Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s last sight of Christian and his companion, Hopeful, is of two pilgrims at the end of their journey as they enter the City of God. Bunyan has one glimpse of the city shining like the sun; he sees a throng of crowned figures, some with wings, and he catches the sound of their singing. But the vision fades, and he wakes to where he is. The vision of a city of God inspires both the Hebrew and Christian imagination. The Psalmist says, ‘The Lord loves the gates of Zion; glorious things are spoken of thee, O City of God!’ These words found their way into one of our best-loved hymns, along with others: Blessed City, heavenly Salem, City of God, how broad and far outspread thy walls sublime and, as we shall sing later on, Jerusalem the golden. Bunyan’s longing for the City of God is the yearning felt by the men and women of faith whose stories are recalled in the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. This morning’s lectionary actually misses out most of these names, but we can, of course, read their stories in the Bible – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, and a roll call of others. The writer of the Letter implies that all these very down-to-earth figures nevertheless knew themselves to be ‘strangers and foreigners on the earth’, seeking a homeland, a better country. For this writer, the answer to their longing is the ‘city’ God has promised to those who walk by faith. And the one figure who dominates the great portrait gallery of Hebrews chapter 11 is Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, who, we read, ‘looked forward to the city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God’. And how does Abraham set out on his search for that ‘city’ – not knowing where he was going? ‘By faith’, we are told, ‘he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness’. All these people, the letter writer tells us, died in faith without having received the promises, though they had seen and greeted them from a distance. They had caught the vision, even if they didn’t see it realised.
How could they – who went through such testing times – and how can we, have faith in God when so much goes wrong in our lives, and the world is so imperfect? For Christians, God has come into our human life in Jesus, yet God has not sorted out our life, or the world, for us, so why have faith? If there is a God, why is there evil, tragedy, sadness, disappointment? Why are there accidents? Why is there illness? Why do people die too young? Why doesn’t God miraculously intervene, and take things over, dictate how everything should go, and how we live our lives?
Well, if that happened, we would have a world of fixed laws, and our lives would be totally regulated and controlled. We couldn’t decide anything for ourselves; no choices, and no freedom of action. So our lives would become non-lives. There would be no highs or lows, no modulations, nothing to strive or hope for, nothing to get passionate about. We would have nothing to celebrate, for we would have achieved nothing ourselves. Exclude the possibility of darkness in life, and we exclude the possibility of celebrating life. Exclude darkness, and the light is no longer special. If everything is light, there is no light to search for; there’d be nothing to try to do. Knowing everything will be all right because God will make it so is no longer to have life.
No one, of course, is saying that the darkness is a good thing. But we do recognise that the darkness is a part of everything that makes up our lives, and that it is there for us to overcome, and we overcome it by having faith in the light, which, in the Christian understanding, is seen in Jesus, ‘the Light of the world’. It is John’s Gospel that tells us that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’. And this is faith: trusting in God without specifying what will happen. God has let the darkness be, so we may have life, but it is Jesus who exemplifies the faith that the darkness will not destroy us. It couldn’t destroy him.
For some, of course, the idea of faith in God is fanciful. You hear people say things like, ‘I’m self-sufficient, in charge of my own destiny. Having faith is for those who haven’t got what it takes to cut it in the real world. Faith is nothing more than superstition’. But before we demean the value of faith, let’s pause a moment. No matter how much we say, ‘I’m a fully-fledged human; intelligent, reasonable, a thinking person, so I have no need for faith’, faith does actually feature in life quite often.
We all need someone to believe in, and we all need someone who will believe in us. Think of the times we’ve told someone we have faith in them – that we know they can do it, that they’ll achieve their goal, pass that exam, get that job, survive that impaired relationship, recover from that bereavement. We often tell people we have faith in them: ‘I believe in you’, we say. And then think of those people who have told us they believe in us. They gave us confidence, encouragement and believed we could do it. We know how important faith is, because we’ve known what it’s like for people to have faith in us. And we all have this faith, consciously or unconsciously. We’ve all given it, and we’ve all received it. We know what it is and how it works. Having faith in others, and others having faith in us, isn’t a sign of weakness or mental deficiency; it is reasonable and logical. And it’s also reasonable and logical for us to have faith in the promise of a person – Jesus – in whom we find all that there is to be found of God.
And this promise is that, amidst the darkness of our lives, there will always be that critical pinprick of light that will square up to our fear and anxiety. We’ll still have disappointment and rejection and we will still have to face failure, possibly tragedy. Let’s hope not, but the darkness will still be there somewhere, one way or another. Faith in God won’t take it away, but what faith in God will do is free us from the fear that the darkness will destroy the value and meaning of our lives.
In Christianity, ‘faith’ has often been regarded as a synonym for ‘belief’. Some would argue that an orthodox Christian view is that it is what you believe that will ensure your salvation. Now, it’s not that ‘beliefs’ don’t matter, but all too often they have been a source of intolerance, exclusion, violence and persecution. And they have provided fertile ground for guilt. For example, if we believe there is a final judgement in which we are sent to either heaven or hell, we are likely to be caught up in the anxiety of wondering if we have believed strongly enough, or behaved rightly enough.
‘Faith’ is very different from believing a set of dogmas and doctrines to be true. Actually, before the modern period, the meaning of ‘faith’ was expressed by the Latin and Greek words for ‘fidelity’ and ‘faithfulness’. Though we sometimes narrowly restrict this to sexual behaviour, it doesn’t mean simply not straying. Rather, it has a positive meaning of commitment, loyalty, allegiance and attentiveness to the relationship. So it is in our relationship with God, which, in the Christian context, means commitment, loyalty, allegiance and attentiveness to God as known in Jesus. Such a faith sets before us the potential for transformation in this life, both for ourselves and for the world, rather than an anxiety about our fate further down the line. To put it another way, and to return to the vision we began with, we continue to be open to how things could be in ‘the city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God’. I encourage you to continue to journey, in faith and with vision, to that ‘city’ of transformation in your own life.