David King was about 7 when I came to Aldersgate. He’s interning for me this summer. He preached this past weekend and did a great job. Everyone told me how much he preached like me. Preaching is only learned through apprenticeship and imitation so I suppose, the extent that it’s true, that’s exactly as it should be.
Here is the sermon. His text was Romans 4.1-8.
Would you all pray with me?
Lord, you are faithful to us. In this time of learning, reveal that faith to me, and preach to me so that you might preach through me. Let these words not be mine, but yours. Amen.
[Thank you] [Jason joke]
Fair warning, this is a little bit of a personal story. By the time this is over, you’ll know a little bit more about me, and hopefully, God-willing I don’t severely screw this up, you’ll know a little bit more about faith.
Those of you that know me know that I have been doing service trips since, well, since I was considered old enough to endure the cultural shock that lies just three hours southwest of here. The summer after the 6th grade, I was signed up to go on the Jeremiah Project. It was Andrew DiAntonio’s first week on the job, and I wrecked a bathroom while sleepwalking, so it’s no wonder to me that he decided divinity school was probably better suited for him.
After three years at JP, as those close with the program fondly called it, I began going to Guatemala, doing my due diligence as a Christian to my one week of good deeds for the year. Granted, those good deeds were interspersed with a fair amount of tourism, so I’m not really sure how much they count for.
Those of you who know me well know that I spent the majority of my summer last year actually living in Guatemala, working HSP. I could tell you all about how this time of a little over a month was so transformative and blessed and wonderful and [insert your own favorite good adjective here], but if I did that I’d be lying, which I hear is a bad thing to do in church, especially if you’re preaching.
I’d be lying if I told you it was all great, because it was in Guatemala that I first really “lost contact” (emphasis on those scare quotes) with God. One could say I had a reckoning of faith, lowercase f. You see, from almost every single one of my standards, my life fell apart in my tenure in Guatemala, and all within about a week.
My sister had broken her arm.
My best friend’s boyfriend had just committed suicide.
My godmother, whom I love dearly, was daily sitting at the bedside of her dying friend, while her sister battled cancer in the same hospital.
So it’s only reasonable that I have one of these moments where I ask, do I really have the faith to get through this?
It was only reasonable that I realized that for several years, I’d been wearing a cross around my neck, but never believing in it. Belief in Christ was something I realized I well and truly did not have. High school has that effect on people.
This led me to the realization that the way we speak about faith is so vastly different than how Paul conceived of faith. You see, we think about faith with a lowercase f, as something very personal to us. The most radical conception we ever use to speak about faith is by saying that “God has endowed us with faith,” or we use the language of the born-again Christians, which is dangerous in its own right.
We speak of faith as though it is something we own, something we have, something that is completely of us and our volitions.
We talk about faith with a lowercase f, but we never talk about the Faith, uppercase F, of God. Faith, with a capital F, is the faith of which Paul speaks in Romans 4. Our grammar has simply abandoned this for a syntactic structure that places the onus of faith on us, fallible humanity.
Just as I experienced in Guatemala, a human-based methodology of faith was, is entirely insufficient.
Now, Paul’s main example for faith is the story of Abraham’s obedience to God. But nothing prepares us for how Paul describes Abraham. For Paul, Abraham is ungodly. Not only does our translation say that he is ungodly, the word in the Greek, asebē, also translates to unholy, sacrilegious, impure. More to the point, the word asebē used as a descriptor of Abraham is the only time that word appears in the Bible, New Testament and old, Hebrew and Greek.
Just to put that in perspective for you, the King James translation of the Bible has 774,746 different words in it. For you truly Methodist folks, the New Revised Standard Version has 895,891 different words. Hundreds of thousands of different words, and this is the only time anyone uses the word asebē to describe anyone.
Abraham, this revered, patriarchal figure, a pillar of the Old Testament and the grounding for our faith, is declared by Paul ungodly. This man who almost kills his son in reverence and obedience to God is ungodly, sacrilegious, unholy. None of us are like Abraham. He was the pinnacle of obedience for the Hewbrew scriptures. And if Paul is calling him ungodly, then that should say something about us.
Point being, Paul’s discussion of Abraham is never about Abraham’s faith in God. And that’s the key point of God’s agency in imparting faith on Abraham. Abraham was not good at faith, in fact, he did not have faith. It was not until God invited Abraham to participate in a full communion with him that Abraham was ready to receive the covenant.
The metaphor Paul uses to describe the relationship Abraham has with God is a legal one, and purposefully so. Works, and thus wages, are not the reason for Abraham’s justification. “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Paul takes on legalism, and for us modern readers, he takes on the entire structure of law, payment, and transaction theology. The structure of interaction, this idea that we get only what we deserve, that we must work for our wages, is Paul’s way of illustrating for us that the love and faith of God to humanity is so fantastically different than any relationship we conceive of. You see, God takes us. That’s it. That’s the message, that’s the faith Paul’s talking about. The discrepancy between God’s Faith, capital F, and our faith, lowercase f, is an abyss we cannot bridge ourselves.
So God does it for us. That’s his covenant.
When Paul’s talking about Abraham, he’s specifically talking about the man with whom he drew the first covenant. The instance that Paul is referring to, when “Abraham believed God,” he never says he had faith. Belief and faith are so often conflated that the latter has lost most of its substantive meaning.
“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Reckoned, says Paul, to him.
And we have to remember that when Paul speaks about righteousness, it’s not a value or a set of morals to which he is referring; righteousness is a gift of the covenant, which means it’s a gift that is completely and utterly of and from God, just like faith.
For two weeks, I did not go a day without crying, without feeling utterly set apart, disjointed and broken. I was surrounded by people on service projects, experiencing the joy of humility, but I could not participate in their ecstasy. I could not think of anything other than going home, being with my godmother, sitting with my sister, and holding my friend. I could not think of anything other than their pain. By all accounts, I was lost. Lost in a foreign country, with a foreign people, in the mountains where even the air was different.
It would be a cliché to tell you that I had a revelation, and to do that would make it seem like I had done something to deserve that. I’m a sinner, and by all worldly accounts, I don’t deserve a revelation.
But I was sitting outside of the community center in Chiucutama one night when it dawned on me that I’d been thinking about it all wrong. I’d been thinking about faith, about Christianity, as something I chose, something I elected.
I had disregarded the Faith, capital F, of God to us.
In fact, if that weren’t true, if God were not ever there for us, in the covenant fulfilled and revealed in Christ, we would have nothing to turn to once we’ve turned away. You know, sitting there in Chiucutama looking at the hills under the moonlight, if God was not faithful to us forever, I would’ve realized the opposite. Nihilism would’ve reigned, and I would not be in the communion of Faith, capital F, that I am right now.
God is faithful, to us. Faith, capital F, is never ours, never something we do. It is a gift, of the eternal sort.
Abraham wasn’t good at faith. Neither am I. But that’s because the kind of faith that really matters, the kind that counts for something, is not a kind of faith I could ever embody. Nor could you.
We come to church thinking that we are doing it out of the goodness of our hearts for Jesus, who we have faith in, but really, and if we are thinking about this in the way Paul thinks about it, coming to church is not about our faith. It is about us participating in God’s faithfulness to us, through Christ.
When we talk about faith in the possessive, we reduce God to something we can manipulate, to something we can use and disregard. Faith, lowercase f, reduces God to god, lowercase g.
Faith comes easiest to those who come into church, sing about Jesus, and go on their merry way. We have to understand that to be a Christian means, uniquely, to be bad at faith. Being bad at faith is part of our relationship with God, because if we were good at faith, his faithfulness to us would not be unique and unquestionable and beautiful. God’s faithfulness to us would not have changed the world in Christ if we were “good at faith.”
During my last week in Guatemala, I walked into the cathedral in the square in Xela, where HSP is located, right in the middle of mass. I know, that’s a cringeworthy word here, but everyone in Guatemala is either Roman-Catholic or some form of evangelical, and frankly, I prefer the former. As I was walking in, the priest had just risen and spoken four all too important words.
“The mystery of faith,” he pronounced, just as I sat down in the back pew, across from a family of four.
In retrospect, the priest was right. We call it the mystery of faith for a reason: precisely because it is not ours to command and possess, but a given gift.
I have never been so comforted by a mystery than I was in that moment.
I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.