Summary: The "Faith Hall of Fame" shows us how we recognize faith -- not by the success or failure of those who have it, nor by their joy or sadness, but by the way they clothed their faith in works.
18th Sunday in Trinity
"How do you recognize faith?"
Many years ago, a pornography case came before the United States Supreme Court. Justice Potter Stewart said this:
“I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”
This is not, by the way, a sermon on pornography. Justice Stewart’s comment points to something we run up against from time to time which is the point of today’s homily – the puzzle we face when we cannot define something very well, but we nevertheless know it when we see it.
I have dealt with this kind of puzzle for a long time in my work with ICGS. In attempting to lay out a Biblical exposition of masculinity and femininity, we have often found ourselves saying much as Justice Stwart would say – “masculinity and femininity are difficult to define, but we know them when we see them.”
In today’s Lesson from the Book of Hebrews we have yet another example of this puzzle, but the puzzle turns out not tp be about pornography, or the nature of manliness or womanliness, but rather faith – that quality, or characteristic, or feature of true spiritual life. The just shall live by faith, Paul tells us. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. Earlier in Hebrews 11 we read that “ … without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”
If you have been a Christian very long, you will know that Hebrews Chapter 11 is “the faith chapter,” and that it begins with that fundamental definition of faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” When I read that verse, I do not doubt that it is true, but neither do I profess to understand what it is saying with very much clarity. The word “substance” bothers me – not because I think it is false, but because I do not know what to think when that word is used. Evidence is something one sees, but faith is evidence for something you do not see. It sounds like a riddle, and to judge by the writings of many learned saints over two millennia, I suppose it is a riddle. For this verse generates as many different kinds of exposition as there are expositors to expound it.
Are we then left with a puzzle to ponder and nothing more? Well, no. Hebrews chapter 11 is 40 verses long, and it is thick with examples of what the faith is all about. To be sure, it begins with a statement that is as close to a definition as one could hope for, but I am not going to dwell on that definition, mostly because this chapter of Hebrews, which is all about faith, does NOT dwell on the definition. Instead, it illustrates, demonstrates, and elucidates how faith works. Even though the author of Hebrews gives us a definition of faith, he does not give us an explanation of faith. Rather, he shows us many different manifestations of FAITH AT WORK in the lives of those who believe.
If we are going to know faith when we see it, what are we going to see? There are two answers to this question that are NOT correct. I want to mention them in turn.
Faith is not to be recognized because of the happiness or well-being of the one who has faith. Of COURSE, some of those who have faith experience great happiness and prosperity. This chapter mentions many such people. In the lesson we heard read a short while ago, we heard these words: “For the time would fail me to tell of … [those] who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. 35Women received their dead raised to life again.”
There’s one for you! Getting your dead loved one back from the dead. Perhaps the author of Hebrews was thinking of Mary and Martha, who got Lazarus back from the dead. Or, perhaps, the widow of Nain, whose son Jesus raised from the dead when he happened to come across her son’s funeral procession. Or, perhaps, the Shunnamite woman whose dead son ELISHA raised from the dead.
There’s a very cheap and tawdry version of this view of faith common on the television sets today. You will also find it littering most of the shelves in Christian bookstores. It’s evidently a very appealing view of faith, to judge by the kind of exposure it gets in the Christian market place.