German but rather from Latin via French. The original Latin word was fides the same Latin root that we find in words like fidelity and fiduciary. So faith, at least the original word for it, doesn’t mean the act of accepting certain opinions or ideas, it refers to the choice to trust in someone or in something like a bank or an institution.
      So both the word believe and the word faith came to English with the sense of giving your heart to or placing your trust in someone. And in the language that Jesus spoke and the language of the New Testament, the same concept was in mind. But somehow today both words mean something quite different. Today we mostly use them to talk about intellectual opinions or convictions.
      Even when we talk about religious faith, we generally talk about it in terms of the things that we believe about God, about Jesus, the Bible or other spiritual matters. But this kind of intellectual assent or conviction was not really what Jesus was talking about. For him, believing was about giving your heart and not merely your assent or opinion to God.
      I have often spoken to people who are concerned that they can’t be Christians or that they aren’t good Christians because they can’t bring themselves to be completely certain about at least some of the things that people in churches believe. I mean, there are lots of reasons to doubt some of these teachings of the church. It is not as if anyone can offer you conclusive proof that Jesus was born to a virgin or rose bodily from the dead or stilled a mighty storm with a few words. So, yes, it is not uncommon for people to struggle with specific beliefs.
      But someone who struggles with or even rejects some specific thing that the church has traditionally believed is not necessarily someone who does not or cannot have faith. Faith as Jesus understood it and proclaimed it was not a matter of believing or accepting certain things on an intellectual level. It was about giving your heart to someone – the old sense of believing in Old English. It was about being willing to trust someone as the origin of the word faith means.
      So, while it may matter to a certain extent what you believe about God or about Jesus or about various points of doctrine, none of that matters anywhere near so much as the question of where you put your heart and in whom you place your trust. And, you know what? It is possible to love God even though you are not entirely sure of some of the things you believe about God. It is possible to trust Jesus without having everything that you believe about Jesus sorted out in your mind. Thank God it is. Otherwise, I’m convinced, a lot of us wouldn’t be here.
      But don’t just take my word for it. Take the word of the Letter of James. James writes this to the church, You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.” Do you realize what James is saying here? He is taking what is for us, one of the key tests of faith, the question, “Do you believe that God exists,” or “Do you believe that there is one God,” and he is saying: “Big deal! Who cares if you believe that God exists? I can show you demons who believe that.”
      So Jesus isn’t looking for you to hold certain opinions or to accept certain propositions. What is he looking for? He wants you to trust him. But that also implies one more thing. James writes this in his letter, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” You see, trusting someone, really trusting someone implies that you will do something about your trust.
      Let me give a simple example. Say that I have this chair here. It is a good chair, a solid chair. I can tell you all kinds of wonderful things about this chair.  But here’s the thing: if I stand here saying wonderful things about this chair, even talking about how sure I am that it is sturdy and able to hold me up, does that mean that I have faith in the chair. Not really. The one thing that would demonstrate that I have faith in the chair would be that I actually do something about what I profess to believe about the chair. I need to actually sit in it.
      Well, that is basically what James is saying about having faith in God. It doesn’t really matter what you say you believe about God. Professing to be certain of all kinds of things about God doesn’t prove you have faith. The only thing that would prove that would be if you took what you profess to believe about God and did something with it – if you chose to put the things that you profess to believe about God into practice by putting your trust in God and doing some good in the world. That is what James means when he says that faith without works is dead and amounts to nothing.
      In the church we have actually reduced and impoverished the meaning of the word faith. We have made it to mean only that you must accept certain propositions or ideas about God, Jesus and other things. What’s more, you are not really expected to do anything about those propositions – just believe them. That was never what Jesus was looking for when he was looking for faith in the people that he met.
      So let’s return to that saying of Jesus that I started with this morning. What did Jesus mean when he said, Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt… if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done”? He was saying that you need to have faith. But faith, as we have been saying, is not a matter of being certain about things as I thought in my youth. It is a matter of trust.
      And it is not even a matter of how much you trust. This same saying of Jesus comes to us in the Gospel of Luke in a slightly different form. In Luke, Jesus says, “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.” That is kind of the lite version of the saying because it doesn’t just go from moving a mountain to a mulberry tree but also talks about the faith that does the moving as a very small thing – as a little, tiny mustard seed. So clearly the amount of faith that you have doesn’t matter.
      So what does matter in faith? Only one thing really: where you choose to place your trust in action. I mean, you can see that in my example with the chair. If I find another chair that is all old and rickety and falling apart, that only has three legs left and I tell you that I have all kinds of faith in that chair – tons of faith – and so I plunk myself down on it, will that chair hold me up? Probably not. I end up sprawled on the floor.
      But then I find another good and sturdy chair. I look at it and see that it is well-made but because, you know, last time I trusted a chair it let me down, I don’t have near as much faith in this chair. In fact, I am so lacking in faith that I am unwilling to sit on it. Will it hold me up? No, because I am not sitting on it. But if I have a little tiny bit of faith – faith, say, as small as a mustard seed – but enough trust to persuade me to actually do something and sit on the chair, will the chair hold me up? Of course it will, because it is a good chair! So we see what matters is not how much faith you have but that you actually choose to place your trust in a trustworthy thing.
      That is the kind of faith that Jesus talked about all the time. And it is a kind of faith that can move mountains, but not by me being certain and sure and having lots of it. The only way that faith can move mountains is when it persuades you to place your trust in the one who made the mountains in the first place.
      So that is faith as we must begin to understand it and as we must practice it. Your assignment this week is to actually use faith. I want you to move a mountain in your life. I’ll bet you’ve got one. I’ll bet you’ve got some great big problem or barrier in your life or in the life of someone that you love that you have been trying to move. Can you picture that mountain? You know what it is.
      I’ll bet you have been trying to move it with your own strength or determination. But it hasn’t worked and it won’t move that way. Here’s what I want you to do this week: give up on moving that mountain in your life by your own determination, and chose instead to see it moved by faith.
      How do you do that? By telling God that you don’t have it in you to move it but that you will trust God to move it instead. Now that can be a scary thing to say because you are leaving the biggest problem in your life in someone else’s hand. What if he doesn’t move it in the way that you think he should? What if he moves it to a place you don’t want it to go?
      Well, that it how you know we’re talking about real faith because it means that you have to trust God for all of that – give up control of it and trust God. It means giving your heart to God not just your understanding. And I’m not saying that God will move your mountain in the way that you think it needs to be moved. You may be surprised at what he does with your mountain.
      But I promise you this, if you choose to trust God for one of the biggest mountains in your life, you won’t regret it because you will be choosing to place your confidence in the one who will never let you down.
     

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