Fireground, Adelaide Hills

Faith Hope and Love

December 29 2006, Jan 28 2007

A few weeks after writing this article, I find I have to lead a worship service at short notice. The lectionary for the day is 1 Corinthians 13.  So on the left I have the original article.  On the right, the sermon. 

The written text is much easier to produce.  Preaching does not let people go back and re-consider a line or two.  It does not necessarily have an interested audience. Silence, emphasis and cadence are important in ways different to, or not applicable to, the written text. What works in text, doesn't necessarily work in speech.  And of course, the sermon has in mind a specific group of people, a specific building, time and situation. 

Even punctuation and layout will differ.  Spacing, ellipses, underlines for emphasis are all part of the sermon that will be preached.  They won't be in the essay.  And of course, what is said, almost always varies from the text, given the inspiration of the moment, or the response, or if we are fortunate, the questions, of the listeners!

 Perhaps the differences here will be illuminating.

December 29, 2006

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13

As is often the case, my wife Wendy brought my attention to a new significance in a biblical text. These words from the Apostle Paul are a favourite for weddings. The reason is obvious. I do not wish to demean the hopes of newly weds, but Paul was not thinking about weddings at all. The fact that weddings are when these words are mostly read in public, indicates how much we have lost the challenge of what they say.

Paul is actually arguing with Christians in Corinth about what is really important in the Christian life. These people were enamoured with signs and wonders; they believed gifts of the Spirit were the measure of one’s success as a Christian. Paul is trying to bring to their notice that they were not quite "on track." He points out

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.  Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?  But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12)

We we see him listing the spectacular gifts like speaking in tongues and miraculous healings last of all.  They are the least important. This has been a message to hear in our times, too, as people have insisted that true spiritual enlightenment is shown by these things. Often the ability to "speak in tongues" has been used as a measure of true, or mature "faith," and also used to exclude.

Paul then lays out his "more excellent way."

And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing……  Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.  For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;  but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Faith, hope, and love are the greatest gifts. They are the measure of all the other gifts. All our claims to enlightenment and discipleship are subject to the measure of these three things. Nothing I have said so far is the least bit controversial or, indeed, new to anyone who has been in church for any length of time. Love is the measure of all. Unconditional good will for all people, wanting the best for others, empathy rich and full, these are the characteristics of someone truly gifted by God, and truly mature in the Spirit. What Wendy remarked to me as she was reading Bob Edgar’s Middle Church is that in saying this, we usually ignore faith and hope! This is truly the case. How often in one of these sermons on faith, hope, and love did we hear much about faith and hope? Not often. And if we did, what was meant by faith and hope?

What is Hope? Hope is not just a "mother’s-milk", "feel-good" word. Hope is about being able to imagine a new future. Hope is about imagining how it would be in the world if things were done God’s way! What would life be like then? Living in hope is the opposite of fatalism and withdrawal. When we have no hope for God’s preferred future, we give up on justice and peace. We withdraw to our own home, voting for what will best suit us and ours, keeping our head down, and making the best of things. God’s future is no longer our concern. We may hope for better, but only in name. We will not live in hope, acting as those who expect a different future than the current way of the world.

Hope is a gift, but like all God’s gifts, hope is made actual by living in hope. Living in hope-- living as though the thing hoped for is going to happen, grows hope, and sows the seeds of the things hoped for. Living in hope prepares the way of the Lord.


And then there is Faith.

We mis-understand faith in western culture. Our understanding is impoverished, and mis-leading. I can do no better than summarise the work of Marcus Borg in his excellent book The Heart of Christianity. (The material here comes mostly from the fourth chapter.) He says we have a preoccupation with faith as "believing" and "beliefs", which has the "crucially important effect" of turning "Christian faith into a "head matter."" Faith becomes primarily a matter of the beliefs in your head—of whether you believe the right set of claims to be true."  He says this is a more recent and narrow understanding of faith. It is only one of the four aspects of the traditional understanding of faith. He calls our common view of faith Assensus. Rightly understood, faith also includes Fidelitas, Fiducio and Visio, coming from the Latin roots of these words.

Assensus faith is faith as belief, "giving one’s mental assent to a proposition."  "Do you believe?" is synonymous with "Do you have faith?" for many people. Borg sees this understanding growing partly from the Reformation, where the content of belief, Lutheran as opposed to Catholic as opposed to Baptist, became important.

This development changed the meaning of the word "orthodoxy." Before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, orthodoxy referred to "right worship" or "correct worship." If you did the liturgy right, the practice right, you were orthodox. Then, in the aftermath of the Reformation, orthodoxy began to mean "right belief" or "correct belief." And faith began to mean "believing the right things.

Borg also sees the over-emphasis on the "assensus" nature of faith being strongly influenced by the Enlightenment. I would specifically include the Scientific Revolution in this. He says the "Enlightenment identified truth with factuality: truth is that which can be verified as factual." I think we saw this come to its peak with Logical Positivism in the middle twentieth century. It is still a common (mis)understanding. The Enlightenment was also the beginning of a sustained re-examination of the Bible which "called into question the factuality of parts of the Bible and of many traditional Christian teachings." The end result for many was that "Christian faith began to mean believing questionable things to be true…" and indeed, "assenting to the truth of claims that have become "iffy.""

Faith has become a head thing. "Do you have faith?" is like saying "Do you believe this is true?"  Faith is hard work… people have to defend themselves against scientific discoveries like evolutionary theory and geological time spans, if they get caught in this mindset. When it comes to faith, hope and love, assensus faith is an inactive gift that lives in the mind. It means to believe the unbelievable, the six impossible things before breakfast. It is also making something good out of something ridiculous. How foolish to make a virtue out of beliefs we ourselves would ridicule if they were about anything else but religion!

A richer understanding of faith, the pre-reformation, pre-enlightenment understanding, is quite different. Quoting Borg again:

…fiducia is faith as "trust," as radical trust in God. Significantly, it does not mean trusting in the truth of a set of statements about God; that would simply be assensus under a different name. Rather, it means trusting in God." Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean.

He attributes the image of the ocean from Kierkegaard. Trusting has the sense of relationship, not just head belief. It implies that we in some way know God.

Faith as fidelitas does not mean faithfulness to statements about God, whether biblical, credal, or doctrinal. Rather, it means faithfulness to the God to whom the Bible and creeds and doctrines point. Fidelitas refers to a radical centering in God.

Again, there is the implication of relationship. Lack of fidelitas is like adultery in a marriage relationship.

And finally there is faith as visio.  It means to see. Visio is

faith as a way of seeing. In particular…as a way of seeing the whole, a way of seeing "what is."

Borg points out we can see life and existence as a basically hostile reality in which we make the best of things in the short time we have, or we can see reality as indifferent; again we can only make the best of it.… Many find the traditional view of Christianity they inherited as hostile; God is a threatening God, and we had better buckle under and do things "his" way or we are in trouble. When we reject this idea, sometimes we are left with an indifferent universe in which God is removed, powerless, or even non-existent. But there is a third way to visio or, to see. There is a third vision, or faith, in life. And that is that ""what is" is …. life-giving and nourishing. It has brought us and everything that is into existence. It sustains our lives. It is filled with wonder and beauty, even if sometimes a terrible beauty. To use a traditional theological term, this is seeing reality as gracious." And this, again, is relational.

If we take Paul seriously we see that Faith is a great gift. It is a gift to be lived out, not a set of propositions to be held. It will govern how we approach all of our life, for we will be living in relationship with God, with the Divine, seeking to actualise that relationship, and to grow it in our spiritual practice— or should I say, seeking to let it be grown.  Faith, Hope, and Love; all are important.  Indeed, how can we have love which is not informed by hope and tested in the faith-relationship with God?
 

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.  My copy of The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg is published by eReader.com.  Page numbers in an ebook vary with font and screen size, so I have not included them.  Most of my references come from Chapter 4.  Bob Edgar's Middle Church can also be bought througe eReader.com, as can copies of the New Revised Standard Version

 

January 26, 2007

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.1 Corinthians 13

I reckon that 75% of the weddings I’ve ever attended have used the words of 1 Corinthians 13 as their scripture reading.  Good words they are for a wedding, but they were not written for a wedding at all! 


The Apostle Paul was actually arguing with Christians in Corinth about what is really important in the Christian life. This church in Corinth was were enamoured with signs and wonders.  They seem to have believed the spectacular gifts of the Spirit were the measure of one’s success as a Christian. In short, they were convinced that real Christians, spiritual Christians, lived a spectacular faith.  Paul is trying to bring to their notice that they were not quite "on track." He points out

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.  Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?  But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12)

We see him listing the spectacular gifts like speaking in tongues and miraculous healings last of all.  They are the least important. This has been a message to hear in our times, too, as people have insisted that true spiritual enlightenment is shown by these things. Often the ability to "speak in tongues" has been used as a measure of true, or mature "faith," and also used to exclude other Christians. 

 You might notice that the spectacular and the new is a mark of our consumer society, as well.  New cars, new phones, new videos, home theaters with newer and bigger screens—these are the things that the sales people try to tell us offer real meaning and satisfaction.  I wonder how much the tendency for Christians to focus on the spectacular in the Christian life is actually a non Christian, and immature, attempt to keep up with the Jones’s?  Steadiness, reliability, honesty, constancy… these things seem not to have the ring of success about them.  How much has the desire for a spectacular faith sold out the gospel?

After suggesting that the spectacular gifts are perhaps the least of gifts, Paul then lays out what he calls his "more excellent way." This is his pattern for what constitutes Christian maturity. Do you notice that he puts this even above being an Apostle?

And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing……  Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.  For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;  but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Faith, hope, and love are the greatest gifts. He seems to imply that much of the spectacular which attracts us, is childish by comparison to the glory of God, and even in the face of faith, hope and love.

Faith, hope, and love are the greatest gifts. They are the measure of all the other gifts.   

All our claims to enlightenment and discipleship are subject to the measure of these three things.

Nothing I have said so should be controversial or, indeed, new to anyone who has been in church for any length of time. Love is the measure of all. Unconditional good will for all people, wanting the best for others, empathy rich and full, deep; compassion….. these are the characteristics of someone truly gifted by God, and truly mature in the Spirit. If I do not have love, I am nothing….

However, Wendy looked up from a book a couple of weeks ago and said that when we talk about 1 Corinthians 13, we often ignore faith and hope! True, the greatest of these gifts is love, but we forget to mention faith and hope. I think she’s right! Faith and Hope are part of a mature Christian life.


What is Hope? Hope is not just a "mother’s-milk", "feel-good" word that Paul stuck in there alongside love to fill in a blank spot. Hope is about being able to imagine a new future. Hope is about imagining how it would be in the world if things were done God’s way! What would life be like then?

Living in hope is the opposite of fatalism and withdrawal. When we have no hope for God’s preferred future, we give up on justice and peace. We withdraw to our own home, voting for what will best suit us and ours, keeping our head down, and making the best of things. God’s future is no longer our concern. We may hope for better, but only in name. We will not live in hope, acting as those who expect a different future than the current way of the world.

Hope is a gift, but like all God’s gifts, hope is made actual by living in hope. Living in hope-- living as though the thing hoped for is going to happen, grows hope, and sows the seeds of the things hoped for. Living in hope prepares the way of the Lord.

Let us ask ourselves: Do we live in Hope, or do we just live in the world?


And then there is Faith.

Our culture has an impoverished understanding of Faith. As the scholar Marcus Borg says, we mostly understand  faith as assent; that is, as believing and beliefs. For some, Christian faith almost becomes belief in six impossible things before breakfast.  What kind of gift is that?

Is it a gift to make something good out of something ridiculous? How foolish to make a virtue out of beliefs we ourselves would ridicule if they were about anything else than our religion!  Faith is much more than belief. And if, heart of hearts, we know we are assenting to the ridiculous, and calling that faith, then perhaps we have some way to go!

Faith is also trust;  radical trust in God. It does not mean trusting in the truth of a set of statements about God; that would simply be assent under a different name. Rather, it means trusting in God. Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean, with nothing underneath us, and yet trusting we will be held up, and not drown. Trusting faith is not just head belief. It implies that we in some way know the God in whom we trust.

There is also Faith as fidelitas, which  does not mean faithfulness to statements about God. Rather, it means faithfulness like in a marriage relationship. It means we make God our primary relationship in life.  It is much more than simple belief.  In my life I constantly ask myself what will work for Wendy, what Wendy will think, how we will do this together….  that is fidelitas in marriage. Fidelitas faith in God is similare. It means that deceptively simple question “What would Jesus do?” is not an optional extra.  It is the first question to always be asking.

 

And finally there is faith described using the Latin word visio.  It means faith as a way of seeing the reality we live in..

We can see life and existence as a basically hostile reality in which we make the best of things in the short time we have, or we can see reality as indifferent; again we can only make the best of it.…

Many of us find the traditional view of Christianity we inherited as hostile; God is a threatening God, and we had better buckle under and do things "his" way or we are in trouble. When we reject this idea, sometimes we are left with an indifferent universe in which God is removed, powerless, or even non-existent. But there is a third way to visioor, to see. There is a third vision, or faith, in life. That vision sees that the reality we call God is life-giving and nourishing. It has brought us and everything that is into existence. It sustains our lives. It is filled with wonder and beauty, even if sometimes a terrible beauty. To use a traditional theological term, this is seeing reality as gracious." And this, again, is relational.

If we take Paul seriously we see that Faith is a great gift. It is a gift to be lived out, not a set of beliefs to be held. It will govern how we approach all of our life, for we will be living in relationship with God, with the Divine, seeking to actualise that relationship, and to grow it in our spiritual practice— or should I say, seeking to let it be grown.  Faith, Hope, and Love; are all important. 

Indeed, how can we have love which is not informed by hope and tested in the faith-relationship with God?

Truly, if we practise living in hope, and if we practise living in faith, hope and faith grow within us.  Love becomes easier.  We find we are given the gift of love in greater measure. 
 

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.  My copy of The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg is published by eReader.com.  Page numbers in an ebook vary with font and screen size, so I have not included them.  Most of my references come from Chapter 4.  Bob Edgar's Middle Church can also be bought througe eReader.com, as can copies of the New Revised Standard Version

 


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