Last week we were reminded of Paul’s call to the church in Corinth to turn their attention away from things that are temporal and instead focus on things that will last or, in his words, will remain. The things that, if everything else disappeared, would still be available and useful to us, would still matter and have an impact. And he highlights three: faith, hope, and love. So we’re going to look at all three of these, starting this week with faith, and to do that we’ll turn to Hebrews 11.
Hebrews may have been written by Paul, some folks argue that it came from someone else later in the first century, but the author speaks on faith here in a way that both gives us a good definition and also speaks to this same idea of faith as something that lasts that we see in Paul. I’m actually going to pick up with the last verse of chapter 10 and then go into the first verses of 11:
The original audience of Hebrews were Jewish Christians who had converted to Christianity and paid a price for it. In the late 60’s early 70’s AD there was a Jewish revolt against Rome lead by the Zealots, who we meet in the Gospels, Simon the Zealot is one of Jesus’ disciples and encourages Jesus to start a revolt himself. This revolt failed, and in response Rome reconquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. So after that Jewish leaders started questioning what went wrong, why had God not come to their aid, and the scapegoat they found were the Christians. The mindset that came out was, “we’ve let these people get away with their heresies and now God has punished us.” So these Jewish Christians were the first to undergo widespread, specifically targeted persecution. These folks who are being written to in Hebrews had been kicked out of their homes, imprisoned, beaten, they couldn’t find jobs, it was a hard time for them. And they were beginning to question whether it was all worth it. And in response to that the author says “yes, because you don’t belong to that world anymore. You aren’t like them. You’re one who lives by faith.”
The obvious response to that is what does that mean, what is faith? So the author gives the answer: “faith is the confidence in what is hoped for and assurance about what we do not see.”
“Confidence in what is hoped for,” you might remember the King James translation, “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” That use of substance is helpful to see what is being said, first and foremost faith is the substance of hope, the foundation of it, the thing that it is built on. Why do we celebrate Christmas? Because we have a foundation that tells us that the child that was born matters. Why do we celebrate Easter? Because we have a foundation that tells us that the tomb is empty. Why do celebrate in the midst of grief at funerals, why do we hope when situations seem hopeless, why do forgive those who don’t deserve it, why do we believe that people can change when we have every reason to toss them aside, because we have a foundation that calls us to hope. Not hope in magic, not hope that this lottery ticket is gonna hit it big or that our team is going to win tomorrow night, but hope in a world that is better than the one we see. Hope that God is faithful to us and we can be faithful to God. Hope that there is something greater than just this life.
What are our foundations? Why do we do the things that we do? What’s the goal that we’re living towards? If the answer isn’t faith then we’re missing the foundation that is going to sustain whatever we do. We become the castle built on sand that Jesus spoke about, unable to handle the winds and storms that life brings.
Faith is that foundation, it is also the thing that anchors that foundation, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” What do we base that faith on? That same hope it brings. It’s a circular argument, it wouldn’t hold up in a logic class, but faith is the source of our hope and our faith is driven by our hope. We believe it is true because its better than the alternative. Now we can hear that and think it reeks of some kind of delusion, that we have faith because we don’t want to deal with the reality we face, I think that’s wrong. I think we have faith and hope because we can’t accept the reality as it is. We cannot see a world bent on war and not believe it was meant for peace. We cannot see lives that are lost and struggling and not believe that there’s an answer to their pain. We cannot see hopelessness and not believe hope is there.
NT Wright, an Anglican priest and scholar, talks about “echoes of a dream,” the phenomenon where you wake up from a dream and can recall bits and pieces of it but not the whole thing. And he uses it to describe a kind of universal faith that exists. Wright says (and has done the research) that if you had a group of people describe a perfect world they would describe remarkably similar things regardless of who they are. Peace, plenty, safety, pretty basic things that everyone agrees on. Wright argues that if we are all drawn to a world like that the reason must be that it’s the world we were meant for. We all have those echoes of a dream because the dream is real and it calls to us. Wright gets compared to CS Lewis a lot because he’s British and goes by his initials, Lewis had a similar thought: “if I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for a different world.” Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen, it is what calls us to look for a better reality and convinces us that it’s the case. It is, as the writer of Hebrews says with the example of Abraham, the thing that calls us to leave the land we know for the unknown, armed with nothing but the hope that when we get there the journey will have been worth it.
The rest of chapter 11 is focused on those figures like Abraham who took actions based on their faith and were proven right. So even though the author believes faith involves things not seen, she/he also recognizes the need to remind that other people have acted on that same kind of faith and been justified. And these people that are highlighted and the way they are highlighted get to what I want leave with today, back to this idea of what remains. Abraham was the father of a nation, but what he’s remember for here is his willingness to take a step toward an unknown world. Noah isn’t remember for the size of his ark but his willingness to build it. Joseph saved two nations from famine but is remembered for his confidence that Egypt wouldn’t be where he was buried. Moses is included, not for the mighty acts he performed or for receiving the ten commandments, but for the faith to reject Pharaoh’s household and live amongst his people. In this list we see unnamed women who saw loved ones come back to life and martyrs who are remembered for nothing else but that they kept the faith. Because that example of faith is what lasts after everything else has fallen away. We could be impressed by David’s bravery or Solomon’s wealth and wisdom or the victories that different kings and generals won but those things have faded away to history and what has stood the test of time is their faith. The substance of things hoped for and the assurance of what isn’t seen. That’s what’s going to last. That’s what’s going to leave a legacy. There are a lot of things we can leave behind but only a few that will truly remain. Faith is one of those. So seek it, cling to it, and act on it. Trust those echoes of dreams that call you toward something better. Believe in the things that can’t be seen. Take the steps into the unknown that lead to a greater promise, because in that you embrace something that will last.