Cultivating the Spirit of Faith within

Proper 5B, Sermon

St. Paul and I have a contentious relationship.  So much so that when he is talking (or writing) I have a tendency to dismiss him out of hand. Because really can the same guy who is credited with writing, “wives be subject to your husbands” really have anything worthwhile to say to the church today?[i]  Well, in short, the answer, I believe is yes. Will I ever vote for him to be Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church? No.  But can he have a good word for the Church? Yes.
Today’s passage, for example, begins with just such a good word: “we have the same spirit of faith, that is in accordance with scripture.”[ii]  I love this because it reminds us that faith does not begin with us, it begins with God. We have the spirit of faith.  It doesn’t say we should strive for or go get the spirit of faith. It says we already have it.  Each one of us as God’s beloved already has faith.  And, here I want to take a quick moment to look at the Greek – the word translated as faith is πίστις (pistis) and might be better translated into English as faithfulness or trustworthiness.  This gets us out of the error of thinking about faith as believing in something or someone and moves us into a space of faith as being deeply committed to someone or something, remaining loyal.  I promise that’s the end of the translation break down. So, let’s start again.
Paul says that you and I have the spirit of faithfulness, the spirit of deep commitment and loyalty already within us. It’s a gift from God.  And it is also an attribute of God.  Scripture is filled with stories of God as a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God because God desires to be in relationship with people – specific people in specific places in specific ways. Noah and his family before, during and after the flood, Abraham and Sarah even when they dared to laugh at God’s promise of a son, Moses and the Hebrew people even when they complained bitterly against God throughout those 40 years of wilderness wandering.  Scripture tells us again and again that God chooses a people, makes promises to them and - by the way - extracts promises from them in return.  And then Scripture goes on to tell us that again and again, the chosen people fail in their faithfulness. Our ancestors are called a “stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” and in story after story  we hear of how God’s chosen people try to take things into their own hands rather than trusting in God’s ways.[iii]  But God? God proves faithful through the keeping of God’s promises throughout the generations. Isn’t that what we are saying in our Eucharistic Prayer?
 “You gave the world into our care that we might be your faithful stewards and show forth your bountiful grace. But we failed to honor your image in one another and in ourselves; we would not see your goodness in the world around us; and so we violated your creation, abused one another, and rejected your love. Yet you never ceased to care for us, and prepared the way of salvation for all people.”[iv]
God’s faithfulness is infinite, God’s grace is bountiful, God’s love and care for us never ends. 
So what are we to do? We have within us, as a gift from God, this spirit of faithfulness and yet we fall short.  Philip Kenneson in his classic book Live on the Vine gives one example of why we fall short.  We live in a world that values impermanence.  We are asked to be loyal to a brand – whether that’s Android or iPhone – and then, when the phone dies or a newer model comes out – we are told, get another one – after all, you’re an Apple person (or you’re an Android person).  But let’s unpack that.  We are asked to be a loyal Apple user even though the company refuses to be loyal to us – in fact, they teach us to be loyal to their short-lived products and their promise of newer and better just around the corner.[v]  They are not actually cultivating faithfulness in their customers; rather, they are cultivating a willingness among us to “move on” to the next thing.  This tendency to accept and even value “moving on” can be seen in our relationships as well.  Rather than reasoning it out when we have a disagreement with someone, we simply walk away.  We surround ourselves with like-minded friends or limit our conversations to those things we already agree on.  We attend churches that are healthy and vibrant and then, when the church hits a bad patch or when the leadership changes or when a decision is made with which we disagree (and trust me, one of these things will happen if you stick around for more than a month or so), we seek out another healthy and vibrant church community (which, by the way, will eventually disappoint because, again, human!). Impermanence, planned obsolescence – these values are the opposite of faithfulness.  So, it’s not so difficult to understand why we fall short in our faithfulness. The world we live in tells us that instability is just the way things are.
And yet God. God remains faithful and gives us the same spirit of faithfulness.  So how do we cultivate the spirit that is already within us?   In the first place, we do it through our worship.  Week after week we gather to hear the stories of God’s faithfulness, to be reminded that God loves us just as we are with all of our foibles and all of our sins.  We come together to be immersed in God’s loyalty and to hear again the stories of our ancestors who, like us, struggled to be loyal in return.  Second, we make our vows of loyalty public.  Whether these are the vows of baptism or confirmation, of marriage or of ordination, we make our commitments public.  And we hold one another up in the making of these vows –
In baptism and confirmation the congregation is asked: “Will you who witness these vows do
all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?[vi] In marriage, the congregation is asked: “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” and at next Saturday’s ordination to the priesthood for Scott and others, we will be asked, “Will you uphold these persons in this ministry?” And, of course, the anticipated response is a resounding “We will!”  That “we will!” leads to the final way in which we can cultivate loyalty and faithfulness in our relationship with God and with one another: accountability and truth-telling.
Truth-telling may be the hardest part of the equation; because our world markets the great lie. “This is the last phone you’ll ever need!” (until we come out with a better one)!  But truth-telling is itself a gift because it is a reminder that we are not yet what we will be and it is our responsibility in love and faithfulness to one another to speak the truth to one another to move us toward greater faithfulness. In my child-hood church, at every baptism, Pastor Tom would end by holding the child up high for the congregation to see and he would quote 1 John chapter 3 saying,
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. . . Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when it is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as God’s self.” 
Truth-telling is a reminder that we are not yet what we will be and it is a way in which we can lovingly help one another move toward greater faithfulness, greater commitment, greater loyalty in all of our relationships – with our family, our friends, our communities and with our God.  And as our faithfulness grows, we will experience truth-telling not as the ending of a relationship but rather as a new beginning of a deeper relationship, an abiding relationship.
God is faithful and has given us the same spirit of faithfulness. How will we cultivate that gift in the days and weeks ahead?

[i] Ephesians 5:22.
[ii] 2 Corinthians 4:13.
[iii] Psalm 78:8; Philip D. Kenneson, Life on theVine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 183-4.
[iv] Eucharistic Prayer 1, Enriching Our Worship 1: Morning and Evening Prayer, The Great Litany, The Holy Eucharist (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 1998), p. 58.
[v] Kenneson, p. 187.
[vi] “Holy Baptism,” “Confirmation,” “The Ordination of a Priest,” The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 (Seabury Publishing), p. 303, 416, 527.