How do I get faith?

The text for this week was the longest lectionary text we have all year.  It was the ninth chapter of John in its entirety.  You can read the full thing here.  A (rough) synopsis would go something like this:

Jesus encounters a man born blind and heals him by spitting on the ground, making mud, rubbing it on the guy’s eyes, and sending him to wash it off.  When folks realize the man can see they ask a ton of questions, doubt his account, and question the holiness of Jesus.  There’s a lot of bickering and hatefulness.  Ultimately, the man decides he thinks Jesus is a pretty good guy, and his community ostracizes him for this decision.  Jesus comes back to him and welcomes him as a follower.

 

So that, in a nutshell, is the story.  Oh, and there’s this great verse where they’re really harassing the guy about what he believes, and he blurts out, “I don’t know if he [Jesus] is a sinner!  All I know is that though I was blind, now I see.”  Great line, huh?

Anyway, some thoughts from Sunday after the jump…

I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.

This is the archetype of faith, isn’t it?  Melissa Anne talked last week about testimony, about sharing the story of our faith, and I think this is what we often think of when we think of testimony.  We expect a story of lost and found, of a turning point moment after which nothing was ever the same.

In some ways, this man’s story fits our expectations of a faithful testimony.  He woke up one morning, and before the day was done, his life was utterly different.  The light of the world became the light of his life.

Maybe you have a story like this.  Maybe you accepted Christ into your life in a clear moment of conversion.  Maybe you didn’t come to faith that way, but there has been a time when the Spirit so moved in your life that you were irrevocably changed.  You hear this man’s story, and you can join with him in testifying I was blind, but now I see.

Or maybe you don’t.

Maybe you don’t have a moment around which your faith revolves, a moment which divides life neatly into before and after.  Maybe you hear this story and the testimonies of others and you have a sinking feeling inside.  You wonder, am I really a Christian?  If I don’t have a turning point like this?  Does my faith count?  Is it enough?

I’ll be honest.  I’m one of those Christians, one of those who cannot neatly divide life into two periods labeled before Christ and after Christ.  My parents took us to a Baptist church until middle school.  It was a very good church that laid a solid foundation for my faith.  During those years and for some time after we left, I longed for Jesus to enter my heart once and for all, for the experience of being born again.  I woke up many Sundays and wondered if today, this day, might be the day when it all changed, when I would walk down the aisle to the strains of “Just As I Am.”  It never happened for me.

Instead, while I was so anxiously awaiting that day, Christ crept in some back door and began rearranging the furniture, setting up house without my even noticing, until at some point, I can’t really say when, I began to be able to say, I am a Christian with a tone of conviction rather than questioning.  I found, slowly, day by day, that Jesus had come into my life and become my savior.  When did this happen?  I don’t know.

It happened one morning as the light streamed in and we sang Amazing Grace; it happened in the mountains on a perfect fall morning on a high school retreat, and one afternoon on a mission trip as I ladled soup for hungry men; it happened every morning when my family joined hands and prayed before a meal, but also during the nights of deep doubt.  When did Christ enter my life?  I don’t know.  All of these times and more.

Maybe your faith is this way, too.  Or maybe your experience is something entirely different.  Here’s the truth: Christ comes to us in more ways than we can imagine.

Our temptation is to say, this is the one right way.  This is how faith begins and how it progresses.  But when we do that, when we think we know all there is to know about how God moves in people’s lives, we fall into the same trap that the religious authorities of this passage fell into.

What I love about the testimony we have in John 9 is that it resists that impulse to flatten the Spirit’s activity into one form.  This story is our story.  All of us.  Those of us who can say I once was lost and now am found.  And also those of us who have come to faith gradually, like a tide coming in.  And even those of us who aren’t sure what faith means in our lives.  Did you see all the shades of color in the story the first time around?  As the sun came up in this man’s life, it was like dawn, hard to say exactly when it began and ended. Look again with me.  I think we’ll find a few insights to help us understand our own experiences of faith.

There’s so much bickering in this story, isn’t there?  It seems unnecessary.  No other healing story has this much debate.  But the bickering throws light on two important aspects of the life of faith.

First, faith is never static.  Our faith grows and changes.  That seems obvious, right?  But we so often forget.  We think where we are today is the answer.  This man’s story reminds us that our testimony today, our creed today, is always only an approximation, a partial truth.  Aquinas told us that God could be understood but never comprehended.  We can know in part, but not in full.  And so it makes sense that our faith will develop and change over our lifetime.

This man’s faith begins with a simple affirmation, “He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see.”  Like the woman at the well last week, this is a far cry from a polished piece of evangelism.  A little bit later, he goes so far as to affirm, “He is a prophet.”  Pressed further he’s able only to say, “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  Eventually he’s able to argue with his inquisitors, challenging them on their own turf.  And ultimately he falls before Jesus and worships, professing, “Lord, I believe.”

Here, then, is a bit of good news.  Our faith can grow.  Wherever your faith is today–long held, nonexistent, tentative, doubting, certain–wherever it is, God’s not done with it yet.  It is not a finished product.  As long as we live, the Spirit moves within us, bringing our faith to fuller formation.  So if you feel like you don’t have enough faith, or don’t have the right kind of faith, take heart.  God’s not done with you yet.  There is more to come.

And then, did you notice how this man’s faith grew?  Here’s an interesting thing.  It grew as he found himself in conflict with those around him.  The more people questioned him, doubted him, and ultimately dismissed him, the clearer he became about what Jesus had meant in his life.

I think for most of us the temptation is to shy away from conflict when it comes to our faith.  We do this on both a personal and a communal level.  On the personal level, we don’t want to offend friends who believe differently or are of another faith entirely.  Or we feel like we wouldn’t have the right answers if someone were to ask the hard questions.  Our impulses to avoid offense, and to think before we speak, are good impulses, but I think this story encourages us to occasionally step out of our comfort zone and welcome conversations that might make us nervous.

Maybe you find an opportunity to ask a colleague about what the celebration of Passover means and by so doing learn more about the roots of our faith.  Or maybe when your secular friend rolls his eyes when you mention church, or one of your children’s friends asks what’s the point of all this God business, you take the chance to try and talk about it, and listen to their questions, even if it’s hard.  And it’s possible that if you really listen and engage, you’ll spend most of the conversation feeling stupid, and walk away with more questions than answers.  That’s okay.  Trust this man’s story.  Christ will work through those questions and bring you to a deeper understanding in time.

And on a communal level, as Christians today, we avoid theological conflict and mourn when it happens.  Again, there’s a good impulse at work.  The unity of the church is not a matter to be trifled with, and there is much to grieve when we find ourselves estranged from other Christians.  But I believe we can also trust that Christ is at work even in our brokenness.  Our earliest creeds emerged out of serious conflict, and from that time, to the Reformation, to our current debates about ordination, sexuality, scriptural authority, and the nature of salvation, we can trust that in all of this, God is at work.

So, there’s a good argument to be made for engaging in conversation about the things that separate us, even within this very congregation.  We’re a big tent here, and we hold a lot of difference within our walls.  I love that about us.  We’re often hesitant to delve too deeply into those differences, valuing our peace and unity.  But we might consider, from time to time, asking the people next to us, the people at a potluck, the people in Bible study with us, what do you believe about this?  And when we find we disagree, we could talk about that a bit, trusting that God is at work in our differences, leading us to discern ever more faithfully the shape of God’s will.

So we see in this story that whether we were saved in one fell swoop or slowly over time that faith is never a static thing.  By God’s grace faith grows, often in ways we wouldn’t guess or necessarily want.  Christ is ever at work, calling us deeper into faith.

There’s one more thing we can learn about faith from this story  And we’d be totally remiss if we didn’t take a minute to talk about it, because I think it’s the best news in the whole story.  Look back at the beginning of the story.  Before he’s a follower of Christ, before his arguments with his inquisitors, before he said, “this one thing I know, I was blind, but now I see,” before he was healed, before all of that–how did this all begin?

It began, as faith always does, with Jesus.  How quickly and easily that slips past us.  But look!  Did you see?  This man doesn’t go to find Jesus.  He doesn’t seem to have known who he was, and he wasn’t looking for him.  He wasn’t living an extraordinary life, especially holy or particularly sinful.  And, most shockingly, he didn’t ask for help or healing.  Jesus just walks into his life, unprompted, spat on the ground, made mud, rubbed it on his eyes and sent him to wash.  At that point, and that point only, does this man make a choice.  His first act of faith is to go wash dirt off of his face.  It is messy, unprompted salvation by grace alone.

This is how it is with us as well.  We are met long before we even know we’re searching.  Christ comes whether we’re looking for salvation or not.  God’s love does not depend on us.  This, right here, is the good news of the gospel.

No matter where you are in this crazy business of searching for God, hear this: faith begins with God.  It is a gift, often a messy, unprompted, out-of-the-blue-not-sure-I-want-this kind of gift, but it is always a gift.  So if you aren’t sure if you’re doing this faith thing correctly, if you’re not sure if you’re saved or not or even what that means, if you don’t know how to pray or how to obey or how to believe, if you don’t know where Christ is calling you next, if you aren’t sure how it will all end, if you, like all of us, are stumbling around with mud on your face, trust this: Christ comes to us while we don’t have it all figured out, while we’re still wandering around lost.  Christ comes in a million different disguises, sometimes in a blinding flash of light, and sometimes slowly like the rising sun, but like either, our task is not to make it happen, but to wash the mud off of our faces and open our eyes.

God’s love is free gift given before we even know what to ask for.  All of us, all of us, come to faith in this way.  That is the truth of our affirmation that we are saved by grace.  We love because we are first loved.  Our faith is never our own doing.  It is always begun by God.  And for that, thanks be to God.

Sarah Wiles
First Presbyterian Church
Ann Arbor, MI
04/03/11
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2 Responses to How do I get faith?

  1. Wilma Steele says:

    Sarah, I have really enjoyed reading this sermon. I read it Saturday night and this morning I was empowered to reach out in a way I never have before …. and I was most comfortable. Thank you. I also read the sermons of the Tarboro minister. He also speaks to me in so many ways. Thank you for letting me read your blog.

    • s wiles says:

      Hey Wilma! So glad that it spoke to you and you felt comfortable to reach out to someone else. Tell me about the Tarboro minister – where can I find his sermons?

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