Is There Faith on Earth?

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

December 31, 2000

Colossians 3:12-17 and Luke 2:41-52

(Part 5 of 6 part sermon series, "The Birth of Faith")

Today I present part 5 of the 6 in the sermon series "The Birth of Faith." The first four sermons have been "Wake Up!," "Cry Out!," "Reach Out," and "Stand With. . . " Each has attempted to look at various expressions and ways of growing in faith. The series ends next week. All five of these sermons will be available this week in the office, at the information rack and on line. Next Sunday ends the series.

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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Today ends the second millennium and begins a new century. Without the hoopla of one year ago - Y2K - and parties across the world, the Christian era, takes another turn in time tonight at midnight. No matter how you count time, we can welcome the 21st Century and bid farewell to the 20th by 12:00 a.m.. A new millennium stands open before us as well. Yet Jesus' question in Luke 18:8 remains as pertinent today as it did 20 centuries ago, "When the Son of Man (the Messiah) comes will he find faith on earth?"

Jesus may have meant, "will he find belief or trust in God?" He may have even meant, "Will he find any faithfulness among humankind?" But that is not what he asks. He asks will he find faith on earth? H. Richard Niebuhr in his essay, "Faith in Question" points out that the events of the 20th Century have brought into focus the abyss of faithlessness into which humanity can fall. Whether in Hitler's Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the murderous reign of despots across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe or simply in the breakdown of human relationships in life, corrupted to the point where every promise, every contract, every law and treaty and word of honor given and accepted is looked upon with deception and distrust, we have to at least ask at the close of this epoch of human history: "is there faith on earth?" For if we as men and women no longer have faith in each other, can we exist on earth? (Drawn from H.R. Niebuhr's Faith on Earth, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 1989, p. 1).

And if questions of faith abound among human relationships - whether internal or interpersonal or international - such questions become closely connected with others about the relations of this interpersonal faith to faith in God. (Ibid., p. 1). For if we no longer have faith in ourselves or in each other, can we claim faith in God? To raise these questions for some, seems to raise the specter of unbelief or doubt - which is frightening. Some will say, "if you question the essence and nature of human relationships and the essence and nature of my relationship with God, you must be questioning me." I respond, "The birth of faith is such that it always being born, coming in and going out of focus. Faith is dynamic. It is neither rock hard, nor completely flowing as a fluid." As such, we should never be afraid to question or examine our faith - in God, in one another, yes, even our faith on earth!

James W. Fowler, once a student of Niebuhr's recalls in his book Stages of Faith that H. Richard Niebuhr viewed faith like a cube. From any one angle of vision, the viewer can see and describe at least three sides - or the multifaceted dimensions of faith. But the cube has back sides, a bottom and an inside as well. Thus, several angles of vision must be coordinated to do any justice to a characterization of faith. (Found in James W. Fowler's book, Stages of Faith, Harper Collins Paperback, San Francisco, 1995, pp. 32-33).

To further complicate our vision of this cube called faith, we need to remember we cannot simply stand and examine faith externally. We cannot simply make it a detached object of our inquiry. We need to see that faith is not a problem. It is a mystery. If faith were a problem, we could seek to solve it by external definition. But, it is a mystery - perplexing to us because we are internal to it. We are involved with faith even as we seek to discover its new dimensions. In this way, faith as a cube is one in which we stand looking out.

To further complicate things, what I have been describing is simply the human side of faith. But, I return to say, faith is everywhere a relational matter which ultimately ties us into the divine nature of faith. That is, how do we relate to God and our faith in Jesus Christ? To this end, I would lift up two images of faith. The first is faith as evolutionary. Faith as evolutionary is developmental. It evolves over a lifetime. It is never static, but always active (even when it is hibernating). Faith can also be revolutionary. As revolutionary, faith is experienced through conversion. Now, there are those who live their lives in the evolutionary understanding of faith. They grow up "in the church," so to speak. While others, experience faith as first alive in a revolutionary conversion experience.

I contend that a person who lives their entire life and does not experience - at some point - both the evolutionary and the revolutionary aspects of faith is missing a whole and mature life of faith. To only experience faith as developmental is to miss the dynamic growth spurt that comes with conversion and eye opening, spirit opening change. In the same way, to only experience conversion and the revolution of faith is to miss the nature of a maturing faith.

A number of years ago, the Search Institute, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota conducted a study of mainline churches. The study, entitled, Effective Christian Education: A National Study of Protestant Congregations surveyed 11,122 people in 561 congregations in six denominations - including the United Church of Christ. The three-and-a-half year study sought to discover the importance and impact on Christian Education in the faith development of members. While it was clear that effective education was the most powerful single influence congregations have on the maturity of faith, it was also clear that for most adults in the 561 congregations, "faith is underdeveloped and lacking some key elements necessary for faith maturity" (Christian Century, May 9, 1990, p. 497).

The Search Institute defined the nature of a mature person of faith as having these eight dimensions. I share with you all eight dimensions because I believe they are instructive for our own understanding of growth and maturity in faith.

The eight dimensions are: 1. Trust in God's saving grace and a firm belief in the divinity and humanity of Jesus; 2. Experiencing personal well-being, security and peace; 3. Integrates faith and life, and sees work, family, social relationships and political choices as part of the religious life; 4. Seeks spiritual growth through prayer, study, reflection and discussion with others; 5. Seeks to be part of a community of believers in which people witness to their faith and support and nourish one another; 6. Holds life affirming values, including a commitment to racial and gender equality, an affirmation of cultural and religious diversity and a personal sense of responsibility for the welfare of others; 7. Advocates social and global change to bring about greater social justice; and 8. Serves humanity consistently and passionately through acts of love and justice. (Ibid., p. 498).

Essentially, a mature Christian faith is one which integrates trust in God's grace and personal faith in Christ, peace of mind; faith, work, and family values; personal, spiritual growth; participation and inclusion in a faith community; a diverse and accepting world view which reaches out to others in need; advocacy for social change; and serving others in humanity with compassion, love, and justice. Not surprisingly, this study found that often people have a well-developed sense of personal faith and an underdeveloped sense of compassionate care for others, or vice versa - a deep sense of social justice, with an underdeveloped personal faith and spiritual life. The challenge of a mature faith is stand in the strength which we have and to constantly seek to integrate and strengthen the areas of our life of faith which are underdeveloped.

Do you know yourself well enough to know your faith maturation strengths and needs? Which sides of the cube of faith can you see? How can you turn the cube to view another angle in the days ahead? All the while you are examining the cube of faith, are you standing inside of faith or merely a distant observer?

A maturing faith is one which not only integrates prayer and righteous action (to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer), it is also a faith which integrates vocation, sacrifice, and bliss. In his most recent book, The Weaving of the New Creation: Stages of Faith and the Public Church, James W. Fowler points out that a faith develops when we tie together our vocation (vocation coming from the Latin "Vocare" meaning "to call") or "calling" with the capacity of the human heart to sacrifice for others, and our desire from deep within to, in the words of Joseph Campbell, "follow our bliss." Vocation, sacrifice, and bliss is most truly known when we find a purpose in Christ which aligns our lives with the purposes of God.

I believe a wonderful image of the integration of vocation, sacrifice and bliss comes in the new film, "Billy Elliot." In this film, a young boy feels that he must dance. As a coal miner's son in Ireland, being a dancer in the ballet is not alright. He fights his father, his brother, and his entire cultural experience to live into the essence of who he is! He must dance. He must follow his bliss and he does!

I believe this alignment of vocation, sacrifice and bliss is what Jesus was experiencing when he went to the Temple in Luke 2:41-52. He was coming into knowledge and prayerful understanding of who he was and who was to become. While he lost track of his earthly family as they headed back to Nazareth, which at some level was not all right, he was maturing into faith as the Son of God. In his "father's house, "which was the Temple of Jerusalem, he felt as though he had come home. He had found his bliss - the place in which his being, his consciousness, his purpose lined up with God's purpose. Teaching his elders the law and the prophets, this 12-year-old Jesus was coming to know how and why he was created. Luke tells us, "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor" (Luke 2:52). That day, in the body of this text, he came to know that the faith which had to that point only been given to him by the generations - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Mary - had taken up residence in his heart and soul. Similarly, the faith we have been given - either through the revolutionary conversion to Christ and in Christ or by the evolutionary experience of faith development, must become ours. We must have it take up residence in us - heart and soul. And ultimately our faith must be lived through us to others.

As the millennium turns and the century turns, the question remains from the first years of faith in Christ: "Is there faith on earth?" To simply say "Yes," is to deny the true struggles of faith and faithfulness. Each day, through a series of encounters with others in relationship, we need to answer this question and others which come from the heart of God and the lips of Jesus. He asks, "Why are you so afraid, O you of little faith?" (Matthew 8:26) Or as he says to Mary on the road to Lazarus' tomb, "I am the resurrection and the life . . . Do you believe this?" (John 11:25,26). Jesus' questions challenge us still. We are both shaken and comforted by his questions of our faith. Without his questions, we would become less than human. Without his challenges, we would become prone to faithlessness.

May God bless and keep you in your questions of faith and in the revolutionary conversions and evolutionary developments you experience as you mature in your faith on earth. Amen.

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