A courageous newcomer to church asked me: “What is faith? And how can I have it?” I laughed to myself, “Well, let’s not start with the BIG questions!” But I appreciated the directness. And her focus is, more or less, a goal we hope church participation helps with, isn’t it?
To begin an answer, I want to suggest that the questions work better as “What is trust?’ and “How can I trust?” Again, no easy answers. And harder for some than others. But hopefully, asking about ”trust,” we lean into or on experiences we are more familiar with. Most people figure out who they can trust– whether or not they can explain how they trust or even how they know they can trust.
Or let me try another way to make these questions easier to deal with. Let’s say, you are driving down a dark country road late at night. You have never been this way before. And you are hoping to arrive some place equally unknown.
You might well be aware of how dark the night is. And that you aren’t really sure where you are. You might be thinking that you are glad you are in your car and it’s running well, and with a full tank of gas. Even though you have your headlights on, you can only see a hundred feet in front of you. Out in the distance where you want to go, it is pitch dark.
But you are not worried. You trust that road will get you where you expect. That it will not end abruptly at a cliff. Or that there will not appear quicker than you can swerve a boulder blocking the road. You trust your engine, your fuel, your lights and the road itself will see you through. You ‘let go’ of all the catastrophes that could befall you. And you live more or less comfortably with the unknowns.
You have been down many similar roads before. Admittedly, a few turned out to be wrong turns or deadends. But still you have learned to trust, so now you can believe this road too will be a way to get where you are going. You keep going, speeding along, driving securely, despite the nighttime and the unknowns all around you, expecting to arrive.
This night drive provides an image for faith… or trust.
Perhaps, a scenario about trusting another person in light of the unknowns that lie ahead would be even more apropos.
Faith does not promise we see what’s in front of us clearly. Or that everything will go as we wish. Or that we can know the future clearly. Perhaps we shouldn’t want to. Anymore that we should insist we know another person completely in order to trust them. Because faith is trusting, and trusting a way will emerge.
The Greek word for faith is often unfortunately rendered in English as “believe.” It is a difficult, even undesirable, translation, I think, because “belief” — in modern usage or in our minds (or in both!) — carries a lot of extra baggage. We think of belief like an ancient creed demanding our intellectual agreement. In order to believe, we think, there’s a very high hurdle to get over — accepting as true (in the rationalist, scientific meanings of the word) what you are going to say you believe. As if believing in Jesus is about being able to explain him or God. But really, who ever even understands themselves, much less others… or God? We can embrace “trust’ and who or what we trust without having all the hows and whys or what exactlys answered. Trusting does not invoke “truth-claims” like belief does.
Trust works better, I think, because the Greek word which is sometimes translated “faith” is about being in a God-initiated relationship — in spirit, even if our minds can’t make sense of it all, or are not even aware of it! What we really want is to be able to trust God in Jesus to be there for us and to be able care for us when that is beyond our control. To be in a relationship is different than simply “believing” God exists, or even that Jesus is God. Trust is an experience of letting go, letting down our guard, letting ourselves get carried away.
Trust God and you will find yourself believing. Look at the centurion in the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday, Luke 7:1-10. Who knows really what exactly he believed. Or even how much he knew or understood about Jesus.
All we really know is that though he had much power and authority in most areas of his life, when he realized he was helpless when it came to healing his slave, he was not above admitting he needed Jesus.
The centurion was an empowered man, with the backing of the Empire. He could order his soldiers to do this, and they did it. He could tell his slaves to do that, and they did it. Pretty much all the inhabitants of occupied Israel were under his thumb. Everyone did as he said. The centurion had the power to make things happen. He was in control.
Until he wasn’t.
Can’t we relate to the centurion? We like to think we have control over our lives. Believing that makes us feel secure. We want to be in charge with our family, friends and community, with good health, with our financial security and our various insurances.
Yet inevitably, as happened with the centurion, we encounter times in our lives when we run up against the limits of our own power. We find times when we can’t control things, or make things happen. We lose control. We find ourselves powerless in the face of sickness or some other misfortune. We have that existential crisis that stops us in our tracks, and forces us to confront our limitations.
This crisis comes in the form of a frightening diagnosis or a sick loved one. The crisis comes in the form of a failed marriage that you tried to make right and couldn’t. The crisis comes in the form of an addiction that you can’t control. The crisis comes in the loss of a job.
The centurion, however, didn’t rely on his own power and authority when it came to his sick slave. He had faith. Or he trusted. So he could rely on the power of God made manifest in Jesus.
He trusted that Jesus could heal his slave simply by saying the word. Or to put it more precisely, the centurion believed in Jesus’ own peculiar authority, an authority that gave freely of itself for the sake of healing and new life. Jesus possessed a new kind of authority that sought not its own gain, but an authority that saved others.
In times of fear, may we give up our own desire for control, and trust deeply in that authority which goes all the way for our sake. May we trust. Who knows where such faith will lead us — or transform us?
And who knows where this trust led the centurion. Who knows how the life-giving authority of Jesus changed him. Maybe it led, not only to the healing of the slave, but also to the recognition of him as a brother.
Trust took the centurion out of all the ways his position and life determined him and held him captive. Trust thrust him into the flow of the stream of life. The centurion recognized the flow to be good even if where it would lead was unknown. His trust most certainly was not in a set of rigid beliefs, no arrogant dogmatism. In faith, he trusted and found himself open to a current, and swept away.
We don’t get faith by memorizing truths or rules. Rather we fall into faith by letting ourselves trust, almost like falling in love… and trusting as we fall, that we will be born up on grace.
See you in church,