Sunday 28 June 2015

What is the opposite of faith?

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (text: Mark 4:35-41)

What is the opposite of faith?

Let’s start with the Protestant no-no: works. We are justified, put right with God not by works but by faith, faith alone – sola fide – isn’t that, as Luther put it, the doctrine by which the church stands or falls? And wouldn’t Calvin and Wesley agree? Well, yes, but … Luther was citing Paul, but during the last half century – through a better understanding of the thought-world of first century Judaism – it’s now become pretty clear that what Paul meant by “works” and what Luther meant by “works” are not identical.

For Luther, troubled by the question “How can I find a gracious God?”, works were the pious efforts he made as a scrupulous monk to make himself acceptable to God. Driven to despair by the inevitable could-do-better inadequacy of these efforts, Luther finally discovered that God accepts the unacceptable, that grace is unmerited, unearnable, a free gift, received by faith alone.

Paul, however, was troubled by a different question. Unlike Luther, he did not suffer from a guilty conscience before an angry God, nor was he driven to despair by any perceived failure of religious rectitude. Just the opposite, in fact. Paul was a rigorously observant Jew quite convinced not only of the adequacy of his own righteousness but also of the loving-kindness of God, who, after all, had given Israel the blessed Torah, “the law”, which included not only moral guidance but also ritual practices like circumcision and keeping kosher. For Paul, now taking the gospel to Gentiles, the burning question was, “Do Gentiles have to become Jews in order to be Christians?” – that is, are circumcision and keeping kosher still a requirement, in addition to faith, for belonging to the people of God? And the answer that was disclosed to Paul in the Christ-event was that, no, Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to be Christians, they only have to trust in Christ as Saviour. In terms of inclusiveness and equality, for Paul, “Jew” and “Gentile” are now obsolete ethnic/religious categories. And the same goes for the social category of slave and free, and the gender category of male and female: all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). (And following the trajectory, we might ask a radical contemporary question: How big is your “all”? Is your “all” perhaps too small?)

In short, for Luther, the doctrine of justification by faith addressed the nature of salvation; for Paul it addressed the nature of the church. Which is not to knock Luther. Mind, Luther’s re-interpretation of Paul’s law-free gospel was not only brilliant but, especially in his own decadent medieval context, true: no pious practice or moral activity can get us right with God. The problem is that Luther’s teaching has suffered from the abuse of thinking (a) that it is our faith that saves – it isn’t, it is Christ's faith that saves; and (b) that our faith is something that happens in our heads or our hearts, and not also in our hands. This is a horrendous misreading of faith. And it has led to the catastrophic idea that faith is a private matter, that it entails no public commitments; faith as a kind of personal fire insurance for the afterlife, while the world goes to hell in a handcart. Bonhoeffer derided such faith as “salvation egoism” relying on “cheap grace”. So, yes, a certain kind of “works” is the opposite of faith, the kind that we do to earn salvation, but faith itself is never works-less, rather faith issues in works as night follows day, with immense social and political implications.

So we’ll have to look elsewhere for the opposite of faith. I know – how about doubt? But, no, I don’t think doubt will do either. There is, for sure, as with works, a kind of doubt which is entirely negative, which puts faith in jeopardy. But I suspect that the main kind of doubt with which we are familiar is the inquisitive kind, the kind that asks good and hard questions – and that won’t be fobbed off with shallow and unconvincing answers. This kind of doubt is essential to a robust faith. This kind of questioning is actually sacred. A faith that doesn’t ask questions, including questions about itself, to keep itself honest, free from hypocrisy, cliché, and guff is an unworthy faith. And a faith that won’t engage in dialogue with other Christians, with people of other faiths, with people with no faith at all – this kind of faith is either pathetically insecure or it’s hiding something.  And a church that doesn’t encourage such open, probing conversations will be a dumbed-down and finally ignorant church and not the culture of listening and learning it is called to be.

Perhaps, then, we could say – a third possibility – that the opposite of faith is certainty? And if we understand certainty on the model of, say, mathematics, that is true. Faith is certainly (!) not certain like 2 + 2 = 4 is certain. Faith wouldn’t be faith with that kind of certainty. But there are other models of certainty on which we might draw. Friendship, for example. I think most of us would want to say that the faith – the trust – I have in my best friend, my soul-mate, is certain. And Jesus calls his disciples his friends (John 15:15). The certainty of faith is not mathematical, but neither is it a He-loves-me/He-loves-me-not sort of uncertainty. Here the martyrs are our mentors. Perhaps we should rephrase this kind of certainty as the assurance of faith – and what a blessed assurance it is!

I suppose I must mention a fourth possibility, namely that the opposite of faith is reason, because the New Atheists continue to swagger that Christians are a bunch of morons, that faith is irrational, that it is belief without evidence. Which in one sense is true, because God is not a member of the world who offers himself for observation and inspection, nor is God one more big and powerful thing, even the biggest and most powerful thing, in the universe. But in another sense it is patently false that faith is evidence-less, for faith is dependent on witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, dependent on the reliability and truthfulness of the gospels. And as for the rationality of faith, when the great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth was asked how reason fits into his theology, he replied, “I use it.” So does any sensible Christian. In Through the Looking Glass, the Queen says to Alice, “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” The Queen could not have been a Christian.

Now: here is a fifth alternative for the opposite of faith. It’s one you don’t usually hear: fear. On this reading, faith is courage. My text: Mark 4:35ff. A storm suddenly bursts and overwhelms the boat in which Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee. While Jesus naps, his friends panic. They shake Jesus – “Wake up! Don’t you care that we’re sinking?” Jesus yawns, stretches, and says to the wind and waves, “Pipe down! Be still! Can’t a man get any sleep around here?” Then he turns to the twelve: “What a bunch! Why are you such cowards? Don’t you have any faith at all?” Cowards – faith – the contrast between the two is explicit.

There is a lot of fear around in the church today. Fundamentalists are afraid of scholarship and science. Traditionalists are afraid of change and newness. Many of us are anxious about secularism or alarmed by militant Islam. And a lot of Christians are seeking safety by demanding our rights, defending our territory, acting like victims, whinging and blaming and shouting the odds. It’s unseemly, it’s unchristian. Fear makes us act in these faithless ways, makes us shrink, turns us in ourselves. But faith – real faith – expands us, turns us outwards to others, doesn’t circle the wagons but lays out the welcome mat to the different and strange and tries to engage even the enemy. Not easy. But whoever said that faith is easy? Yes, “sheep among wolves” is the image Jesus used of mission. Thus over 365 times, one for each day of the year, scripture counsels us: “Do not be afraid!” So the risen Christ, whenever he meets his friends, says: “Shalom. Peace be with you.”

God is with us. We are never alone. Jesus is not only risen, he reigns. He has conquered death, the ultimate fear. Nothing can separate us from his love. That is why we need not, should not, cannot be afraid. So in these tumultuous times, take courage, and keep the faith!

1 Comment:

Jean Dragon said...

Great word and application of the gospel text. Thank you for posting your sermon.

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