The Hall of Fame of Faithfulness

Progressive

August 11 (Pentecost 12)
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

August 18 (Pentecost 13)
Hebrews 11: 29-12:2

The 11th chapter of the puzzling, anonymous Letter to the Hebrews is sometimes called the Hall of Fame of Faith. The Lectionary gives us two excerpts. In the first, the fame is Abraham’s. In the second, fame is spread across named and unnamed Hebrew heroes. The first readers, Christians of Jewish heritage in the diaspora, probably read more recent experiences into the tales of persecution and endurance.

We have trouble with the word “faith.” We too quickly equate faith, and its cognate noun and verb, “belief” and “believe,” with accepting propositional statements about God and the meaning of life. We Presbyterians say confessing our faith is essential to Christian living. When we confess we make statements about God and the meaning of life. We say “Yes” to documents, like Living Faith, “This is what we believe. This is our faith.”

Sometimes we speak of faith as if it’s agreeing to accept something that doesn’t make sense unless we see it through “the eyes of faith.” We “take it on faith” even if everything tells us it’s impossible. Mark Twain said it through Huck Finn: “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.”

We may understand that faith involves risk. We love Kierkegaard’s phrase “the leap of faith.” We often speak of a leap in the dark, across (or into!) an abyss. We may think we have to leap alone. Truth is, that jump isn’t very dangerous, and we don’t make it on our own. Yes, it takes us beyond what we may know and trust on our own. It takes us beyond ourselves. But Someone holds our hands and leaps with us. The ground is firm on the other side. If doctrine, “the faith,” comes into it, it comes on the other side. After we’ve leapt. After we’ve faithed.

Yes, “faithed.” A verb, not a noun. The New Testament word for faith, in all its forms, is active. Even the noun is more verb than noun. There’s no direct equivalent in the Old Testament. The closest concept is a cluster or words that roughly amount to “making yourself secure in God.” Sounds a lot more like trusting God than assenting to doctrine about God.

We can only say what we believe about God, what we think is true about God, after we have met God and discovered God is trustworthy. Enter Jesus, God revealed in flesh and blood, word and action, example and commandment. We come to know and dare to confess our truth about God through Jesus. We respond to that discovery with our lives. We faith. We turn our lives toward faithfulness and we reflect God’s faithfulness to the world and to us.

How about reading Hebrews 11 and substituting “faithfulness” for “faith”? In most places it works. Faithfulness connotes focus, determination, endurance, even risk, and especially love. The heroes of Hebrews didn’t just accept the possibility of the result they sought or the goal they aimed for. Many of them doubted, big time! They acted, or they held on, not because of what they intellectually apprehended as reasonable. They did it because they knew Someone who would not leave them and would never fail them.

Sometimes they got to work, sallied forth, faced known and unknown risks. Sometimes they sat and waited on God. Sitting and waiting are active choices, acts of trust. We can read Hebrews 11 as a tale of magic. The heroes had faith, set their minds in the right direction, and look what happened! They didn’t just set their minds. They put their whole selves into their faithfulness. When we speak of faithfulness, we avoid turning faith into magic.

The first words of Chapter 12 bring it home for us. The heroes are watching. Let’s get busy!

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About Laurence DeWolfe

Rev. Dr. Laurence DeWolfe is minister at Glenview, Toronto.