By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.30By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. 32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (Hebrews 11:29-34)
By faith these amazing people did all these amazing things – by faith!
I must confess that the first thought that came to mind for me after reading this amazing chronicle of mighty deeds was “wasn’t it by faith that Jabhat Al-Nusra just conquered a series of villages in Latakia province (in Syria) and then went on to murder hundreds of men and boys there and rape the women?” We might not describe that as an act of faith, but they certainly did!
I can tell you that one of the most distressing things for me when I hear about these terrible atrocities committed in Syria and elsewhere is the ungodly combination of faith and bloody violence.
I remember listening to some survivors speak of the day the masked men came into their village, each with the words “God is great” displayed on bands around their heads. These men would turn their faces to Heaven and say a prayer, the survivors said, before slitting the throat of each child they murdered.
They butcher children, commit mass rapes of little girls – acts that make all of us who are parents, in particular, want to weep – and they do so by faith, or so they say.
Martin Luther-King and Osama Bin Laden were both men of faith, at least at one level, and yet they are hardly comparable figures! How do we distinguish genuine men of God from other men of faith, and if it’s faith that really empowers each of these people to do their work, for good or for evil, is faith, in and of itself, really a force we can trust?
Now I know that some people will see this as an extremely straightforward issue. The difference, they will say, between Martin Luther-King and Osama Bin Laden is that one is a Christian and the other is from that other religion that we don’t like to talk about! The issue is simply that they are from two very different faith traditions – one committed to love and peace and the other committed to far more sinister things! Ah, if only it were that simple!
Some of you may have read Desmond Tutu’s recent book, “God is not a Christian”, where the title was taken from an address he gave to a multi-faith group in the English city of Birmingham in 1989. As Tutu said in that address, “we commend the one whom we call the Prince of Peace, and yet as Christians we have fought more wars than we care to remember”, and how true that is!
In my own lifetime, I hope that the most terrible war that I will ever remember will be the Iraq invasion of 2003 and its aftermath, in which we Australians were involved. “Opinion Research Business” (an independent polling agency located in London) estimates over 1.2 million people killed as a result of that conflict and, from what I understand, no one talks about ‘solutions’ for Iraq any more as there is little expectation that the country will ever recover. And this, you will remember, was part of our crusade against ‘the axis of evil’ (God forgive us).
Those of us who know your history know full well that the reason that the white European races like my own have had such a proud history of conquest and control over the rest of the globe for the last few thousand years has been because we white Christian people have historically excelled in one thing (and only one thing) and that is in our ability to dominate other peoples by the use of savage violence, and, of course, this is nothing to be proud of.
By faith! By faith people – our people – have done any number of abominable things, and yet without faith we struggle to do anything!
I’ve spent quite a lot of time in recent months and years with peace activists. Indeed, I was part of a gathering quite recently where it was announced that all of Sydney’s leading peace activists were there, but, I have to tell you, that, as a whole, we were a sorry bunch – divided, dispirited and, more than anything else I think, just plain tired.
I sensed this at the time but it wasn’t until afterwards that it really clicked with me what the problem was with that gathering, and I think the answer was simply a lack of faith!
I take for granted sometimes, I think, that there is, for me, a metaphysical dimension to everything I do in the peace and justice arena. In my campaigning for Syria, for example, it’s not just an issue of me pushing my opinion on to others. I truly believe that I’m involved in trying to spread the peace of God in that land! For me, it’s not just that I feel angry and upset about the violence and death. I see myself as being on a sacred quest, following in the path of Christ, believing that I have been called to contribute my body to the cause of peace.
Now you might think that that’s just me putting tickets on myself but I can tell you that it’s a lot more empowering to be on a sacred quest than it is to simply be fuelled by your own anger at injustice. Indeed, when it’s all said and done, anger is a pretty poor basis for activism, and, on its own, it’s one that is likely to have you end up resorting to the same tactics as your enemies in order to see your side win.
“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land … 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell …” By faith people can be empowered to do great things, just as by faith people can be driven to commit atrocities. Faith is all important, and yet it is not sufficient, in and of itself, is it?
I’ve been thinking over this issue a lot lately as I mix with activists of different faiths and of no faith, and as I find myself linking hands with different people from differing backgrounds in the various works that I am involved in.
What is it that distinguishes the soldier of Christ from the violent fundamentalist? They are both persons of faith at one level. Is there a simple criterion by which we can distinguish one from the other? I actually think there is, though it’s not provided by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (from which our faith reading is extracted). The answer, I think, is given by St Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth.
You’ll recognise the passage I am thinking of, I suspect, as it is from the most well-known chapter of that well-known letter – chapter 13.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12)
This is part of the wisdom teaching of St Paul – recognising that the older he gets and the more he knows the more he realises he doesn’t know. “Now we see through a glass darkly” he says, or, as it is translated here “we see only a reflection as in a mirror”.
There are many things in this life, in other words, that we can only understand dimly – many things that we grasp only in part – and yet, he says, there are three things that we take hold of very firmly and with absolute certainty of conviction.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love” and he adds “the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13)
Three things abide, says Paul. Three things are essential! There are three things that we cannot live without, and the point is, I believe, that we need all three together, for it’s faith without love that is fundamentalism, and the root of all kinds of evil!
Faith, hope and love – we need all three! Together they form a three-legged stool. If you remove one leg of the stool the thing falls over!
Without faith we have no sacred energy with which to fulfil our calling, and so we can end up becoming insipid ageing leftists, fuelled only by the ever-diminishing batteries that power our anger, but better to be insipid than to be vacant, for, as St Paul says, “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)
We must give brief attention too to the third leg of that stool (the one that I haven’t focused on thus far): ‘hope’.
I am sure you are familiar with the phenomenon of Christian congregations that display plenty of faith and love but have no hope, by which I don’t simply mean ‘a hope for a nice spot in Heaven when I die’ but rather that Biblical hope for a better world and a renewed creation – a hope for justice for Palestine and for peace in the Middle East.
We are familiar, I am sure, with Christian churches that are full of faith and love but have no external focus – no hope for the world beyond their church walls. I tend to refer to such communities as ‘Christianised golf clubs’ – full of warm and friendly middle-class people who enjoy a generous fellowship with each other but contribute very little to the rest of humanity.
Again, better to be indulgent than to be vacant, just as it’s better to be insipid than to be empty. Hope and love without faith might be insipid, and faith and love without hope might be self-indulgence, but faith and hope without love is nothing! If we lose faith and hope we run the risk of becoming useless, but if we lose love we have lost everything!
I’m aware that I’m speaking very much in the abstract today but I trust that you can see the relevance of this to the concrete situations we find ourselves in.
We Anglicans have been busying ourselves electing a new Archbishop of late and I think we all know that the debate over who should get the top job was focused on matters of faith. Yes, having the right faith is very important, but God forbid that we should elect a leader without love! That should be by far the most important criterion by which we judge the fitness of anybody who would lead us in the name of Christ! Without faith we are weak but without love we religious people are dangerous!
I’ve been a Christian for 33 years now and I’ve seen so much energy in church circles expended on making sure that we get our faith right. I wish I’d seen as much time and energy poured in training us in how to live lives of sacrificial love!
Of course faith, hope and love should all be deeply linked, for if our faith is in the Lord Jesus then our hope should be formed by His teaching and our lives should be modelled on Him who was the embodiment of love.
Perhaps that’s why the writer of the ‘Letter to the Hebrews’ saw no need to balance out his panegyric on the importance of faith with any eulogies about hope and love. Instead, the author simply points us to the person of Jesus:
“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 18th of August.