The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Monday, November 01, 2004

Father Carl's Sermon for Trinity XXI

Trinity XXI 2004
On most Sundays in the Church year, there is a common thread in the readings appointed for the Divine Liturgy. Often the link is somewhat obscure; at other times, the theme is fairly obvious. On some Sundays, there is more than one topic, though sometimes, as is the case today, not all of the subjects are found in all three readings.

In the Collect and Epistle, we might presume that the dominant theme for today is that of peace: we prayed for it in the Collect; and in the Epistle, we heard St. Paul’s well-known passage from his letter to the Ephesians where he uses military imagery to symbolize how the Christian should be armed in order to withstand the fight against spiritual wickedness in high places, thus realizing a peaceful existence in this world. And in passing, we might remark on yet another example of the importance of certain numbers in the Jewish and early Christian mindset. Seven is the number of perfection: St. Paul exhorts us to be armed with seven things: truth, righteousness, the Gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Holy Spirit and prayer.

One of those seven, the “Gospel of peace” might seem to reinforce the theme of peace as today’s primary subject; however, when we come to the Gospel reading from St. John, we are confronted with the realization that there is likely another more dominant theme for today. Yes, one might argue that, pursuant to the healing of the nobleman’s son, peace would have come to the household; however, peace of mind, such as the nobleman and his household would have realized, is not the same kind of peace to which the Epistle makes reference.

Rather, the common thread in all three readings is faith.. In the Collect, “Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to thy faithful people…” In the Epistle, “above all, taking the shield of faith;” and, of course, the Gospel is all about the faith of the nobleman, in believing that what Jesus told him would happen, did in fact come to pass.

Earlier this week, in the normal readings during the Church year at Evensong on the Tuesday between Trinity 20 and Trinity 21, we come to Chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which begins, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Faith, of course, has become an omnibus word throughout the ages: that aspect which speaks to belief, confidence or trust can be as applicable to the secular world as to the realm of religion. We might have faith in our employer or employees in the sense that we trust them, we believe that they will do as they have agreed, either by written contract or verbally. Equally, it can speak to the quality of fulfilling one’s trust – e.g. someone is faithful to his wife. We speak of good faith and bad faith in terms of loyalty or deception.

But our particular concern is as it relates to our religious beliefs. Faith, in the religious context is used in at least two distinct senses: 1) objectively, referring to the body of truth (“the Christian faith”) to be found in the Creeds, in the definitions of accredited Councils, in the teachings of the doctors and saints, and, above all, in the revelation contained in the Bible. 2) to this objective faith is opposed “subjective” faith, one of the three Theological virtues. Some will maintain that faith in this context is entirely a gift from God, removing all necessity of any kind of involvement on the part of us, His creatures. However, there is an observable, tightly intertwined symbiosis between God and man; we His creatures are the ones in whom the gift of faith is displayed; therefore, logically, there must be some kind of activity on our part. A long-standing definition is that this virtue of faith is the human response to Divine truth, which is a supernatural, as opposed to a natural act. In this sense, we can make an act of faith only in virtue of God’s action in our souls. This faith, as taught in the New Testament, is that by which a sinner is justified in the sight of God; it is the God-inspired, the spiritual apprehension or acknowledgement of divine truths, or of realities beyond the reach of physical experience or logical proof.

It is this last phrase, “realities beyond the reach of physical experience or logical proof” to which, at least in part, our reading from Hebrews speaks, “the evidence of things not seen.” Or as a more modern translation renders the entire phrase, “Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen.”

In his record of the Gospel, John seems to have been consciously drawing to our attention the contrast between the type of faith that is tenuous in that it is based on signs and wonders; i.e. things seen; vs. the kind of faith that accepts, that believes implicitly, wholeheartedly in our Lord’s promise – the realities of things unseen. Today’s reading lays this very contrast before us. Jesus says to the nobleman, and I suspect also for the benefit of, or exhortation to all those within earshot, “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” But then, apparently right on the spot, the nobleman displays the hope in things not seen – he goes away believing, faithfully, in Jesus’ word that his son had been healed. And, as a very important related aside: the hope that the writer of Hebrews mentions, the Christian virtue of hope, is not that kind of wishfulness that we most often take the word to mean today. “I hope that it doesn’t rain tomorrow;” or, “I hope that Ottawa wins the Stanley Cup.” Rather, Christian hope, the kind of hope that the nobleman displayed when he left Jesus, is assurance, confidence that God will do as He says. That is what we mean when we say that we live in hope of the resurrection – not some vague, tenuous wish, but rather, assurance.

Sceptics and non-believers will often counter that such faith – in things unseen – does indeed fall entirely into the realm of wishful thinking. Such a viewpoint is entirely to be expected as we live in perhaps the most materialistic society in human history. We have become very attached indeed to things, the world of the physical, though there was also apparently just as much emphasis on physical proof during Jesus’ time, “Unless ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.”

We also live in an age that, among other things, might be called a scientific age – one in which very much “seeing is believing,” even if the vast majority of consumers are practically speaking, scientifically illiterate. Our society, with a few notable exceptions – genetic engineering for example – has come to trust in science, in its various forms, far more than in God. If we leave aside that which we might classify as speculative science, which many might convincingly argue is a whole lot of wishful thinking but in which huge numbers place their faith, it would be largely accurate to observe that physical science is based on exact weighing and measuring in one form or another. In such empirical or observable science, conclusions are verifiable. We might observe that many people, not necessarily scientists, would prefer to approach life from such a perspective – no surprises, as everything is entirely predictable and reproducible, objective if you will.

But this does not make up the whole of life. Not everything, day in and day out, can be weighed or measured objectively. We cannot measure the beauty of a Rembrandt painting, nor can we weigh the loveliness and splendour of a sunset, yet they are just as real as a pound of butter weighing 454.6 grams.

Just as when we step beyond the consideration of the human body, entirely measurable and weighable, to contemplation of the human mind, entirely unmeasurable and unweighable, so too when we enter the deliberation of art and morality, we leave behind the world of exact measurement and proof. Art and morality are realities, straddling the border between the seen and the unseen – we can touch a painting, we can observe the love a mother has for her children, but we cannot measure either. They are truths, albeit more subjective than objective. Still, because they too can be seen, we usually don’t apply the word faith to them.

The faith of which we speak in our Christian profession steps even further beyond the physical realm. We cannot see God the Father the way we can see a sunset, we cannot handle Jesus’ promises the way we can touch a piece of art, we cannot understand the mind of the Almighty the way we can a mother’s love for her children.

Because God and His characteristics, His promises are beyond our sight, does that make them unbelievable? Well, last time I checked, all scientists believed in electricity, yet noone has ever seen an electron. Faith is the evidence of things not seen.