Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
March 6, 2011
FAITH AND BELIEVING FOR OUR DAY
Texts: Ephesians 4:11-16; Luke 17:11-19
I want to talk about “faith” today, faith and believing for our day. There is a major shift going on in the world about the meaning of faith, belief and beliefs. Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith, writes:
The wind of the Spirit is blowing. One indication is the upheaval that is shaking and renewing Christianity. Faith, rather than beliefs, is once again becoming its defining quality, and this reclaims what faith meant during its earliest years.1
Karen Armstrong makes a similar argument in her most recent book, The Case for God. She says that faith at its deepest level is captured in words like trust, confidence, loyalty, and engagement.2 These words are the language of personal relation. Here is more a believing in than a believing this or that, believing rather than beliefs.
When I was young I sang a scripture song based on II Timothy 1:12: “I know whom I have believed . . . .” Not what I believed but whom. When I went under the baptismal waters as a boy nine years old, I did not know much about what I believed, but I knew at some crucial level whom I believed: Jesus whom now publicly I was following.
During the season of Lent I will preach on key beliefs or doctrines of the Christian faith, but before we launch into that I wanted to talk about the meaning of faith and believing.
I could not live without faith, not live well or live meaningfully, but my beliefs, my doctrines, have shifted over the years, or changed in their meaning. I’ve needed to translate them into a new language or transpose them into a new key. Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, whose name is easier to pronounce than to spell, writes:
In every age we must try to embed the faith in a new culture. This is the delicate function of hermeneutics [or interpretation], the reacculteration of the Gospel. This is the only possible way, in a new period, to believe in the same Christian faith.
Here is the paradoxical truth. Only as we translate or transpose our faith do we believe in the same faith as before. Rowan Williams says it this way, that orthodoxy (“right praise!”) always lies in the future. It is ahead of us, not behind us in some perfect formulation of doctrine. For example, we today are searching for a new way to interpret the atonement, the death of Jesus as salvation event. Or what is the meaning of “last things” or “end of the world” in an expanding universe large beyond our imagining.
So I begin by talking about words like doctrine, dogma, creed. They are not popular words. They tend to divide or start fights. (I saw a bumper sticker that read: “My Karma has just run over your Dogma.”) And for Baptist types who say they are a non-creeded people, creed may take on a negative tone, perhaps unnecessarily so. Creeds, doctrines are confessions of faith which through the years have given expression to the core beliefs of Christian people.
Scholars have observed that Christianity seems to have defined itself more in the terms of beliefs, doctrines and creeds than most other faiths like Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. This may be true, but think of how we began: We had not temple, no land, no nation, no race, no scripture of our own. How were we to identify ourselves as a Christian people? We did so through creeds and confessions of faith: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, etc. Christopher Morse, retired professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary, writes: “Dogmas are those teachings deemed to be essential to a community’s identity.”3
But beneath creed is experience. William Sloane Coffin in his book Credo writes:
Credo – I believe – best translates I have given my heart to.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once told Harvard Divinity students that the best preaching is “experience passed through the fire of thought.” That was certainly true of his brilliant essays. Theology, doctrine, creed at their best are spiritual experience passed through the fire of thought. They are, to use the great medieval theologian Anselm’s phrase: “faith seeking understanding,” which was his definition of theology. He wrote, “I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves.”
So I reiterate: There is something deeper than and prior to doctrine, and this is faith. Faith as trust, confidence, loyalty, engagement; faith as personal relation. Faith as singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” or “Be Still, My Soul.”
We might well think of faith as a matter of the heart, mind and will, all three.
Faith as a matter of the heart is faith as trust. It is faith as the love of God as the Beloved. I know whom I have believed. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Faith as a matter of the mind seeks to make sense of the faith, pass experience through the fire of thought, seeks to make faith intelligible and coherent.
And there is faith as a matter of the will. I’d also call it a matter of the body’s engagement. Faith as obedience, doing, action. Faith as spiritual practice. As the book of James said in face of those who made faith only a matter of heart or mind: “Faith without works is dead.”
Some of us hit the world heart first, some brain first, some action / will first; and we may always favor one way over the others, as you have a dominant hand or eye. But the wholeness of faith demands all three. Paul Tillich warned of the distortions of the faith where it is all intellectual or all emotion or all will.
The story of the ten lepers illustrates. The ten lepers cry out to Jesus, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They stand at a distance, as good lepers do. But they have the courage to cry out their need. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” It is what T. S. Eliot called, “the purification of the motive. In the ground of our beseeching.” (“Little Gidding.”) The ground of our beseeching cries out to God, the Ground of our Being.
Jesus stops and hears them, bless him. He then orders: “Go show yourselves to the priests!” This was what people did after they were healed, so to have their healing blessed and authenticated. But Jesus said, “Go show,” before they were healed. And they went! Here is faith as will, faith as obedience, faith as hearing and doing. Here is “walking by faith not by sight,” faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here is faith as action. A man wrote the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and said, “I am having trouble with my faith. How can you help me?” Hopkins replied, “Give alms!” Pascal in his famous Pensées writes that we must at times act as if we believe until faith happens in us.
So here is one dimension of faith: hearing and doing. And as they go they are healed, made clean. We are always on the way toward healing and wholeness. And as we go we are being healed, made whole; as we go our faith blooms and grows.
But the story takes an unexpected turn. All the lepers are cured, but only one returns to Jesus to give thanks and praise. The text says:
In our staff discussion of this text Andrew Daugherty noted the spatial dimensions of the story. At the beginning, the lepers stood at a distance. Now the one who came back is kneeling at Jesus’ feet, touching them. He’s moved from distance to intimacy. He’s come back praising God out loud, now living out loud, probably dancing, too. And now he kneels at Jesus’ feet, and touches them, touches him, he who the day before could not touch or be touched.
Luke adds a sentence in neon: “He was a Samaritan!” And Jesus asked, “Where are the other nine?” Why only this foreigner, this stranger, literally this one who is different, other, an outsider?
This should give us insiders pause. The other nine were insiders, comfortably ensconced in their “House of Faith,” the House of Israel. Like John Updike, who describes a deacon at church as “too much at home here.” They were cured but did not return in praise or thanksgiving. Did they take the miracle for granted? We can get so comfortable in our faith that we go to sleep. We do not see the miracles, large and small, happening around us all the time. Where is the mind bursting with praise, the heart bursting with bodies bouncing, dancing, kneeling?! The church is not the church alive unless outsiders are touching Jesus and being touched, unless the outsider in us is touching and being touched.
Jesus says to him: Your faith has made you whole! A different word than cured or made clean used above. Made whole! This man has experienced more than a cure, he has been healed at many levels, made whole. And faith is the door he flung wide open.
The last point of the sermon comes from the Ephesians text, and I would call it “Faith as a communal act, a communal reality.” We are a people on a journey of faith together, not alone in our small little skiffs, but in a great ship.
We need not only our personal faith but also the larger faith of the community, what Paul images here as the Body of Christ.
Christ is giving to us in the Body of Christ spiritual gifts, charismata, so that we each can help build up the Body of Christ. Our goal? It is to grow up toward maturity, which is to “grow up in every way into Him,” “grow to the measure of the fullness of the stature of Christ.”
What is the “unity of the faith” he speaks about? It is not in doctrine. We can be tossed to and fro on the winds of doctrine, and they can be used to divide us and distract us from the real thing, which is growing up into Christ. I like the slogan of the Moravians.
In essential things unity
In nonessential things diversity
In all things charity.
In the Body of Christ we call out and set free each other’s spiritual gifts. Every part of the Body is “knit together” and “working properly” so that the Body is building itself up in Love. All this is what Holy Conversations is all about! And it is the real goal of governance in the Body, that we may be knit together, that all parts work properly, that we are growing in love.
We are building a “House of Love,” which is so different from the House of Fear which is too often our abode. We are building a House of Love where all people can come and experience the love of Christ and then live it out in the world.
One more thought about faith as a communal act, a communal gift and reality. It means that we help each other believe.
So I may say to you, “I’m having trouble believing today. Would you believe for me?” I’ll believe in God for you if you believe in the Holy Spirit for me. (Ophelia Garmon-Brown whom we will ordain next Sunday, is helping me believe in the Holy Spirit!) I’ll believe in the Resurrection for you if you believe in the Forgiveness of Sins for me. Would you please? I’ll pray for your healing when you cannot pray for yourself. Would you pray for my healing on those days I don’t even know I need to be healed?
We need more than personal faith, though this is essential. We need “the faith of the church.” When the man brought his child for healing and Jesus asked for faith, the man cried out from the ground of his beseeching, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” And it was enough, and Jesus healed his child. As church, in church we cry, “Lord, we believe, help our unbelief.” And in church our mustard-seed size of faith grows into a great tree!
Come sit under this tree with me.
1 Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (New York: Harper One, 2009), p. 223.
2 Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), pp. 87ff.
3 Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press, 1994), p. 17.