Living in Faith
June 4, 2017 / Pentecost /Pastor Richard Holmer
First Reading: Acts 2: 1-21 / Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 / Gospel : John 20: 19-23
As some of you may recall, last Sunday my sermon was all about hope: why it is vital, what gives us hope, the importance of being able to articulate the hope that’s in us. I hope some of you took time to do the homework assigned, to give words to the hope that is in you. Today I want to reflect along with you on FAITH, what it is to live in faith. Actually, faith and hope are closely related – as we are reminded in the letter to the Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) Last Sunday I shared Martin Luther’s insight into the necessity of hope: “Everything that is done in this world is done by hope.” Faith is the confidence that our hope is not in vain. What gives us such confidence? Quite simply, we trust God. We trust that God is dependable and steadfast. Luther wrote: “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace.” Faith involves more than an intellectual agreement with a set of teachings and beliefs. Faith is a passionate and personal investment. Faith is a leap into the unknown. Faith is not just what we believe – it’s how we live. As Martin Luther King once observed: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Clearly, such faith is not the result of a rational, logical decision. It’s not logical to trust a God we cannot see! Furthermore, the truth is, none of us can choose to believe in Jesus Christ. Luther makes this very explicit in his Small Catechism. Listen to what he says in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him.” [He says, essentially, “I believe I cannot believe: not on my own – certainly not by reason.”] Then he continues: “But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true FAITH.” BINGO!! Faith is not our work – faith is God working in us through the Holy Spirit. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit – which is what this day, Pentecost, is all about. We call Pentecost the birthday of the Christian Church. Yet without faith, there would be no church. And without the Holy Spirit, there would be no faith; which is why the Holy Spirit had to come in a powerful and enduring way – as Jesus promised it would.
Consider this: when Jesus was with them on earth, the disciples had faith by fits and starts – they ran hot and cold. After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples were at a loss what to do – it’s like they were stuck in neutral. They had hope, because they knew Christ was alive. But they were uncertain about how to proceed – and they were also afraid of what could happen to them if they were identified as followers of Jesus. Things changed for good on Pentecost. The disciples were suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit. Their uncertainty was replaced with a faith that gave them the confidence to do what Jesus had commissioned them to do: to go out into the world and make disciples. Their faith was constant from that day forward – their trust in God made them unafraid of what men might do to them.
The Holy Spirit gives many gifts. All of us have a variety of gifts from the Holy Spirit – as we heard in our Second Reading. Faith is one gift that is essential to all of us. For, as St. Paul emphatically states: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (Which is pretty much what Luther says in the Small Catechism.) To say, “Jesus is Lord,” is an expression of ultimate trust. This was the earliest creed of the church. Before there was an Apostle’s Creed or a Nicene Creed, the faith statement of the first Christians was expressed in those three words: Jesus is Lord. Try saying it out loud. It is a bold claim to make. It means Jesus is Lord of all. The whole world is in his hands – and so are you and I. To say, “Jesus is Lord,” is to affirm that Christ truly is everything that the New Testament proclaims him to be. He is the Alpha and Omega, the source and the ending. He is the visible likeness of the invisible God. All things have been created through him and for him – and in him all things hold together. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. (Colossians 1:15 ff) Christ is Lord of all – and he is Lord for you: the one who knows and loves you, who has bought your life by freely giving his own for your sake. He is y our good shepherd and your savior. He is the one to whom you are devoted, whom you will gladly follow forever.
Faith is trust – and when you trust, you are willing to risk. Living in faith means sticking your neck out , going boldly forward in the darkness. The service of Evening Prayer concludes with a prayer that beautifully describes the nature of our faith: “Lord, give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Faith like that is exciting, daring and exhilarating, because it is bold, and because it includes taking some risks. Following Christ cannot be boring! Actually, faith can be both quite dramatic and very ordinary. On the dramatic side, picture Peter getting out of the boat and walking on the water toward Jesus, or St. Paul changing from a persecutor of the church to its greatest missionary, or Martin Luther taking on the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer standing up to Hitler and the evil of the Nazis. Faith also sustains us in ordinary, unspectacular ways. As one person (Amy Catliff) has noted: “The greatest act of faith some days is to simply get up and face another day.” It’s true, by faith we keep showing up for worship, we go to work, we care for those we love. Faith isn’t only about doing great things – it also empowers us to do small things with great love.
Faith is the capacity to make and keep commitments. It takes faith to commit the rest of your life to the person you marry. And what do we promise? Lifelong faithfulness. It takes faith to bring children into an uncertain and troubled world – or to adopt them. It took a lot of faith to plant this congregation 55 years ago – and more faith to borrow all the money to build this beautiful church, this wonderful organ. It took faith to make significant pledges to pay down that mortgage – faith that has brought us to this moment. You see, faith always includes a measure of courage. It takes courage to risk trusting what cannot be seen or proven. The pastor and theologian William Sloane Coffin appreciated this aspect of faith: “I love the recklessness of faith,” he said. “First you leap – and then you grow wings.” That is the story of those first believers at Pentecost. They took a great leap into the unknown future – and, supported and guided by the Holy Spirit, they grew the wings they needed. The authorities who tried to silence those apostles, who wanted to prevent them from proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, were stunned by the unexpected boldness of these men. They could not be intimidated. Faith for us means trusting that the Holy Spirit is as powerful today as it was on Pentecost. Those first disciples did extraordinary things, but they were not extraordinary persons. They were ordinary individuals – with faith in an extraordinary God. Faith is trusting what God has accomplished for us, in and through Jesus Christ. Faith is also trusting what God can accomplish in and through you – in and through us all, because by faith, we are the Body of Christ. By the power of the Spirit, we can truly say: “Jesus Is Lord.” (Let’s do it.) And we can say Jesus is Lord, not only with our tongues, but with our lives – by living the gospel day by day. By faith, St. James has been present in this community for 55 years. And, thanks be to God, the building is finally paid for! What’s our next challenge? Where is God calling us? Let us go forward with good courage, not knowing where we go, but trusting that God’s hand is leading us, and his love supporting us, through Christ our Lord. Amen