Sunday 13 August 2017

I Kings 19.9-18; Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14.22-33

Each of the three readings we have just heard deals, in one way or another, with the question of how faith should be understood. However, rather than focus on a detailed exposition of any one passage, what I thought might prove most useful this morning is if we considered together the general nature of faith and in particular the adequacy or otherwise of the sort of notions with which it has been most commonly contrasted. Two contrasts especially spring to mind: faith in opposition to action, as in the Reformation’s rallying call of ‘justification by faith alone,’ and, secondly, faith seen as standing entirely apart, without any external support from reason or any other kind of evidence for God. I shall now take each of these two contrasts in turn.

The first thing to say about justification by faith alone is that the Reformers were quite right in their historical context, to use this notion to protest against the crude calculus that the medieval Church of the time had posited of a so-called treasury of merit that could be used to dispense people from any punishment for their sins simply on the basis of charitable acts done by themselves or others, irrespective of the motive with which they had been done. As you may recall, the Reformation began with the Dominican friar Tetzel promising such an automatic release to anyone who gave liberally towards the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome, with no further questions asked. In response, Luther insisted that faith was the sole thing that mattered in God’s eyes, not any particular actions as such. One of the many passages used in support was the chapter we heard from Romans as today’s epistle. In it Paul appears to reject the Mosaic measurement of good living in action and substitutes in its place belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and that God has raised him from the dead.

Yet are matters that simple? Elsewhere, Paul had appealed to the prophet Habakkuk to make his famous declaration that those justified in God’s eyes will live by faith alone (Hab. 2.4; Rom.1.17; Gal. 3.11). But the irony is that the prophet’s Hebrew almost certainly means faithfulness, in other words committed action, rather than just belief alone. So, while Paul and the Reformation were indeed right to put a new stress on motives for action (the beliefs behind the action as it were), it would be quite wrong to suggest that what emerges from the Bible as a whole is the total marginalisation of action in relation to belief. Rather, both are required to form an organic unity. So, while Paul was correct in insisting that action on its own is never enough, as emerges elsewhere, he also appreciated that faith which does not lead to action is equally to be rejected.

Two examples might help to make this point clearer. First, note the powerful objection that James raises in his epistle to any attempt to split faith and action in two. As he observes, even the devils believe (James 2.19). In other words, it is never sufficient just to accept the bare fact of God’s existence. One has to go further, in reflecting that belief in the quality of one’s own actions, numerous examples of which are of course offered not only in that particular epistle but also throughout St Paul’s writings. Or, for a very Scottish example, consider the famous 1824 novel, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg. If you have never read the work, I would encourage you to do so. It powerfully demonstrates how certainty of one’s own justification by faith alone and one’s own resultant predestination to glory could all too easily lead to the most appallingly evil actions.

In short, then, faith is never just a matter of ticking various boxes about the beliefs one happens to hold. Rather, it is about trust in a God who demonstrated his love for us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and who in turn now calls us to a similar faithfulness in action as part of that trust.

A second common contrast, again stemming from the Reformation, that also badly needs correction is faith as necessarily opposed to questions of signs or evidence for God. Here too context needs once more to be taken into account in understanding the Reformers, inasmuch as at the time much medieval scholastic theology claimed able to prove beyond doubt many of the central Christian doctrines, and so to dispense with any requirement for trust. But, as in the previous case, rejection went too far the other way, with the Reformers sometimes seemingly delighting in what appeared to be the pure irrationality of belief, with one puzzling paradox just heaped upon another. Although such attitudes were for the most part moderated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, they were to return in a new strengthened version in the twentieth century’s most influential theologian, Karl Barth, with his contention that all claims to religious experience were to be rejected as what he called mere religion. In his view God should be seen as something totally Other coming towards us and in no sense emerging out of where we currently are, in our personal experience.

Barth’s message is delivered with impressive rhetorical power but it is no less implausible for all that, and moreover quite unbiblical. A generous God would surely not leave himself without witnesses in the world, and this is again and again what the Bible affirms. To give just two examples, we are told repeatedly that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God,’ while it is actually the playing of music that first makes the presence of God a reality in the Temple (II Chron. 5.13). But, more generally, surely such moments of divine presence are common to us all, however different our specific experiences may be. For one of us it may be a beautiful landscape that evinces in us a sense of God; for another the love displayed by those whose holiness reflects the divine; for yet another simply sheer gratitude for the unalloyed pleasure and mystery of just being alive. But, however great the variety, they can all contribute to the building up of our faith, to our willingness to venture forward, not of course in the sense of providing conclusive proof but rather a convincing framework within which we can now approach our daily lives.

One last thought. A temptation to which we are all subject is the desire to legislate on behalf of others, and so suggest that one type of approach to God is necessarily better than another. And no doubt quite a few sermons preached this morning will yield to that temptation, and use the first reading about Elijah and the cave to advocate silence as the best way towards experience of God. But all such dogmatism is surely a mistake since for some God may well come not in ‘the sheer silence’ or ‘still, small voice’ but in the crashing of the waves on the seashore or in some loud piece of rock music. God, it must be said, is always larger than any of our attempts to limit him to our own prejudices. No better example of this can be given than the words of a famous hymn that culminates round this very scene from the life of Elijah, the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.’ It was in fact originally written by a Quaker determined to attack the rising popularity of Anglo-Catholic services which he compared to the intoxication of some oriental drug. And so, instead of ‘forgive our foolish ways,’ the text originally read ‘forgive our feverish ways.’ But with that change from feverish to foolish it has become a hymn as popular in a church like this as in any more Protestant conventicle, for God can undoubtedly come to us through elaborate ritual as through silence. Yet it is not for us to presume the automatic superiority of one over the other.

And so to my conclusion. In our gospel reading even that chief of the apostles, Peter, fails in faithful trust, as he attempts to walk on the water towards his master. So too will we at many points in our lives. But if we understand faith aright, God never leaves us entirely bereft. Would we but listen, God will continue to address and encourage us through our experience, and with that encouragement we can then not only recover in confidence but also push our trust ever further forward into faithful action on God’s behalf in the world. Pray that this may indeed be true for all of us.