Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Having Faith

Preached at
Clackamas Park Friends Church
Jan. 15, 2012

In 1979-80, Mark and I attended Reedwood Friends and benefitted from the pastoral ministry of Don Green. He was a great preacher and a wonderful caring person, and so it seemed very wrong when he went out to cut firewood and a tree fell on him, severely injuring his head. We prayed for him across the yearly meeting, and I personally felt a great deal of urgency to express my faith that he would be healed. However, his physical signs were unpromising, and at church someone shared this and that we needed to hold his wife and young children in prayer. I was moved to stand up immediately and say, “We serve a God who raised Lazarus from the dead. God can raise up Don Green from this injury as well.” It hurt me so much to hear that he might die.

Later on, when he did die, I was grieved and confused. Why did I have that strong urge to express faith in a powerful, miracle-working God if God planned all along to take Don home? I felt a little lost and perhaps embarrassed, but I took some consolation in the fact that my prayers and my sharing were done out of an effort to be obedient to the Spirit’s leading. I wondered also whether a person of real faith might be able to go to Don’s service and raise him up from the dead, but I also knew that I wasn’t able to do that.

I have had similar experiences since, experiences where I felt called to pray with others for physical healing. What I have learned is that sometimes after a community of prayer, a person gets well, and sometimes a person dies.

This raises questions about faith, fundamental and even disheartening questions. What does it mean to have faith? What is the good of having faith?

Let’s look at the example of St. Paul, unquestionably a person of faith. Several times in the book of Acts, Paul healed people. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas healed a lame man. The immediate result was that the crowds in Lystra wanted to worship them, and shortly thereafter, the same crowd stoned Paul almost to death. In Acts 16, Paul freed a person from a spirit of divination, and her masters had him thrown into prison along with Silas. God set them free by means of an earthquake and a converted jailor. Acts 19 tells us that God performed extraordinary miracles by Paul’s hands, to the extent that handkerchiefs and aprons he had touched could heal the sick and drive out evil spirits. In Acts 20, Eutychus fell asleep and then out of a window, and Paul brought him back to life and consciousness. Acts 28 tells how Paul miraculously survived snakebite and how he healed a man of fever, and then healed others who heard about the event.

But this is not Paul’s whole story. He did not see healing of all those he loved. He advised Timothy to take care of his ailing stomach with a bit of wine; he didn’t miraculously heal Timothy. He mentioned that he left Trophimus behind because he was sick; he didn’t automatically heal Trophimus. We see in the story of Paul both spectacular miracles and acceptance of human pain and suffering. We also see that the miracles were not surefire ways to gain converts, but instead Paul preached the crucified and resurrected Christ. So we see that the same Paul who was miraculously freed from jail is also, at the end of the book of Acts, imprisoned in Rome.

So what part does faith play in the life of Paul? Paul’s faith shows up in the miracles he facilitated. But it also shows up in his submission to the will of God. The famous passage in which he prays repeatedly for God to take away something that tortured him shows his faith in several ways. One, he asks over and over. Two, he accepts God’s answer, which was no. Third, he submits his own will to God’s, enabling him to say in faith that when he himself is weak, at that time he is strong because the power of Christ becomes complete in his weakness. He came to value the weakness in himself that allowed him to see the grace and power of God at work in and through him.

Paul’s life of faith shows us that God does indeed set aside at times what we might think of as the laws of nature. Disabilities are fixed, diseases are cured ahead of expectation, disasters are erased. So in part we have faith in God’s power to intervene and change our reality.

We also believe that God is good and means good for us. Luke 9:46 tells us that Jesus came not to destroy humans’ lives but to save them. We also hear what Jesus commanded his disciples in Matthew 10:8: heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils; freely you have received, freely give. So we have faith that God intends to do humans good, and that we are often God’s instruments for that good.

In fact, the apostle James reminds us that faith without works is dead. In other words, we demonstrate that we have faith by acting based on that faith. As James points out, asking for wisdom is an act of faith; persevering under trial is an act of faith; visiting orphans and widows is an act of faith; valuing the poor equally with the rich is an act of faith; showing mercy is an act of faith; giving clothing and food to the one in need is an act of faith; bridling the tongue, being quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger are all acts of faith; being content with what God gives us is an act of faith; praying for the sick and offering them to the Lord are acts of faith; confessing our sins to each other and praying for each other are acts of faith.

Faith is possible to us because of God’s graciousness; this grace invites us to trust in a God we do not see and to believe that God is both good and powerful. Sometimes we get faith confused with what we believe about God, but in fact, faith is our relationship with God. Hebrews 11:6 says that anyone who wants to please God must believe that God exists and rewards those who seek for God. Faith determines how we respond to the light John 1 says enlightens every person’s heart; this faith chooses to stand in God’s light that reveals sin, weakness, need; Jesus said that the judgment is when God’s light comes into the world and people prefer the darkness because they have done evil. So faith means that we resolve to stand near to God and allow God’s light to expose us from inside and outside because we trust that God is good and will help us also become good. Faith, as James says, impels us to behave differently from the norm—to take risks of generosity, mercy, forgiveness, compassion.

Hebrews 1 and 2 tells us that Jesus is God’s Word to us that exactly represents the nature of God, and that in Jesus is our great salvation. We need to pay attention to those who heard Jesus in person, with whom God also bore witness to Jesus by signs and wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit given according to God’s own will. The writer of Hebrews tells us that though the prophet says that God will subject all things to Jesus, we do not yet see this in our reality. What we do see is that Jesus endured death, tasted death for every person, and was himself made complete through suffering in order to bring many to God’s glory, calling them his family. Through his own death, he made the devil powerless and delivered us from the fear of death which would otherwise enslave us our whole lives. And now Jesus can come to the aid of us when we are tempted because he himself was tempted in his sufferings.

The life of faith as lived by Jesus is this: he did whatever he saw his Father doing. That’s what the life of faith is for us as well. We trust God so completely that we listen and do what God tells us to do.

When I look back at the experience of losing Don Green, I know that I prayed for him in obedience to God. I know also that others closer to him prayed the same prayers more passionately and broken-heartedly. I hope that in God’s economy my prayers somehow lightened their burdens, that God asked me to pray in order to carry some of the burden of loss.

The evidence of faith is obedience to God. God calls us to pray for each other, to pray for the sick, and to pray for God’s will to be done.

Faith means that, when we are baffled, disappointed, challenged, or hurt, we still say, “To whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).