Friday, October 30, 2009

Saving Faith
Mk. 10:46-52[1]
I never cease to be amazed at whom and what people put their faith in. I remember the “Heaven’s Gate” cult, a few years ago. They were the folks who believed that there was a spaceship hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. They thought they had to commit suicide in order to be “transported” to the spaceship and escape this world. It amazes me that anyone in this day and time would believe something so outlandish. What amazes me more is that someone was able to convince them to believe in that. I wonder what kind of person could do that.
I also never cease to be amazed at what people insist is necessary to “faith.” For many people in our culture, in order to be a Christian you have to believe in the existence of Satan and a “literal, burning hell.” Funny, I always thought that the essence of Christian faith is believing in Jesus! I realize that what many of those folks are saying is that if you are willing to believe in the existence of Satan, then you probably take the Bible seriously. But I have a real problem saying I “believe in” Satan or I “believe in” hell. I “believe in” God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his son our lord; and I believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, and in the good news of the new creation. I don’t “believe in” sin and death, violence and evil, Satan and hell. Those things may or may not be “real”, but I refuse to “believe in” them!
In our Gospel lesson for today, we find one of the encounters in which Jesus heals a person who is suffering. The interesting thing about these healings in the Gospels is that when Jesus heals someone, usually with just a simple word and not all the falderal other “healers” used, he insisted that it was their own faith that did it! He said to them, “your faith has made you well.” But the way he said it could also be translated, “your faith has saved you” (cf. Eph. 2:8!). The faith that healed them and the faith that saved them was one and the same. I think to some extent, the reason his did “double duty” was because it was faith in Jesus, the one who really and truly shows us what God is like. And who shows us that God really and truly understands what it is like to be fully human. And who shows us that God has fully entered our experience and has done all that needs to be done to really and truly redeem us all. When they put their faith in Jesus, that’s who they were believing in, whether they were aware of it or not.
Not everybody put their faith in Jesus, to be sure. The religious leaders of his day whose self-serving hypocrisy he exposed didn’t. They saw him for the threat to their position that he was. And the wealthy aristocrats who were oppressing the common people by gobbling up all the land into vast estates didn’t trust him. They saw him for the threat to their prestige that he was.
But the common people seemed to flock to him. They came to him in throngs, and they rejoiced over his message of righting the wrongs, comforting the suffering, delivering the oppressed, and proclaiming the nearness of God. I think there is a built-in appeal to that message, especially for people who are down-trodden. But I also wonder what it was about his person that inspired their faith and trust. Think about the people you trust. I mean really, really trust. We all have friends we trust so much that we will tell them our deepest, darkest secrets. Why do we do that? Because we believe they will not betray our trust. Many of us share our lives with another human being—something that’s not always easy or fun to do! Why do we do that? Because there is something about them that makes it hard for us to imagine life without them.
So what was it about Jesus that inspired the kind of faith and trust that had a healing and saving quality to it? What was this poor, blind beggar’s faith in? Perhaps he had faith that “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all” (Ps. 34:19). In that sense, perhaps his faith in Jesus was really faith in God. Did he know enough to understand that Jesus was the one uniquely chosen by God to serve as the agent of salvation for God’s people Israel, and through them for all the families of the earth? I doubt it. Did he have the faith that somehow Jesus incarnated God, and therefore represented God to us all? I doubt that too.[2]
So what was it about Jesus that called forth this man’s faith?[3] Well, for one thing, he didn’t rebuke the man and try to silence him like the crowds (and possibly some of the disciples?) did. It seems that Jesus was well known for being “approachable.” So I think he must have put his faith Jesus’ reputation for compassion and mercy.[4] And I think Jesus’ reputation as one committed to the justice of God which showed in that compassion and in his own personal integrity would also inspire faith. And I think Jesus’ vision must have been a part of it—the “kingdom of God” which represents the culmination of all God’s efforts at redeeming this world and all life in it. It’s a vision that inspires hope and joy in the midst of a life that can feel very hopeless and joyless. For this poor blind man on the road from Jericho, Jesus represented his one chance for new life. I think anyone who puts their faith in Jesus to that extent cannot help but experience healing and salvation!
But I think there must have been more to it. For one thing, it’s my impression that most truly “holy” men and women have a certain spiritual presence to them.[5] When you are with them, you sense the presence of God in a way you don’t sense at other times. You see God and you see yourself in a clearer light. To some extent I think Jesus own faith in God must have played a part.[6] When you read the Gospels for indications of Jesus’ own faith, you find one who was absolutely committed to God’s will and God’s way, one who when people came to exalt him pointed them humbly back to God, one who so entrusted himself to God that he was willing to lay down even his very life. [7] I think to some degree Jesus’ own faith in God was what inspired the faith of the blind beggar named Bartimaeus, and it continues to inspire our faith today. Like many people, we place our faith in Jesus because he embodied the message of mercy and justice in real life. But I think even more so we put our faith in Jesus because his very presence puts us in touch with the love and the hope and the joy and the life that is at the heart of all things, and therefore calls forth the best within us. We place our faith in Jesus because through him we experience the one thing that is truly necessary—a genuine encounter with God.[8]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/25/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Contrast Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2:235-242, where he presents a more positive view of the content of their faith in Jesus.
[3] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, The Christian Faith, 284: faith “rests on and is justified by the totality of the image which the person and life of Jesus evoke.” Cf. Emil Brunner, The Mediator, 341: “The Son of God in whom we are able to believe must be such a one that it is possible to mistake him for an ordinary man.” Cf. also J. A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God, 229: “The Christ is God with a human face.” Cf. further Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 133, 163, 380, 443, esp. 449-450, where he describes what it means that Jesus was “true man.”
[4] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Outline for a Book,” in Letters and Papers from Prison, 382, where he refers to Jesus as “the man for others.” Cf. also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center , 47-48, 62; Berkhof, Christian Faith, 300-302
[5] Cf. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 328: “From Jesus, the Son of God, who is the new man, a wind begins to glow in our life,” the “wind” of the Spirit; cf. also 331: “The Spirit is the name for God himself in his activity among us.” Cf. also Berkhof, Christian Faith, 312-322, where he expresses this idea of God’s “presence” in terms of biblical language of resurrection, glorification, and exaltation to the right hand of God. Cf. also Robinson, Human Face, 123.
[6] Cf. Gerhard Ebeling, “Jesus and Faith,” in Word and Faith, 201-246; cf.also Berkhof, Christian Faith, 286-88.
[7] Cf. Declaration of Faith, 1978 PCUS; adopted by PCUSA in 1991: “Jesus lived with a constant sense of his Father’s presence. He put God’s claim on his life above all else.” Cf. Robinson, Human Face, 189; Küng, On Being a Christian, 443: “it can be said that he, in whom word and deed, teaching and life, being and action, completely coincide, is the embodiment of God’s word and will: God’s word and will in human form.”
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Word of God and Word of Man, 76, where he asks what it was that drew the men and women of the Bible “out and on to the edge of all experience, thought, and action, to the edge of time and history, and impels them to attempt to leap off into the air, where obviously no [one] can stand.” His answer is their encounter with God

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