Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 19th January 2011
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1
A churchwarden in a former parish gave me a slip of paper one Sunday, on it were three lines she had copied from a book she was reading::
“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when there is silence.”
The words had been written on the wall of a cellar in the German city of Cologne by a Jew hiding from the Nazis. It seemed an extraordinary statement of faith, to carry on believing, even when there is no evidence to justify that faith.
For the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, faith in itself is sufficient, faith justifies faith. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for”, he says. Did we ever stop to think what that means? The substance of our hope is not proof, it is faith; it is simply believing. Faith is “the evidence of things not seen”, he continues. The only evidence we have for the unseen things we believe is our faith. It is a not an easy proposition; to believe for no reason other than that we believe.
Back in theological college days, when changing the world was something to be achieved before lunch, there was a discussion with a Jesuit friend about evangelisation and persuading people of the truth of the Christian faith. My friend objected to my reasoning, “Ian, you can’t persuade people to believe; faith is a gift”.
It seemed an odd thing to say, faith is a gift. The passing years have brought some understanding of what he meant.
There used to be graffiti on a Belfast wall:
“For those who understand, no explanation is necessary.
For those who don’t understand, no explanation is possible.”
The point that was being made was that if you believed in whatever cause it was that was being supported by the writer of the graffiti, then you didn’t need any explanation of why and what you believed. If you didn’t believe in the cause, then no amount of explaining would be of any use. You believed because you believed.
Our Christian faith might be expressed in those terms. We can be reasonable and rational, we can have many arguments for the existence of God, we can develop wonderfully complex theologies, but there comes a point when we have to make a leap of faith. There comes a point when, if we are to be Christian, we have to say that, ‘this is what I believe because this is what I believe’.
We read the story of Jesus in church each week and sooner or later, if we are thinking at all, we have to say to ourselves, ‘what is this story about? Do I believe this?’ It is not possible to read the Gospel story and not to have these questions. Jesus is a great teacher, he is a marvellous philosopher, he is an excellent psychologist, but he is not primarily any of these. He comes among us as one claiming to be the Son of God, he comes among us as one who performs miracles, he comes among us as one whose life was a series of miracles.
There are many parts of Jesus’ life where no rational, scientific, worldly explanation is possible. The virgin birth, the miracles in the course of his ministry, the resurrection, the ascension – no explanation is possible for those who do not believe these things; one simply believes or does not believe. To remain in the church but not to believe is illogical. If these things are not true, then Jesus was a liar and a cheat and the whole of the Christian faith is built on lies and deceit.
If we go through the Creed and think, ‘I’m not sure about that line; I’m not sure that is true’, then what else do we discount? What else do we say has been made up? Being blunt, if there are chunks of the story that have been made up, then we would have to doubt the integrity of the whole story.
Christianity cannot be a religion of compromise or fudging, the claims made are too radical. At its very heart the Christian faith is about the supernatural and the miraculous.
When faith is under attack from militant atheists, it is tempting to try and do battle on the rounds of reason, but that is to make the same mistake as them; to try to make faith fit into the limits of human reason. It doesn’t work, faith by its very nature means a leap into the unknown. The atheist approach to the Christian story is from his scientific viewpoint. It says that because the Gospel cannot be proved scientifically, it is therefore not true.
Christian faith cannot be proved, or disproved, scientifically. It is not scientific, the mistake of Christian fundamentalist Creationists is to take something that is not scientific and try to fit it into the realms of human science. Being a Christian is about faith, not science. There is no rational way of explaining how God takes on human flesh, of how Jesus performs miracles, of how Jesus rises from the dead. These are not things you can explain in human, rational terms.
Most of us read these stories and we accept that there are things beyond the power of human understanding, we have no explanation, but we accept by faith that these things are true because our personal experience of God leads us to believe in our hearts they are true. An atheist comes to these same stories, stories which we cannot explain, and conclude that if they cannot be explained then they must be untrue.
At the very heart of the whole debate there is the simple question of faith: do we believe? If we believe, if we believe that God does things beyond all human understanding, then all things are possible.
If we believe, then no explanation is necessary for the great events of Jesus’ life and the great deeds he performed. If we don’t believe , then no explanation is possible for the life and ministry of Jesus.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” All we have on which to depend is the gift of faith.