Harsh Words (and True Faith)

Isaiah 5:1-7, Hebrews 1:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56.

By faith, the people passed through the Red Sea.
By faith, the walls of Jericho fell.
By faith the people of God conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, and put enemies to flight.

The lessons that the Church gives us for this Sunday and the weeks that follow show us the real meaning of “faith”, and what it really means to be a member – by faith – of the Church.

On the one hand, if we paid attention to the lessons today, we might admit that they’re rather harsh; they’re certainly not in keeping with the sorts of actions that we most often associate with Christianity. 

In Isaiah[1], we heard that God had chosen and planted his vineyard, and as a loving gardener, tended and fertilized the ground, blessing the vines with everything they needed to produce good fruit.  Of course, vines and vineyards and producing good fruit are all very familiar images – Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” and the scriptures are full of encouragements to cultivate and bear the good fruit of the Spirit – yet, in todays lesson, we see the flipside of that: God, who always keeps his word, delivers the consequences for those chosen and blessed vines who, in spite of all God has done for them, didn’t produce the fruit that the gardener expected.  And it sounds shockingly harsh: “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall and it shall be trampled down.”

Yes, I am the vine and you are the branches, but these are certainly strong, maybe even unexpected words for those that fail to produce fruit.

Then, perhaps even more shocking, is our Gospel from Luke.[2]

Here, from the lips of our loving, merciful Saviour – from the same lips that welcome children, the poor, and the oppressed, and pronounce the forgiveness of our sins – we hear “I have come to bring fire on the earth”.  And, perhaps more shocking still: Jesus said, “do you think I came to bring peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but division”.

On their own, these lessons sound as if they contradict so much of what we’ve been taught.

After all, we believe in a God who heals, a God who offers second chances, a God who like a loving father welcomes the prodigal son or daughter home with open arms.

These lessons, on their own, appear to say the opposite.  What are we to make of that?

How we ought to read the Bible

First, we have to make sure that we are reading scripture as we as Anglicans believe it was meant to be read.  Actually, our Anglican faith and practice forbids us from picking and choosing verses of the Bible just to make a point.

On the one hand, our branch of the Church throughout the world proclaims that the scriptures – the entire scriptures – contain all things necessary for salvation.[3]  That’s actually a central point for Anglicans around the world, even though we sometimes forget it.  We believe that, while the scriptures were written down by a variety of people over many centuries, it’s intended to be read as one book, one story of God’s love for us unfolding over history,[4] written and handed down for our benefit, and entrusted to us for those who come after.

On the other hand, though we sometimes forget, and sadly there are even clergy today who haven’t read them, Anglican Christians throughout the world are guided by the Articles of Religion, the set of beliefs and declarations that sought to settle the controversies of the reformation.  And there, we’re taught very clearly that the Church does not have the authority to read any one piece of scripture as though it contradicts another.[5]  Thankfully, if we’re going to be true to our Anglican heritage, we don’t have the freedom to engage in the sad battles where people who call themselves Christians pick and choose their favourite, most convenient verses to hurl at each other in the sorts of loud, messy battles that do nothing than strike each other down and hurt the work that we have been given to do in a world that so desperately needs to hear good news.

But that brings us back to the question:

As people who are about to once again confess our sins and hear the assurance of God’s forgiveness, what are we to make of the warning of God of the consequences for those in the family of God who don’t bear good fruit?

And, as those who in a few moments will greet one another with the peace of Christ, what do we make of our Lord himself saying “I didn’t come to bring peace, but division”?

True Faith

The key to holding these statements together is nothing less than that bold faith that we hear in Hebrews.

A bold faith.  An active faith.

Too often, the church allows itself to become the sad, sometimes pathetic caricature that we see portrayed on TV.  You’ve seen it: either people of faith are portrayed as – and sometimes allow themselves to become – bitter, angry warriors who hurl cut-and-pasted bible verses at one another; or, especially on TV comedies, Christians are portrayed as – perhaps because we’ve allowed ourselves to become – passive, feeble followers, easily tricked or taken advantage of, and unable to answer the questions of the age.

And to be clear, neither one is the faith we see described in the scriptures.

You see, one of the reasons we sometimes find scripture confusing or contradictory, and one of the reasons the Church throughout history sometimes finds itself confused and idle, is that we all too easily lose the distinction between the eternal, never-ending rest and glory promised by our Lord, and the true work and sacrifice to which we are called here and now.

It’s this question that guides us in reading scripture, and guards us against interpreting one passage of scripture as contrary to another: we have to ask, “is this about who I am, as one made clean in the waters of baptism and forgiven by Jesus”, or, “is this about what I should do, as a member of the Church and a disciple of Christ”. 

The “Who I am” piece is certain for those who trust in the Lord.  No matter how many times I mess up, if I trust in God, he’ll take me back.  That’s the new life that we’ve been offered.

The “What I should do” piece refers to each moment, as we make decisions about what we should say or do.  That’s those hard words we hear so often in scripture, that, though we are a new creation, we must daily die to self; that, though we are made sons and daughters of the king, we approach God as humble servants; that though God is in control, he asks and expects us to be his hands and feet in the world.

Living Boldly: The Life of Faith

We, as members of the Church, are called to have and live a bold faith.

We’re called to have a faith that is active, a faith that accomplishes things

This is not “faith” as the world defines it.

We’ve allowed the world to define faith as “wishful thinking”, or as one former professor put it, we’ve bought in to the parody and have allowed the purpose of church membership to become simply “pie in the sky, by-and-by, when you die”. 

Those who oppose the place of religion in modern society often define faith as “the suspension of critical thinking”, or that faith is “a belief held without evidence”.

And, sadly, many in the Church have adopted that definition.

In Hebrews, we’re told how we should define faith:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.

Now, I admit, it’s easy to see how the world gets this wrong.  Simply, they get it backwards, and sometimes, we do too.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.

That does not mean that having faith means hoping for something.

In fact, if we think about it, it means the exact opposite.  Faith is the assurance of things that we hoped for.  Faith – “I believe” – is that deepest affirmation that comes when our hopes have been assured, when they have been brought to light.

Faith is not saying “I hope God will heal me”.  That’s backwards. That’s not faith; that’s hope.

Faith is saying “based on God’s goodness, and what he has done for me and for the world, and his gifts to me, I’m convinced, and I believe that he will work all things together for good in my life”.  It’s a huge difference.

Faith is not saying, “I don’t understand but I believe anyway”.  That’s well-intentioned, and yes, a child-like faith is sufficient, but it’s still backwards.  Afterall, one of the marks of childhood is endless curiosity!  Faith is a gift from God, and it cannot be mindless – it’s the conviction, the assurance, of things that we cannot see.

It’s not that we blindly trust in what we cannot see, as though we throw our hands up in despair; it’s that we are convinced and sure of things we cannot see because of our faith – because of the things that we have seen, the things that we know and believe are true.

Above all, faith isn’t a “giving up” of understanding or the God-given gift of reason; instead, the Church teaches quite the opposite: faith seeks understanding, as God desires to reveal more of himself to those who follow him.

This faith isn’t feeble or passive.  It doesn’t produce churches and congregations that sit idly by, or who are confused about speaking the truth in love as they invite the whole world to come in.

It’s a faith that, as we heard, parts the Red Sea.  A faith that shakes the walls that divide.  It’s a faith that conquers kingdoms, and brings justice, and stops the edge of the sword, and wins strength out of weakness.

This faith does things. 

Back to those harsh words…

And, when it doesn’t – because we, the Church, have got it backwards, or because we’re unwilling because of fear of persecution to live that faith – that’s when we fail to produce fruit, even though we’re branches on the vine that God himself planted.  And, as the fruit is for the glory of God and for the sake of the world, as we heard in Isaiah, that’s when God takes down the wall and lets the vines be trampled, because they’re no longer serving their purpose.

And, the division that Christ says he will bring?  That’s not his goal – that would be to make one part of the Bible speak against another.  Rather, it’s the result of the changes that he ushers in by faith.

When we, with our absolute deepest convictions, set out to do the work he has given us to do, freeing those who are oppressed, caring for the homeless and the stranger, loving others as ourselves, it’s that healing and that freedom in Christ that causes division: division with those who love evil, who thrive on oppressing those in need, and who put their trust in their wealth or their own strength.

We believe, we have faith in, the peace of Christ – that’s who we are.  But our bold faith calls us to action, action that – that’s what we are to do.   Action that, Christ warns us, will cause division, as we are his hands and feet to serve and free the suffering in this broken world.

By faith, the people passed through the Red Sea.
By faith, the walls of Jericho fell.
By faith the people of God conquered kingdoms, won strength out of weakness, and put enemies to flight.

May God give us this bold faith, that the Church may arise, ready to serve our master.  Amen.

[1] Isaiah 5:1-7

[2] Luke 12:49-56

[3] Enshrined in the Solemn Declaration of 1893.

[4] Articles of Religion #7

[5] Articles of Religion #20