Trusting God, Living Faithfully

    Aug 09, 2015

    Passage: Romans 3:21-4:2

    Preacher: James Hoke

    Detail:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about “faith” recently, in many different ways and places—including the question of how a church community grows together and explores in “faith.” A team of us here has been meeting over the summer to talk about adult education opportunities at our church, with the hope of encouraging spiritual growth for all of us. Just like our Sunday School program, youth group, and confirmation classes provide great times for our children and youth to learn faith stories and explore the ideas of being part of the church---we want to our adult ed to offer chances to continue that growth for everyone, and we have been talking about the best ways to talk about our faith—to do it in ways that get people talking and excited—and about how this will help all of us to grow spiritually. And I think exciting things are happening and will continue to happen with this!

    As we’ve been doing all this, I’ve started to think a little more about a question that has started to creep into my mind: What do we mean when we talk about “faith”?

    On the surface, this seems an easy question—especially because we use the term so often here! After all, our confirmands prepare “statements of faith.” But what do we mean when we talking about “growing in our faith”? What does that feel like? Look like? How do we know if we are growing in faith? How do we grow further?

    The question echoed in my head as I turned to Paul’s letter to the Romans this week. Paul talks a lot about “faith” here. “For God’s justice is revealed in him by faith for faith; just as it is written ‘The just one will live by faith’” (1:17) and later “God’s justice, through Jesus Christ’s faith, is for everyone who has faith” (3:22).

    Paul’s letter to the Romans should come with a warning label—it’s a complex letter, at times it seems unclear and even contradictory. It probably holds the distinction of having the most ink poured out about it by theologians, from Augustine to Luther and on into today. I’m always hesitant to preach on it because it seems like it would take at least 20 pages to do it justice.

    Don’t worry—my sermon is not that long!

    However, it is a great text for exploring the questions I posed earlier: because one of the major difficulties with Romans is the question of what faith means for Paul—and how his talk about “faith” and Jesus has profound impact for the world—God’s creation—us.

    What the word “faith” means for us does not have to agree with Paul—but it probably helps us to understand Romans (and think about our “faith”) to ask what the word that gets translated as “faith” meant in Paul’s world. In part because our idea of “faith” often makes it a close synonym for “belief” (so it often gets used alongside “doubt” in some way).

    The word was actually fairly commonly used in the first century world, and it means less an idea of “belief” and more means something like “trust.” It can refer to putting trust into someone; it can refer to a god or a ruler’s trustworthiness.

    Often it signifies a relationship: trust between friends; between spouses; between political allies. For these relationships to be strong, faith—or trust—must be established or present. Lack of this faith typically signals poor relationship, one fraught with problems. Sometimes trust can be extended from one person to another as a means of establishing a relationship: you hope that by putting your faith in someone, it will create a friendship or an alliance that will reap benefits.

    When Paul talks about “faith” in Romans, then, he is thinking about this kind of “trust,” a trust that establishes a relationship—trusting that another party will keep their word or promise, will act in order to benefit both people.

    So, for Paul, trust is something to be given to God, because God has demonstrated God’s trustworthiness to all people. God promises everyone justice; God promises to come to us and create a just world where everyone is included.

    Paul speaks about “Jesus Christ’s faith” in this way: when Jesus came to this world as the Christ, the Messiah, and he trusted God and trusted that God would be faithful to this promise made to all people. However, Jesus knew that this could only be accomplished if everyone grew to trust God and this great promise first—and that required him to “delay” his abilities by instead being crucified—thereby showing the world how much he trusted God’s promise.

    And because God is trustworthy, and always keeps these promises, God raised Jesus from the dead and placed him at his right-hand—allowing all humanity to follow Jesus’ example and display their trust in God, so that Jesus can return and complete God’s plan by establishing a just world for all.

    So what does this mean for us?

    For starters, the idea of “trust” that Paul uses means maintaining a relationship with God. We know that God is faithful to us and to the promises made to us. We can see it in the beauty of creation; in the great things God has done and will do for our church and community.

    A few summers ago, many of you shared your “faith stories” with us here; it was my first summer here, and I remember each morning being a moving experience. It was not only a great way to get to know many members of the congregation, but it was incredible to learn about the stories of their lives, their experiences, and the event that shaped them and got them here. Even more, in every story, it was clear to see the wonderful ways God works through the lives of each of you—and how through God’s faithful work in our lives, we have shared that trust with others: building meaningful relationships in our church and community, serving others in need, sharing God’s promises with the world.

    Part of the good news that Paul brings to us about “faith” is that God is always faithful, that God works amazing things in our lives, both as individuals and as a community, even if we cannot always see God at work.

    And that’s where our “faith”—our trust—begins: we trust that God is always acting faithfully to God’s promises for us. We know this is the case because we’ve seen God act faithfully through Jesus.

    But how then, do we “grow” further in faith? What does this mean according to Romans?

    This question is admittedly harder, but Paul gives us some clues—clues that hopefully we can follow up by working, discussing, praying, worshipping together this year.

    As we’ve established, Jesus’ example shows that faith means trusting God, and by doing so, maintaining a relationship with God, through Jesus’ example. We are all called to put our trust in God, to trust that God’s promise that a just world is coming for all, to trust that we are a part of this plan.

    But how can we allow this sort of trust to grow? Jesus’ example demonstrates to us that if we trust in God’s plan for a just world, then we should look for ways to enact this plan, according to our ability.

    We trust that if we, as individuals and as a church, do something to make the world more just: help someone in need; care for creation; speak out for those who don’t have a voice—we trust that we are taking actions towards God’s promise and we are strengthening our trust that we are a vital part of God’s plan, that we—like all people—are included in God’s just world.

    Growing—or strengthening—our trust in God means looking for ways (big or small) to accomplish God’s promises, trusting that if we take these actions, then God will help us to better understand God’s plan and God’s justice. God will work through us, and God will let us see through God’s eyes.

    For this reason, I’ve specifically selected “Be Thou My Vision” as our hymn of faith—our hymn of trust in God’s promise, because it asks God to help us accomplish these promises, to help us to grow to trust God—to trust God so fully that we see the world through God’s eyes, God’s vision. This means that we see the possibilities of the just world God promises and we look, together, for ways to act according to this trust.

    One of my favorite lines of this hymn expresses the hope we have by trusting in God: “Thou in me dwelling and I with the one.” When Jesus trusted God’s plan, it was because God dwelled within him, allowing him to see God’s vision, God’s plan, and to act in faith to make it happen.

    By trusting God—by increasing this trust and growing in faith—we act in hope for a just world, for Jesus’ return. We live trusting that God will one day dwell fully in and among all of us, allowing everyone to know fully God’s vision so that our world can all live justly, as one, with God. In this trust—this faith—we grow continually thanks to the great love of God and Jesus. Amen.