Monday, June 29, 2009

faith or intellectual assent?

Our readings this week were certainly timely. Often, as people deal with "end of life" issues, one of the big questions that get asked of the pastor is "Do I have enough faith?" Sometimes, people's unbelief causes them to question their faith; at other times, they wonder how they might respond to the situation similar to the one being confronted by a loved one. "Will He let me in?" "If I knew I was dying, could I face death with the same grace?" "Have I done enough?" I say our readings are timely because they address questions like this, but, for those who like specific answers, the readings might not seem as helpful as they are.

All of our readings this week point to the difference between faith and belief. Belief is that intellectual assent to something, in this case the existence and providence of God. Belief is that nearly agnostic response of "yeah, I think there is a God. I am just not sure what we know about Him." Faith, as we learned this weekend, is entirely different. In fact, I would argue that we get at least four lessons about faith from our readings this week.

First, faith is what opens us to the power of God and allows us to become a channel for His grace. Can God act whenever and however He wants? Of course, He is God. But consider our readings. David, anointed king of Israel, has had a hot and cold relationship with Saul, to say the least, for many years. Both men knew that David was to be king; yet only one trusted in God and His plan. Saul took matters into his own hands. He made sacrifices against the express commands of God, he withheld his daughter from David despite his oath (this led to the covenanted relationship with Jonathon), he repeatedly tried to kill his anointed successor, and he was jealous of the honor given his successor (Saul has killed his thousands but David his ten thousands). David, by contrast, puts God first. Whenever he has the opportunity to kill Saul, he refrains. When opportunities to divide the kingdom arise, David reminds others that Saul is the current rightful leader. When others are anxious about moving God's plan along a bit faster, David patiently waits on the Lord. The same is true in our Gospel lesson. Both the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus receive an amazing, miraculous healing. Both those around them, those that scorn, laugh, or think Jesus merely a teacher, are denied even to witness His saving power. They are led outside His presence and not allowed to see His power at work. Only the believers get to experience and see God's hand at work in the world and know it for what it is.

Second, faith is persistent in the face of many obstacles. David had every reason to think that God had forgotten about His promise to David; yet David trusted the Lord. The hemorrhaging woman had tried for twelve years and her life savings to be healed. If anyone had any reason to feel abandoned by God, it was her. But, despite all evidence to the contrary, she held firm in her faith that God could heal her. Even Jairus, whose friends reminded him that Jesus was only a teacher and whose coworkers were most threatened by Jesus (and therefore opposed to His ministry), had faith that Jesus could somehow overcome the death of his twelve-year-old daughter. And each is rewarded for their persistent faith!

Thirdly, faith requires action. Unlike that lukewarm "intellectual assent" that so many want to be enough, faith requires transformed living and action. We have highlighted David and the hemorrhaging woman's actions, so little more needs to be said about them, but think on the church at Corinth. This is the same church that was so divided that that the rich would gather for agape meals and eat and drink themselves until the puked (that was a sign of wealth and power), while others among them starved. Yet, here is Paul challenging and praising them for their transformed lives. Yes, Paul strokes their egos a bit, but he reminds them that they should "excel in this generous undertaking" and "finish doing it so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means." The church at Corinth is exhorted to live out their faith by Paul. The church at Corinth is encouraged live as if their Lord was the God who became man and gave up Himself on the cross for their sakes!

Finally, faith clings to the hope that God is the answer, no matter the problem. Even when we do not know our real need, God still does and is the answer. In the Old Testament, God credits such faith as righteousness. David does not understand God's plan. David often questions God and the events of his life; but he trusts in God's goodness and promise True, David will make horrible choices from time to time, but what ultimately separates him from his predecessor Saul is his willingness to repent rather than offer justifications. Ultimately, David remembers that God is in control and that He will not be thwarted.

In the New Testament, of course, the reminder of God's ultimate grace and power is the work and person of Jesus Christ. What was hidden from David and the rest of the Old Testament heroes and heroines is fully revealed to us. In the case of the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus, the cross is not yet before them. Nevertheless, both cling to the faith that Jesus is the answer to their problems. In the case of the woman, Jesus gives her healing that we might forget. She wanted to be healed of her bleeding. For twelve years she has been a leper in her community. She could not worship with her community; no one could sit with her without becoming defiled themselves. All she wants is to stop bleeding. But Jesus stops when she touches him. Knowing that he might be furious for having been defiled, knowing that the crowd might turn on her in a mob rage for what she just did, she confesses that she touched Him. And Jesus tells her to "go in peace for your faith has made you well." Jesus knew, better than her or we, the true healing that she needed. She had been publicly cut off from her community for twelve years. In a simple, public pronouncement, Jesus tells her and the crowd that she is healed and that she is restored to the community of faith. The pariah has been welcomed by God's prophet.

We might feel uncomfortable with her faith. It smacks a bit of magic -- "if I but touch His cloak, I will be healed." It does not seem noble; it does not seem "systematically" correct. All she knows, all she clings to in faith is that Jesus is somehow the answer to her problem. And, thankfully and mercifully, Jesus agrees. And her demonstration of faith becomes a wonderful lesson for the leader of the synagogue. When his friends come and tell him to trouble the teacher no more, Jesus reminds him not to doubt. Her faith leads Jairus to faith; the formerly excluded woman points the way for the leader of the synagogue. And the little girl is raised from the dead. Jairus does not know what to make of Jesus. He only knows that Jesus can heal. And so he trusts, he has faith; and his need is met in ways the world does not think possible.

Our readings this week should serve as a wonderful reminder to each of us as we confront life's problems. We need only to cling to the faith that Jesus is sufficient to meet our needs. The world may tease us, the world may scorn us, the world may even take advantage of us -- for a time. But ultimately, we serve the One with power over life and death. And He has promised each of us with persistent, active, child-like faith that He will vindicate us. Our lives, our honor, and our salvation are ultimately in His hands. We will make terrible mistakes like David; we might be determined but fearful like the woman; we might simply be confused like Jairus. But thankfully, mercifully, the one who died for us is the one who judges whether our faith is sufficient. Theologians and pastors may demand certain behavior of us, Jesus reminds us simply "do not doubt, only have faith in Me." He may not act miraculously in many situations in our lives now -- children may die, diseases may not be cured, seeming material needs may not be met. But He has promised that when we meet Him face to face, when we who now live by faith behold with joy His face, He will act once and for all to restore all that was broken in our lives and to wipe away all our tears.

By laying down His life and taking it up again, He has proved He is sufficient for whatever need we have. Will we have faith in Him and find life? Or will we side with the scoffers and find ourselves out of His sight when He heals for all eternity?


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