Readings: Isaiah 51. 1-6; Romans 12. 1-8; Matthew 16. 13-20
Theme: The Gift of Faith
The understanding of the theological virtue of faith is multifaceted in the Bible. It is not one thing. The notion that faith is simply equivalent to belief in God is a notion which developed in the modern era when the church found itself under attack from atheism and various ideological beliefs which opposed themselves to the ruling religious authorities of the time. To have a biblical understanding of faith means to have a multifaceted understanding and commitment to the rich variety of ways in which this gift of faith is given to us by God. This is the theme of our readings for today, and each of them speaks of the different ways in which God gives to us the gift of faith.
Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah introduces us to the father of the Judeo-Christian understanding of faith: Abraham, our forefather, in faith and the rock on whom the faith of Israel was built. Abraham is the paragon of what faith means in the Old Testament. Faith, in the case of Abraham, is trust, trust in the Lord that he will lead us and care for us, that he will make us prosper and grow. Because of the trust Abraham showed in God, God blessed him as the father of the nations that will grow from his lineage. His descendants will be as ‘numerous as the stars of the sky’ as we hear in Genesis 26. 4, and ‘through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed’. Faith for Abraham is trust in God.
When we come to our second reading, from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, we encounter another Jewish perspective on faith, but this time, one which has been permeated by the experience of and encounter with the risen Christ. For St Paul, faith is a gift from God which expresses itself in us in a multitude of ways, depending upon the grace which is given to us. For some, this is exhibited in terms of prophecy, for others as ministering or serving, then again for others it shows itself in terms of teaching, exhorting or giving. Though these particular gifts of faith differ they are all united by their ultimate orientation. The purpose of these individual gifts of faith is to build up the body, which is the church, the community of those who follow Christ. Notice how in this variety of gifts the understanding of faith as an intellectual belief in God, though not absent, is not emphasized. This is a later development which though present in some parts of the New Testament is not the dominant understanding of faith in the Bible.
Our Gospel for today is a paradigmatic biblical text on faith. It is the question of Jesus to Peter in St Matthew’s Gospel, asking him, ‘who do you say that I am?’ I can remember being asked this question by a priest once, and when he asked it of me, it made me realize that I had not been given the gift of faith that Peter had, to recognize Jesus as the ‘Messiah, the Son of the living God’. For me, at that time, Jesus was simply a guide, someone who pointed towards God, a good man certainly, but not God himself. This realization was part of my journey to faith. It led me to receive a gift from God to be able to say that Jesus is the Son of God, in other words, he not only points us in the right direction, but he is the destination to which we are headed. Our goal is union with God through Christ.
So, if the Bible has a multifaceted understanding of faith, what does that mean for us, here and now in the 21st Century as Christians in an increasingly unbelieving society? It means a number of things. The first thing that I would suggest that it means is that we should not simply reduce faith to belief, to the intellectual assent to the belief in God. This is only part of the biblical understanding of faith, and it is certainly not the one which is predominant when one takes into account both the Old and the New Testament understanding of faith. Even the demons believe in one God, as we hear in the Letter of St James 2. 19. So, be careful of separating people out into believers and non-believers as the criterion of faith. This is part of the story, but it is not the whole. Thinking in this way paints a picture of the church as like that of membership of the party in the former Soviet Union, were doctrinal orthodoxy was enforced, so as to ensure everyone shared the same ideology. Christian faith is not an ideology, in this sense, at least. It is fundamentally a gift given by God to build up the body. In other words, it is a service both within the explicit Christian community and in the world beyond it. When this faith is lived as such, the other nations, the other ways of understanding things, will come to see that there is something special in being a Christian, as the other nations were to come to see that there was something special in the nation of Israel.
A second lesson we can take from this biblical understanding of faith is that there are many expressions of faith, some of which do not explicitly profess an intellectual belief in God, which show their faith through practical action. This is a tradition of faith particularly associated with the Letter of St James, but it is present through the New Testament, as in the various judgment scenes of the Gospel of St Matthew, for example, “when did we see you……” in Matthew 25 and so on. So, if you know people who are not explicitly Christians, but who exhibit this gift of faith by their behaviour, by their actions, then recognize in them a brother or a sister in faith. God has God’s ways of building up the body, of sowing the seeds of the Kingdom of God, and we should not be overly narrow in our understanding of this.
Finally, we should recognize that explicit faith in Jesus as the Son of God is a gift. It is given by God. ‘For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven’, as we have it in our Gospel for today. In other words, if we have received this gift of faith, our response should be one of gratitude to God that this has been revealed to us. It should not be to go around beating others on the head because they haven’t. Not that we should hide this either, but we should realize that the gift of faith in Jesus is not something which we can strain our sinews to try and conjure up. It is freely given by God.
So, if we have received this gift of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, let us be thankful in our Eucharist today that we have, like St Peter, been given a gift which is a pearl beyond price. Let us also pray for those who do not know Jesus as the Son of God that they each in their own way may grow in the grace of faith which God is giving to them. This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.