I was filling in for the Rector of Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, yesterday. Since I know the parish's recent history, it was relatively easy to prepare this sermon. They are currently in the difficult process of considering whether to amalgamate with another parish or to try and revitalize the parish and stay in their present location. I thought some comments on how we share faith (a challenging subject for us Anglicans, who aren't gifted with evangelical skills), might be useful since no matter where we are, our churches need to be persuasive and attractive examples of the positive difference that God in Christ makes in our lives. MP+
Five Thoughts on Faith Sharing: A Sermon
"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)
Sometimes in my work as a military chaplain, I meet people who are uncomfortable with religion, and I sometimes look for a joke to break the ice. When I meet someone who I know is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan (and believe me, it’s not hard to spot a diehard Leafs fan), I have a line that I like to use. “I see you’re a Leafs fan”, I say. “Nice to meet another person of faith”.
Most Leafs fans will wince and smile good naturally at that little joke. After all, a Leafs fan is someone who is in it for the long haul, despite the evidence to the contrary. They may see a Stanley Cup again, but since the last one was in 1967, Leafs fans may well doubt that they will see another in their lifetimes.
Part of the joke is the comparison between faith in a long-shot hockey team and faith in religion. Both types of faith might seem misplaced to skeptics, whether the skeptics are Ottawa Senators fans, or atheists and agnostics. Both might say, why put your faith in something that isn’t going to deliver? The atheist might say, its even worse for you religious types. At least the Maple Leafs are a real, actual hockey team. We know they exist.
Some people will say that faith is necessary because we have no proof of the existence of God. Faith thus becomes a problem when we try to share our belief with others, because if other people don’t have faith, how do they get it? How do we help others come to faith? I think this can be one of our biggest problems as we try to grow and revitalize the church.
And yet, faith is real, according to our first lesson. Our reading for Hebrews speaks of faith in terms of “assurance” and “conviction”. The modern language bible, The Message, puts Hebrews 11:1 this way: “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living”. So faith is real, it’s a vital part of our lives, it’s the key to a good life. So today I invite you to think with me for a bit about what it means to be a person of faith and how we explain faith to others in a way that makes them want to share it?
I think this second question, of faith sharing, is super important because we have to know the answer if we want to revitalize Trinity, or indeed, to revitalize the Christian church. I’ve been thinking about this question since we at Trinity started to think about our future, and whether we can revitalize our church. I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter if we put out better signs, or change the music, or even make the building more accessible. All of those things are good in and of themselves, but they don’t make our faith attractive to others. I think the only thing that will revitalize this, or any, church, is if we can show others that our faith makes a difference in our lives, that we have found something that they need and want. So how do we do that? I want to suggest five ways to understand and share faith.
- Faith isn’t invisibleYes, tour reading from Hebrews says that faith is about things “hoped for” and “not seen”. In v 3 it says that what we know, the world around us, was prepared by God “from things that are not visible”. There is a sense in which God is invisible. Indeed, Jesus tells Doubting Thomas that “Blessed are those have not seen and yet believed” (Jn 20:29). Fortunately, the church is visible. The people of God are real. The word of God can be read or listened to. The love of God is visible in the world because of what the people of God do. When Kay and I joined Bill and Diane and Lequita at the Bayside Mission last Wednesday, our faith was visible and it was seen by the many persons who came up after the meal and thanked us. So, faith is visible in the lives of the faithful. I think Trinity gets this first part pretty well, because we do a lot. We just need to keep asking ourselves, when we seem too busy or too overstretched, if our actions are about showing our living faith, or if they have some other motive. If our actions aren’t about faith, maybe they are not so important.2) Faith comes from God, not from usSometimes we think that faith is something we do ourselves, that if only we will hard enough, we can make ourselves believe in God. Instead, Hebrews makes it clear that faith comes from God and from our relationship with God. At 11:3 Hebrew says that “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God”. God created the world, created us, to be in relationship with him and to know him. There are lots of ways to believe in how the world came to be, whether through evolution or creation. Personally I don’t believe that science is incompatible with faith. As Christians we believe that our lives come to us as gifts from God, and that God gave them to us because he is good, he wants us to flourish, and he wants us to know us. It’s like knowing that we have someone in our lives who loves us deeply for who we are and wants the best for us. If we open ourselves to that love in gratitude, then we can participate in that relationship, It’s the same with God. The starting point isn’t whether we have enough faith to know that God exists. The starting point is deciding whether we want the relationship that God offers us.3) Faith is about Jesus.It’s true, we Anglicans aren’t comfortable talking about Jesus and being born again. But, we are Jesus people. We are his disciples and his followers. It all starts with Jesus. Literally. At the very beginning of the book of Hebrews, it says that Jesus “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3). In other words, Jesus was there at the creation that gave us our planet and our lives, Jesus is like oxygen and sunlight in that he sustains our lives, and Jesus wants to know us. In our gospel today, we hear Jesus say “Don’t be afraid, your Father wants to make you part of his kingdom”. Jesus is the one who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. These are all good things. I once heard a friend speak approvingly about the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader. “He talks about love, and being kind to one another, and about forgiveness. It’s so refreshing!” That sounds wonderful, I thought. Jesus speaks about these things, too. Why don’t we as Anglicans talk about the refreshment, the love, the forgiveness we have found in Jesus? What if we were as comfortable speaking about Jesus as we were talking about out stained glass, or about our liturgy? What if we talked about Jesus with an intimacy, even a longing, that made others wish they knew Jesus better?4) Faith is about the long journeyIn our lesson today, we hear about figures from the Old Testament like Abraham who “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (Heb 11:13). Faith isn’t about believing so hard that we will get what we want when we want. That’s positive thinking, not faith. Faith is trusting that things will work out according to God’s timelines, and not ours. Faith is what keeps the antipoverty activist going, like the people who keep the Salvation Army Bayside Missing in business. They know that poverty isn’t going to end any time soon, but their faith and their relationship with Jesus tells them that the least among us are the dearest to God. Faith is what keeps us going through grief, through funerals, and through the long days at the cancer war. Faith is knowing that God is faithful to us, that his promises to us will come true in God’s time, whenever that may be. In a world so stressed, fearful and so worried about the future, imagine how attractive faith, and the peace that passes all understanding, could be. Wouldn’t you want to share that? Wouldn’t you want to have that?5) Faith is found in our lives.Earlier this summer, a member of this congregation got up to read a lesson. Before he started, he spoke about what this lesson meant to him, and about how it summed up lessons taught to him by his mother when he was growing up. He spoke simply and from the heart I was totally amazed. I tried to imagine a church where people could do similar things, sharing simple and from the heart stories about the difference that faith makes in their lives. You see, as Anglicans I think we balk at evangelizing because we don’t know how to do it. We don’t have the language of witnessing, it’s not part of our denominational DNA. We are the church of shy introverts who love our books and our prewritten prayers. Mostly we’re private people. However, I haven’t met that many people who don’t like to talk about themselves. Most of us I think could tell a story about how our faith got us through a significant and difficult life event or a dark time. Imagine if you had the confidence to tell your own story to a friend or acquaintance who was going though a similar dark time, but who didn’t share your faith. You could say something like, “That sounds like a very tough place that you’re in. I’m so sorry. When I went through a dark spell in my own life, my faith really made a difference. Would you mind if I told you that story?” I could see that sort of dialogue being far more effective than simply asking a friend to come to church with you on some Sunday.In this sermon, I’ve tried to suggestive ways in which we can think about faith in a way that might revitalize our church and make it more attractive to others. I’ve suggested that:1)Faith is real because it is seen in the lives and actions of the faithful2) Faith is a relationship we are invited into3) Faith centre on the life, words and love of Jesus4) Faith is for the long haul5) Faith is found in our own stories, which we can share with othersI pray that these words and these ideas may be helpful to all of us as we think about the future of our church.