What does faith mean to you?
Have you ever thought about the meaning of faith? Faith is difficult to see or describe, yet it’s at the center of our religion because it can make all the difference. It was at the center of the Protestant Reformation.
The good news of today’s lesson is that faith is a gift of God for you and for me, to give us confidence for the future and to live fully now.
Let us pray. Loving God, help us to understand the meaning of your word and how we too might honor the holy gift of faith. Amen.
On August 21, many had what they described as one of the great spiritual experiences of life. The great solar eclipse. I officiated the wedding August of 2016 of a couple in Jackson, Wyoming, and they had a party this past August around their anniversary to look at the solar eclipse. It was a 100% darkness over Wyoming. They describe it as one of the great spiritual experiences of life. Sky getting dark mid-day. Insects coming out. A cosmic shift that couldn’t help but convince one that something is in the universe.
Now, I was a little underwhelmed watching it in our backyard. The eclipse was not as impressive in Bethesda as in Wyoming.
Some of our neighbors didn’t have eclipse glasses and were trying to look at it through a pinhole telescope using aluminum foil and concluded that they couldn’t see anything at all. But when we looked we saw that was because they were looking through the wrong end of the telescope. It reminded me of being at Grand Canyon once as a boy and looking down with one of those permanent telescopes they have bolted down at national parks, and everything looked small. I realized I was looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
From articles about Galileo inventions in the early 17th century to conversations between Scuttle and Ariel in The Little Mermaid, the idea of the wrong end of the telescope has come to mean our inability to seeing something clearly because we aren’t making use of what we have.
In the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther concluded that the people of God had essentially been looking at God through the wrong end of the telescope. All were looking through the cosmos for God, but Luther and the Reformers concluded that Christians had the most important idea about God backwards. The church had been seeing God as harsh and mean and thus that the role of humanity was to try and earn God’s peace. Instead, the Reformation helped people understand that God was loving, gracious and humanity’s task was to receive and respond to God’s peace through faith.
Many of you have watched the PBS special on Martin Luther this week. Luther was a priest, an academic and an Augustinian monk. He was also prone to the kind of anxiety and fearful self-image that plagued many in the middle ages who had been taught that an angry, judgmental God waited for them at the end of a short, hard life.
Luther was tormented with trying to be virtuous enough to persuade God to be less upset and assign him to heaven after purgatory, rather than hell. Luther was obsessed with trying to please God in order to change God’s mind. Luther fasted, prayed, tried pain and pilgrimages. It didn’t work. He tried going to Rome to feel better about the church, but that just made him feel worse.
Then one night, in devotion and in preparation for his academic lectures, Luther had an epiphany while reading Paul’s letter to the Romans. He read from Romans 1 that the power of God justifies, that is makes right with God, everyone who has faith. He read further, “the righteous shall live by faith.” He read through Romans 3 and 4 about the importance of faith alone. He got to chapter 5, our lesson last Sunday, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through … Christ.”
Luther wrote that the peace of God finally came to him and felt the gates of Heaven opened to him. He realized that the church had been looking through the wrong end of the telescope to try and see God. We don’t have to persuade God to love us by fasting, praying, confessing, or being perfect, God already loves us. We don’t have to convince God to be gracious, God is gracious. As John wrote, God sent God’s son, not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Reading the Bible helped Luther understand that God is great. God is good. Full of mercy and kindness. Reading Romans helped Luther see our role is to have faith. That realization changed Luther’s life.
As Luther shared his epiphany it changed society. It undercut the power of the church, which ruled the minds of men by suggesting that the only path out of our predicament was paying a priest to forgive our sins. Much like Amazon or many direct to consumer vendors today, Luther offered to cut out the middle man role that the church played. God and the people could connect directly.
The idea of sola fide, justification by faith alone, means we don’t have to live in anxiety and fear either about our eternal destination. We are forgiven and cherished by God. Christ died for you as if you were the only person in the world.
This good news Luther discovered, this good news Paul wrote about, this good news which Jesus proclaimed, allows us to live in confidence, joy and peace with God, knowing God’s character is love.
Yet Luther wrote that “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” There is more to it as it impacts how we live.
Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk in verse 17 saying, “The righteous will live by faith.”
Faith not only saves, it inspires, informs and influences how we live now.
Knowing we are saved by faith in some ways is easier than living by faith. I find that faith comes more naturally as an intellectual activity, confessing our Protestant doctrine that we are saved, than it is to live with faith in my gut now.
It takes attention and work to translate saving faith into living faith. When things are good, we must challenge ourselves to remember that the salvation which comes by faith means we are freed to live with extra compassion and grace here. No longer obsessing about our own fates, but caring about others.
The key is that our saving faith is our serving faith. Faith in God saves us, but it also sustains us during challenges and it inspires us to live with a Reformation worldview.
George Müller was a 19th century Christian missionary and a leader of orphanages in Bristol, England. He cared for more than 100,000 orphan children in his lifetime.
Muller wrote, “One morning the children were gathered at breakfast, waiting for their morning meal. Müller prayed, “Dear Father, we thank Thee for what Thou art going to give us to eat.”
Yet all the plates, cups and bowls on the table were empty. There was no food and no money to buy food.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. A baker stood there, and said, “Mr. Müller, I couldn’t sleep last night. Somehow, I felt you didn’t have bread for breakfast, and the Lord wanted me to send you some. So, I got up at 2 a.m. and baked some fresh bread, and have brought it.”
Mr. Müller thanked the baker, and no sooner had he left, when there was a second knock at the door. It was the milkman. He announced that his milk cart had broken down right in front of the orphanage, and he needed to drop off his cans of fresh milk so he could empty his wagon and repair it.
The compassion of living with faith. Faith is hard to see but when you are up against something, it’s good to have it.
The writer of Hebrews famously said that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith is hard to see. I think back to my time as a graduate student at Northwestern University in 1995. That year Northwestern, which wasn’t known for its football team, shocked the world of college football by winning its conference and going to the Rose Bowl.
The man behind the team’s turnaround was Coach Gary Barnett. Before the season began, he ordered a Rose bowl flag for the locker room. He also kept a silk rose on his desk to remind everyone who came to his office where they wanted to go.
At the first team meeting that year, Coach Barnett told the players that they needed belief they could win without evidence. He asked them, “Do you know what that is? That is faith.”
One of the most stirring books about faith you’ll ever read is Immaculee Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell. It’s her account of her experience during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Immaculee grew up a Tutsi at a time of great ethnic tensions between Tutsi’s and Hutu’s. In April 1994, Rwanda’s president’s plane was shot down and the country thrown into a kind of civil war with Hutu’s engaging in ethnic cleansing, killing more than a million Tutsis in 100 days.
To escape the conflict, Immaculee and seven other women hid in a 3 foot x 4 foot bathroom at a local Hutu pastor’s house, for 91 days. Both her parents and most of her siblings were killed during that time. One night they heard a mother shot on the road outside the house, and all night the cries of her baby, left on the road. The next day the baby’s cries grew fainter. They wanted to help but couldn’t dare go out. The following day they stopped.
Several times Hutu militias searched the house for Immaculee and her friends, calling out her name, but the bathroom door was hidden behind a wardrobe and while the soldiers passed right by the door several times, the women remained unseen.
Finally, after 91 days, the pastor returned and told the women that French troops had arrived and made a camp nearby. So, they made a dash for the camp. They encountered some Hutu troops. Immaculee was scared. Yet she stared into the eyes of the solders and they saw her strength, purpose and faith. Eyes are usually used for seeing out, but in this case people looking through the opposite end of those windows to the soul allowed Immaculee to pass through to the camp. There she served as an interpreter, having studied English reading the Bible in the bathroom, and eventually made it to the U.S. where she has become a citizen.
Immaculee writes in Left to Tell that it was her faith that kept her going. She prayed and read a Bible she had for 15-20 hours a day for three months in the bathroom.
The tale is told of how she came to a place of forgiveness through faith. At first, she wanted to see the Hutu’s slaughtered in return for what they did to her family. But as she prayed the Lord’s prayer, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, Immaculee realized that her view of others should reflect her view of God. If she affirmed God was forgiving, then she should forgive. She has since met with some of the Hutus in Rwanda, some of the same people who hurt her family so much, and offered them forgiveness. A Reformation worldview.
Hopefully we’ll never go through something as traumatic of Immaculee did, but we’ll each face some significant challenge at some point. The Bible is full of them. People like Abraham, Noah, Daniel, Esther, Rebecca, Mary or Job, where faith got them through.
If the nature of God is to be judgmental, harsh and mean, then we should face the world the same way.
The Reformation helps us understand that the nature of God is to be loving, forgiving, saving and faithful to us. We are invited to approach God and the world the same way. That is what we put our hope, our trust, our faith in.
Immaculee writes, “I came to learn that God … lets us see what we need to see, when we need to see it. God will wait until our eyes and hearts are open to God.”[i]
Like the planets of the universe, faith is hard to see. But it’s out there. When we need it, we need to be able to find it. It’s out there waiting for us to claim it.
Our view of God determines how we view the rest of life. Our view of God makes some things in our lives look bigger and some things in our lives look smaller. Some things more important and some things less important. Some things seem closer to our eyes and hearts and some further away.
Justification by faith alone is comforting. It means that the faith which saves is the faith which sustains us and inspires us to act towards the world as God acts towards us.
When it comes to your faith, which end of the telescope will you use?
Let us pray. Loving God, we pray that our eyes and hearts might be open to your spirit. That we might be saved and inspired. That we might live by faith. Amen.
Hay House, Inc. 2014.