Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the uncomfortable things about our tradition of Christianity (particularly for the preacher, who must try not to lead others into error) is that our peculiar place between Roman Catholicism and Reformed Protestantism means that some rather important doctrinal matters have been very carefully nuanced. Maybe the most famous of these is found in our catechism–which I encourage you to read through from time to time; it starts on page 844 of our Book of Common Prayer. Anyway, some of you know that one distinction between Roman Catholicism and most Protestant churches pertains to the number of sacraments–Sacraments being those objective means of Grace, performed by the church’s ministers (though some more evangelical protestants would disagree with that definition). For Roman Catholics there are seven and for most Protestants there are two.

So how about us? Well in one place, the catechism states that there are “two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church”, those being Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. Then a few pages later five other “sacramental rites which evolved in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”–confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction–that they are, indeed, means of grace, but that “they are not necessary for all persons in the same way that Baptism and Eucharist are.” You’ll learn later on in my series on Anglican Church history that there has since the Sixteenth Century been a concerted effort to have a broad enough church for those of both more Catholic and more Reformed sensibilities to be able to conscientiously be a part of the church, and I think this threads the needle quite nicely.

All of that is just to set the stage for an issue of doctrine which is even thornier, and which one has to do a bit of digging to find something like a satisfying answer as to what the church teaches–namely, the nature and effects of faith. Probably the closest we can get to an official stance is found in the 39 Articles of Religion, finalized in the Church of England in 1571 and confirmed by the Episcopal Church at its General Convention of 1801. (Here is some more homework for you- because the Articles are also in your prayerbooks, beginning on page 867.) In the eleventh article, it says that the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone is “a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.” Then the very next article says that good works “do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith.” This suggests two things as I read it. First, that there is what a philosopher would call logical implication (a relationship of necessity) between faith and morals. Second, and more to the point of what I’m building up to, that faith is to be understood as something more than simply believing a claim for which we don’t have evidence.

I said at the outset that our church’s carefully staked-out middle-ground ecclesial territory sometimes makes it difficult for the preacher. I should have said, it makes it difficult for me, and as recently as last week’s sermon you might have noticed me trying to balance on that razor’s edge of saying both that, on the one hand, we cannot earn our own salvation by being good but, on the other hand, God expects us to grow in virtue and not doing so has consequences.

I think it comes down to understanding faith in the fullest sense of its meaning in scripture, as it was carefully summarized in articles eleven and twelve, and as we see it borne out in both the Old Testament lesson and Gospel appointed for today.

We don’t hear to often from the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk, but we should pay it more attention, because it is generally regarded as the basis off of which the Apostle Paul developed, thanks to Divine Inspiration, his own rather nuanced view of the nature of faith. It’s important to the arguments found in the epistles to the Romans, the Galatians, and the Hebrews; and Paul rather explicitly casts himself as a sort of “new Habakkuk” in his sermon in Antioch in the thirteenth chapter of Acts.

In any event, central to both Paul’s project and our own understanding is that last half verse of today’s Old Testament lesson: but the righteous shall live by faith. The Hebrew reads “vetzaddik yichyeh beemunatov”–the just shall live by firmness or steadfastness or fidelity. We might have already guessed that to live by something, suggests that that something must be more than mere, tepid cognitive assent. Understanding that the word itself, translated for us as faith, means something like firmness or steadfastness makes the point clearer.

Likewise, the disciples’ desire that the Lord should increase their faith in today’s Gospel suggests that it is something more than believing a proposition. It could, of course, mean something like “make our certainty about this proposition’s truth stronger.” When we look to the Greek, however, we get something closer to the Hebrew of Habbakuk: Πρόθες ἡμῖν πίστιν–add to our faithfulness or trust.

Now, two things: first, this more active way of understanding faith presupposes that one believes certain propositions. Perhaps that’s obvious, but a full-blown postmodernist philosopher might quibble with this assumption. So we take it as a given that saying something like “I steadfastly trust in the resurrection of the dead” logically requires one to believe the resurrection is a true fact. Second, it is important that we recognize that it is not our active faithfulness which justifies us. Nor for that matter would our mere, tepid cognitive assent do if that were all faith meant. It is the action of God which does it all; we’re talking here of acceptance of God’s saving plan rather than our personal agency in that plan.

All of this is important, because it suggests that we are saying something more substantive than “I accede to the truth value of this proposition.” We’re saying, I put every bit of my trust in this truth and it changes how I live my life. In a few moments we will, as we do every Sunday, recite the Nicene Creed. I’ve heard it said, in jest, that the reason they moved the Creed from its traditional place immediately before to immediately after the Sermon in our current prayerbook was to correct the preacher if he had spouted any heresy from the pulpit. That is certainly a fringe benefit of the revision if nothing else.

In any event, it does give me the opportunity to suggest that this week, when we recite it, we might consider what it means if we are saying not just “I believe these propositions” but “I put my whole trust in them.” Indeed, I think this was the intention of the Fathers at Nicaea. It is obscured by the fact that our version is essentially a translation of a translation–We believe, translated and subsequently pluralized from the Latin Credo (I believe), itself translated from the Greek Πιστεύομεν (We have faith or trust or remain steadfast in).

Consider that, and consider how placing your trust wholly, steadfastly in our triune God, in the Incarnation, in the Resurrection, in the Communion of Saints, and in the hope of the life of the world to come might change your lives and the lives of those you love here and now.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.