'The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.'
--Genesis 15: 1-6
'Jesus said, "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves."'
--Luke 12: 35-38
'Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.'
--Hebrews 11: 1-3
Every three years these readings come along with their shared theme of faith. Once more we hear of Abram and his faith in God, who assures him that he will have descendants that outnumber the stars. We hear Jesus illustrate in a parable that faith looks like a group of servants waiting on their master to return, and when he does so their faith is rewarded when he serves them. And in the Letter to the Hebrews we hear what is often called the biblical definition of faith – Hebrews 11: 1 – “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Every three years we are reminded of the importance of faith and I usually end up singing a line from George Michael. I will spare you that last part.
Instead, I want to dig a little bit deeper into that word – faith – or rather what word the Bible actually uses. The Greek word is pistis, which is used 4,102 times in the Bible. It is most often translated as "faith," but it really means something deeper - once again showing the limitations of the English language. It is a firm persuasion, which is based not on sight or knowledge but on trust. It is also inextricably tied to the notion of covenant, of relationship. God has pistis in Abram – "the exalted ancestor" – which is why God makes him Abraham – "the ancestor of a multitude." When Jesus speaks about divorce in the Gospel of Matthew he mentions unfaithfulness as grounds for divorce, and it is a form of pistis that he uses there, showing that being “faithful” is about commitment to and right relationship with an other.
Knowing this, I can’t help but wonder how the word faith got so misused, especially in the last half century or so. Think about this: what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the term “faith-based’? I'll wait....
I suspect that the first thing you thought of wasn't the story of Abram from Genesis or the definition given by Hebrews 11. The term faith-based has certain connotations in our culture today. There are faith-based movie production companies – even a streaming service called Pureflix; I swear I did not make that up – and its movies are terrible (they aren't even free!). There is the Ark Encounter in Kentucky that says it offers a faith-based approach to science and thus shows dinosaurs and humans living together, and some parents and even public officials have pushed for actual school curricula that follows similar faith-based models. And to really bring it on home, the last two years has seen a large number of the people unwilling to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 explain that it was a faith-based decision not to do so – which is funny because a lot of us would say the opposite, that our faith is exactly what compelled us to get the vaccine. So what happened to that word, to faith?
A clarification is in order, I think. Whenever you hear the term “faith-based” remember that it isn’t faith. It’s belief. Those examples I gave are belief-based, and certainly everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but to claim they are based on faith – especially bibilical faith – is inaccurate. These beliefs are based in a very specific kind of Christianity that is quite young and particularly unique to American culture. It is literally self-centered, focused on personal salvation and worldviews that are often rooted in fear, rarely ever taking into account the needs of the other or even the love of God. It is certainly not relational, and therefore, cannot – by the biblical definition – be considered actual faith?
So what is actual faith? That answer is honestly ineffable, it’s too great to be expressed with words. But if we look at the examples from our Scriptures this week, or any of the other 4000+ examples where pistis shows up in the Bible, we find that biblical faith has two characteristics: commitment and trust.
The biblical narrative illustrates this in the covenant relationships God makes with humanity again and again, the signs of which include: the rainbow in the sky after the Flood, the promise to Abraham, the prophets’ cries that God hadn’t forgotten God’s people during exile, and of course Jesus breaking bread and sharing wine in a meal with his friends. There is a commitment that is made in each of these moments, and there is trust bestowed. There is faith shared between God and humanity. Often humans have broken that trust, but it is never without the hope of being restored. If you’ve been following any of the goings-on at the Lambeth Conference in England the last two weeks, that has been the hope for the faithful conversations happening there.
Perhaps we could say that such a hope is the by-product of actual, biblical faith. Not some pie-in-the-sky high hopes – apologies to Frank Sinatra, but hope that anything and anyone can be restored and redeemed and given meaning. As Rachel Held Evans once put it, hope not that God always WILL, but that God always CAN. Moving from the WILL gets us out of ourselves and grounded in faith that is relational, a communal journey that we go on together with one another and with God. It isn’t just about our personal salvation or views – that leads to a pretty lonely journey – but it is about a commitment and trust that is shared between us and God.
We may rack our brains trying to prove we have enough faith, trying to figure out what faith really looks like to us and how we can better express it. Maybe you have an Episcopal shield sticker on your car or you wear a cross or a collar in public. Those might be appropriate expressions, but faith isn’t something that can be measured by any metric, including church attendance. Sometimes faith just looks like getting up in the morning, and just trying even when all you want to do is disappear. Sometimes it’s remembering that you are held by an inestimable love that won’t let you go, no matter how hard you try. Over the past year, I will tell you, that this is what faith has meant to me.
In the end, faith is not something that we can define or measure, but it is something that we can all relate to. One does not have to be a Christian, or even a so-called "person of faith" in order to have faith. You need only a commitment and a trust in something greater than yourself. Those of us who are part of the three traditions of which Abraham is considered the patriarch - Judaism, Islam, and Christianity - have chosen to place our faith in the God who called a wandering Aramean to find a home, gave him a new name, and fulfilled a promise. May you be strengthened in your faith, whatever it may look like.