Sunday we began a series concerning the new year and what God has called us to “Next.” We plan to discuss four key components to our spiritual development: Faith, Peace/Shalom, Community, and Discipleship.
Faith is a major thread that not only ran through the lives of God’s servants in the Bible, but is evident through the lives of Jesus’ people today. Faith has different meanings today, as is evident when we ask people “What is your definition of faith?”
Some will answer that it is belief, while others might suggest trust. For those of us living in a social media age “faith” may simply be a statement, an praise, or other verbiage. We might suggest that I state my faith publically, or that I have faith God exists, or even faith is believing that the “man upstairs” is who I pray to. For many today faith is simply an acknowledgement of a truth.
One of the verses we explored was Hebrews 11:1-6. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews but we understand that he did it for Jewish Christians who may have been struggling over staying in the church. The book is full of encouragement, warning, and blessings for them. However, in chapter eleven the writer told them something about faith.
First, he wrote that faith was a conviction of what we hope for and have not seen (11:1). It is true that we believe in God and trust in promises made to faithful followers. This is even clearer when he wrote that we are unable to please God if we do not believe in God’s existence or “that we are rewarded for seeking God.” (11:6) I have read and memorized these verses for years and have missed the idea that God is not looking for people to believe in existence, but believe God rewards those who seek and obey. Notice that faith is more than acknowledgement—it is a belief that by obeying God we will be rewarded.
Len Sweet posted recently that the churches in northern Mosul had, for the first time in over 1600 years, not rang their bells on Christmas Day. Why, because the terrorist group ISIS threatened them. What does faith mean to these people? In the next year what will faith motivate them to do? Will they be faithful believing that God will care for them? What does this say about our faith, where we can ring bells on Christmas?
Second, the writer indicated that faith was action. All of the heroes mentioned in chapter eleven, from the Hebrew Bible, showed their faith by obedience. They did not acknowledge God, but obeyed their Lord. Twice the writer used the word for “witness” (11:2, 5) although many English versions translate it “commended.” They were not commended for their faith. Their faith was a “testimony/witness” to who they were. You knew these men and women loved God not by their words buy by their actions (we get the word martyr from the word for witness/testimony). They left a legacy of active faith, not simply assents to a doctrine or belief.
James, Jesus’ younger brother, also shared something about faith. In James 2:14-26 he also wrote to the Jewish Christians that the ancients practiced an active faith. Three times he indicated that faith without works/action was dead/empty (James 2:17, 20, 26). He even presented a scenario where someone called him out on his faith, to which he responded “Show me your faith without works and I by my works will show you my faith,” (2:18). For James the community needed to know that their faith was to be active in doing good to the poor, those suffering, and their community.
Historically there has been tension over the interpretations of the Apostle Paul and James. While some movements in Christianity have rightly rebelled against groups that stress doing work to get into heaven, they did not in any way attempt to create a doctrine of salvation by faith alone. The Apostle Paul claimed that salvation was by grace and faith, as opposed to “works of the law” (Romans 3:24; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-10). Paul was combating a system that bound heavy burdens on the common people, which was led by corrupt religious leaders. He in now way claimed “faith alone” was how we were saved. James, who was Jesus’ brother, wrote that justification did not come by “faith alone” but by what a person does (James 2:24). Paul and James were not contradicting each other, nor was James trying to straighten out Paul. I don’t even believe each was trying to correct the other’s followers/students.
The tension was what it is today. There has always been a tendency for verbiage and confession over practice. There continues to be a struggle between “right teaching” and “right actions.” There will always be a difference between a “statement of faith” and a “life of faith.” People will continue to cry out “don’t judge” while others say, “go ahead, watch and learn from me.” The difference will be viewed by others in our walk, service, and “witness/testimony/martyrdom.” As the Hebrew writer and James indicated—faith is active, seen, and practiced.
When I was in graduate school I took a full load of classes and worked early mornings at UPS. I unloaded trucks and sorted packages for 30+ hours per week, then tried to find time to study, go to class, and be a good husband and new father. It was hard, and I was tired—especially in the mornings at work. Even more, I had been in ministry and baptized a lot of people before coming to school. Now, I had developed friendships at work (in addition to many friendships at church) and found that none of them wanted to come to church or study the Bible. I liked those guys and kept thinking how can I help them see Jesus? We had a lot of fun, would go out to eat breakfast occasionally, and when Nathan was born they got together and bought me a gift. Yet, church was not for them. I did, however, learn a valuable lesson from them.
There were also guys at UPS that preached at people. They would pressure, share, and witness to others (including me) during work. When they saw me they reminded me that “we had a special club in God’s eyes and needed to convert the sinners there.” However, the other guys would tell me that these “Christians” were fake, hypocrites, and full of hot air (and other things I won’t mention). The sad truth was that they were right. These “Christians” were quick to remind that they weren’t perfect, just forgiven—or that we all make mistakes but God has favor on his children. I learned quickly that my faith was not going to be about preaching, verbiage, and making excuses—it had to be seen and active in my life.
It has been decades since I moved from Memphis, but I know that my friends taught me something powerful. It’s the same message as the Petra song, “Seen and not heard, seen and not heard. Sometimes God’s children must be seen and not heard. There’s too much talk, and not enough walk. Sometimes God’s children must be seen and not heard.”
May 2015 be a year where you can experience real faith, trust, belief, and obedience in Jesus. May it be a year when we show others that we truly believe God rewards those who seek Jesus.