A major car manufacturer has a series of new commercials out that proclaim how awesome, hip and “NOW” it is to drive a mini-van. The commercials feature two mid-thirty something parents with two cute kids, who journey around town to mom’s weekly workout place, dad’s tailgating at the local football game, and the local park for the kid’s weekly soccer match. As they parade around in their new hip mini-van, they lovingly refer to it as their “swagger wagon.” There’s nothing really special about this family, they look just like other parents with kids, in a van. But for them, the van says it all … they’ve made it. They have the ride and they are in style. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against mini-vans; I owned one a few years ago when Erica was small. But, c’mon, is it possible to be cool in a mini-van? Can a utilitarian vehicle that seats six comfortably, features two drop-down video screens, is offered in only a few neutral colors, really transform two young parents with kids, into the “talk of the town, the king and queen of the soccer field?” That’s quite a product promise. Our culture sometimes encourages us to put our trust, our faith, in these kinds of promises. But we as Christians are all about another kind of faith. Faith in God is so much more than a journey that features fold-down seats, cup holders, built-in storage areas, and a 60-month power train warranty.
Faith can sometimes be one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christian life. Many of us have heard people proclaim, “I’m a person of faith.” For some folks, they may be saying something like “I believe in … (fill in the blank).” Some Christians say “I believe in God, Jesus, heaven, etc.” but we have to wonder, is faith merely an ascent to a particular doctrine? Is that really the depth of faith? Today’s epistle helps to expand our understanding of faith and the writer of Hebrews asserts that faith is the “assurance of things hoped for … the conviction of things unseen.”
The meaning of first phrase, “Assurance of things hoped for,” may seem obvious, but take a second look, and notice the nuances of the words. Webster defines assurance as “being inspired to confidence” and hope is described as “a cherished desire with anticipation.” Faith begins with “I believe” and then transforms into an inspiration, a confidence, an assurance that the anticipation of our heart’s desire will come to realization.” The next phrase, “faith is the conviction of things unseen.” In the earliest versions of this phrase, the syntax indicates “faith is the evidence of a thing being accomplished, which may not be readily apparent or discernable.” Faith begins with “I believe” and then evolves into a work, a deed, a transformation that takes place in us but may not be apparent at a given moment.
The “assurance of things hoped for … the conviction of things unseen.” Our hope is ultimately in God’s promise that God loves us and God desires an intimate loving relationship with us. We have this assurance because in Christ, God came to us. Through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Our Lord we have a witness to the extent of God’s love. Although God’s love is beyond our ability fully to comprehend, the assurance of it has the power to change our very being. Through our faith, God IS working in us and drawing us deeper into a loving relationship with himself. Faith is more than belief alone; it is a conversion (to use the language of the Apostle Paul). Faith that begins with “I believe” becomes transformational as a growing trust in the promises of God, ignited and burning brightly by the active presence of the Spirit working in us.
We may ask then, if I can’t readily perceive the changes in me, how do we know that we are being transformed? Many people proclaim to be “people of faith,” and at the same time, say that they don’t believe in religion or that they don’t really need to be in a faith community. My roommate in college one time had the not so bright idea that he could grill hamburgers with only one charcoal briquette. Have you ever tried to light a barbeque grill with only one briquette? It doesn’t work. No matter how much lighter fluid you splash on it, and even if it does light, it eventually only smolders and the flame goes out. But we all know that when you take a lot of briquettes and you place them up close to one another, and you splash a little lighter fluid on and light them, a roaring flame emerges. The close proximity of the heat and flame of each briquette, keeps the fire stoked and burning for the other briquettes. Faith does not ignite and burn brightly when we try to journey with God in isolation. Faith becomes an inferno in community.
How so? When you have something to celebrate, with whom do you whoop it up, toot the horns and shout “we did it?” When you’re down and out and discouraged, who lifts you out of that moment and motivates you? Faith is more than just “Jesus and me,” faith grows exponentially when it is “Jesus and US.” When one individual’s faith is weak, it is the faith of others that inspires and strengthens the faith of individual who is struggling.
If we look at the narratives of the saints throughout the ages, we come to know that their lives were fraught with the “ups and downs” throughout the faith journey. St. John of the Cross-, a 16th century mystic, friar, and priest recorded his peaks and valleys of faith. In the poem aptly named, a “Dark Night of the Soul.” He describes recognizing his deep love for God that emerged for him, against the backdrop of a night weighed down with uncertainty and doubt.
Oh night thou was my guide,
Oh night more loving than the rising sun,
Oh night that joined the lover to the beloved one
transforming each of them into the other.
The heroes of our Christian heritage, whose examples we look to for inspiration, were not living merely on peaks of the Christian experience. Their journeys were tough, filled with doubt, uncertainty and sometimes fear. We are in good company with the communion of saints who have gone before us, and we are even now as we look to those around us who struggle and yet remain faithful. A recent released memoir of a modern, well-known Christian hero that ministered to lepers in India, surprised many, when it was revealed that she also had moments of uncertainty and doubt, yet she remained faithful, committed, and persevered despite times in the dark night.
The examples of all of God’s saints through their accomplishments in the faith, remain incomplete until they are passed on and lived out in our lives. When we ourselves persevere in the face of uncertainty and doubt, we live out the rich heritage passed on to us by those before us. Being a “person of faith,” is a life-long journey, a series of day trips that begin when we say that we believe, and ends only when we reach our destination of growing in a deeper commitment and love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called into a community with a 2000-year heritage that shares in and passes on a faith, which transforms us even when we are not readily aware of it. We can be assured that this journey is one, which taken with trust and willingness, will change us forever.
Our hope springs forth because God identified with humanity. God endured our pain, experienced our joy, treaded through our uncertainty and fear. God came to be one with us, so that we could be one with God. This is the salvation, for which we hope. We have been ultimately accepted by God, through God’s love and commitment to restore our relationship with himself. God, whom we call Lord, showed us radical love, radical forgiveness, and radical acceptance despite our failings. When we with confidence proclaim through faith, that Christ is Lord, we are being transformed to love radically, forgive radically, and accept radically those whom God loves. It is through this transformation that our faith becomes visibly apparent to others.
The fire, the light, the heat of our faith burns brightly here at St. David’s. We shine the light of God’s love right here in our local community. To keep the fires burning though, we have to keep that flame ignited and it requires adding additional briquettes. It really is the transformation in us, that makes us able invite others to take this awesome, life-changing journey of faith with us. By inviting others into the community, we help ignite a fire of love for God in them and thus, we continue the work of the saints before us. Inviting, welcoming, mentoring, and loving the new saints will help them to be inspired, assured and confident in God’s grace. It is then that together we will continue to grow deeper in our love and commitment to Christ. We are called, just as all those who have journeyed before us were called, to fling open wide the doors, take the hand of our neighbor, whomever they might be and wherever we might find them, and show them that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.