Sunday, June 29, 2014

Phil Kniss: To choose to trust

Journey through Romans: We are justified by faith
Romans 5:1-11; Luke 7:1-10

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This morning’s theme in this series on the book of Romans,
is what you might call the main theme, the organizing idea,
for the whole book.
You can ask anyone well-versed in biblical studies,
and ask them to sum up the book of Romans in three words,
they would probably say “justification by faith.”

Romans is sometimes held up as a counterpoint to James,
which emphasizes the necessity of works, or good deeds.
Romans is the “yes, but” for James.
Yes, James is right that good works provides the evidence
of a genuine faith in Christ,
but Paul is quite clear in Romans that our salvation
is a result of our faith itself,
not something we earn.

I have some mathematical evidence
that points to Paul’s overwhelming concern about faith.
If you do a word count, you find out Paul talks about faith,
more than twice as much as he talks about grace,
three times as much as love,
three times as much as hope,
four times as much as peace.

Of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story.
The real important question here,
is what does “faith” mean to Paul?
What is his underlying concern
that makes him talk about faith so much?

Now, theologians have published 2-inch-thick volumes
on the meaning of faith in Paul’s writings.
My expectations for today is more modest.
I won’t try to answer, or even ask,
all the questions that could be asked about faith in Romans.
I have one main agenda here,
and that is helping us grow as disciples of Jesus.
So I’m only going to address a few things
that I hope move us in that direction.

The word “faith” comes up a lot in church lingo.
And it means a lot of different things,
depending on the context.
We talk about a particular religious tradition as “a faith,”
as in,“the Christian faith” or “the Jewish faith.”
We talk about a systematic body of doctrine as “the faith,”
as in, “holding to the Anabaptist faith.”
We talk about individually accepting of a set of belief statements,
as in “affirming or confessing a personal faith.”
We talk about faith as the stubborn will to believe something
despite lack of evidence,
as in “just have faith, and don’t doubt.”
We even talk about a vague spirituality as “faith,”
as in “I rarely go to church, but faith is important to me.”

In each case, it’s the same word, with a different meaning.

Now, I have no problem with a word having many meanings.
There’s a proper time and place to use the word,
and mean any of those things.
Sometimes we just need to explain what we mean.
And hopefully, the context will help makes it clear.

But . . . one of the first rules of biblical interpretation,
is not to bring our own word meanings to the text,
but try to discover what meaning the author had in mind,
and what meaning would have been understood by
the original hearers of the word.

So I want us to try, as best we can,
to get inside Paul’s head,
and understand what he was trying to say to the Roman church,
before we decide we know what he’s saying to us.

So with that in mind,
let’s take another step back, before Paul,
and look at what Jesus had to say about faith.
I suggest this because,
I think we best understand Paul through the lens of Jesus.
Even though Paul never met Jesus in the flesh,
Paul was a contemporary of Jesus’ own disciples,
and he heard first-hand stories
from the mouths of Peter and James and others.
And Paul claims that Jesus Christ
is the foundation of everything he preaches.
So if we know what Jesus meant when he talked about faith,
we probably have a better angle for reading Paul.

I chose one short Gospel story this morning to illustrate.
I could have picked from dozens.
Because Jesus continually talked about people’s faith,
either being amazed at their “great faith,”
or being disappointed by their “little faith.”

In today’s Gospel reading from Luke 7,
a Gentile centurion, captain of the local Roman guard,
sought out Jesus to heal a beloved servant who became deathly ill.
He called some elders of the Jewish community,
who went to ask Jesus for this favor.
And Jesus responded positively.
So on his way to the centurion’s house,
Jesus met a second group
sent by the centurion with a follow-up message, saying,
“Don’t trouble yourself.
I don’t deserve to have you come to my house.
Just speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”

At which point Jesus . . . stopped in his tracks . . .
turned to the crowds of followers,
and said, “I tell you, not even in all of Israel,
have I found such great faith.”

Now that is simply astounding!
That Jesus would say that Gentile
had more faith than any member of his own Jewish family,
which includes the holy men, the religious leaders.
And not just any Gentile, but a member of the military occupation.
Not just a foot-soldier in the occupying force,
but a commander.
Jesus said a military leader of the foreign occupiers,
had more faith than his own Jewish people?

So what kind of faith did Jesus see in the centurion,
when he said,
“I don’t deserve to have you come to my house.
Just speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”

What sort of faith was Jesus admiring?
Was it the centurion’s belief that Jesus could heal with just a word,
without actually seeing and touching the servant?
Was that the faith that amazed Jesus?

It could not have possibly been that.
By this time Jesus had already healed lepers,
cast out demons,
made the lame walk,
and healed all kinds of other people
with nothing more than a word.
Without only a word he turned water into wine,
healed a man with a withered hand,
filled the empty nets of unlucky fishermen,
with so many fish the boat almost sunk.
No touching. Just a word.
And by this time, after this string of miracles,
thousands of people, all over Israel,
believe that Jesus could exercise his power with a word,
and were following him around because of it.
Thousands had that kind of faith,
just like the centurion.
Jesus would not have been amazed by that kind of faith,
nor would he have said he had never seen that faith in Israel.
Because obviously, he had.

So was Jesus amazed by this man’s faith,
in the sense that he had mastered a system of religious beliefs?
There’s no evidence of that whatsoever.
We know he was a friend of the Jews.
He might even have been a believer in Yahweh, a God-fearer.
He did pay for their synagogue,
but he had not joined the Jewish community.
He was still an outsider to the faith.
We can know, without a doubt,
that was not the faith that impressed Jesus.

No, I think what made this man’s faith remarkable,
and something that stood out above and beyond
anything he had encountered among his own people,
was the man’s humility and vulnerability,
and a simple, yet profound trust in the goodness of God.

Somewhere along the line, I believe,
the centurion had gained more than an intellectual respect
for the God of the Jews.
In building relationships with the people around him,
he came to trust in their God’s character of love and compassion.
He trusted that God would not abandon him in his time of need.
And he was humble enough to admit his need.

I can’t back this up with chapter and verse,
but I think Jesus was surprised twice by the man’s faith.

It doesn’t say this in Luke 7,
but I think Jesus was first amazed when Jewish elders
came to fetch him, and ask him to heal the Centurion’s servant.
This was a Roman captain, representing the Empire.
And had all the wealth and military might of Rome behind him.
For him to stoop to ask for help from the elders,
from the very same people he was in charge of policing,
of monitoring daily to prevent an uprising . . .
that is pretty surprising.
It’s an astonishing expression of humility,
for anyone with that kind of power.

But having done that,
the centurion still could have used this whole thing
to his advantage.

This happens all the time these days.
Something terrible happens . . .
a hurricane or tornado or mass shooting.
And all of a sudden all kinds of important and powerful people
get in front of a camera and microphone,
to connect with their constituency.
They know photo ops
with the grieving and bereaved at their side,
make approval ratings soar.

Now nobody is so crass as to
openly wish for tragedy, to score political points.
And I’m not saying politicians are insincere
in their public words of condolence,
in fact, we want them to speak to us, to reassure us.
But people in positions of power
do know how to make the best of a bad situation.

For the centurion,
this healing event could have been a public relations goldmine.
To have the most well-known itinerant healer in the whole region
make a house call, with a crowd of adoring fans in tow,
would reinforce what a good man he was,
and would reassure the people he was on their side.

I can’t imagine that fact didn’t cross his mind,
and that it didn’t cross Jesus’ mind.

But before Jesus ever got there,
the centurion surprised Jesus the second time.
He sent a message saying, basically,
“I don’t want a public event.
I haven’t done anything to deserve attention.
You have lots of other people to take care of.
Just say the word, and I know God will honor you,
and show compassion to my servant.”
The centurion felt no need to prove himself,
no need to earn the favor of the people,
or the favor of God.
He simply had a need,
admitted it,
and trusted God to meet it.
End of story. The servant was healed.

And Jesus stopped in amazement,
and spoke these pointed words to the righteous and religious:
“In all Israel,” Jesus said,
“Never have I found the kind of faith
where people simply put themselves in the hands of God,
and trust God to do the right thing.”

I take it from the context,
that Jesus was saying, in essence,
“Everywhere I go in Israel,
people are trying to work out their salvation for themselves.
Eating the right food,
washing their hands at the right time,
tithing the right percentage of their mint and cumin.
They’re looking over their shoulder all the time,
to see who notices how righteous they are.”

Not only here, but time and again,
Jesus praises the faith
of those who trust the goodness of God enough
to put themselves utterly into God’s hands
for their healing or deliverance.
Time and again he denounces those “of little faith”
who try to work out their own deliverance.

Even in regard to Peter, and the other disciples,
after they tried to
manipulate events to Jesus’ advantage,
or institutionalize a spiritual experience on a mountain,
or to heal someone publicly, without success,
or walk on water,
how often would Jesus, say with great disappointment,
“O you of little faith.
Why can’t you just trust God to do the right thing?
Instead of trying to make it happen yourself?”

I examined again,
the numerous occurrences of the word “faith,”
in all four of the Gospels,
and throughout the book of Romans.
I was hard-pressed to find even two or three verses,
where the word faith
was being used to refer to a system of beliefs,
as in “the Christian faith”
or was being used to refer to
accepting a statement of belief as being true.
The overwhelming majority of the time – more than 95% –
Jesus, and Paul, were using faith essentially as a verb,
meaning to “put trust in.”
Faith, as Jesus and Paul understand it,
is to lay down our own agenda,
and trust in the goodness of God,
even when there is apparent risk in doing so.
Faith is a relational move.
It’s not a head move.
Faith is moving toward someone and something
that cannot be controlled or managed or predicted.
But can only be trusted in.
Can only be “faithed in.”

Faith is not a matter of getting our minds around
a set of propositions.
And faith is not a psychological exercise.
Faith is rather an act of trust in someone.
It assumes a relationship.
Theologian Douglass John Hall defined faith as
a “response-in-relationship.”

Faith involves risk.

When we trust someone,
we go beyond what we can really know.
We can never know, with objective certainty,
that the one in whom we trust
will come through exactly as we trusted.
Else, it wouldn’t be trust.
It would be scientific data.
The essence of faith
is to be willing, based on a relationship,
to go out on a limb.

To have faith in God is to choose to trust, based on a relationship—
to trust that God will not abandon us to the Evil One.

And right there is the essence of this great theological truth
that Paul offers the church in Rome, and offers us,
in Romans 5:1, that “we are justified by faith.”

We are justified—that is, God declares us to be righteous—
because we are willing to go out on a limb with God.
We are saved, by virtue of the fact
that we admit we need to be saved,
that we are weak,
that we are unable to save ourselves,
that we put our trust in God to make things right.

And since we are justified by faith,
since we are saved by our willingness to act in trust toward God,
then . . . then “we can have peace with God
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access
to this grace in which we stand.”

On the one hand,
entering into a saving relationship with God is utterly simple.
No hoops to jump through.
No skills to master.
No goals to achieve.
We simply must be willing to receive, in faith, the love that is offered.

But on the other hand,
this kind of relationship can feel threatening.
Trusting God is a choice to be vulnerable.
It’s difficult to allow ourselves to be loved for who we are,
rather than what we have made of ourselves,
or what we pretend to have made of ourselves,
or what we hope to make of ourselves.
It’s difficult to enter a relationship
where we voluntarily give up control.
It’s difficult to, like the centurion,
relinquish the need to impress anyone, including ourselves,
and simply rest in God.

It is difficult, but we are nevertheless called to choose to trust in,
and thus be saved by, our ever loving God.

I wonder . . . as we reflect on our own life journey today—
be it a journey with grief and loss . . .
a journey of financial hardship . . .
a journey in some conflicted or strained relationship . . .
a journey with deep conflict in a group we are part of . . .
a journey with a debilitating illness . . .
a journey marked by a spiritual void, or darkness—
I wonder in what way God is inviting you, inviting me,
to choose to trust.
I wonder in what way God is inviting us to lay down
the burden we are trying to lug around on our own,
and trust God to act,
and relinquish our desire to control,
or manipulate the outcome.

When we come to Jesus in a spirit of trust and yieldedness,
and lay down our load, and ask, “Will you carry it awhile?”
Jesus will never say no.
That’s not saying Jesus will always give us whatever we ask for.
But when are laying down, relinquishing,
yielding, asking for help, Jesus will never say no.

Let’s turn to STS (purple book) #50, “Come, bring your burdens to God.”
I will be praying several parts
of Richard Foster’s prayer of relinquishment,
and after each part we will sing, one time through,
“Come bring your burdens to God, for Jesus will never say no.”

Following these prayers, confessing our faith and trust in God,
I will invite us to read the responsive reading in the bulletin,
words of trust from Romans 8.
So please keep your bulletin open,
and STS #50, if you need it.

And let’s begin with song . . .

“Come bring your burdens to God, for Jesus will never say no.”

Today, O Lord, I yield myself to you.
    May your will be my delight today.
    May your way have perfect sway in me.
    May your love be the pattern of my living.
I surrender to you
    my hopes,
    my dreams,
    my ambitions.
Do with them what you will, when you will, as you will.

“Come bring your burdens to God, for Jesus will never say no.”

I place into your loving care
    my family,
    my friends,
    my future.
Care for them with a care that I can never give.

“Come bring your burdens to God, for Jesus will never say no.”

I release into your hands
    my need to control,
    my craving for status,
    my fear of obscurity.
Eradicate the evil, purify the good,
and establish your kingdom on earth.
For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

“Come bring your burdens to God, for Jesus will never say no.”

And together, let us give voice to our assurance,
that nothing can separate us from this love of God.
all   For I am sure that neither death, nor life,
east   nor angels, nor principalities,
west   nor things present, nor things to come,
east   nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
west   nor anything else in all creation,
all   will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

—Phil Kniss, June 29, 2014

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